In The Middle of Nowhere

In Advent and Christmas, 2022, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are centering our small groups and worship experiences around Jill Duffield’s Advent in Plain Sight.  On the first Sunday of Advent, we considered the concept that there might be “gates of heaven” as referenced in Genesis 28:10-22 and Matthew 24:29-35.  In addition to the Word, we were privileged to celebrate both the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism this day.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the player below:

To participate in worship via YouTube, use this link:

On the evening of July 6, 1957 a 15 year old kid named Paul wandered into the church festival at Woolton Parish, in northwest England.  He wasn’t there because he was particularly religious.  Truth be told, he was looking to meet girls.  That didn’t pan out, though, and so he hung around and listened to a band that had been brought in to play.  He was impressed with the lead guitarist, and asked a mutual friend to introduce him.  The two hit it off, and so it was on that night that John Lennon and Paul McCartney began playing music together.  Of course, they might have eventually met, but I find it noteworthy that the Beatles were born out of a young man’s search for a date…

I was reminded of this story when I read the Genesis passage for this week.  Isaac and Rebekah were fed up with their daughters-in-law. Their older son, Esau, had married a couple of girls from the neighborhood in which they were living, and that didn’t exactly go over very well.  In fact, the author of Genesis points out that these women “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah”. (Genesis 26:35)

It go so bad that his folks took Esau’s brother, Jacob, and sat him down and said, “Son, you can do better.”  With that, they gave him a map to a town called Haran.

Our reading picks up the story as Jacob is on the road from Beer-Sheba toward Haran.  So, to be clear, this story is in our bibles, essentially, because there was no Tinder or Match.com in ancient Palestine.

Jacob’s Dream by Jusepe de Ribera (1639)

After a long day’s travel, Jacob has to stop because it’s too dark to go any further.  He sets up camp in the middle of nowhere – between the place he’d left behind and the place he hoped to be.  All we know of his campsite is that it was in “a certain place” – that is, nowheresville.  And yet it is here – on the road, and in the dark – that Jacob meets the Lord.

And for context’s sake, let me point out that Jacob is, as I’ve mentioned, the son of Isaac and Rebekah.  He is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  You don’t grow up in that family without hearing about who God is.  You can be sure that by this time in his life, Jacob had heard plenty about God.  And yet it is on this night, in the middle of nowhere, that for the first time the Bible records an interaction between Jacob and God.  He’s not merely finding out about the Holy One, he is actively encountering the Lord.

While he is at his most vulnerable: he is asleep, outdoors, in a strange area – at that point the Spirit of God comes to Jacob in a dream.

And in this dream, Jacob sees that this place that is no place is filled with commerce between heaven and earth.  As he lays by the fire, he hears the voice of God proclaiming unconditional promises to Jacob and his family:  “Know that I am with you… I will keep you!”

As you’ve heard, Jacob wakes up and recognizes immediately what has happened.  So he builds an altar and makes a few promises of his own (although it is fair to say that unlike the promises he’s received from the Holy One, when Jacob makes his vow he’s careful to note that in this case, “terms and conditions may apply”)!

Jacob proclaims that this place is Bethel, or “house of God”, and he says that in fact it must be the gate of heaven.  He has come to see it as an access point – a place where heaven and earth can touch.

What if that was a thing today?  What if there were unlikely, nodescript times and places where the power, the presence, and the promise of God were somehow more easily felt, or seen, or heard?

Moreover, what if today was one of those days, and if this was one of those places?  I know, I know… it’s just the Sunday of a holiday weekend.  It’s an unexceptional building in an unremarkable neighborhood in a rust-belt city.  There is nothing special about this time or place…

And yet, here we are, celebrating sacraments.

I know that may a surprise to some of you.  And I know that some of you are here in worship this morning simply to be polite, or maybe because you think that it will help you get into the spread up at Chrissy’s place…

But what if the Spirit of God is here?

Jacob’s Dream, by William Blake, c. 1805

What if, in holding these children before the Lord and God’s people, and in hearing and repeating the promise to us which is essentially the same one that Jacob received…

What if what happens here creates an awareness or an identity in Virginia or Anastasia or Ada that could somehow lead to a life of service and love and faithful practice?

What if, in coming forward for communion, we see not only wheat and oil and grapes, but somehow get a glimpse of the whole body of Christ (of which we are a part), given in love for the world?

Today, we claim Advent.  This is a season of expectation in which we are bold enough to hope that the world as it is now will be visited again by the person and presence of Christ. We hold to the notion that Jesus is not merely a figure from history, but rather the real and tangible presence of God, and that he is at OUR gates!

As we lament another week of malevolent murders and blind bigotry and rampant racism and lingering loneliness… let us hold fast to the notion that thought we may be in the middle of nowhere, we are surrounded by invitations to experience and participate in the Holy!

This week, those of us who are following our Advent readings are called to consider the theme of “Gates”.  Let me encourage all of us, whether you’re participating in the small groups or not, to be on the lookout for those times and places in the week to come where, as in Genesis, a “gate” might open up and fill us with a new awareness of the Love of Christ for the world.

And, as we do that, let us look for gates of other kinds in the spaces that surround us – gates that are designed to exclude, or imprison, or to somehow shut out someone else.  Let us commit ourselves to being those who create a culture of inclusion and belonging, of safety and validation, especially for those who are on the edges and at risk of falling by the wayside.

It is Advent, beloved, and we are here, in the presence of God.  We are equipped with the sacraments and blessed with each other.  Let us be prepared to be surprised by the opportunities that God puts in front of us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Faith in the Present Tense

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 20, 2022, we concluded that series with an exploration of John 8 (included in the text below).  Here, Jesus doesn’t offer an object, he simply says, “I am.”  Here are some thoughts about what this meant then and what it might mean now.

To hear the sermon as preached in worship during the retreat at Camp Crestfield, please use the player below:

So for the last three months most of our time in worship has centered in on what Jesus has to say for and about himself. As I hope you recall, we’ve looked at the seven “I Am” statements that are found in the fourth Gospel.  Perhaps you’ll remember that our thesis has been that somehow, these “I Am” statements are based on a shared recollection of the story from Exodus 3, where God reveals the Divine name to Moses.  It is YHWH, or “I am who I am” or maybe “I will be who I will be”.  And maybe you’re old enough to remember the suggestion I made back in September – that perhaps the best translation might be “I will be who I am and I am who I will be.”

In Exodus 3 and so many other places in the Bible, we can see that fundamental to God’s nature and self-identity is the notion and practice of presence.  Whoever or whatever God is, God is here and now.

And, as I mentioned there are seven times in John’s gospel where Jesus begins a teaching with the words ego eimi. I am… the bread of life… the light of the world… the door or the gate… the good shepherd… the resurrection and the life… the way, the truth, and the life… the true vine…

Almost all of these are metaphors relating something tangible and common to Jesus’ hearers’ experience.  Every one of them is an invitation to know Jesus on a deeper level; each metaphor gives his hearers an opportunity think, “Wow, I knewJesus was something special, but this too?  This is amazing!”

So that’s where we’ve been since September.  Today, we finish this series on a day that the church calls “Christ the King” Sunday.  This day was added to the church calendar less than a hundred years ago by Pope Pius XI, who wanted to draw attention to the reality of Jesus apart from what Pius saw as the dangers of consumerism and secularism in the west, fascism in Spain and Italy, and Nazism in Germany.  Since then, the church has taken this day to proclaim fervently that Jesus, the Christ, is pre-eminent in all of creation, and that he has come, is coming, and will come again to rule the cosmos.

And, incidentally, just as bread, light, vine, and shepherd are helpful, but incomplete descriptions of Jesus, so too is “King”.  Don’t get hung up on the political connotations of that term; rather, recognize that what is meant here is an attempt to describe the absolute freedom and power of Jesus in relationship to the world.

This morning, we’re going to go back a few chapters in John to a day where he used the phrase ego eimi at least six times, and yet is not traditionally included in lists of the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  The reason for this is that there is no object. Jesus simply says, “I am.”  Let’s listen, and I’ll ask you to help me by reading along in a translation that really highlights the dialogue in this text:  The Voice.

For context, I’ll point out that Jesus is teaching here in the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This is the place that is most accessible to the public, and it also happens to be in earshot of the headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the local religious establishment.  Let’s read together, with those on the right reading the text representing Jesus, and those on the left reading the text representing others who were present.

Jesus (to the crowds): 21 I am leaving this place, and you will look for Me and die in your sin. For where I am going, you are unable to come.

Jews: 22 Is He suicidal? He keeps saying, “Where I am going, you are unable to come.”

Jesus: 23 You originate from the earth below, and I have come from the heavens above. You are from this world, and I am not. 24 That’s why I told you that you will die here as a result of your sins. Unless you believe I am who I have said I am, your sins will lead to your death.

Jews: 25 Who exactly are You?

Jesus: From the beginning of My mission, I have been telling you who I am. 26 I have so much to say about you, so many judgments to render; but if you hear one thing, hear that the One who sent Me is true, and all the things I have heard from Him I speak into the world.

27 The people had not understood that Jesus was teaching about the Father.

Jesus: 28 Whenever the day comes and you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He. It will be clear then that I am not acting alone, but that I am speaking the things I have learned directly from the Father. 29 The One who sent Me is with Me; He has not abandoned Me because I always do what pleases Him.

30 As Jesus was speaking, many in the crowd believed in Him.

In this conversation we hear Jesus repeating himself form chapter 7, where he says that he’ll be going away to a place where they can’t follow.  It’s a confusing teaching, to be honest, but it seems that the heart of the matter is that Jesus here identifies with God sufficiently to say that he can judge humanity, but also that he chooses not to judge.  Only when the Son of Man is lifted up will everything make sense, and at that point, people will know that Jesus is the son of God.

As difficult and confusing as that may have been, there is apparently good news because as he speaks, people are believing.  Hearts are turning toward Jesus!

Encouraged and emboldened by that, Jesus starts a new round of teaching for these folks.  Listen:

Jesus: 31 If you hear My voice and abide in My word, you are truly My disciples; 32 you will know the truth, and that truth will give you freedom.

Jewish Believers: 33 We are Abraham’s children, and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say to us, “You will be set free”?

Jesus: 34 I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. 35 Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. 36 So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free, you will really be free.

Did you hear that talk of leading his followers on a path toward freedom?  They are tempted to look back, and mention that they’re descendants of Abraham who have never been slaves. Jesus talks about a bondage that is more onerous than any political, economic, or societal system.  He invites them to leave all the brokenness of their lives behind.  As he does so, he apparently catches the eye of some of the religious leaders leaning into what he’s saying.

Jesus: 37 I know you are descendants of Abraham, but here you are plotting to murder Me because you do not welcome My voice into your lives. 38 As I speak, I am painting you a picture of what I have seen with My Father; here you are repeating the things you have seen from your father.

Jews: 39 Abraham is our father.

Jesus: If you are truly Abraham’s children, then act like Abraham! 40 From what I see you are trying to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that comes from the Father. This is not something Abraham would do, 41 but you are doing what you have learned from your father.

Jews: We were not born from adulterous parents; we have one Father: God.

Jesus: 42 I come from the one True God, and I’m not here on My own. He sent Me on a mission. If God were your Father, you would know that and would love Me. 43 You don’t even understand what I’m saying. Do you? Why not? It is because You cannot stand to hear My voice. 44 You are just like your true father, the devil; and you spend your time pursuing the things your father loves. He started out as a killer, and he cannot tolerate truth because he is void of anything true. At the core of his character, he is a liar; everything he speaks originates in these lies because he is the father of lies. 45 So when I speak truth, you don’t believe Me. 46-47 If I speak the truth, why don’t you believe Me? If you belong to God’s family, then why can’t you hear God speak? The answer is clear; you are not in God’s family. I speak truth, and you don’t believe Me. Can any of you convict Me of sin?

Jews: 48 We were right when we called You a demon-possessed Samaritan.

Jesus: 49-50 I’m not taken by demons. You dishonor Me, but I give all glory and honor to the Father. But I am not pursuing My own fame. There is only One who pursues and renders justice. 51 I tell you the truth, anyone who hears My voice and keeps My word will never experience death.

Jews: 52 We are even more confident now that You are demon-possessed. Just go down the list: Abraham died, the prophets all died. Yet You say, “If you keep My word, you will never taste death.” 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died; remember? Prophets—are any of them still alive? No. Who do You think You are?

Jesus: 54 If I were trying to make Myself somebody important, it would be a waste of time. That kind of fame is worth nothing. It is the Father who is behind Me, urging Me on, giving Me praise. You say, “He is our God,” 55 but you are not in relationship with Him. I know Him intimately; even if I said anything other than the truth, I would be a liar, like you. I know Him, and I do as He says. 56 Your father Abraham anticipated the time when I would come, and he celebrated My coming.

Jews: 57 You aren’t even 50 years old, yet You have seen and talked with Abraham?

Jesus: 58 I tell you the truth; I AM before Abraham was born.

59 The people picked up stones to hurl at Him, but Jesus slipped out of the temple.

Well, that escalated quickly!

As we think about this passage, let me ask you this: when is the last time that you heard Jesus say something that made you angry?  I ask, because here he clearly got under their skin.  It’s almost as though he is trying to provoke his adversaries. He leaves behind all of the apparent “politeness” that we’ve come to expect in church.  Instead of saying, “Bless your hearts, I think I see it a little differently”, he calls them children of Satan.  His opponents double down on this argument and say, “No, we’re not in bed with the devil, you are!  And then, just for good measure, they throw in a racist taunt because, well, it’s easy and fun.

In their conversation, they return to the idea of being Abraham’s descendants and Jesus interrupts them and says, essentially, “Abraham?  Sure! I know him.  Great guy.  One of my best friends!”

And maybe you caught this, but just in case you didn’t, I want to point out that Jesus speaks of Abraham in the present tense.  He is not talking about some Hall-of-Famer­ from a bygone era, but rather as a personality who is present to Jesus at that very moment.

Well, this is too much for people to take, and they call shenanigans on Jesus, and say that he’s being ridiculous.  They point out, accurately, that he’s not anywhere near old enough to know Abraham.

And you heard the response: “Before Abraham was, I am.

And that’s when they tried to kill him.

I Am. Period. Not, “I am the bread” or “I am the resurrection.”  Not even anything like “I am hungry”.  Just I am.  Ego eimi.  How could they hear that and not think of Moses’ conversation with the Lord?  How could they hear this as anything other than a claim to divinity?

Often, we read this as people who claim affinity with Jesus and we say that Jesus was simply putting those religious leaders in their place.  Sometimes, we make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is the same as God, which is not true.

John 8 is a vivid testimony in which Jesus tells people then and now that he isconnected to the Father.  They are so close that Jesus can speak for God, and that God acts for Jesus.  But clearly, Jesus is not saying that he is God the Father.

The early church wrestled with this – how could Jesus be fully human AND fully divine.  One brilliant artist in the 6th century attempted to capture this in an image called “Christ Pantocrator”, or “Christ, ruler of all”.  It appears to be a pretty standard icon – you’ve got the one hand raised in a posture of teaching, the other holding a volume – the Gospels, perhaps; the halo, and more.  But note that the painting is asymmetrical.  The sides don’t actually mirror each other.

Christ Pantocrator, from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. 6th century – oldest surviving icon of Jesus

In fact, if you DO make mirror images, we see that there are two different images.  One, representing his human nature, and the other, his divine.  Can you see the difference?  Jesus as a human and yet a full participant in the divinity of God.  It’s a difficult concept, and yet this artist has sought to explore it.

A composite of what the right and left halves of the icon would look like if mirrored.

So what is Jesus saying to his friends in this passage?  Or to us?  Here’s my thought.  In speaking of Abraham in the present tense, and in saying “Before Abraham was, I am”, Jesus is pointing to his eternal nature.  In using this vocabulary, Jesus is identifying not only with Abraham, but with all of those who exist in our past – Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and more. He is saying that he not only knows their story, but that he is in that story with them.

When Jesus says, “I am”, he places himself in the present tense – the eternally present tense.  Right now, here at Camp Crestfield, Jesus is here.

When my great-great grandfather arrived in Nebraska, singing Lutheran hymns in German, Jesus is there.

When my great-great granddaughter draws her final breath, Jesus is there.

Jesus is.  Jesus is eternally, everywhere present.  Which means that when I go to visit a friend who is sick or angry or filled with doubts, I don’t need to look for a way to somehow get Jesus into the room.  Jesus is there before I am.

Jesus is.  Which means that I’m mistaken if I try to pin Jesus to my own political party or economic system or racial identity.  Doing that makes Jesus a mascot or a cheerleader.  Jesus is so much more.

Our passage ends with “The people picked up stones to hurl at him.”  You bet they did.

We always do. Whenever we see, embrace, or trot out a cartoon Jesus, that Jesus disappoints or angers us eventually.

A cartoon Jesus is one that wasn’t really a human, but just God parading around in a human body.

A cartoon Jesus is a messenger from God sent to assure me that I won’t ever have to bear any loss or pain.

A cartoon Jesus is a prophet of God who will make me rich and powerful.

A cartoon Jesus is a punisher from a God who just happens to hate all the same people I hate.

We love our cartoon Jesuses – the stock figures we can bring out to back up our ideas, bolster our egos, and remind us that God really does love us best of all.  And when the Jesus who is shows up, and he’s not any of these other guys, well sometimes we get angry at Jesus for not being who we hope that he’ll be.

Before Abraham was, I am.

Before you ever got pregnant, I am.

Before you even heard about that test, I am.

Before that idiot – whichever one you might think it is – got elected, I am.

Before he ever laid a hand on you, or you ever took that drink, or she fell asleep at the wheel… I am.

The good news of the Gospel is simply this: Jesus is.  In and over and through and beyond all of these situations, Jesus is.

Let us, therefore, move into this week and the Advent that follows it by looking for the Jesus who is in our world.  Let us love Jesus more than we love our ideas about him, and let us be with him as he is here and now, and not as we imagine or fear that he might be.  Thanks be to God who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

Stick Around!

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 13, 2022, we sat at table with (most of) the disciples and heard Jesus’s last such pronouncement: “I am the true vine…” Our scripture references included John 15:1-17 as well as Galatians 5:22-23.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the player below:

To participate in worship via YouTube, please use this link:

If you were to ask me about another person, and I were to reply, “Oh, he’s a nice guy, I guess, but he’s kind of a stick-in-the-mud…”, would you know what I meant by that?  That phrase is used to describe someone who is boring, or perhaps dull and old-fashioned.  It dates back to the early 1700’s, when it was used to describe someone whose wagon wouldn’t move, no matter how hard anyone tried, because it was mired in the clay and silt.  A “stick-in-the-mud” is also understood to be someone who is alone or aloof.

Needless to say, I’ve never heard “stick-in-the-mud” used as a compliment.  Quite the contrary, it calls to mind a sad and even pathetic image, which, if we were to take literally, would be a stark contrast to today’s gospel reading.  A stick – a dead branch, removed from the tree and jammed into the ground where it remains solitary, unconnected, and unrooted.  A stick in the mud is not going anywhere, ever – it’s not growing, it’s not changing…it’s just there.

In contrast, the passage from John is bursting with life.  Jesus begins this passage by uttering his final “I am” statement of the fourth Gospel.  As we consider this text, I’ll remind you of what we’ve said in previous weeks: in using the words “I am” Jesus was doing much more than offering simple self-reflection or self-disclosure.  Jesus was certainly trying to remind his hearers of the conversation that is recorded in Exodus chapter 3.  There, Moses asks God, “Who are you?”, and the Almighty responds by saying, “YHWH.  I am what I am… or I am who I will be.”  And that phrase in Hebrew, YWHW, is pronounced ego eimi in Greek.  And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, Jesus sought to explain who and what he was to the people closest to him by using a series of metaphors: I am the bread of life, or the Good Shepherd, or the gate, or the way, or, today, the “true vine”.

What do you know about vines?

Webster’s dictionary tells us that a vine is “a plant whose stem requires support and which climbs by tendrils or twining or creeps along the ground”.[1]  But I suspect that you know that.  You’ve seen the wild grapevines that cover the trees here in Crafton Heights.  Maybe you’ve driven past the acres and acres of carefully tended vineyards that grow along the shores of Lake Erie, two hours north of here.

Whatever you think you know or don’t know about vines, I’m here to tell you that the people in Jesus’ day knew plenty!  Vineyards were the cultural and economic basis of life in the Judean hillsides.  In fact, the grapevine is mentioned more often than any other plant in the entire Bible.  So, yeah, when Jesus said he was the vine, people got a mental image really quickly.

But more than being simply an agricultural specimen, vines are used as a symbol for God’s people throughout the Old Testament.  In Genesis 49:11, we see vines used as a symbol for the tribe of Judah.  In Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, vines are used as an image to refer to God’s people who were carefully planted and tended, and yet grew wild and eventually stopped bearing fruit.  Rather than following the trellises and guides that were meant to give them shape, they eventually became lost in the underbrush that surrounded them.  Many times, when the prophets talked about vines, they did so in order to discuss the ways in which God’s people had left the best of God’s intentions behind.  The vines strayed until they just fizzled out…

So when Jesus says, Ego eimi…not just “the vine”, but “the true vine”, he is not only suggesting that he is one with God (the great I AM); he is also saying that he is the faithful one of Israel.  He is the real deal, the true vine, not the vine that has grown wild and become fruitless.

And, unlike the stick in the mud with which this message began, this vine is deeply rooted and carefully tended.  Why is this the case?  Because the Gardener expects to grow fruit.  And, as Jesus makes clear in his narrative, not just “any” fruit or “some” fruit, but “more fruit”, “much fruit”, and “fruit that will last.”  And, as Jesus points out (and as everyone in his audience would have known), the fruit is borne not on the main vine itself, but on the branches that are supported by and connected to the vine.

“The True Vine”, by Kathrin Burleson (contemporary)

So here’s what’s happening in this reading of John: Jesus, looking at the people that he has known and loved best; the people who have walked with him and questioned him and witnessed him more than anyone else – Jesus looks at those people and says, “Pay attention!  I am the heart of God, and I am the model of humanity – and you are in me; as you are connected to me, you will bear incredible fruit!  If you remain in me, you will fulfill your purpose and bring joy to the Gardener.”

I hope you caught that!  What is the strategy that leads to fruit?  “Remain in me.”

Jesus does not say to his followers, “If you try harder…”, or “if you clean up your act a little bit…”, or “if you pray the right way for the right things…”, or “If you believe the right stuff about me…”  Nope.  None of that. “If you remain in me.”  It would seem as though fruitfulness – whatever that is – is the natural result of being where we are intended to be.  It comes from a conscious choice to remain, or abide, or dwell.  There seems to be a direct correlation between bearing fruit and sticking with Jesus.

This passage from the Gospel is a description of an intimate, organic relationship.  It talks of a closeness between Jesus and his followers – a relationship that, in fact, mirrors the one that exists between Jesus and his Father in heaven.  This relationship is rooted in a promise of love and joy and, as has been said, leads to much fruit.

But this week as I studied in preparation for this message, I noticed something – a detail that had escaped my notice before.  I don’t suspect that many of you have your bibles open on your laps, but what do you think: to whom is Jesus speaking here in John 15?  To his disciples?  How many of them are there?

You might say “twelve”, because that’s almost always the right answer… but there are now only eleven in the room.  In John 13:30, we learned that after he’d had his part in the Last Supper, Judas left the room to go and meet the religious leaders and to begin the process of the betrayal that would lead to Jesus’ death.

So, if we assume, as did John and the other Gospel writers, that Jesus knew what was going to happen when Judas left the table…  If we assume, as we said last week, that Jesus knew that this would be the last meal he’d ever share with his disciples…

If we assume those things, then I think that it’s also fair to assume that what Jesus is doing here is of ultimate significance.  This is Jesus’ last crack at these guys, and what is he saying?  “Stick around.  Choose to be here.  Stay.”  And he says this even as one of them has already left.

Further, he punctuates this teaching with an expression of his deep love for them and with a plea for them – us – to love one another. In doing so, he acknowledges that the love to which he calls us carries with it a risk: “greater love has no on than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This is the truth, beloved: Jesus’ last, and I believe his most emphatic request to his friends was to recognize the danger of loving someone else and to go ahead and do it anyway.  To be like him in this way.

Listen: Jesus knows the truth.  We might fail.  We might bail on him.  But he asks us – not to try harder or to be holier, but to stay.  And as we stay, he says, we will bear fruit.  As we remain, we will be those who find, share, live, and even demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So as we contemplate this last discourse of Jesus, beloved, let me ask you to consider what it means for you to be connected with Jesus.  What does it mean for you to remain in him?  How are you drawing nourishment from the roots he’s sent down?  Where are you growing in the ways that he’s taught you?

And as you contemplate these questions, let me offer you a gentle reminder that nowhere in this passage or indeed at any point in his ministry does Jesus seem to allow for a reality in which his disciples could be intimately connected with him and yet unrelated to and unconcerned for one another.  The only way for us to be as he wants and expects us to be is to grow closer to him by staying next to each other.

And again, I’ll emphasize that this notion of “remaining” and “abiding” is not anything like the unfruitful, dead, stick in the mud we’ve mentioned earlier.  Rather this is a living faith, a reality which, like a vine, is constantly reaching, exploring, and twisting as it seeks even more light; a vine that blossoms with love and bears fruit that brings life to the place in which it is planted.  Do not think, dear ones, that you are alone and untended; do not fear that you have been forgotten.  Rather, know and remember that you are, now and always, invited to remain in the place where growth and cultivation occurs and where fruit is expected and shared.  Thanks be to the God who invites us to stick around and become the people that we are meant to be, through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1]  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vine

Which Way?

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 6, 2022, we considered the oft-repeated statement he made, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Our scripture references included John 14:1-17 and Acts 19:8-10

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Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way, but here goes: has it ever occurred to you that an essential aspect of our humanity lies in the fact that we know that there are beginnings and endings?  Each day we move through life and every single thing that we do has a start and a finish; that within each of these things there is a first and a last.   Usually, of course, we are unaware of these times; it would be exhausting otherwise.  Yet think for a moment of something you enjoy greatly – fishing, dancing, or reading Agatha Christie novels.  Can you remember the first time you did any of these things? Do you realize that one time you do them, it will be your last?  And maybe that last time has already happened yet – only you don’t know it.  How would it change your experience of the event if you knew, somehow, that the next time you swung the golf clubs would be the last such outing of your life?

The Last Supper, Sieger Köder (c. 2010)

Today’s Gospel reading is a portion of John’s account of the event we call the Last Supper.  We call it that in retrospect, of course, but at the time, Jesus was the only one present who knew that it would be the last time that he and the twelve would share a meal and fellowship.  He knows, better than anyone, that everything is about to change.

And in that knowledge, then, he is saying “goodbye”, or perhaps more accurately, “see you later” to his friends.  Yet even as he does so, he encourages them not to worry because, after all, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”

And at this point, Thomas, who proves himself over and over again to be a literalist, interrupts Jesus and says, “Hold on, there, Jesus – you’ve lost me.  We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus replies by looking at his friend with love and saying one of the things for which he is best remembered: “I am the way, the truth, and the life… It’s me, Thomas.  I am the way to where we are going…”

If you’ve been here at all in the past couple of months, you will recognize this as another in a series of statements that Jesus makes, each of which includes the phrase ego emei, or “I am.”  Using the Greek version of the Hebrew  word YHWH was one way for Jesus to claim Divine authority on and presence in his ministry.  When his contemporaries heard him speak like that, they assumed that he was equating himself with God.

In recent weeks, we’ve considered Jesus’ use of this phrase in conjunction with any number of common objects familiar to his hearers: he said “I am” the bread of life, or the light of the world, or the door, or the shepherd… – some kind of a tangible metaphor.  But today, he tells his friends that he is “the way”.

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” by Kathrin Burleson (Contemporary)

What does it mean when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life”?

As with any metaphor, “way” both is and is not what it actually says.  That is, a “way” is a street, or a road, or a path.  We make a way by clearing obstacles and laying down pavement or brick and putting up signs and fences.  Obviously, Jesus is none of that.  He is made of flesh and bone, not asphalt and gravel.

On top of that, the idea of “the way”, as Eugene Peterson points out, is complicated because not only does it mean the route that we travel (shall we use the Turnpike or Interstate 80?), but it can also mean the manner in which we proceed on the way.  Are we going on foot? In a car? By air?

So “way” is both the avenue leading to our destination and a mode of travel.  We can talk about the way that we will take on the way, if you will.

…a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various “ways” – not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile.  The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat… And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated “ways and means” that characterize our way of life.[1]

As you can see, “way” is a multifaceted, multi-dimensional metaphor.  It is an odd thing, indeed, for a soon-to-be condemned man to ask his friends to call him.

And yet, it stuck.  In fact, when Luke got around to writing about the first followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts, he only used the word “Christian” to refer to them once. By far his favored term is, as you have heard, “the Way.”  The people who wanted to live like Jesus were called “followers of the Way.”

Was it confusing? You bet.  It was and it is!  We are, by and large, people who thrive on the concrete.  Metaphors are confusing.  We deal in outcomes, in facts, or in results.  Most of the time, most of us are more concerned with the end or the destination than with the path that gets us there.  And this preference for, or even preoccupation with, the end result has led to one of the greatest tragedies in the Christian church.

When we hear John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me”, we have come think that it’s a statement about how to get to heaven.  So acknowledging Jesus as the way in that way– saying “yes” to some ideas about Jesus – can sometimes become the most important part of a person’s faith story.

And when that happens, things get even worse, because we start to get fixated on our own ideas about the particular ways in which Jesus is the way.  We start to think about a relationship with Jesus, or our thoughts about Jesus, or our belief in Jesus as a strategy that will ensure us a seat at the heavenly banquet.  When we do that, then “I am the way” has become corrupted into “I am the ticket”.

It’s hard to think through some of this stuff, but I’m here to tell you that I know that it happens.  I know it because I’ve lived it.  I fell into this trap as a young man.

Now, anyone in the room who is under 40, I just need to ask you to bear with me and to use your imagination.  I need you to think about a world without cell phones.  We all had a phone in the house, and the family all shared that same number.  Oftentimes, we would call another house, unsure of who was actually home. And people in that house would hear the phone ringing and they would answer it blindly – they’d have no idea whatsoever of who was calling, or why.  And when they answered, sometimes we used our phones to talk to each other – for fifteen or twenty minutes or even longer.  I’m here to tell you that when Sharon and I were dating sometimes we spent an hour on the phone!  I’m telling you, it was crazy.

And yet, here is the truth: as a young believer, I wanted to follow in the Way.  I did!  And it was important to me that people whom I loved did, too.  After all if the Way was really a Ticket, then I didn’t want the people I loved to be left behind!  And so I would spend hours on the phone in the evenings.  I called people I loved – people whom I suspected of believing some wrong things about Jesus – and I tried to show them in my conversation that their way of seeing Jesus was insufficient and that mine was, well, right.

I remember hanging up from many of these conversations and feeling satisfied.  From my perspective, they were filled with love for my friends and a passion for the truth that is Jesus.

And yet, in my zeal to want people to see Jesus the way that I saw Jesus, I began to act and speak as though the view that I had of him was the only view that there was.  And what I thought of as an act of love and compassion became, for some, an irritation, an annoyance, or even a passing of judgment I had no business making.  And, worst of all, I was spending all of that time talking about Jesus while not realizing that I wasn’t acting or sounding very much like him at all.   In fact, I was increasingly limiting Jesus to my own perception and understanding of him.

How I wish that I was the only person who ever did that!

How I wish that it wasn’t so common!  But you know the truth, beloved.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a price that we pay so that we can cash in on a big reward after we die.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a skill that we acquire so that Jesus will like us better or our friends will be impressed with how holy we’re becoming.

Walking in the way of Jesus is not a strategy that the children of God employ so that our kids will have straight teeth and our mortgages will all get paid.

We walk in the way of Jesus because that is what he asked us to do.  We walk in the way of Jesus because, in doing so, we find out more about what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  In short, as Eugene Peterson says, “following Jesus doesn’t get us where we want to go.  It gets us to where Jesus goes…”[2]

The way of Jesus – or the way that is Jesus – is not some carefully-preserved trail leading through the wilderness that has been handed down from generation to generation, each one hoping that their children will not screw it up too badly.  We don’t live our lives by looking back, making sure that we have persisted unswervingly in the same roads our ancestors have taken.  Rather, we take what we have received from them gratefully and reverently and then we walk that way in our own contexts, and through our own wilderness.

Brian McLaren is a pastor, author and teacher, who reminds us that our calling is not to see the Christian faith as a timeless treasure, a box kept in stone that is perpetually unchanging.  Nor are we free to see our faith as a parking lot, where we gather to await the Divine ferry that will cart us all to heaven.  Instead, he says that the way of Jesus is “a road … that is extended into the future by all of us, walking forward in the Spirit together.”[3]

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Let us journey in that way together, seeking to be pilgrims who steward the truth we’ve received and engage with the life we’ve been given.  May the paths we take be shaped by gratitude, humility, service, and love.  As we move in this way, we will find evidence of the Christ at every turn.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H., The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Eerdman’s, 2007), p. 22.

[2] Peterson, Eugene H., The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Eerdman’s, 2007), p. 242.

[3] https://brianmclaren.net/we-make-the-road-by-walking-where-did-the-title-come-from/

If Only…

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On October 30, 2022, we spent some time thinking about the day he stood in the graveyard and told Martha and Mary that he was the resurrection and the life.  Our scripture references included John 11:17-44 and Lamentations 1:16.

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I suspect that you have been stood up at some point in your life.  An old friend, perhaps, has reached out to you and suggested getting together for lunch.  You arrive at the restaurant, and you bide your time for bit, and then, maybe, you find yourself sending that awkward text: “I’m here… we did say noon today, didn’t we?”  And you wait…

Or maybe it’s a little more painful: you’re ready to leave town for a week or so and you hand your roommate half of the rent.  “Thanks,” she says, “I’ll take care of it.”  And then, three weeks later, the landlord calls you and is talking about late fees and the magistrate.

Or perhaps you’ve been out walking and been surprised by a sudden rainstorm.  It’s miserable, and then you see a friend drive past, honking and waving at you… and you think, “Really? What the heck?”

My point is that I suspect that at some time or another, you have been left hanging by someone you care about, or someone you trusted – someone who you thought would have your back.  Am I right on this?

If so, I’d like to you meet, if you haven’t already, Mary and Martha.  They are old friends of Jesus – he was frequently a guest in their home.  Their brother is a man called Lazarus, and Jesus evidently loved him very much.  But Lazarus gets sick.  The sisters know that Jesus isn’t too far, and so they send word.  And they wait and watch.  Nothing.  Days pass.  He’s not far away – only a couple of miles – from here to, say, the Chartiers Country Club, or Mount Washington.

And yet, Jesus doesn’t show up.

Until, he does.  But not only has he missed his chance to see Lazarus – he missed the funeral as well. By the time Jesus waltzes into town, Lazarus has been in the ground for four days.  When she hears that he’s headed their way, Martha can’t hold back.  She goes to greet him, and she just unloads on Jesus: “Where were you?  If only you’d been here, none of this would have happened!  What the heck, Jesus?”

The Raising of Lazarus (detail), by Duccio (c. 1310).

Without breaking stride, Jesus offers her a theological response: “You know, my friend, that Lazarus will rise again.”  And Martha, who is way past all of the normal niceties, rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the preaching.  I know, and I believe that he will rise at the last day.”  It’s as if Martha wanted to make sure that Jesus knew that she was still orthodox, even if she was hot under the collar with anger and grief.  She knew what the “right” answer was.

But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation die there.  Instead, he launches into the fifth “I Am” statement recorded in John’s Gospel.  I won’t rehash it all here, but I do hope that you can recall some of what we’ve said about the importance and meaning of that phrase.  Perhaps you remember that “I Am” is the Divine name that God revealed to Moses back in Exodus 3, and that when Jesus used it in reference to himself, it was by design.  Jesus wanted those around him to understand that in using these words, he was connecting himself to the Divine.

“I am the resurrection and the life” is what Jesus said to Martha.  He just tossed it right to her.  And, to her credit, she heard that, understood it, and pitched it right back.  “You absolutely are,” she said.  “You are the Messiah.  The Son of God.  The Divine Presence in the world.”  Doctrinally speaking, she aced it.  She believed in Jesus.  She trusted in Jesus.  She was right!  From a theological perspective, it was a fantastic moment.

Except there was one small thing: her brother was still dead.  Here was Martha, right as rain… and there was Lazarus, dead as a doornail.

This part of our reading proves that sometimes, all the truth in the world can’t seem to get near to the deadness, the brokenness, the messed-up-ness of our lives.  Yes, yes, yes – Jesus is all of these wonderful things.  And still, the world is a broken and painful place.  That’s just the truth.

While all of this is happening, sister number two arrives on the scene.  Mary greets Jesus in the exact same way as did her sister: “If only you had been here, Jesus…” And then she collapses into a puddle of grief.

But look at what Jesus does now: He does not move into the theology lesson.  He does not preach to Mary. He sees her grief, and feels her pain.  He asks her to lead him into that.  “Show me”, he says.

Beloved, there is so much I’d like to say about this passage, but for now I’ll dwell on these two words that Jesus is: the resurrection and the life.

I Am the resurrection. Oh, you know that this is a profound theological statement with far-reaching eschatological implications.  Yes, that’s right, I just used the word “eschatological” in a sentence.  I bet it’s been a while since you did that!  When I talk about the eschatological implications of this statement, I’m saying that Christians have historically understood that Jesus was saying here that he is the means by which God will restore all of creation to God’s original intent.  “I am the resurrection” is a way of saying that none of the death, or decay, or fragmentation that we experience is greater than God.  “I am the resurrection” means that whatever precedes or necessitates resurrection will not have the last word.  Death is not the end.  Decay is not perpetual.  Something better, and even more final than death, is on the way.

I am, my friends, deeply and profoundly grateful that Jesus is the resurrection. That gives me great hope.

Yet today I am even more struck by the fact that he added, “and the life”.

“I am…the life.”  In Greek, the word is zoe.  That word was mostly used to convey the idea that life itself is not a thing, but rather there is a vitality that characterizes all organic beings.  For instance, the word zoology, meaning the study of animals, comes from this.  There is a force or vitality that flows through all that lives and moves.  That is zoe.  That is Jesus.

“I am the resurrection” is a great theological and eschatological truth.

Adding “and the life” is a way of conveying the thought that Jesus is the vitality that gives meaning to existence.  “I am the life.”  Jesus is the example of how we are to live and move in the world.  And so it strikes me that after making this incredible pronouncement, Jesus enters into the grief of this family.  Jesus stands at the grave of his friend and shakes his fist at the universe.  “It’s not supposed to be this way!” he laments.

Twice we read that Jesus was “greatly upset” or “disturbed.”  It’s a very specific word, embriaomai.  Trust me, I would talk all day about that word if you gave me half a chance, but for now I will simply say that it is a word that expresses sadness and anger and pain.  It’s a shudder.  It’s an involuntary grunting or groaning.

Jesus, who is the life – who defines vitality and invites us to follow him in a pattern of faithful living – uses this moment to demonstrate that authentically participating in the life that God gives to us includes a willingness to walk toward and even embrace grief.

On this day, when Jesus saw the pain and sadness of his friends, he did not dismiss it, he did not wish it away, and he did not scold them for their lack of faith or faulty theology.

Jesus Wept, by James Tissot (1886-1894)

Instead, he stood there with them.  And he cried.

He honored his friend, Lazarus.  He bore witness to the love that Mary and Martha had for their brother by standing in that pain with them.

The day after tomorrow – Tuesday, November 1 – is All Saints Day.  It is a day to remember that each of us has been acquainted with the power of death and brokenness.  That each of us has known loss and grief.  And whether you are nursing a loss that occurred years, or even decades ago, or you are in the midst of a trauma that makes each day painful and even raw – you can remember that you are not now, nor ever, alone in that grief.  Jesus is there.  Jesus weeps.  The body of Christ – the church – honors and shares in your grief.

Sometimes the church is in so much of a hurry to get to the big flashy miracle at the end of this passage that we rush past Jesus weeping in the graveyard.  When we do that, we shortchange him and we miss out on a chance to learn something of what it means to belong to him.

As it is, we see that only after standing with his friends in the midst of lament and brokenness does Jesus command those in the cemetery to move the stone.  Only after weeping does Jesus set about the business of restoring life to Lazarus. He offers a prayer and then he calls out to his friend.  In doing so, he restores Lazarus to his family and his community.

It’s worth noting here that Jesus did not transform Lazarus’ body completely.  It does not appear as though the risen Lazarus behaves the same way as the risen Christ will at the end of the Gospel.  Presumably, Lazarus got colds, or felt pain, or experienced seasonal allergies… From everything we know, Lazarus had to die twice.

In calling Lazarus from the grave, then, Jesus did not bring about an ultimate reversal of the death and decay that surrounds the world and fills graveyards every day; rather, he used this event to punctuate a statement about his own power in and over the world, his closeness to God, and to offer a sign of hope as if to say, contrary to the word from Lamentations, that the enemy has not, in fact, won.  Death does not have the last word, even as we suffer through it with such regularity.

What are our takeaways from this passage this morning?  I’d like to suggest that there are several.

The presence of suffering does not indicate the absence of God.  When you experience loss and grief, do not for a moment think that means that God is distancing God’s self from you.  Rather, take this passage as a reminder that you are free to invite God into the depths of your pain and sorrow.

Further, we can take from this story the assurance that we are acting like Christ when we honor or share the pain of another.  Holding the grief and sadness of someone else is a profoundly Christ-like practice in the world.  Perhaps it is not your job to “cheer up” your friend who has suffered tragedy; maybe Jesus is inviting you to stand there and cry together.

And lastly, we can remember that what we see now, and how we move through space and time on most days is not all that there is.  There IS profound eschatological hope to be shared.  The manner of life in which we participate and understand is a part of what God is doing in the world, but there is more to it than we can see.

In light of all this, then, beloved, let me encourage you to believe boldly.  Love recklessly.  Stand firmly and quietly with those who are in pain.  Pour yourselves out into and on behalf of others.  In doing all of these things, you will reflect the Christ who is the resurrection and the life into a world that needs both of these things. Thanks be to God, amen.

The Big Picture

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On October 9, 2022, we spent some time thinking about what makes Jesus a shepherd, or a “good shepherd”, or even “The good shepherd.”  Our scripture references included John 10:11-18 and Zephaniah 3:14-20.

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I suspect you’ve heard some variation of this old chestnut: it’s the start of another day in heaven, and, as usual, Saint Peter is showing the new folks around.  In addition to the streets paved with gold, there are all kinds of fancy buildings, many reverberating with amazing music.  The group passes one Cathedral, and Peter says, “Yep, that’d be the Anglicans and their choir.”  Later on there’s a large, boxy-looking structure, and the saint remarks over the guitar music, “That’s where a lot of our non-denominational folks wind up.”  As they come up on a stately brick building, St. Peter says, “OK, now I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet, and take off your shoes and tiptoe past this place.”  One of the new residents asks, “Why? Is there something wrong?” And Peter says simply, “No, not at all.  It’s just that’s where the Presbyterians are, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

I want you to think about that, and we’ll come back to it in a moment.  For now, we are continuing with our exploration of the “I Am” teachings of Jesus as found in John’s Gospel.  Today, we are tuning in to the second half of a conversation that began last week. I hope you remember the narrative about the sheepfold, the bandits, the gatekeepers, the sheep, and Jesus’ announcement, “I am the gate”.

In what appears to be the same conversation, Jesus dives even more deeply into the imagery of the barnyard.  Whereas a few moments ago he said that he was the gate, now he’s shifted to saying that he’s the shepherd.  We know from our reading last week that in Jesus’ mind (and in the experience of his hearers), a shepherd cares for the sheep and is in some sort of intentional relationship with them.

Yet as he continues this conversation, Jesus adds an adjective.  He says that he is a “good” shepherd.  Three times he uses this word – in Greek, it’s kalos – to describe himself.

In English, the word “good” is often pretty meaningless, or at least benign.  “Hey, did you see that new Top Gun movie?  How was it?”  “Oh, well, good, I guess.”  Or when you’re asked to evaluate a new recipe, and you say, “I dunno… it’s good, I guess…”  “Good” often means “OK” in our world.

But kalos implies that there is something beautiful or attractive about the noun that it modifies; it’s a way of saying that the person or thing is useful or competent; and it also suggests that a “good” person is one who is ethically and morally admirable.  So in calling himself a “good shepherd”, Jesus is claiming not only competence, but that he is pleasing and also worthy of emulation.

But that’s not all!  In John 10, Jesus doesn’t say that he is merely a “shepherd” or even a “good shepherd”.  Twice, he explicitly says that he is “THE good shepherd.”

Again, his hearers, steeped as they were in the writings of the Old Testament, would recognize the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep.  Perhaps their thoughts would have drifted to Psalm 23, which as you all know, begins with the words, “The LORD is my shepherd…”

So if we combine Jesus’ evocation of scriptures like Psalm 23 with the red flag he waved by saying the words “I Am” in a context like this, we can assume that he was looking for a reaction.  After all, if you remember the conversation we had about the fact that “I am” is not merely a self-description, but rather a use of the Divine Name, then you can probably guess that beginning with “I am” and following that up with “the good shepherd”, well, that’s like a daily double.

And if people like you and me can hear it that way as we sit in Pittsburgh in 2022, I’m here to tell you that it goes even deeper than that.  Sure, we might remember Psalm 23, but can you call up anything from Ezekiel 34?  Jesus’ audience would have had that passage at the front of their minds.  This book of prophecy, written about six hundred years before Jesus, contains within it a scathing judgment on the leaders of Israel (both religious and political).  The prophet refers to these leaders as shepherds who are willing to eat the meat and use the wool of the sheep, but who are not interested at all in feeding or caring for the flock.  They are accused of failing to protect their animals, of trampling the good grass before the flock can even eat, and of fouling the clean water before their charges can take a drink.  Ezekiel paints a portrait of these “shepherds” as being arrogant, selfish, jerks who are unfit to lead in God’s name.

So, stepping back a moment, we have Jesus, teaching in the presence of the recognized religious leaders of his day.  He’s started out by talking about sheep and shepherds, and then announcing that he, of all people, is The Good Shepherd.  To say the very least, that would have ruffled a few feathers!  It was heard as both a criticism of the current religious climate and a claim to divinity and authority for himself.

So what, exactly, does the Good Shepherd do?  In the passage at hand, Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand.  When the sheep face danger, the Good Shepherd intervenes to the point of laying down his life for the flock.  The hired help, however, is heard to mutter “I don’t get paid enough for this!” as he abandons the sheep and flees.

In each of our “I Am” statements, and of course in Exodus 3 where God reveals that name to Moses, we have heard that central to Jesus’ understanding of himself and the role to which he has been called is the idea of a relationship characterized by love.  You heard him! Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me.”  What a stark contrast to the hired hand, with whom everything is transactional, as opposed to relational.

But sometimes, we allow ourselves to get so familiar with the words that we don’t really hear what they’re saying.  When you heard, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep”, maybe you reflected on another well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  And we hear these verses, and we say, “Oh, yes.  Thank you.  I see, now.  Praise the Lord!  Jesus came and lived and died so that people who believe in him can get to heaven.  I know I’m a sinner, but if I pray to God and believe in Jesus, then I’ll be saved.  Jesus came so that I (and people like me) can get to heaven.  Jesus paid it all.  Alleluia! Amen!”

And yet if we follow that line of thinking – which is very seductive, I must say – we see that the goodness and relationship with which we started has gradually become refined and massaged and processed and interpreted so that it is no longer primarily relational, but transactional!  If we live into this interpretation of Jesus’ person and work, we fall back into a transactional way of thinking: Jesus came to get sorry people like me into heaven forever.  The purpose of Jesus was to save me from Hell.

Oh, beloved! How short-sighted! How limiting!

I say that because in his very next breath Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice so there will be one flock, and one shepherd.”

Now wait a second, Jesus!  Who are these other sheep?  Are you talking about the Gentiles?  Are you talking about people of other faiths, or perhaps even people of no faith?  He doesn’t say.  He does, however, use the present tense – “I have” these sheep, and I “must bring’ them.  To me, that indicates not some future ideal, but the reality of the present time.

And if that’s true, then I cannot say that the only reason that Jesus came was to save my broken-down self from eternal torment.  It’s bigger, and better, than this!

Jesus is the person, the relationship through whom God invites all of creation to come back home.  These sentences point to a vision of restoration, healing, and completeness that is not merely for people whom I like or with whose ideas I happen to agree, but for the entire creation.

I hope you heard that come through in the reading from Zephaniah, and I’m here to tell you that you can find it through Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Hosea, or any of the rest of the prophets.  God’s idea is to remove shame, to end isolation, and to bring liberation to those who are oppressed.  That theme is the bread and butter of the prophets.  And here in John 10, Jesus says that he is the means that God is using to call all of the sheep to the safety of home.  The strategy that Jesus either uses or embodies is invitational in nature: he invites us to walk with him in vulnerability, risk, trust, and community.

And so with that in mind, our calling is to avoid the narrow-mindedness of the people who think that Jesus is only for them and instead to think of God as imaginative, creative, inventive, and welcoming.  We are invited to ask “Why not?” more than we stammer “How come…”

Of course we testify to what we know about God and Christ, and we are called to point to the places where we have seen and felt the Holy.  Yet we dare not presume that the places wherein we’ve encountered Jesus are the only places that Jesus has been.  We can’t say that the people with whom we’ve seen him are the only ones to whom he has reached.  We must remember that the ways that we have come to know him are not the only ways in which he might be known.  To go back to that old story at the beginning of this message, we dare not pretend that we’re the only ones in whom Jesus is interested.

Let us trust this Good Shepherd – the One who calls to us in a voice that we recognize – to bring us and all creation home again.  More than that, let us commit to moving through the world as he did: in trust, hope, vulnerability, and community.  Thanks be to God who has given us such a Shepherd!  Amen.

Coming Home

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On World Wide Communion Sunday (October 2, 2022), we considered the curious imagery of Jesus as the “gate” or the “door”.  Our scripture reference was John 10:1-10 .

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Not long ago, my wife was away for a few days and I was, well, bored.  You might ask, “How bored were you, Dave?”  I’m here to tell you that I was so bored that I decided it was time to clean out the closet that housed our tape collection.  If you’re under the age of 25, I don’t mean that we have a set of duct tape, some masking tape, and some electrical tape. No, I’m talking about the mix tapes that we made in the 1970’s, and the VHS recordings from the 1980’s.  Yeah.  I was thatbored.

And as I was gleefully pitching these tapes into the rubbish I found one that my mother’s handwriting had labeled, “Christmas with Mom”. I put it in the cassette player (yes, we still have one – don’t judge me!) and heard my father’s voice announcing to his mother – my grandmother – that the whole family had gathered for Christmas dinner, but we were missing her.  So for about 25 minutes, the tape records our family dinner on December 25, 1982 – the first year that Sharon and I were married.  As I listened, I could picture the room in which we had gathered – because we always sat in the same seats!  I heard my mother and dad, and my sister – all of whom have died – talking about other people who weren’t there anymore.  We talked about things we used to do, like getting up really early on Christmas morning; and we talked about things that we always did, like making oyster stew the night before.  That tape brought me home again.

“Why Does He Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners?”, Sieger Koder (d. 2015)

This morning, we join with the church around the world in celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Sharing the bread and the cup is the closest thing that we, as a gathered community, have to a “family dinner”.  Just like that day forty years ago, many of us are sitting where we always sit.  We’re thinking about people who aren’t with us anymore.  We are remembering some of the other times that we have shared this space and these elements.

On this world communion Sunday, I’m thinking about Family Dinner as we gather to explore the third of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in the gospel of John.  Perhaps you were here when we read the last two: “I am the bread of life” and “I am the light of the world.”  Wow! Aren’t those grand, sweeping, eloquent statements of Jesus’ identity?  Can you hear the power and the poetry that oozes from them?

But today? “I am the gate” (or door)?  What’s that about?  How are we to learn something of who Jesus is, and who we are called to be, when we hear that Jesus is comparing himself to a gate?

 I have to say that, as a pastor, there is something that I really love about the beginning of John 10.  The gospel writer starts this chapter with a story about a time when Jesus started to spin out a pretty wild metaphor.  Listen:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus starts talking, and there are a lot of moving pieces here! We’ve got (at least) a thief, a bandit, a gatekeeper, a shepherd, who knows how many sheep, and the suggestion, if not the presence, of strangers.  So Jesus runs this past them, and looks around, and says, “Do you get that?”  He is met with blank stares.  Crickets.  “Message failed to send”, perhaps.

Verse six reads, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”  I love that verse.  Jesus is saying things that don’t make sense to the people to whom he’s speaking.  Fantastic! Even I can be like Jesus.

It’s only after he has this convoluted story about thieves and gatekeepers and sheep that Jesus cuts to the chase and says, “Look, fellas, it’s me.  I am the gate.  I am the door.”

At the end of the day, what do sheep want? They are looking for a place to gather and to rest in safety.  Anyone who cares for sheep will provide that for them – albeit in different ways.  In the urban areas, where the towns are established, the sheep would be led to a fenced structure, or a pen, or even something like a barn.  Upon entering, the shepherd would simply close the door.  And in more rural areas, where the sheep spent the days grazing in the open pasture, a shepherd would find a cave, or simply construct some sort of simple enclosure using rocks, branches, and so on – anything that would make it inconvenient for the sheep to wander out or an intruder to find their way inside.  Then the shepherd would lead the sheep through the opening into the cave or enclosure.  Once the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lay down and sleep in the entryway – the shepherd would become, in fact, the gate.  Any predator seeking an easy dinner would have to go through the shepherd; any sheep that might be prone to wandering off would similarly have to step over the same.

Can you see that central to this image that Jesus is describing is the idea of being in relationship?  Both the sheep and the shepherd are known and recognized.  The gate, or the door, is the means by which those sheep come to know whose they are.  The function of the structure, whether it’s a permanent enclosure in town or a circle of rocks in the wilderness, is the same: to create a sense of “home” for the sheep.  The gate is the means through which those sheep enter their “home”.

Can I ask, what does “home” mean to you?  Where do you belong?

Years ago we were finishing up a youth activity and a young man stood up and stretched and said, “Well, I suppose I ought to go house now.”  His friend corrected him – “You mean ‘home’, right?”  But the first kid said, “No, I said what I said.  I have a house.  There is a building where I keep my clothes, and my mother is often there.  There is usually a parade of other people in and out of that building.  But that building doesn’t mean anything to me.  I don’t feel safe there.  I don’t feel like I belong there.  It’s not ‘home’.  It’s a house.”

What is “home” to you?  How do you know when you are where you belong?”

In Robert Frost’s wonderful poem “The Death of the Hired Man”, we meet Warren and Mary, a rural couple who discover that Silas, the itinerant laborer who often comes around their neck of the woods, has returned to their farm after a prolonged absence.  Warren is fed up with his worker’s inconsistency, and remembers the other times that Silas has left him hanging after skipping out too soon.  Mary, on the other hand, recognizes that this is something new.  Listen:

‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:

You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’

‘Home,’ he mocked gently.

                                       ‘Yes, what else but home?

It all depends on what you mean by home.

Of course he’s nothing to us, any more

Than was the hound that came a stranger to us

Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.’

                                      ‘I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’[1]

Later in the story, the reader discovers that Silas has a brother in town – a wealthy, well-connected man.  Yet we understand that Silas chose to die at Warren and Mary’s house, and not his brother’s place.  There is a sense of judgment and shame connected to the brother, and Silas feels safe and secure at Mary and Warren’s home.  Silas comes to the place he knows he will be welcomed, and the place where he is known for who he is.

In what ways is Jesus “home” to you?  Are you able to experience welcome and acceptance in this place?  Are you able to be your true self here, secure in Jesus’ love for you?

Every single day, each of us looks for life in some fashion.  Often, the things that we think will lead to our joy or amusement wind up hurting us and costing us significantly.  Jesus, though, promises us “abundant life”.  Jesus invites us to a place that is free of shame and fear, characterized by security and worth.  We are called to walk with him into this place of rest and peace so that we might know the kind of life for which we were made.

My friends, I hope that you know something of this kind of intimacy and belonging with Jesus.  I hope that you have found in him – and in relationship with this congregation – a sense of security and purpose.

You may have read in our newsletter that administratively, this is the time of year when we’re called to reflect on our membership in the congregation.  As we gather around the table that has been set for us this morning, I wonder… Do you need to take a step closer?  Is it time for you to align your faith and your calendar by becoming a member of this church, or by volunteering to serve as an officer or in one of the ministries here?

Or maybe, your reflection on your sense of connection to this body might provide you with an invitation to connect with someone who is not here now, and for you to find a way to invite them to come back home in one way or another.  There is something that is rich and powerful about the image of Jesus as he stretches himself out across the place where we’ve come to find safety and security and rest.

And yet there is something else for us to consider as we think about Jesus as the “gate” or the “door”.  It is, of course, amazing and worthy of praise to think about the fact that he secures a place for us, and offers us welcome, safety, and even definition.

 Yet it is clear that the sheep were never intended to remain in that enclosure 24/7/365!  Sheep that are held in a pen day and night will never know the kind of abundant life that Jesus is talking about in this passage.  Rather, it’s clear: Jesus invites us in, and Jesus leads us out.  The gate keeps us safe from prowling bandits who would threaten the safety and security of the sheep inside the enclosure, and that’s wonderful.  And yet the same gate is also the means by which the sheep are freed from the monotony and drudgery of isolation and stagnancy.  Jesus brings us in, and nurtures us, and protects and feeds us – and then leads us out into the world wherein we are invited to participate in life that is abundant.

The call of the Christ as the “gate” or the “door” is not for those who would belong to him to find a place in which we can hide out from all of the evils of the world.  We are not granted some magical place of escape and fantasy wherein everything is perfect.  Rather, when Jesus says that he is the gate, he is inviting us into a relationship with himself and with the gathered community.  In the context of such rest, identity, and security, then, we are able to learn the ways of Jesus so that we can leave the sanctuary and live as his agents – participate in the abundant life of which he speaks – in the world.  As the body of Christ, the church is called to demonstrate first in here, and then out there, a new quality of life that is shaped by the grace and welcome that comes in and through Jesus.

We are, in fact, “home” in this space.  But we are here so that we can be trained and nurtured in our ability to live in and to live as the Love of God in the world that Christ came to save.  Thanks be to God for this invitation and equipping.  Amen.

[1] Robert Frost, “The Death of The Hired Man”, published in 1914. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44261/the-death-of-the-hired-man

Let’s Take a Look

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On September 25, sat in the Temple Courts during the feast of Sukkot. Our scriptures included John 8:12-20 and Genesis 1:1-5.

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This morning, we continue to explore some of the things that Jesus said about himself in the Gospel of John.  Specifically, we are looking at the times when Jesus used the words “I Am” to describe himself.  In previous weeks, we’ve considered some of the ways that “I Am” would most certainly bring to mind Moses’ conversation with God in Exodus, wherein God reveals the Divine Name – YHWH, which means “I Am” or something similar – to Moses.

Today we heard Jesus engage in a bit of give-and-take with some of the religious leaders that began with the announcement “I am the light of the world”.  As we listen to this statement, and as we join people of faith from all ages in trying to understand it, I think that it is incredibly helpful to take into account where he was when he spoke these words, and also the season of year in which these verses take place.

You heard Julia tell us near the end of the passage from John that Jesus was “teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offering was put.”  Our Greek New Testament uses a very specific word for this spot: gazophylakion.  It refers to the cluster of offering boxes that were housed in the “Court of the Women” at the Temple in Jerusalem – one of the most accessible places in that structure.  The other time that this word shows up in our Bibles is when Jesus and his followers are watching the impoverished widow make her offering.  It turns out that the gazophylakion is not far at all from the place where the religious high council – the Sanhedrin – met.  Jesus is making this announcement about his identity, then, in full  earshot of those who would seek to harm him.

And this is not just any day, either.  We know from the previous chapter that Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Sukkot, or the festival of the Tabernacles.  This is one of the great feasts that God’s people were commanded to celebrate as they left the bondage of Egypt, and it is a time to remember the fact that God preserved the Israelites for forty years in the desert.  During this feast, people are invited to leave their homes and sleep in temporary structures – booths or “tabernacles” – reminiscent of those that housed their ancestors during Moses’ day.  The people rejoice in God’s provision, and especially remember that God was with them every single day and night during those years in the wilderness.  Perhaps you remember that the people were led through the desert by a cloud of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night.

The Court of the Women with the Candelabras in place.

During Jesus’ day, a central part of the celebration of Sukkot was called the “Illumination of the Temple”.  This observance took place in the Court of the Women – the place where Jesus and his disciples were standing on that particular day.  Every night for seven nights, the workers at the Temple would set up four giant candelabras.  When I say giant, I mean that each of these stands were said to have been fifty cubits tall.  For those of you who are rusty on your cubit-to-feet conversion chart, I’ll tell you that means that these candelabras were about seventy-five feet tall!  Each had four branches, and at the top of each branch was a large bowl.  Each evening every bowl would be filled with ten gallons of oil and then lit.  These stands would blaze throughout the night, and as the Temple was on a hill, the entire city would be lit by the flames.

Meanwhile, the faithful would gather beneath the candelabras and sing and dance and celebrate throughout the night.  They would give thanks to God for the fact that God had sent the pillar of fire to light the way for the people as they wandered in the desert, and there would be earnest prayer for God to send a new light in their own time and place – to deliver them from the oppression of the Romans – in Jesus’ day.

And so on that particular day, and in that specific place, standing in the shadows of those candelabras, Jesus stood up and said, “I am the light of the world.”

Can you see how that might rattle a few cages, or at least catch the notice of people who were paying attention?

It could be that as this was happening someone remembered the day when Jesus was a baby and had been brought into that same temple for his dedication.  On that day, an old man called Simeon took the infant Jesus and prophesied that the child would grow to become “a light for revelation to all the people.”

Or maybe people listening to Jesus remember the words of the prophet Isaiah, who hundreds of years before had said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (9:2).  Of course, Isaiah was only one of the prophets who spoke of the light of God dawning on the people, and the glory that would illuminate the world.

And you know, that sounds pretty good in church.  “Jesus, standing in the temple, claimed to be a fulfilment of the prophecies…”

But my hunch is that such language doesn’t mean a whole lot to most of us.  I mean, who uses the word “prophecy” much?  When’s the last time you turned to a friend and said, “Wow, this is great news! It is as it was written by our forefathers!”?  We don’t talk like this.

Can you hear it differently if I tell you that Jesus is in the room saying to the people around him, “I am…I am all that you’ve hoped for…I am your deepest longing…I am your sufficiency…I am your guide.”

And because we all use words differently, I’ll clarify that when I’m saying that Jesus is all that we’ve hoped for, it is at the core level of hope.  Sometimes when you’re hungry, you go to the fridge and say, “I hope there’s some leftover chicken in there…”  Look, you know this: Jesus isn’t your sandwich – but he is saying that he will meet your needs.  Maybe you say, “I hope I get a boyfriend soon.”  OK, great.  But the deeper need is for you to think that who you are is connected at an intimate level with someone else. You want to know that you matter.

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

I’m here to tell you that Jesus, standing in the temple during Sukkot, looks up at those 75-foot candelabras and says, essentially, “Yeah, these are pretty cool, aren’t they? I mean, don’t you love the way that they light up the skyline and that hill?  All week long?  They’re awesome.  But as we look at them, I hope you realize that I am the light of the world.  I am your deepest hope.  I am the hope for all of creation.  I am the light that you’ve been dancing about and praying for all week long!”

This morning, I’d like to look a little more deeply at the concept of light, and how it might help us to understand more about who Jesus said that he was and why that matters.

As you heard, in Genesis, we learn that light was the first act of creation.  All that is, initially, is chaos, darkness, and the unknown.  The Creator speaks “Let there be light!”, and there is!  And with the gift of light, that which was dark now becomes seen.  That which was mysterious is now knowable.

Light is the first step in bringing order to chaos and a sense of rhythm, meaning, and purpose to God’s world.  Light is not only one of the ways, but the first way that God reveals God’s self to the creation.

So how does what happened in Genesis relate to Jesus being the light of the world?  What does it mean to us, now?

If light is that which makes chaos discernable and illuminates the paths that are in front of us, then I think that we could say that a relationship with Jesus is a means by which we can find our way in relationship with the world.  Do you find yourself facing situations now that are unclear?  Perhaps you’re wondering about a vocational direction, or what to do about college.  Maybe you’re unsure about what to do or say to get through to your child (or your parent, or both!).  I know that you know how it feels to be in the middle of a mess that seems to be really, really deep and incredibly dark.

Genesis tells us that light enters chaos, and somehow makes it more manageable.  Jesus tells us that he is the light.  Can you ask for light in these situations of your life?  Can you ask for the gift of discernment – of knowing which step is the next, best one to take?

It may be hard for you to know how to proceed.  Let me encourage you to spend some time in prayer asking God, through Christ, to bring you a little more clarity; to shine a little more light into your situation right now.

And maybe it’s not you who is most affected.  Can you pray that the light will become visible in and useful to those who find themselves in a place that seems deeply dark?  You know someone, and you love someone, who is struggling this day with the darkness of addiction, or grief, or anxiety, or depression.  And yet right now, you are standing in the light of God’s love for you.  Maybe you are the one who is called to reflect some shimmer of light into the situations of those who surround you.

But I have to warn you – here’s the thing about standing in the light: the closer that you get to the light, the more likely it is that your own imperfections will be revealed.  You know this, practically, right?  You know that standing in the light can be uncomfortable.  What is easily hidden or overlooked in the twilight of dawn or dusk is suddenly and sometimes annoyingly visible in the harsh glare of noontime.

Years ago a few of us took a boat ride one evening.  As the sun set, we found a cherry tree that was laden with fruit.  Adam and Lindsay and a few others started picking like crazy, and Henry, who was only four or five at the time, would bring the bucket to us.  We picked, and Henry ate.  Great! We didn’t think anything of it.  Then when we got to my house to disconnect the boat trailer, Henry went in to say hello to Sharon.  I heard a scream and she came out of the house yelling, “Dave! What happened to Henry?”  In the brightness of the kitchen, she saw the rivulets of cherry juice that had dripped from his mouth all over his chin and thought he was covered in blood – it was juice we didn’t even see as evening had fallen.

That kind of thing happens to us all the time.  We think we’re doing all right, and feel good about who we are and where we are.  Then somehow, we take a step forward in our life of faith – we start a new pattern of worship, or join a small group.  Somehow, we find ourselves growing in our theological understanding or the depths of our own spirits.  Sometimes when that happens, we start to feel a surprising and unpleasant sense of dis-ease.  We maybe judge ourselves a little more critically, or feel anxious or uncertain, or even develop a case of “imposter syndrome” as we wonder if we really are learning and growing.  “Who do I think I am?”, we wonder.

Here’s the deal: the closer we get to the light – even the light that is Jesus – the more our own imperfections become apparent.  And in this newfound awareness of our own flaws, we sometimes shrink back from the light.  We hold off on going to worship, or shy away from relationships.  We don’t want to be phony or fake.

Beloved, there is Good News.  It’s not just you! As we grow up, as we grow closer to the light, we may come to learn things about ourselves that are not flattering or pleasant.  As this happens, we can ask God to help us to remember that light not only reveals and illuminates, but it also purifies.  You know the power of sunlight on a damp and smelly rug, for instance.

Jesus said that he is the light of the world – that he is that which satisfies our deepest hopes. Let us pray for this light to come ever closer to our own hearts.  When that prayer is granted, as it will be, let us be wise enough and brave enough to allow the light of Christ to work in us a healing and a purification that we might become better reflections of that light into a world that is crying for it.  Let us remember that it is always safe to come out of the shadows, and that God’s promise is to bring order to chaos and light to darkness. Thanks be to God for the light that is Jesus!  Amen.

What Are You Having?

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On September 18, we walked with the crowds after the “feeding of the 5,000” and wondered what Jesus meant when he called himself the “bread of life”.  Our scriptures included John 6:25-40 and Isaiah 55:1-5.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

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https://youtu.be/xkUYR0n0fZU

It’s a cliché, perhaps, but is there a book that changed your life? This morning, I’m thinking of Michael Pollan’s amazing exploration of food and culture called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  Pollan describes the very curious situation in which we human beings find ourselves: we appear to be best served by a diet that is rich and diverse, and we are able to absorb nutrients and enjoy tastes from an endless variety of sources, including meat, nuts, grains, fruit, and vegetables. We are, wonderfully, omnivorous.  Other creatures, of course, don’t live in this way.  If you’re a koala, and it looks like eucalyptus, smells like eucalyptus, and tastes like eucalyptus, well, it’s food.  If it doesn’t? Don’t eat it.  You could say the same thing about panda bears and bamboo.

Yet every day, when it’s time for humans to sustain ourselves, we have to decide what it is we will eat.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes how in an age of factory farming and agribusiness, we are actually becoming less omnivorous.  Nearly half of the calories we consume come, one way or another, from corn: corn syrup, corn meal, corn that is fed to our livestock or our salmon.[1]  If you had lunch at a fast-food place this week, chances are that 100% of your food, including drink, was corn-based.  One scientist said, if ‘you are what you eat’, “When you look at the isotope ratios, [U.S. residents] are corn chips with legs.” [2]

Pollan laments the fact that as a nation, we choose to subsidize corn syrup and not carrots; that the food that is readily affordable is almost always unhealthy for us. He discusses the fact that more and more, we are choosing to fuel our bodies with food that is less than the best.

When I read that book, I was shaken!  I became more intentional about my practices pertaining to food – the way that I grow it, gather it, preserve it, and prepare it.  I’ve tried to become better at eating real food, rather than processed materials.

Bread of Life, by Kennedy A Paizs

I mention this book because in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus invites us to consider these truths on a spiritual level.  The day before, Jesus had been incredibly active on the food scene, as he engaged in an amazing miracle by feeding more than 5000 people.  The next day, the crowds chase him down.  Jesus challenges them, saying essentially, “We all know that you’re not really interested in a relationship with me – you are far more concerned about the groceries you might receive.”

The crowd pushes back, and says, “You know, we really would like to believe you, but we’re going to need a sign of some sort… like, maybe, more bread?”  Jesus responds by stating, “Look, I am the bread of life.  I am that which sustains, enlivens, nourishes, and preserves you.”  For all kinds of reasons, that is an incredibly dramatic claim.

Last week, we talked about the significance of the phrase “I am” to Jesus and his hearers.  You may recall that we noted how it not only serves as a revelation of God’s very self, but that the name itself invites people into a relationship with the Holy.  Here, Jesus uses that name – “I am” – and applies it to himself.  In so doing, he declares that a relationship with him is the path toward the fulness of life.

We mentioned last week that the fourth Gospel was written by Jesus’ best friend, John.  John’s goal for the entire Gospel, as stated in chapters 20 and 21, is to invite his hearers and readers more closely into a life-giving relationship with Jesus.  Here, in the first of Jesus’ “I am” statements, we see that the core of our being and the heart of the Gospel is held in a relationship.  Knowing, and being known by, Jesus is the path to wholeness, grace, and life itself.  We were born to be in relationship with God.

In the verses that follow our reading, John makes it pretty clear that many people – then and now – are simply not interested in such a relationship. We see people then (and now) who would rather argue, deflect, and avoid the Holy than find themselves in a place of knowing and being known.

How does his claim strike you?  How do you hear him when Jesus says, simply and plainly, “I am the bread of life.”  I am your sufficiency.  I am here.

Do you buy that?  Can you see that Jesus from where you are?

Too often, we give lip service to this idea.  We say that we affirm that Jesus is the bread of life and our sustenance, but our behavior, our thoughts, and our practices reveal otherwise.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes a world wherein people walk right past real, nutritious, healthy food in order to stuff themselves with something that may be appealing for one reason or another, but is unable to sustain life for the long haul.  How many times in our lives do we hear the call of Jesus to authenticity, real relationship and fulness of life only to keep on walking toward that which is shiny or sweet or at least mildly attractive and yet ultimately unable to satisfy us?

We pursue created goods – we look to other things – in an attempt to quench our thirst for real life.  For some, it’s chasing the almighty dollar; they want to make sure that they can live in style (and they do!).  For others, this thirst leads them to pursuing the ideal and perfect relationship – putting all their hopes in finding the right partner, the right kind of sexual fulfilment, the intimacy that they think can save them.  Maybe it’s the old lie about independence – the thought that “I don’t need anyone – I am the captain of my own ship!”  And who hasn’t felt the compelling need to win the approval of another human being?  We think, “If only I can do this thing or act this way, then will you like me?  Then will I be enough for you?”

Of course, when these things, or similar avenues, fail to lead us to a sense of meaning and purpose and of life being worthwhile, we enter into a world of hurt and pain.  Once there, we find ourselves seeking to numb that ache as we look for comfort in a bottle or a pill, or perhaps we engage in ever-riskier or more reckless behavior just to feel something – anything – of being alive.  We lose touch with ourselves, our family, our friends, and our sense of who we ought to be in the world. And when all of that happens, we begin to die.

It doesn’t have to be that way, beloved.  If there’s Good News in the Gospel, it’s that you don’t always have to do what you want to do.  Now, and always, you have the opportunity for a relationship.  Today, you can begin, or take another step forward in, your engagement with Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to put their money where their mouths were.  Instead of simply saying you’d like to believe, he said, practice that.  Engage in behavior that indicates the direction you’d like to be going; take in the things that will allow you to receive the kinds of nourishment and fulfillment that only he can offer.  My hope for today is that we might be those who can lean into what Jesus is saying, and to act like people who desire the real bread of life.

So how do we do that?  How do we begin to receive Jesus as the Bread of Life in this place, at this time?

Let me encourage you to begin in the quiet places of your own heart and mind.  Make some time and place for you to be alone.  Put your phone in another room.  Turn off, as best you can, the parade of stimuli that assaults us each and every day.  And then, when you’re alone for thirty seconds or five minutes, try a simple breath prayer.  As you breathe out, expel your anxieties and uncertainties.  As you breathe in, simply whisper “Fill me, Lord.  Fill me.”  Do this over and over, expelling your dis-orientation and asking God to replace that with what is true and right. As you do this, and as you find the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit coming into your life, you’ll find that you simply have less space in your life for that which is toxic.

The Breaking of the Bread, Seigur Köder

In addition to sitting with yourself in the presence of God, I can’t say enough about the power and importance of engaging in a community of like-minded people.  One of the dangers of the pandemic, I fear, is that our streamed worship and virtual meeting space contributed to an environment of disconnection and passivity.  Instead of “going to” worship, we “watched” worship; instead of “attending” a gathering, we “logged on” (usually with another media device in our other hand).  Beloved, let me encourage you to refuse to think of worship as an “event” or as an entertainment option.  Instead, look for ways to allow your physical being, your daily schedule, your weekly activities, your financial patterns – all of your life – to reflect the fact that you are a person who is seeking to turn towards Christ.  Name your hungers, and ask Jesus to satisfy them.

You know, I hope, that it is no sin to be lonely.  Wanting to feel accompanied and competent is not wrong.  It’s not a sin to wonder about, or to want the best for, your children, or to worry about how you’re going to pay the mortgage, or to be filled with anxiety.  Those things are a part of our lives, and that may be where you are.  You may know some of that kind of hunger.  Name that hunger to the One who created you.  Speak it to the One who has loved you since before you were born.  You were created for contentment and satisfaction – ask God to bring you those things in Jesus Christ.

The heart of our faith is not a system of belief or a theological construct.  Christianity is not a series of intellectual propositions to which we give our assent.  Rather, the Way of Jesus is a life-giving, life-sustaining network of relationships that is anchored in the person and work of Jesus.  It’s not a self-help program, a get-rich (or be blessed) scheme, or a mutual admiration society.  It is, as scripture puts it so well, participation in a body. Today, I join your brother Jesus in imploring you to seek out your place in that body, and to ground yourself in Jesus as we seek to grow and work and live and play together.  This is, literally, what you were made to do. Thanks be to God, who offers us bread for each day in Jesus the Christ!  Amen.

[1] https://images.randomhouse.com/promo_image/9780143038580_5134.pdf

[2] https://grist.org/article/corn-fed-nation/

Who’s Who?

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On September 11, we established some context for this discussion by reading about God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:1-17.  We also heard from Isaiah 41:8-10,

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I suspect you’ve had an experience like this: you know of a person, but haven’t actually met them yet.  Several mutual friends have offered wildly different perspectives as to that individual’s temperament, or personality, or life situation.  Maybe you’re conflicted as to whether you’d actually have any interest in meeting… You don’t know what to think, because the descriptions about that person are all over the map.  Does that sound at all familiar to you?

And maybe you’ve been in the opposite situation: you meet someone for the first time, and it’s clear that they’ve been given the wrong impression about you somewhere along the line.  When things like this happen, it sets the relationship back, or maybe prevents it from ever forming in the first place.

I have a friend about whom a lot of people have said a lot of things.  Frankly, I know more people who talk about him than who speak to him.  And that makes me sad.  So for many of the Sunday mornings this fall, we’ll be spending some time in our worship service doing our best to do as much listening TO Jesus as we do talking about him.  My sense is that in our current political and cultural climate, there is no shortage of those who will tell you how Jesus feels about your life, those hot-button issues, or anything else.

The person who was regarded, perhaps, as Jesus’ “best friend” was his contemporary and disciple, John, who gave us the Fourth Gospel.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke explore many of the events and circumstances of Jesus’ ministry, John provides a unique witness to the words and teachings he offered.  In particular, John reports a series of Jesus’ teachings that begin with or include the words “I am.”  I believe that was John’s attempt to let Jesus speak for himself at a time when many people were eager to put words into Jesus’ mouth.

“I am” is a simple phrase, one that you’ve used dozens of times this week.  Yet as we come to explore that in a theological context, it’s helpful to note that in the world of Jesus, John, and our Jewish friends it is a phrase that has a lot of meaning – there’s a story behind it.  So this week, before we get to John, let’s take a look at the back story we find in Exodus in the hopes that we can search the context for clues as to what Jesus was saying and how his contemporaries may have reacted to it.

Our community is, of course, rooted in the narrative that begins in Genesis, which contains the story of God’s promise to an unlikely couple.  Abram and Sarai heard a Word that indicated that their family would be vast, and a source of blessing and hope in the world.  I call them unlikely because at the time they received that promise, they were quite old and for all kinds of reasons, not particularly well-suited to parenting.  And yet, against all odds, it happens – the family develops and grows!

And yet just as it seems as though things are falling into place, a global famine arises, the family is displaced, and it’s not too long before we get to Exodus.  Here we learn that the family is now indeed vast, but has also become enslaved in a foreign land; the people who grew up hearing the promises are beginning to wonder whether God can be trusted, or whether perhaps God has left them there, alone.

Today we meet Moses, a curious member of this family.  He was born a slave, and yet raised in the opulence of the palace as a foster son to Pharaoh’s daughter.  As he comes to understand and then grapple with his identity, he commits murder and is forced to flee.  In seeking to find his identity – is he Hebrew or Egyptian? – it appears as though he might have lost both of them.  Where and how does he fit in?

Burning Bush, by Anil Kumar (2019)

Moses moves into the scrub country, gets married, and fills his days working as a shepherd.  It’s a far cry from both the slavery of the pyramids and the splendor of the palace.  In our reading from today, God chooses that time and that place to call to Moses from a burning bush, and it is a conversation that points to a new understanding of self and God not only for Moses, or his contemporaries, but for all of us.

The first act of this drama is God’s invitation to Moses.  God simply appears and beckons the shepherd into a time of wonder.  Moses’ curiosity brings him closer to this unusual sight, and it’s clear that he does not understand what is going on – but he wants to be closer.  When he is engaged, the voice calls Moses’ name from the burning bush, whereupon the answer is immediate: “Here I am!”  Moses presents himself to the Holy – even that which is not entirely understandable.  God then lays out the call to Moses – a series of tasks and responsibilities that are daunting, to say the least.  As he begins to piece things together – to whom he’s speaking, and where he is, and what is happening – it’s easy to see Moses’ face become filled with doubt and fear.  He understands that God is calling Moses to a special work – that of leading God’s people from slavery to freedom.

That announcement heralds the second act, as Moses’ reluctance takes center stage.  “Here I am!” has now become “Who am I?”  Moses is a lot of things, but he’s no idiot.  He knows the score: he is wanted by the authorities in Egypt and unpopular with the people there.  In fact, Exodus chapters 3-7 contain a series of eight different objections that Moses raises to the Divine plan; he checks off eight reasons why God might want to think twice about this.  However, each of those concerns is heard by God, and then met with the fundamental assurance that whoever and wherever Moses is, that self will be sustained, guided, and guarded by God.  Eight times, the Almighty assures the shepherd that neither Moses nor the people of Israel are alone as long as God is there.

This brings us to the third act: the “Here I am” that was transformed into “Who am I?” has now become “Who are you?”  Moses starts to inquire about the credibility and reliability of this promise-maker.  “Who shall I say sent me? What is your name?”  God gives Moses a simple answer: only four letters in the Hebrew: YHWH.  The word is related to the Hebrew verb hayah, or “to be”.  Traditionally, this has been Anglicized to Yahweh, or even Jehovah.  In our translation, it’s rendered as “I am who I am”.  One could also make the case for hearing “I will be who I will be.”  And recently, I came across a compelling discussion indicating that perhaps the best way to understand this construction is “I will be who I am and I am who I will be”.[1]

God gives God’s name to Moses, and it is a promise.  “I will be God for you.  You don’t need to worry about me flaking out on you, abandoning you, deceiving you, or growing weary of you. You can count on me.  I will be who I am.”

In giving Moses a name, we see that the Divine enters more deeply into a relationship.  God chooses to enter more deeply into a relationship not only with Moses, but with all of creation in a new way.  In this declaration God introduces and reveals God’s self!  You know this! Naming something implies an encounter, an awareness, an availability, an interest, and the possibility of communication.  And, as everyone who has ever given out personal information to the wrong people knows, such sharing of a name also carries with it the concept of vulnerability.  In giving the name to Moses, God accepts the fact that Moses is now able to misuse or mistreat that name.

This led to what has become a central aspect of the Jewish culture: to honor the Divine Name.  In our English Bibles, wherever the translation calls for YHWH to be written, for instance, we usually find “THE LORD”.  Faithful readers and speakers would just omit any pronunciation of the name.  When they got to YHWH in the writing, they would not say the word aloud, but substitute something else: they were so concerned about maligning God’s name that they would say “Adonai”, which means “Lord”, or “Hashem”, which means “the name.”  For millennia, there has been an earnest attempt to avoid disrespecting anything associated with the “I Am” of Exodus.

And so when Jesus starts off sermons in John, not once or twice, but at least seven times, with the words “ego eimi” in Arabic – “I am…”, well, people lost their minds.  Sure, you say it once or twice, and it’s a slip of the tongue. But that’s not what happened in the Fourth Gospel: Jesus was intentionally choosing that vocabulary to get a rise out of people, and boy did it work!  These are the statements that we’ll consider in the months ahead.

For today, though, I’d like to stay in Genesis and ask you to think of yourself, like Moses, as a person who has been created for wonder and blessed with curiosity.  I’d like for you to think of yourself as a person who has, like Moses, been invited into a relationship with the Divine Presence.

As you contemplate your life on this rainy September Sunday, can you imagine that God – in God’s very self-revelation – promises you the Self that is God? That you are an heir to comfort and hope because of and in the name of God?

Isn’t this the story of God’s people, time and time again? “I will be with you.  I am with you. I was with you.”  That comes through loud and clear in the reading from Isaiah, for instance: I chose you! I am here! I will be here.”  Or maybe you remember the promise and the command that the angel Gabriel gave to Mary on the night he told her about Jesus’ birth: “You will have a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel, which means… GOD WITH US.”

This reading from Exodus, or Isaiah, or even John – it’s not a one-shot deal.  It’s not addressed to some a long time ago in a galaxy far far away… This is your story! This is our story!

Now I am pretty certain that nobody in the room this morning is a member of a royal family living under an assumed name who is wanted on outstanding murder charges.  But I am 100% sure that on most days, most of us do a lot of seesawing between “Here I am!” and “Who am I?”

These are difficult, difficult times.  We face stress at every turn.  We worry about money, or Covid, or our employment, or our insurance, or our families.  In addition to these personal stressors, our culture is beset by issues like war, political division, climate change, and more.  Each and every day, there is the temptation to despair and to give into fear.  I had half a dozen conversations with people this week who said, essentially, “Why bother?  What’s the use? I can’t do it. Nobody cares.”

Today, beloved of God, let me remind you that you are creature of immense wonder and curiosity.  God is inviting you.  God is calling your name.  God is revealing God’s very self to you in the hope of a relationship with you..

Let me remind you that God’s intentions for you and for this world – in which we are invited to partner – are good.  They include health and peace.  We are invited to walk in these paths.  We were created to dwell in them.

As I close, and as we prepare for the next hymn, I want to ask you to reflect for just a moment on a time when you felt deeply connected to the Holy.  Maybe you were able to sense, as was Moses, that even the ground beneath your feet was sacred.  Was it a hospital room? At a wedding? Savoring a sunset through the eyes of a child? A final “goodbye” at the end of an incredible life?

I know that you have been there.  I know that you have seen and heard that. Today, my job as a pastor in the Church of Jesus Christ, is simply to remind you that this is possible.  To remind you that this kind of relationship is the reason that you were made!  To promise you that this is who you are.  Remember.  Be grateful.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] This insight and much of my understanding of this passage this week has been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim’s Interpretation Commentary on Exodus (1991, John Knox Press).