Archive for May, 2012

Loving Jesus and Loving the Way Jesus Loved

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Acts 10, John 15:9-17
Steve Hammond
May 20, 2012

A couple of weeks ago we looked at another baptism story. That was the one about a couple of outsiders, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who tested the waters, so to speak, about what his followers were saying about Jesus. Was there actually going to be a place like for folk like them in the church or would they always be considered as outsiders?

Today’s baptism story the same question is being asked? Who actually gets to be a part of this thing that God is doing in Jesus? Is it just Jews or everyone? But this time it’s the insiders, people like Peter, who are asking the question. And, much to their surprise, they came up with the same answer that Philip and the Ethiopian did. Yes, this thing is for everyone. All are invited to dive in, to plunge into the living waters Jesus offers, and water the parched places of this world.

Do you know the story of Peter and Cornelius? It’s one of those pivotal stories in the New Testament. If Peter and his companions had answered no to the question of whether a gentile like Cornelius could be baptized, if not corrected down the road, the whole history of Christianity woould have turned out much differently, and you and I wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.

So how does the story go? It starts with Cornelius, this officer in the occupying Roman Army, at prayer. He may be a gentile and a pagan, but he respects the Jewish religion. While praying and angel speaks to him and tells him to send some of his people to fetch Peter.

Peter, it turns out, had been doing some praying of his own and he had this vision. Do you remember what it was? “The next day as the three travelers were approaching the town, Peter went out on the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’
Peter said, ‘Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.’The voice came a second time: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’ This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the skies.”

While Peter was trying to figure out what this vision was about, the two servants and the soldier that Cornelius sent showed up on the front porch of the house where Peter was staying. They told him about Cornelius and how he wanted Peter to come to his home.

Then Peter gets it. Here’s how the story goes. “Talking things over, they went on into the house, where Cornelius introduced Peter to everyone who had come. Peter addressed them, ‘You know, I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other. So the minute I was sent for, I came, no questions asked.’”

Then he preached the message we read earlier this morning and ended up baptizing Cornelius and all the folk with him. Suddenly everything was different. Even though there was still debate going on back in Jerusalem about whether the Gospel of Jesus was just for Jews, Peter had resolved the issue for himself, and ultimately for the church, right then and there. Jesus was serious about tearing down the walls that divided people, and his followers were going to have to be serious about tearing those walls down, too.

Remember, though, where Peter started. In that vision he had, he was horrified at the prospect of eating those unclean foods. Everything he had been taught told him that his faith was about what he was supposed to exclude from his life. Not only food, but also people. So that journey he made to Cornelius’s house may have been short, distance wise, but it was much longer spiritually.

The sad history of the church is that we have been slow to learn what Peter learned during that stay in Joppa. Much of the history and practice of the Church, and churches, to this very day, has centered around who and what is unclean, who shouldn’t be allowed into the waters. Somehow we have equated the call to love Jesus as a call to separate ourselves from others. But it was Henri Nouwen who wrote that we are called “to love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved.”

This is what was happening with Peter and his traveling companions in Joppa. They were living out that thing Jesus talked about in John’s gospel where the greatest commandment God gives is for us to love one another. Just like Jesus loved us, and showed us God’s love for us. When Peter was standing in Cornelius’s home, he was tearing down those walls, and diving with Cornelius into the living waters that Jesus brings into this world.

Jacob Myers, a Ph.D. student at Emory University writes this. “Sometimes we, like Peter, are called to a ministry of proclamation and proximity. It is difficult to measure who received the greater blessing in this story: Cornelius or Peter. What we can be certain of is that God was at work through the Spirit to tear down barriers so that God’s very Word could be heard. This Word has the power to re-negotiate our preconceptions of others, about what they can or cannot do. Moreover, the Word has the power to transform our own character as well by leading us into proximity of the others whom God loves.”

A ministry of proclamation and proximity. We cannot proclaim the Word of God by distancing ourselves from others, by denying them permission to be baptized into the community of Jesus followers because of their race, culture, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, educational or economic accomplishments, or any of the other ways we divide ourselves from each other.

This month’s Sojourner’s Magazine has an interview with Rebecca Barrett-Fox who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. That’s Fred Phelps, the ‘God hates fags’ guy. They introduce the interview this way. “Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church takes in your face to a whole new level. The church is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender, from its burning of a Quaran and an American flag to its signs proclaiming God’s hatred for…well, pretty much everyone.”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Let’s not turn the Gospel up on it’s head.

I just saw this story a couple of days ago about a nine year old boy in Topeka who decided to offer his own response to Rev. Phelps. He asked his Mom to take him down to the Westboro Baptist Church where, from across the street, he held up his own sign which read, “God doesn’t hate anybody.”

Philip learned that day in Joppa that Jesus was right about who God is. That little boy has learned it, too. Maybe Rev. Phelps can experience his own coming of the Spirit and realize that loving Jesus means loving the way Jesus loved.

Philip Passes the Test

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Acts 8:26-40
May 6, 2012
Steve Hammond

I think it was a test. When the Ethiopian asked to be baptized I wonder if he thought Philip would really do it. Sure Philip talked big about who Jesus was, but in the end would it all be the same? The Ethiopian had been turned away before, allowed to come on his pilgrimage to the Temple, but not allowed to go in. The polite term for it was that he had been emasculated and thus did not conform to the heterosexual norm. As committed as he was to his religion, he couldn’t be allowed on the inside because that would upset the established order of things.

Philip, though, also knew a bit about the established order of things. We first read about Philip a couple of chapters earlier. It’s a really interesting story. That very first church in Jerusalem was made up of Hebrew speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews, meaning that the Greek speakers were converts. The Hebrew speakers believed their faith was more authentic. When they all converted to become Jesus followers they carried the same prejudices and resentments with them.

One of the places where this flared up in the early church was with the distribution of food. Remember, they kept a common purse and distributed food and other needed items among the whole group. The Greek speaking converts said their widows, in particular, were being neglected in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows, so they went to the Apostles and complained. In an amazing way of resolving, or realy transforming the conflict, the Apostles decided to appoint a committee, made up entirely of Greek speaking converts, to come up with a solution to the problem. Philip was one of them. Think about that. It would be like the Kendal Residents Association being upset by something the management was doing out there and the management said, “Okay, lets have the Residents Association come up with the solution and implement it.” The even further step the Apostles could have taken would have been to appoint some of the Greek speaking widows to the group, but it is still pretty amazing they went as far as they did.

So Philip saw for himself how this Gospel of Jesus could really shake things up. He, apparently, enthusiastically baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, in spite of how controversial it must have seemed. And the church has had a presence in Ethiopia ever since.

It was important to the Ethiopian eunuch that he be baptized, received fully into the church, become a full fledged member of the movement that was then called The Way. The Ethiopian liked this way of Jesus. And I think, that for him, baptism wasn’t simply that most personal of spiritual encounters between and individual and God we often make it out to be. For him, his baptism wasn’t most of all that sign that God had accepted him. I think the eunuch had already figured that out. His baptism showed that the community of Jesus followers accepted him and he accepted it. This eunuch who was unable to have a biological family now had a spiritual family. Philip had passed the test. The Ethiopian was no longer an outsider. He had been invited in.

I think it is important we have a similar understanding about baptism ourselves. Baptism is not, as it is often portrayed in the media and many of our churches, a solely personal transaction between an individual and God. It’s about entering into a community of Jesus followers bent on turning the world upside down.

Some of you may have run into Brother Jed and his companions who were preaching on campus this week. They would like nothing more than for us all to get baptized and save ourselves from hell, make that personal transaction between ourselves and God, get ourselves right with God.

What baptism is about, though, is getting this world right with God and getting us right with each other. This community of faith we choose to be born into with our baptism, is a community that helps us and we help to find The Way, the way of Jesus.

Do you remember where Jesus talked to that woman from Samaria about the living water that “will become a spring of water gushing up into eternal life?” That’s what baptism is about; this living water of Jesus that overflows in our lives, not only all the way to eternity, but to the world around us. The eunuch understood that and, thankfully, Philip understood, too.

Philip got it right. He passed the test the Ethiopian gave him. And we are still being tested today. The history of the church has been, sadly, a history of exclusion, of figuring out who doesn’t belong, who shouldn’t take the plunge in the baptismal waters. Even today, perhaps the biggest controversy in the church is whether gay and lesbian folk should be allowed in, should be drenched with the living water.

A good case is made by some scholars that the word eunuch had a broader meaning in Jesus’ time than ours. A eunuch may not necessarily have meant only those who had been castrated, but gay people, and all the others who were seen as the sexually other.

Philip and the Ethiopian both understood that if Jesus taught us anything he taught us that his movement is open to everybody. Those waters of baptism get us all as wet as anybody else. And we are always being tested by those same waters, always being challenged to take this message of Jesus and run with it to the ends of the earth, upsetting the established order of things all along the way.

I love this story. There’s Philip, at the insistence of the Spirit, heading down to this deserted stretch of road, running along side the Ethiopian’s chariot and finally hoping in. The two of them, a eunuch and a Greek speaker, two outsiders, deciding they are going to take Jesus seriously, who was rejected as an outsider himself and plunge into the waters of faith, and see what happened.

And here we are today, called to the same water they were baptized in, called to carry that living water of Jesus with us. We are called to plunge in and conceive a new world where, for example, those who are discriminated against or oppressed are the ones trusted and relied on to make things better. That’s the world the eunuch believed he could help create if only he were allowed to dive in. The same waters and world await us.

Hucksters or Lovers?

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

John 10:11-18, I John 3:16-19
April 29, 2012
Mary Hammond

Renown theologian and author, Karl Barth, was asked toward the end of his life to sum up his theology. Surely, the person who posed that question was expecting a sophisticated answer from such a prolific and highly regarded scholar. Surprisingly, Barth responded with the text of a simple Sunday School song: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

The Apostle John seemed to come to the same conclusion when he penned both the Gospel of John and the epistle, I John. Scholars believe he was probably in his 80’s or 90’s at the time of writing. As an eyewitness to the public ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, John possessed a unique vantage point on the story. He had watched the Spirit drench the frightened disciples–including himself!–at Pentecost. He had witnessed the travails of the Church throughout its nascent years. He had struggled alongside communities of faith as they faced competing theological claims and addressed wayward disciples. He watched a Church tested by fire rise to new heights and descend into petty distractions and disputes.

As he distilled and expressed his theology in writing, the Apostle John drew upon decades of experience. For him, the clarion call of the Gospel was to love. That call was rooted in the penetrating love of God, made visible to humanity in the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s begotten Son.

Is it rather “old school” to be talking about love? Don’t we talk about that a lot, anyhow, here at Peace Community Church? Indeed, we do. Yet, talking about love never loses either its importance or its power.

The day that talking about love in the Church becomes unnecessary is the day that the Church of Jesus Christ, worldwide, is known—really, truly known—for its love. It’s not known for its triumphalism, parochialism, or nationalism. It’s not known for its xenophobia or homophobia. It’s not known for its classism or exclusivism. It’s not known for its patriarchy or paternalism. It’s just plain known by its LOVE–pure and simple, profound and deep. Love.

In both the stories of the Good Shepherd in John 10 and the instructions about love recorded in I John 3, we see the Apostle describe both the nature and embodiment of “real love.” In the Gospel reading, John offers the followers of Jesus a quick and simple test for distinguishing the huckster from the Good Shepherd, the charlatan from the genuine leader. His test is this: What kind of lover is that person? Is he or she deeply committed and personally invested, discerning yet generous of heart? Or is that person primarily focused on self-aggrandizement and self-interest, ready to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble? The lessons about love that appear in these two passages mirror sharpening insights in my own life, so I’m going to weave the two together.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned rather forcefully since our daughter Sarah’s death in November is this: love makes a difference, but it doesn’t always change the outcome of a situation. Contemplative writer and theologian, Thomas Merton, often speaks of “disinterested love.” This is not love without depth. Instead, it is love without an agenda–even a good agenda. It is love only for love’s sake.

As I lavished my love on Sarah last year, I had the best of agendas–Mom Agenda Extraordinaire. I wanted her to get better than she had ever been in her whole life. I wanted her to grapple with the darkness in ways she had not been able to do for so many years while stretched so thin by academic demands. I could go on and on about love’s agenda last year.

Jesus’ friend, Mary, anointed him with costly ointment shortly before he died. Her act of love was precious. His act of receiving that love was precious. Their profound understanding of each other’s need in a time of great crisis was precious. But Jesus was still arrested and crucified a few days later. Mary still faced the brutal execution of her beloved friend and every one of her feelings about that loss.

Did love make a difference? It made a difference to Jesus, and it made a difference to Mary, but it didn’t make a difference in how the story unfolded. At least, not that time. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t, and we are not in control of those equations.

Love can be a pricey gift, like the love of a Shepherd who risks his own life for his sheep. If we are serious about learning to love with the love of God, and not with our own frail echoes of that love, this is a really important lesson to learn, and a difficult one, at that.

Secondly, love is relational. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name, and they recognize his voice. The apostle suggests that the sheep will not follow the voice of an imposter. When compassion lives in us, we cannot love from a distance. Love comes up close. Love seeks to know the Other, deeply in fact. Love tries to understand what they need, how they see, why they laugh and why they cry. The Shepherd is aware of the weaknesses and frailties of the sheep and seeks to protect them as much as possible.

We can love from a geographical distance, but we cannot love from an emotional distance. When the neighbor becomes Other to us, we cannot love. I think one of the reasons Sarah walked so faithfully with others in their darkness is that she knew her own darkness so well. Love accompanies and goes the distance. Again, this is often not easy.

Finally, love is open and inclusive. Jesus tells his disciples that he must gather in “other sheep who are not of this fold.” In a first century context, this would reflect to his Jewish-born followers the in-gathering of the Gentiles. Two thousand years later, who are these other sheep Jesus continues to gather? I believe that this promise goes far beyond the separations between Jew and Gentile prevalent in first century Palestine.

Shall people of diverse religious faiths throughout the world persist in harming one another in the name of their own particular deity? Do not our deities then become tribal gods over whom we fight? We have to pose serious questions about religious violence and interfaith relationships in our own day and time. The Good Shepherd does not just tend to his own flock of sheep and ignore or condemn all the other sheep. Instead, the shepherd continues to widen the circle, drawing others into the sheepfold.

Love is a noun, but it is also a verb. I recently read a quote from Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, NJ. It was on a poster shared via Facebook. The mayor says this: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me how much you love all His children. Before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”

Amen.