Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: This Way

I am discovering that as I do this more, I go "off script" a lot more.  But this was the script for what it's worth.

Browns Presbyterian Church, Farmville, VA
May 18, 2014 Easter 5A
John 14:1-14

This Way

There are certain passages of scripture that are instantly recognizable.  All I would have to do is to say the first few words of the verse, and I’d guess you could immediately, almost as if my reflex, complete the verse.  For example:
“God so loved the world…”
Or, “The Lord is my shepherd…”
Or maybe, “In the beginning…”
Or maybe this one: “I am the way…”
The sixth verse of this chapter does indeed have a particular niche in the church, and therefore has a certain safe place in the memory banks of a lot of Christians.  Perhaps it isn’t quite as memorable as the others, but it does stand out.
Much of this is because it is part of a passage, indeed even the climactic verse of a passage that is often used for funerals.  Coming after several verses of Jesus’s teaching, describing how Jesus is going to “prepare a place” for us, and after his describing “many mansions” in that place, in the context of a funeral, or perhaps a time of counseling in the face of impending death, this verse becomes a tremendous source of reassurance for the dying soul or for his or her family members and loved ones.  This is perfectly appropriate; the verse does offer a word of comfort or even hope in a time of tremendous, even overwhelming grief. 
There is, however, a potential problem with verses like this, verses that often get memorized and remembered separate from the context that informs and defines them.  It’s easy to remember what comes after “God so loved the world,” but how much do you remember of what comes before that verse?  It’s not hard to come up with the rest of Genesis 1:1, but not as easy to remember Genesis 1:2, or 1:3 or any of the other verses that refine and complete that account of creation.
In the case of John 14:6, it’s very easy to forget about the context in which this verse is heard, and in fact very easy to forget that the part we remember is not even an accurate rendering of the whole verse.  And of course, it’s not all that easy to remember what comes before it or after it.  We might remember a little bit about many mansions and Jesus going to prepare a place, and someone really bright might remember Thomas asking what sounds to us like a dumb question, but chances are we mostly remember those nine words – “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – and not much of the passage around it.
And in this case, that can lead to real problems.  Without that context this verse can, and often is, misinterpreted in two very different yet equally troublesome or even destructive ways. 
First of all, the English language causes us a problem.  Throughout this passage we see Jesus speaking to “you”.  I go to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and take you unto myself.  And you know the way.  If you know me, you will know my Father also.  Over and over again the pronoun “you” is connected to all manner of verbs.  Now we know, intellectually, that in English “you” can be singular or plural.  Still, when we hear it in scripture like this, we have a bad habit of assuming, unconsciously, that “you” equals “me,” instead of “you” equaling “us.”  As a result, we might too easily hear all these verbs being directed at me, and letting our minds get caught up in an extremely individualistic interpretation of the scripture before us.
We might hear Jesus saying “I go to prepare a place for you.  You personally.  Your own personal mansion.  And I’m gonna come back just for you, complete with your own personal flaming chariot ride.  The trouble is, all of these verbs are second person plural, not singular.  (This is why we have to take Greek in seminary.)  Though it might drive certain grammar devotees nutty, we’d all be better off if we could plug in that very practical Southern pronoun, y’all.  I go to prepare a place for y’all.  I will come again and take y’all to myself.  Y’all know the way to where I’m going.  If y’all know me, y’all will know my Father.  All throughout this passage the verbs are plural, not singular, when Jesus is speaking in second-person verbs. 
So why is this grammar diversion important?  Because this word of comfort is not an individual Hallmark card from Jesus.  No, this is a promise to all of us.  The whole company of the disciples.  The whole fellowship of believers.  The whole body of Christ. 
Indeed, throughout the last half of this gospel John records Jesus’s words in a whole series of teaching episodes, always focused on instruction and encouragement to the whole fellowship.  Jesus has spent his time on earth, which at this point he knows is drawing to an end, teaching and performing signs in the presence of his disciples, so that they might be encouraged, edified, and empowered to be a witness to Christ once he was returned to his Father.  It wasn’t to make a superstar disciple out of Peter, or to glorify John or Andrew or Nathaniel or any individual disciple.  It was so that the whole fellowship could continue, even when Jesus was gone, to do the works that Jesus did and to teach as Jesus taught, and even more as verse 12 says.  But to do that, they needed to be a fellowship, a body, a community in the strongest way possible, and we need to hear this in these verses today and take it to heart.
My point is not to stop you from using those first six verses at funerals.  But remember that the promise in those verses is not limited to the one being laid to rest; it is directed towards all of us, together, as the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ.
Another way to take verse 6 out of context is potentially much more harmful, both to the world around us and to our own fellowship with Christ.  There is a school of thought that takes this verse, this beautiful testament to Christ’s care and provision for us, and turns it into a weapon.
Let’s say you are hearing an … well, I was going to say “argument,” but let’s be gentler about this and call it a “discussion.”  It’s probably about heaven, and who gets to go.  It might be about believers of other faiths – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or so forth.  Or it might be about Mormons or other groups with an unusual status on the religious spectrum.  I suppose in some cases it might be about Catholics or Seventh-Day Adventists or other Christian groups. 
Whatever directions the discussion may take, whether about  a theology of salvation or comparison of different scriptures, inevitably it seems that someone in the discussion will pull out John 14:6 and wield it like a club or a baseball bat.  Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This person might even add, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” or something equally catchy before strutting off like a triumphant Roman general to enjoy the spoils of war.
Maybe you noticed that our hypothetical conqueror didn’t quite quote the verse completely?  Remember, it says “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way’” and so on.  When we remember those two words “to him,” as minor as they may seem, we are charged to remember that this wasn’t a free-floating statement out of nowhere; it was an answer to a question.  Specifically, it was an answer to a question by Thomas, one of the disciples, who completely failed to follow what Jesus had been saying so far.  After Jesus’s talk about going to prepare a place – remember, a place for y’all, for all of these disciples – when Jesus finishes by telling the disciples “y’all know the way,” Thomas pipes up that no, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the way?  This is the question that prompts Jesus to say “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” 
Thomas, in this case, cares about only one thing; this teacher whom he and his fellow disciples have been following for the last few years is suddenly making noises about going away, going to his Father’s “house” to prepare a place.  In the time John is writing his gospel, to speak of his Father’s “house” would not necessarily suggest to a listener like Thomas any kind of physical structure.  Rather, Thomas might first imagine the Father’s “house” in the way Old Testament writers spoke of the “house of Abraham” or perhaps the “house of David,” a figure of speech less concerned with a physical dwelling (something Abraham certainly did not have most of his life) than the particular intimate and unbreakable bonds of family, the ties that bind brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers together.  To hear Jesus speak like this, and then say he has to go and y’all know how to get there, left Thomas more confused than enlightened. 
But nowhere in any of this is there any idea that Thomas is asking about anybody but this group of disciples.  Thomas isn’t asking about anybody else, and Jesus address exactly what Thomas does ask about and nothing else.  When Philip asks his question in verse 8, Jesus’s response is even more explicit; “Y’all have been with me all this time, and y’all still don’t know me?”  Neither Thomas nor Philip give a whit about Muslims or Buddhists or Mormons, at least in part because none of those groups exist yet.  Jesus is begging his disciples to understand that because they have been with him, they know “the way, the truth, and the life.”  They know the way Jesus has followed; they know the truth Jesus has taught; they know the life Jesus has lived.  And this way, this truth, and this life are what Jesus leaves behind to his disciples, and to we disciples who come all these years after.  There’s nothing here about beating up followers of other faiths; there is everything here about living our faith right.
Everything here is about the initiative Jesus has taken to bring us to his Father’s house.  Not one iota of this is anything we could achieve by our own efforts.  We cannot do anything about the way, the truth, or the life except that Jesus has already done it for us.  When we are so utterly powerless and helpless to effect our own salvation, how can we possibly be so arrogant to judge anyone else?  Seriously, how dare we?
Maybe this is why Paul would write to the Philippians to work out their own salvation with “fear and trembling.”  What Jesus has laid before his disciples is nothing less than their utter and complete dependence on him, for how to live, and even for why to live.  This way, this truth, and this life are the very foundation we, the fellowship of believers, the body of Christ, live upon.  To be a Christian is not about winning some kind of eternal palace or beating others; it is about walking this way, hearing this truth, and living this life.  It is a task at which we will fail, repeatedly and embarrassingly.  And yet we will get there not because of our efforts but because Jesus has done it already for us. 
For this, let all God’s people say “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation, More Love to Thee, O Christ

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I believe I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm finishing my seminary career with a directed study, on the writings of the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (I have no idea how to type that "o" with the slash through it).  I came to Kierkegaard via an odd route, mostly drawn in not by any particular introductions to the writings themselves but via Samuel Barber's brief cantata Prayers of Kierkegaard.  So the directed study offers me the opportunity to encounter some of the larger, more "theological" works by Kierkegaard that inform the prayers and other more "pastoral" or "devotional" writings.  What I do with all this in the future remains to be seen, but I hope that it's something.
At any rate, I'm not so insane that I expect to read all of his major works completely.  I'm being a bit selective and putting more time into some works than others.  So far, ripping through some of the earliest stuff, I've been caught short by one particular aspect of Kierkegaard's writing; his use of pseudonyms.

Kierkegaard does rather look like some Romantic composers...

I think I knew this coming in, but it was still a rather serious jolt to encounter it in reading.  It's pretty clear that our melancholy Dane did not "invent" these characters, ranging from a rather Don Juan-ish lover to a sober judge to someone called Inter et Inter, on a whim.  It's also a little disorienting and not a small amount creepy when Kierkegaard starts to enter into epistolary dialogues with these different writing personae.
Or at least it was, until I remembered Robert Schumann.  Of course.
Any musical person (at minimum anyone who ever took any of my courses that dealt with music in the nineteenth century), by now, has remembered Robert Schumann, I'm sure.  Besides his compositional reputation, Schumann engaged in a great deal of printed musical criticism, at times in his own journal and occasionally in other publications.  Schumann, as it happened, also indulged in a bit of pseudonymous writing, both in affixing pen names to his own writings (remember Florestan and Eusebius, gang?) and also by creating dialogues between characters (such as the Davidsbund, or "league of David," combatting the musical philistines of his day -- a kind of Justice League of musicians) to address questions of musical style, or taste, or whatever came into Schumann's fervid imagination.

...maybe even more than Schumann did.

At its best Kierkegaard's writing can be quite poetic (he considered himself a poet), and nothing in Schumann's writing quite matches the elegance of Kierkegaard at his best.  On the other hand, Schumann's sheer enthusiasms (and sometimes the opposite) give his writing a brio and vigor that Kierkegaard doesn't always muster, oft-melancholy soul that he is.
So on some level this is a bit of an apology to Robert Schumann, and maybe to some past students as well.  You weren't such a weirdo, Robert.  I don't know if it was just something in the air, or a relatively common Romantic device or what, but you weren't so off-the-wall as I may have portrayed you to be.  (We'll leave the 1850s aside for now.)  And hey, you were vastly entertaining.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Future Of The Church

Update, May 31: Well, graduation day was today, and the intensity of feeling is only stronger.  Our class is pretty freakin' awesome.  They're going to do serious good if you folk don't get in their way.  My respect for these future ministers has only grown in the last three weeks.  To all of you; thanks for letting me ride along.

One of the inevitable things about getting into this particular vocational track, and especially noticeable as I reach the end of the educational process and make ready to jump off the cliff into whatever comes next, is that one hears a great deal of fretting and hand-wringing about The Future Of The Church.  You have to capitalize it that way to get the full effect of the fretting.  Armloads of statistics are deployed to point out that congregations are shrinking, if not disappearing altogether, and aging remarkably as they shrink/disappear.  Other capitalizable claims, all documentable with more of those statistics, are that Young People Are Leaving The Church, The Church Is Losing Its Relevance, The Church Is Losing Its Credibility, The Church Is No Longer goes on.
All of these things feed into the fretting about The Future Of The Church. It's not exactly false, by any means.  Certainly the church (and this is fairly across-the-board, with the possible exception of Catholicism) is losing adherents in the US, and the general hair color of the church is getting whiter.  When you ask people about what institutions or individuals they respect, the church and its ministers don't necessarily do all that well (though at least they do better than Congress, low bar that such may be).  Things look bad, no denying that.
So, fretting about The Future Of The Church.  It happens a lot.
I suppose my perspective is a bit different these days, though.  You see, while I've been slogging through this seminary education, I've been hanging out a lot with the future of the church.
I've been in classes with them.  I've shared meals with them.  I've been around the communion table with them.  I've been grinding my way through the library with them.  I've occasionally been to parties and ballgames and other entertainments with them (although I'm an old man and can't handle too much of that).  I've had my butt bailed out by them, particularly while going through cancer treatment.  I've laughed with them, and I'm fairly certain I've been laughed with (or occasionally at) by them, hopefully when I meant to be funny (or perhaps when I attempted to play ultimate frisbee -- yeah, that was a mistake).  I've heard their startling revelations, and made a few myself.  I've been angry alongside them (as opposed to being angry with them, which I never really had occasion to be), been frustrated alongside them, occasionally grieved with them.  I've wondered over grades and assignments, celebrated achievements, regretted setbacks, and generally shared a lot of different emotions.

And from where I sit, the future of the church, at least this sliver of it in this denomination, looks pretty good.  Real good, actually.
This future of the church is deeply intelligent.  Don't get the idea you're going to outsmart these folks when they arrive in your church.  Let's get this straight, church folk: you do not know more about the Bible than they do.  You may have more life experience, to be sure, but don't dismiss or scoff at their intellect.  It is powerful, God-given and seminary-refined, and it is a glorious thing to behold at work.
This future of the church is passionate.  Don't be fooled by all that talk about the indifference or apathy of the young adult generation.  These folks care passionately about the faith, about the church, and about doing Christ's work in God's world.  And they're not inclined to let anyone get in their way, not even you, church folk.

This future of the church, despite what others may tell you, does not seek to change the church merely for the sake of change, and in fact are suspicious of those who advocate change without good reason.  They are passionately for changing what doesn't work, what gets in the way, what deceives us into thinking we're doing what God wants from us when we're really just doing what's comfortable.  They've got vision, and are ready to go after it.  Please don't be obstacles.

I will note that a lot of this future of the church is made up of women.  This probably bothers some people.  There are probably some folks who think that the future of the church is hopeless or lessened for that very reason.  Sorry to hurt your feelings if that's you, but that line of thinking is total b.s.  The church has been waiting for, nay, crying out for these women and their talents and passions and energies for decades now.  The degree to which this church actually does grow into and serve as a genuine and faithful witness for Christ (notice I didn't say anything about "prosper" or other such twentieth-century buzzwords) is largely contingent on these women and the degree to which the church responds to that leadership.  The guys are pretty impressive, but these women rock.  (I feel like I'm echoing that West Wing episode, early in the show's run, where Jed Bartlett and Leo McGarry marvel over the women working in that fictional White House.  Fine.  So be it.  They're good.)

This future of the church isn't perfect.  They have their blind spots, to be sure.  Don't judge, older generations: look where your hangups about money and big buildings and prestige have gotten us.  These people are going to be passionate, vital, profoundly needed leaders in the church.  The very least you can do, the absolute minimum, is to get out of the way.  Better yet, follow them.  Help them out.  Provide that wisdom of experience where needed.  But don't be obstacles.
And really, don't be jerks about how much better things were when five thousand people in your town of two thousand crowded into your sanctuary (that holds about two hundred) every Sunday to hear the strong, powerful sermons of Dr. Noble Whiteguy.

I find myself with all sorts of feelings to sort out about my experiences here.  I find myself already missing these people intensely, and graduation is still three weeks off.  Three years ago I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me how deeply I'd come to care about these folks, these (let's go ahead and say it) kids (I mean, I am old enough to be their father in many cases).  And yet I care about them not as "kids," but as treasured brothers and sisters in the faith.  They are my peers, and I could not ask for better (again, three-years-ago me is freaking out to read that).  They've been there for me, and I hope I've been so for them.  They make me laugh, think, get indignant, get excited to go change the world (three-years-ago me just passed out in consternation).  I love them dearly and will miss them dearly.
There have been "older" classmates, a more obvious age cohort, and they have enriched and challenged my life in so many ways.  But these young ministers coming at you out there in the church are something special.  Welcome them.  Embrace them.  Help them out.  And every now and then, maybe even more often than not, shut up and listen to them.