God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being the Best Neighbors, Authentically–Seeing The Difference Jesus Makes: a Reflection on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-27

In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine based on a 2002 The Barna Group study, a group of Americans were surveyed concerning issues of life after death: “Ten percent believe we return to earth in a different form. Ten percent believe there is no life after death. Twenty-four percent believe the soul lives in a different place, determined by past actions. Forty-eight percent believe we go to heaven or hell, depending on confession of sins and accepting Jesus. The remaining 8 percent were undecided.”[1] As the death toll worldwide mounts due to Coronavirus (COVID-19), many are reflecting on the meaning of death.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. California is under a “Shelter In Place” Order and 24 other states have joined us. We have been asked to sacrifice for the benefit of the common good. As of 6:15am this morning, worldwide there are 683,502 cases, 32,139 deaths and 146,396 who have recovered.[2] Precaution and proactive hygiene are imperative. Sheltering in place and practicing social distancing will prove to be lifesaving and a return to a more normal way of existence sooner than later.

As the anxiety increases around the meaning of death, the religious have a significant contribution to make, particularly Christians. Through our interactions with family and friends as well as in social media, we can engage the conversation in helpful ways. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and the emerita Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College, writes this about engaging others and their religious tradition,

Based on the young people I know best, more and more of them identify as spiritual but not religious because it is easier than trying to reconcile the teachings of their faith with their affection for their non-Christian friends. According to other teachings they have received in church, their friends are not all right the way they are. Unless they become Christian, God will not allow them to enter heaven. Instead they will roast in hell for all eternity for refusing to accept Jesus as their Lord. This does not make any more sense to some young people than the teaching that they must choose between the account of creation in the Bible and the one their biology teacher has laid out for them.[3]

Unfortunately, we are seeing this kind of religious exclusivism playing out in the Coronavirus pandemic. Some Christian leaders believe and have said that this virus is God’s judgment on the unrighteous. When answering the question posed by Fox News chief religious correspondent Lauren Green, is the Coronavirus “God’s judgment on a sinful and corrupt world?” Pastor Timothy Keller responded, “Yes and No… It’s just a way, I do think, for God to try to wake us up and to say, please make sure you’re right with me, Keller explained. Please think, think about, you know, where you are. So there’s a sense in which all these kinds of disasters are a judgment, but a judgment that’s not on the people who are suffering.”[4] Ouch! Those suffering do not hear this the way Keller intended. I understand where Keller is coming from, but it may not be helpful in the religious discussion that is going on right now about death.

The texts in Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-27 reveal that death can be viewed as an end or a beginning, literally and figuratively.

In Ezekiel 37:1-14, the people of Israel had been in exile so long they behaved as if they were dead. Where was there God? They believed God had abandoned them. They had lost all vision and hope as a people. The people of God were anxious and in deep despair. But through the prophet Ezekiel, God told the people,

…I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act…[5]

God promised to bring them back from the dead, if you will, personally and as a community.

In John 11:1-27, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha was ill, and they sent word to Jesus to come. Jesus sent word back that Lazarus’ illness would lead to testimony of God’s glory. Something would occur through Lazarus’ illness and eventual death that was bigger than life. Jesus did not come immediately. He stayed two days longer where he was before he and his disciples returned to Judea. When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. What ensues is a discussion about life between Jesus, Mary, Martha, the friends that had gathered and the disciples. Yes, Jesus resuscitated Lazarus from the dead and Lazarus lived to die another day. There is a deeper lesson, however. Yes, it is a harbinger of Jesus’ resurrection yet to come. More profoundly, it is a lesson about compassion, authenticity and vulnerability pointed toward the brokenness of the human spirit. The human spirit can be resuscitated today, brought back from the dead, in and through a believing faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to Martha and to us today, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[6] This is a profound word for us, particularly in complacency or panic when it comes to living life fully and abundantly despite circumstances that may provoke despair, chaos, sadness and hate.[7]

Today is The Fifth Sunday in Lent. Through authentic self-reflection, we’re not to be intimidated or threatened by circumstances that communicate death or the teachings of various religious traditions. We belong to God and one another. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of Holy Envy writes, “I believe that increasing numbers of young Christians are coming to grips with pluralism—embracing it, even—though they are getting very little help from their elders as they think through what it means to be a person of faith in community with people of other (and no) faiths.”[8] Like Mary and Martha consider the literal and figurative meanings of death.

Receive hope, peace, joy and love in the midst of this Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Allow God to bring new life to your dry bones and withered spirit. God has not abandoned you. God is with you. We know these things through a believing faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God has a warm relationship with you. God loves you and wants you to love others with that same warmth. Remember, a warm relationship is characterized by being empathetic, listening, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion.

Be resuscitated by Jesus. Exude hope, peace, joy and love in times when despair, chaos, sadness and hate take hold on human experience. Be authentic like Mary and Martha. Listen to Jesus. Experience Jesus. Show people Jesus.

[1]Adapted by Ted DeHass, Bedford, Iowa from Jim Holt, “Eternity for Atheists,” The New York Times Magazine (7-29-07) and The Barna Group, 2002

[2]Stats taken from the Worldometer an organization run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers with the goal of making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world. Worldometer is owned by Dadax, an independent company. Worldometer has no political, governmental, or corporate affiliation.

[3]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 63.

[4]Published March 13 on FoxNews.com.

[5]Ezekiel 37:12-14

[6]John 11:25-26

[7]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of Rebecca Abts Wright, Jane Anne Ferguson, Andrew Nagy-Benson and Michael L. Lindvall as found in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 93-95, 95-96, 104-106 and 106-108.

[8]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy, 67.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being the Best Neighbors, Authentically–The Wave Is Water: a Reflection on 1 Samuel 16:1-13 and John 9:1-12

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is like the oceans coming at the world as a unified tsunami. It is blinding perspective in so many ways and causing complacency on one hand and panic on the other. I prefer seeing the oceans of water coming at us, one wave at a time.

At the age of 45, Michael May regained his sight. May was blinded at age three, and lived 42 years of his life without sight. In 1999, he was given the possibility to see again through what was at that time a revolutionary transplant surgery. When the doctors removed the surgical bandages from his eyes, May couldn’t perceive space or see height, distance, depth, or three-dimensional shapes. Michael May didn’t get discouraged by the long learning curve. He knew that learning to see again would involve not just the operation, but a lifelong quest to learn, grow, take risks, and change. As he left the hospital, May peppered his wife with questions: “What’s this? What’s that? Is that a step? Is that a flower? He rode elevators over and over again for the sheer pleasure of finding the hotel lobby after the ride. May played catch with his son, horribly missing many balls before he finally got the hang of it. He continued to struggle with his transition to the reality of sight. The transformation was slow. As a result, every day and even every failure seemed like a new opportunity for Michael May to learn, grow, and change.[1]

Like Michael May, all of us have the opportunity to learn, grow and change given the blinding reality of COVID-19. Just as the man blind from birth experienced God’s hope, peace, joy and love, so can we.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. California is under a “Shelter In Place” Order and as of this live-stream, four other states have joined California (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois). We have been asked to sacrifice for the benefit of the common good. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but so is serious illness and death. As of 6:45am this morning, worldwide there are 317,308 cases, 13,642 deaths and 95,953 who have recovered.[2] Precaution and proactive hygiene are imperative. Sheltering in place and practicing social distancing when outside will prove to be lifesaving and a return to a more normal way of existence sooner than later.

We continue to see behavior motivated by fear. Fear limits an awareness that God is in our midst. Fear blinds us in perceiving and seeing what is really going on around us. Our worldview becomes clouded. We develop blind spots. Barbara Brown Taylor an Episcopal priest and the emerita Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College, writes this about worldview, after spinning a globe laterally and then tipping it upside down with Australia being on top and Canada on the bottom when teaching a class at Piedmont College, “None of us have “a worldview” until we see the world from a new angle. If we are used to seeing ourselves on top, we may feel oddly combative the first time we see someone else up there. We may forget that the reason we are on top is because people like us made the maps.”[3] Right now, the pandemic has turned our world upside down.

The texts in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 and John 9:1-12 reveal that we must listen to God. Like Samuel and the man blind from birth, listening to God, in the many ways God speaks, is imperative. It is by listening to God that we gain courage to learn, grow and change.

In John 9:1-12, a man blind from birth is given back his sight. Jesus and his disciples encountered the man blind from birth and the disciples immediately tried to affix blame. “His disciples asked him [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man or his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’”[4] Blindness and sight are imbedded in this story and throughout the Bible for that matter. There was an understanding in Jewish culture that blindness was caused by the sins of the parents. And so, the implications of Jesus stating in the Gospel of John that he is the light of the world has significant meaning. Jesus as light healed the blindman’s sight, but Jesus’ teaching and healing also brought light on the darkness of the misleading thought that the sins of the parents brought on any number of life’s calamities, personal and collectively. The man blind from birth was given sight in more ways than one. He could see colors, shapes, people and all the things we can see. But his worldview about how life worked and his role in the community for the sake of the common good was also restored.[5]

Today is The Fourth Sunday in Lent. Through authentic self-reflection, we are assured that we belong to God and one another. And, we’re not to be intimidated or threatened by oceans of water coming at us like a unified tsunami, because it is really one wave at a time. We can see the subtle nuances of reality only when we can see reality from perspectives outside the familiarity of our comfort zone.[6] Again, Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of Holy Envy writes, “The quiet revolution of seeing the world in another way helped me …by reminding me that I am riding a wave made from the much greater ocean. My best view of divine reality is still a partial view… I am riding on the truth of that, trusting God alone. I am riding on the truth, trusting God alone to guide my wave and carry me to shore.[7] Like the man blind from birth, begin to see the subtle nuances of life. Authentic self-reflection will move you out of familiar comfort zones as you learn, grow and change.

Receive hope, peace, joy and love. Have your sight restored. For most of us it’s not a literal healing. Listening to God and hearing God say your faith has healed you still happens. Listening to God through prayer and reading the Bible assists you to receive hope which heals despair, peace which heals chaos, joy which heals sadness and love which heals hate. Listening to God shows us the middle way between complacency and panic. God has a warm relationship with you. God loves you and wants you to love others with that same warmth. Remember, a warm relationship is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion. The man blind from birth listened to Jesus and was healed… And so can you.

In such a time as this, those who are religious and non-religious, are required to listen. We are required to listen to government and CDC directives. And, Christians are to listen to the voice of God, as we experience it through worship, reading the Bible and prayer.

In such a time like this, those who have spiritual leanings to those who have begun a relationship with Jesus, must weigh the value of learning, growing and changing. For only then is it possible to become a better person, one who exudes hope, peace, joy and love in times when despair, chaos, sadness and hate take hold on human experience.

Be authentic like the man blind from birth. Listen to Jesus. Experience Jesus. Show people Jesus.

[1]Adapted from an article written by Robert Kurson, “Into the Light,” in Esquire (June 2005).

[2]Stats taken from the Worldometer an organization run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers with the goal of making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world. Worldometer is owned by Dadax, an independent company. Worldometer has no political, governmental, or corporate affiliation.

[3]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 43-44.

[4]John 9:2-3

[5]In the two paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of Rebecca Abts Wright, Jane Anne Ferguson, Andrew Nagy-Benson and Michael L. Lindvall as found in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 77-79, 79-81, 88-90 and 90-92.

[6]Adapted from Michael L. Lindvall as found in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 2, 92.

[7]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy, 60.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being the Best Neighbors, Authentically–Your Understanding of God Is Just That: a Reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-30, 39-42

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. As of 7:00am this morning, there were 162,501cases, 6,068 deaths and 75,968 who have recovered.[1] I’m sure the numbers are even higher now. Precaution and proactive hygiene are imperative. Practicing social distancing and not meeting in groups numbering more than ten is smart behavior. A recent NBC News/WSJ poll states that 60 percent believe worst is yet to come for U.S. in coronavirus pandemic.[2]

The pandemic and crowded grocery stores with emptied shelves is unsettling. I see panic motivated by fear. I have two questions. Does fear destabilize you? Does your understanding of God stabilize you? Or both. Although the people of God stumbled at Meribah and Massah, the truth gleaned from Exodus 17 is that God was with the people. Their question, like ours, was “Is the Lord among us or not?”[3] Fear limits an awareness that God is in our midst. Faith banks one’s hope on God’s promise that God is always in our midst. As Christians, we know, whether our behavior is good or bad; circumstances a blessing or curse; fear taking a foothold in our thinking, that God is in our midst. Barbara Brown Taylor and Episcopal priest and the emerita Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont, tells the following story:

By the following semester, word had gotten around that you could not pass Dr. Taylor’s class if you did not worship idols, but if anything that helped enrollment instead of hurting it. Students seem to be up for anything that promises to relieve the tedium of their education…That first field trip opened a whole folder of questions for me, both as a person and as a teacher of young persons. Is it better to read about a religion in a textbook than to risk actual contact with it? How would I feel if a group of students visited my church and treated the holiest things inside it like oddities? Can anyone who visits a sacred space remain an observer, or does one become a participant simply by entering in? Does the taking part in the ritual of another faith automatically make you a traitor to your own? The most troubling question of all was why my religion seemed so much less gracious than Dr. Acharya’s religion did…. Her hospitality was impeccable. She welcomed all of us to join her at the high altar in her temple without asking what we believed. She enlisted the priest to offer special prayers for us. She did not distance herself from those who snickered… She opened her arms to us from beginning to end. If there were any problems with the visit, they came from the religious worldview of her guests, who had been taught to be very careful about who and what they embraced… Why was my crowd so defensive? Who had convinced us that faith was a competitive sport and that only one team could win for all eternity? With an attitude like that, who could blame a neighbor for sensing that Christian love was mostly charitable condescension? [4]

The texts in Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-42 reveal to us that God is a source that satisfies and stabilizes. God is all knowing. God is empathetic. God is relational. God is present at all times and in an unconditional loving way. Everything that happens in our life is a gift from God. The good, the bad and the ugly is the way we discover how God is shaping us into amazing people. And we experience this shaping through warm relationships, relationships that make a difference. In such a time as this pandemic, people, religious and non-religious, are looking for answers and hope. Your understanding of God is just that… yours.

John 4:5-22 describes a scandalous scene. Jesus went to a place that Jews were forbidden to go and spoke to a woman, a Samaritan woman, and an adulterer at that. The Samaritan woman was going about her daily business drawing water. It was noon. Noon was not the normal time to fetch water. And before the Samaritan woman knew it, Jesus entered into the messiness of her life…no fear…only faith and love… For Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them (the thirsty) a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”[5] Oh, the Samaritan woman didn’t get it until Jesus revealed that she had been married five times and the current man she was with was not her husband. Jesus was in her space to give her new life; to know that she was loved regardless. The Samaritan woman after listening to Jesus lovingly expose her life said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”[6] The Samaritan woman received new life that day. And so can you.[7]

Today is The Third Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time for us to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Through authentic self-reflection, we are assured in what we believe about God and that we belong to God and one another. And, we’re not to be intimidated or threatened by what others believe. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of Holy Envy writes, “It was not the first time I felt shame about an aspect of my faith—or envy of an aspect of someone else’s—but it was the most acute. What else was I going to notice about my own religious home as I visited the homes of others?”[8] Authentic self-reflection, like that of the Samaritan woman, requires engagement between your spirit, God’s Spirit and truth.

Come to worship and receive comfort, guidance, inspiration and confidence. Come to worship and give your fears to God and receive faith from God. You belong to God. Come to worship expecting to be “saved” that is to be filled with a new attitude, purpose and way to live. God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. Remember, a warm relationship is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion. The Samaritan woman was fetching water and received living water…her salvation from the One who knew her the best and loved her the most. She moved from fear to faith; unloved to loved. And so can you.

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic there is no room for fear, but plenty of room for faith. People are wanting to have someone empathize with them in a loving way. Be authentic like the woman at the well. Remember, your understanding of God is just that… yours. And living it can be a gift to others. Experience Jesus. Show people Jesus.

[1]Stats taken from worldometer.com. Worldometer is run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers with the goal of making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world. Worldometer is owned by Dadax, an independent company. Worldometer has no political, governmental, or corporate affiliation.

[2]NBC News release, Sunday, March 15, 2020.

[3]Exodus 17:7

[4]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 43-44.

[5]John 4:13-14

[6]John 4:15

[7]In the two paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of Rebecca Abts Wright, Jane Anne Ferguson, Andrew Nagy-Benson and Michael L. Lindvall as found in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 60-62, 62-63, 71-74 and 74-76.

[8]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy, 44.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being the Best Neighbors, Authentically–Religion Basics Part 2: a Reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3:1-17

My friends, let’s get real. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic. Over 3,100 lives have been lost. Complacency and panic are equally poor choices. Precaution, prayer and proactive hygiene are imperative. Honestly, no handshaking, cover your mouth with a clean tissue or your arm bent at the elbow and wash, wash, wash your hands. I’m being as authentic as I can be right now. No complacency or panic from this husband, father, friend and pastor.

Last Sunday, Ryan spoke of the human predicament (sin) and today, I address the solution (God’s unconditional forgiving grace). Are you ready for more exposure to what being an authentic human being is like? Tony Campolo tells the following story:

“Boys and girls, I love you all the same. I have no favorites.” This is what Miss Thompson told Teddy Stallard along with all the other members of the fifth-grade class. Teddy was unkempt, unattractive, and seemingly unintelligent. Comments on his report cards were disturbing. 1st grade-Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation. 2nd grade-Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home. 3rd grade-Teddy is a good boy, but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year. 4th grade-Teddy is very slow, but well behaved. His father shows no interest.

Christmas came that fifth grade year. Presents were exchanged in class. Teddy’s gift for Miss Thompson was wrapped in brown paper and held together with scotch tape. Inside was a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half the stones missing and a bottle of cheap perfume. The other boys and girls began to smirk and giggle. Miss Thompson sensed what was happening and put on the bracelet and the perfume. “Isn’t it lovely?”

“Miss Thompson, Miss Thompson, you smell just like my Mother…and her bracelet looks pretty on you too. I’m glad you like my presents.” When Teddy and the other students left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her. She had judged Teddy and had not taken seriously the comments on his previous report cards. Miss Thompson had made value judgments based on oral tradition about Teddy. Miss Thompson became a new person. She was no longer just a teacher. Miss Thompson had become an agent of God. Teddy showed dramatic improvement throughout his remaining elementary years.

Six years later, Miss Thompson received a letter from Teddy. “Dear Miss Thompson, I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating from high school second in my class.” Four years later, another letter arrived. “Dear Miss Thompson, they just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The University has not been easy, but I liked it.” Another four years transpired, and Miss Thompson received yet another letter. “Dear Miss Thompson, as of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.”[1]

Teddy Stallard became a new person. The love that Miss Thompson had for Teddy changed his life. Teddy had someone who believed in him. From a student who was failing to one who succeeded, God used Miss Thompson as an agent of change in Teddy’s life.

The texts in Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 and John 3:1-17 ask us to accept that everything that happens in our life is a gift from God. The good, the bad, and the ugly, that’s right, being authentic, is the way we discover how God is shaping us into amazing people. And we experience this shaping through warm relationships, relationships that make a difference. Knowing the common values we hold with all people, helps us to resist judging one another.

In John 3:1-17, Jesus and Nicodemus are discussing what it means to be “born again.” Whereas Teddy Stallard received a rejuvenated and positive self-esteem through Miss Thompson, John 3 addresses the nature of being rejuvenated spiritually that is being born again. Wayne Grudem defines born again as “the scriptural term referring to God’s work of regeneration by which he imparts new spiritual life to us.”[2] It’s late at night and Nicodemus wants to speak directly with Jesus about something very important. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, one steeped in the Law said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. Jesus answered him “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[3] The signs and wonders that Jesus performed captured Nicodemus’ attention. Unless Nicodemus was born again that is from above, he would not see God.

Nicodemus responded immediately to Jesus. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”[4] As a leading teacher of Judaism, Nicodemus was brilliant. He knew he could not return to his mother’s womb, but the fact that he voiced the absurdity of the possibility demonstrated his urgency for a lifestyle change. Sensing Nicodemus’ urgency Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”[5] This is the doctrine of regeneration. Only God could prepare Nicodemus’ heart to believe in Jesus Christ. Regeneration is “a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us.”[6] This definition finds expression in John 1:13. The children of God “…were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” We are passive in regeneration. Regeneration is a work of God in our lives that leads to a response to God’s effectual calling with saving faith. Behavior and desires change. We are born again.[7]

Every human being is created in the image of God. God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship, just like Teddy Stallard and Miss Thompson, is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion.

Today is The Second Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time for us to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Through authentic repentance, that is, confessing our sin to God and receiving the unconditional forgiving grace of God, we are assured in what we believe about God and that we belong to God and one another. When we repent of our sin, sin being the human predicament, we begin to understand that God’s unconditional forgiving grace is the solution to the human predicament. Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of Holy Envy writes, “…yes, I looked down on Christians who were not like me, including the student who sat in front of me returning the same look. Our standoff reminded me of so many other encounters since my college days: the steely confrontation between true believers, each needing the other to be wrong in order to be right.”[8] Authenticity requires truthfulness. I have to repent when I judge others who do not think, and act like me.

All humans share the predicament: sin. All humans have access to the solution: God’s unconditional forgiving grace. With this being the case, you can build empathetic and warm relationships with all people, because God is in the relationship. But, being obedient to God’s commandment to love God and others is the key. Actually, confessing your sin of being judgmental and ceasing from it, at least doing it less often is important. Actually, confessing your sin of being racist and ceasing from racist thoughts, words or actions, at least doing such less often is important. Actually, confessing your sin of “white privilege” and ceasing from using that privilege to advance yourself at the expense of people of color, at least less often is important. Obedience to the way of Jesus is the bottom line. Unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God. Repenting of your sin is an opportunity to continue the process of being born again, not simply for eternal life, but for living differently today.

Are you ready not to be complacent or to panic? Like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there’s a pandemic of being judgmental (SIN-101). It has, is and will continue to claim millions of people’s lives. Regularly repent of the sin of being judgmental. Don’t be complacent or panic about how many people are reluctant to embrace Christianity. Be Jesus’ presence in the world. Every human being is created in the image of God. Repent of your sin and receive God’s unconditional forgiving grace. Listen well to others. They very well may be like Teddy Stallard, like Nicodemus, trying to figure out who they are, and seeking a better way to live. Be authentic. Show people Jesus.

[1]Anthony Campolo, Who Switched the Price Tags? (Waco, Texas: WORD BOOKS, 1986), 69-72.

[2]Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 480.

[3]John 3:2-3, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[4]John 3:4, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[5]John 3:5-6, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.

[6]Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 492.

[7]In the two paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of David G. Garber Jr., Cameron B. R. Howard, Eric, D. Barreto, Sarah Birmingham Drummond, W. Scott Haldeman and Mikeal C. Parsons as found in Connections, Year A, Volume 2, 41-43, 43-44, 47-49, 49-51, 52-54 and 54-55.

[8]Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 20.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Warm Relationships–Seeing All Things In God And God In All Things: a Reflection on Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21 and Matthew 17:1-9

Nothing happens by accident. Everything is purposed by God. All things are in God and God is in all things. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, San Diego, relates the following personal story:

Anxiously anticipating the quite premature delivery of our triplets, I will never forget the moment that the doctor looked at me and announced, “They’re all alive!” It was not a foregone conclusion (at least for one of them) and until that report, my wife and I were in suspense. All of the wishful thinking—even from certified medical professionals—could not alleviate that suspense, turning possibility into actuality. I could believe all I wanted in a successful delivery, but I had no promise to rely on, either from God or the doctors, and the intensity of my believing it had nothing to do with the state of affairs. My confidence developed entirely on the words that the doctor uttered. Similarly, the gospel is news because it reports a completed event. Faith does not make something true, but embraces the truth.[1]

Faith does not make the gospel true. Faith embraces the gospel that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light.

The texts in Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21 and Matthew 17:1-9 ask each one of us to love others, even when we do not understand them. Seeking to know the common values we hold with all people, helps us to understand and resist judging one another. Faith does not make the belief that every human being is created in the image of God true. Faith embraces the belief that every human being is created in the image of God.

In Matthew 17:1-9, we have a real event with real people involved in a surreal kind of situation, the transfiguration. What Peter, James, and John see is not Jesus becoming something else, but a pulling away of the veil of humanity. They see the divinity of Jesus. Peter, James, and John see God. Faith does not make the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully human true. Faith embraces the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully human. At the transfiguration, Peter suggests the building of three dwellings: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Peter wanted a place to meet with God. What’s the bottom line: Faith does not make the belief that all things are in God’s presence and God’s presence is in all things true. Faith embraces the belief that all things are in God and God is in all things. All things are in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer) and God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer) is in all things. We are then, as Christine Chakoian writes, “…. encouraged to face injustices, speak encouragement, accompany the vulnerable, or challenge corrupt powers.”[2] All things are in God and God is in all things. God, meeting us through epiphanies, manifestations of who God is as God, keeps us climbing the mountain, encountering God and returning to the everyday realities of the world in which we live to make a difference. God transfigures you and me to be more and more like Jesus.[3]

The glory of God inhabits everyday life; stealing in, interrupting and startling us. Others can see God’s glory in us, recognize God’s love at work and see Jesus.[4] God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion. The transfiguration gives us hope that whatever happens in our lives, God is in it.

Today is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. It culminates the season of Epiphany. Do you expect things to be different because of the manifestation of Jesus as God in the transfiguration? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “Take God at face value, as God is. Accept God’s good graciousness, as you would a plain, simple soft compress when sick. Take hold of God and press God against your unhealthy self, just as you are.”[5] Trust and draw from your experience of how God transfigures you because of the manifestation of Jesus in your life. The transfiguration tells us who we are and to whom we belong.

Be Jesus’ presence in the world. By faith embrace the truth that your life can live a bold oddness, warmly confronting what is wrong in our world and loving others. Again Rohr writes, “Take God at face value…. Know how your mind and will play their games…. Be encouraged…. Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[6] Remember, all things are in God and God is in all things. Faith does not make the gospel true. Faith embraces the gospel.

[1]Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009), 123-124.

[2]Christine Chakoian as found in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 319.

[3]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Gary W. Charles, Carolyn Browning Helsel, Michael Lodahl, Shannon Craigo-Snell, Tommy Givens and Christine Chakoian as found in Connections, Year A, Volume 1, 304-306, 306-307, 311-313, 313-314, 315-317 and 317-319.

[4]Some ideas in the previous sentences are adapted from a sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. A.K.M. Adam. The sermon referenced is on the Transfiguration found in Flesh and Bones (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 13.

[5]Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.

[6]Ibid.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Warm Relationships–If It’s Not All Right, It’s Not The End: a Reflection on Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37

I don’t know about you, but when things aren’t right, or aren’t going the way I believe they should, I can easily think it’s the end of everything and all is lost. I can even get angry.

I recall an incident when I was in junior high school. As you know, math was not my favorite subject. I was at the kitchen table working on geometry with my dad. I couldn’t get it. My frustration mounted. I began to think I’d never succeed as a student. My life was over. I stood up and with anger kicked a hole in the wall. Not a good thing. My parents were calm and collected. They discussed my faith in Jesus and how it might have helped me avoid such a flashpoint. They also made me call a contractor friend and tell him what I did. I spent time processing my anger with my parents and began to deal with how anger is not the most constructive emotion. My frustration with geometry persisted and my foot hurt. And, I had to pay the contractor friend for materials needed to repair the hole and paint the wall. Dr. Emil Coccaro, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Hospitals relates the following:

Anger seems to be epidemic these days…. many hotheads suffer from Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED)…. a new drug called Depakote, introduced by Abbott Laboratories in 1995 was to be a cure-all. Interestingly, an effort to find volunteers with volatile tempers for the clinical studies has been unproductive. Apparently, few people see their anger as a problem. “The other day I got into a friend’s car and I noticed the visor on the passenger’s side was gone.” …. “I asked what happened, and the driver told me, ‘Don’t get me started on that. My wife ripped it off.’ I told him these things are hard to rip off, and he told me, ‘Well, she was really angry.’”[1]

Religion is a means to connect with the Divine for a better way to make decisions.

Christianity provides an opportunity for humans to respond to God’s decision to engage us. God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, being empathetic, caring, loving, acting and speaking with compassion. Developing and nurturing warm relationships involves a series of choices.

The texts in Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Matthew 5:21-37 demonstrate that choices matter. In fact, God choosing us really means nothing unless those chosen to respond to God do so. Our choices over a lifetime define the distinctiveness of our journey. Choices exert influence in our own lives, the lives of others and society. Matthew gives us insight on how to develop and nurture a warm relationship with God and others through choices, easy and difficult.

Matthew 5:21-37 focuses on decisions related to four Torah prohibitions which are then intensified by Jesus. The prohibition against murder is intensified to prohibit even anger. The prohibition against adultery is intensified to prohibit even lust. The prohibition against divorce without a certificate is intensified to prohibit divorce except for sexual immorality. The prohibition against breaking oaths is intensified to prohibit taking oaths in order to emphasize keeping one’s word. It is clear that Jesus does not dismiss the Law, because Christians cannot disobey the Law in that Jesus fulfills it. There is blessing in observing the Law. However, Jesus ramps up the lifestyle implications of the Law in that his intensity forces relationships to occur. As Christopher T. Holmes observes, relationships form “communities of justice, peacemaking, and reconciliation.”[2] Justice, peace and reconciliation are righteous things to pursue. When our desire for God becomes an appetite we want fulfilled, we begin to do God’s will.[3]

Jesus taught the importance of call to God’s covenantal promise. That is, God has promised people blessing and influence, but it is not without a cost. God never breaks promises. Oh, we do when it comes to God and others. But God is always faithful, trustworthy and present with us. The cost is obedience. And being obedient to God’s call brings about words and deeds that others may perceive as odd. Jesus’ call then and now is a call to prophetic oddness. Then and now, followers of Jesus face a moment of choice. According to Walter Brueggemann, Christians will “…either sign on uncritically to the powers that surround us, or take on the prophetic task of exposing the contradictions and performing the alternatives.”[4] Not conforming to the powers that ask Christians to compromise every day will make our words and deeds call out the abuses of the powers that surround us.

Today is The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Greek word epiphaneia means “manifestation.” Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God to humanity at his baptism.  Do you expect things to be different because of the manifestation of Jesus? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “No Gospel will ever be worthy of being called ‘Good News’ unless it is indeed a win-win worldview, and ‘good news for all the people.’”[5] Trust and draw from your experience of the manifestation of Jesus Christ in your life.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Jean Valjean steals silver plates from the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu. When stopped for questioning by the police, and the silver plates are found in his possession, the police take Valjean to the bishop’s residence. The bishop did not press charges, but instead offered the silver candlesticks in addition to the silver plates that he stole. Grace, not law, guided the bishop’s decision and actions.[6] If things aren’t working out as planned, it is not the end. Don’t give up. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and its best teacher. Participating in God’s mission of prophetic oddness requires covenant loyalty even when it feels like the end. It is through warm relationships of faithful prophetic oddness that lives change in attitudes, words and deeds. Loving our enemies is the ultimate expression of obedience to the way of Jesus. Just ask Jean Valjean.

Be transformed by the call of God to prophetic oddness. As we live in such a call, God, through us, articulates that alternative world that God has promised. God is bringing about the alternative world every day…. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When things are not all right, it is not the end. To the contrary. The alternative world is breaking through.

[1]Found on preachingtoday.com 2/14/20. The illustration citation is Mike Conklin, Chicago Tribune (7-28-00); submitted by Lee Eclov, Lake Forest, Illinois.

[2]Christopher T. Holmes in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 255.

[3]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Patricia K. Tull, Ken Evers-Hood, Charles L. Aaron Jr., Scot McKnight, Christopher T. Holmes and Zaida Maldonado Perez as found in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 242-244, 244-246, 249-251, 251-252, 253-255 and 255-257.

[4]Walter Brueggemann, “Called to Dangerous Oddness” in Sojourners January 2020, 27.

[5]Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 185.

[6]Adapted from Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew in the Teach The Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2015), 63.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Warm Relationships–The Qualitative Difference: a Reflection on Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and Matthew 5:1-12

The qualitative difference between Christianity and the three other major world religions (Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) is Jesus Christ and his claim to be fully God and fully human. And the cross is at the center of Jesus’ claim. It’s all about the qualitative difference the cross makes in a person’s life. The story is told…

Visitors to the Smithsonian Museum of American History see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. The original flag measured 42 by 30 feet. It was the immense size of the flag that allowed Key to see it from his position 10 miles out to sea, following a night of gunfire. The means by which a flag that large could fly on a pole 189 feet in the air is on display at Fort McHenry on Baltimore’s inner harbor. There, in one of the barracks, are two oak timbers, 8 foot by 8 foot, joined as a cross. National Park Service personnel discovered this cross-shaped support near the entrance to Fort McHenry in 1958, buried nine feet below ground. Not only did “the cross” help rangers locate the original site from which the star-spangled banner flew, but it answered the mystery of how such a large flag could fly in stormy weather without snapping the pole. This unseen wooden device provided a firm foundation for the symbol of our national freedom. Similarly, the cross of Christ provides the foundation by which our faith is rooted and supported.[1]

A Christian’s thinking and experience must be shaped by and rooted in the cross. Therein lies our foundation and support in life.

The texts in Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and Matthew 5:1-12 dismantle the notion that humans can choose God and “make,” if you will, God do things for us. Christianity claims that God chose humans and not the other way around. God frames human experience in doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. These characteristics are compassionate acts of empathy. Valuing unity and the sharing of power takes compassion to the next level. And the beatitudes, which is the focus of this sermon, drive home the point that the qualitative difference the cross makes is a life marked by empathy, acts of compassion, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God, unity and sharing power.[2]

In Matthew, Jesus’ presence on a mountain, whether his temptation by Satan, need to withdraw and pray, transfiguration, final hours prior to the crucifixion or teaching on eschatology, signaled matters of significance. And the case is no different in Matthew 5:1-12, the Sermon on the Mount. With blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn and blessed are the meek, Jesus identifies those people as special recipients of God’s favor. The middle four blessings of blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart and blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus gives us insight about the hoped-for kingdom of heaven and the promise of an eschatological (end times) reward. The final two blessings, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, speak of the adverse consequences of living the middle four blessings. Embracing the beatitudes, with the results of contentment and adversity, nurtures our relationship with God and others.

God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, caring, loving, acting, being empathetic, speaking and living with compassion. The actions of the beatitudes come forth from the essence of the person as a result of responding to God’s favor and presence. Experiencing God’s favor and presence is an ongoing manifestation of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer), in and through our lives.

Today is The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Greek word epiphaneia means “manifestation.” Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God, fully God and fully human, to humanity at his baptism. Will things be different in your life because of the manifestation of Jesus? Of course. But maybe a better question is, do you expect things to be different because of the manifestation of Jesus? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “Today on many levels, we are witnessing an immense longing for the mature feminine at every level of our society—from our politics, to our economics, in our psyche, our cultures, our patterns of leadership, and our theologies, all of which have become far too warlike, competitive, mechanistic, and noncontemplative. We are terribly imbalanced.”[3] Embrace feminine ways of being. “Feminine power is deeply relational—and thus transformative,”[4] writes Rohr. Trust in and draw from your experience of the manifestation of Jesus Christ in your life.

At the center of our Christian Faith is the claim about what God has already done on the cross for you, me and all humanity. As we authentically plumb the “scary” places in our lives…. the hurts…. the misunderstandings…. the mistakes…. the misgivings…. God meets us in warm relationship. And others do as well as our vulnerability invites them in. Again, Rohr writes, “…the deep feminine often works underground and in the shadows, and from that position—creates a much more intoxicating message.”[5] Be transformed by the cross. It is the power of the cross that enables you to live the Sermon on the Mount. The cross is the qualitative difference for having a warm relationship with God and others.

[1]As submitted by Greg Asimakoupoulos, writer and speaker, Naperville, Illinois. Posted 6/18/2007 on http://www.preachingtoday.com.

[2]In the textual analysis of this paragraph and the one following, I have benefited from the thinking of Patricia K. Tull, Ken Evers-Hood, Charles L. Aaron Jr., Scot McKnight, Christopher T. Holmes and Zaida Maldonado Perez in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 209-212, 212-213, 216-218, 218-220, 221-223 and 223-224.

[3]Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 128.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.