Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sermon for January 15, 2017

Then Jesus Turned
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter). –John 1:29-42
Jesus has just been baptized in the Judean wilderness. As I mentioned last Sunday, by allowing himself to be baptized by John, Jesus identifies himself as a revolutionary who will overturn the current religious and political order and launch a new reign of peace. The Roman Emperor is not the only son of god in town any more. There is a new Son of God, whose reign is symbolized with peaceful animals. The dove of the Holy Spirit rests on him. Jesus is the Lamb of God who rescues people from domination.

The idea of a lamb of God goes back to Moses and the Passover. Remember all those plagues from the Book of Exodus? In the Passover story, The God of Israel keeps trying to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. Just when we think Pharaoh is going to give in, he changes his mind. So God sets up a final, terrible plague. All of the firstborn children across Egypt will die, with one provision.  All Israelites who smear the blood of a lamb on their doorway will be saved when the angel of death comes. God provides a way for the firstborn to live. A lamb of God will set Israel free from their slavery in Egypt. From that day forth, a lamb will become a symbol of freedom.

Fast forward a few centuries. The people of Israel are in bondage to a different empire. Rome oppresses Israel with violent military occupation and heavy taxation. The Jerusalem Temple system is in collusion with Rome, using religious law to keep people poor and obedient. Fresh from the waters of baptism, the Lamb of God will once again set people free from captivity. John the Baptizer says, “Look, this is the one I was talking about. This is the one you’ve been looking for. He is the Lamb of God. He has come to deliver you. He is the true Passover Lamb.”

The next day, two disciples of John the Baptizer call out to Jesus, “Hey Teacher, where are you staying?” Pay attention to what happens next. Does Jesus keep walking -- “Sorry, guys, I can’t talk right now. I got a revolution to get to”? Does Jesus ignore them – “I don’t have time for this right now . . .”? No, two men ask Jesus a question and Jesus does something quite amazing. The text says he turns. Jesus turns.

The author of the gospel uses a Greek word that means to physically turn or spin around. But it can also mean a change of heart -- to change or convert (στρέφω). The act of turning has the power to redirect a person's destiny.

Jesus turned.  Here’s why these two words are so astounding to me. We usually think of conversion as something we do.  But, right here, the embodiment of God redirects his energy to these young men. Jesus interrupts his destiny He turns. Abraham Heschel once wrote, "No word is God's final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in [one’s] conduct brings about a change in God's judgment." I wonder if that’s happening here. The mission changes direction.  Jesus reveals a God of process. The plan is not set in stone. It unfolds with each step. With each stop. With each turn.

Jesus turned. He changed direction. He reminds us that it is part of God’s nature to turn.  God hears our pain. God sees us in our most desperate places. God feels our throbbing aches when we lose hope. God does not say, “Hey, life is tough and then you die. Suck it up buttercup.” God turns. God seems willing to change directions to join us – to enter into the dust of our lives and ask, “What are you looking for?”

God changes. I have come to believe this as a part of my own faith. Many Christians want to deny that God actually changes. They say God is immutable. In other words, part of what makes God “God” is that God never changes. Some say God’s complete lack of change is what makes God, God. God’s will is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

I have come to believe something different. God changes. God adjusts. God turns. God’s experience of the world is constantly shifting and growing. Each moment of our lives has a wealth of choices and possibilities. God’s aim for us is for each of those moments to be filled with wholeness and beauty. But God does not what we will choose to do in each of those moments. God only knows the possibilities. When we turn away from God, we limit what God can do in our lives. But when we turn towards God, God turns even more to us. The future is open, and God is present in every moment, seeking the highest possibilities for each and every creature.

Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

If I am right, if God turns for us, then can we turn for others? The general problem with turning is that while Jesus shows us how God turns for us, many of us refuse to do the same. The risks are too high. The costs are too great.  It takes too much sacrifice. Another way to talk about turning is the word “repentance.”  And repentance is not part of the normal order of things.

I hear some of this struggle in John’s Gospel. Jesus turns and asks the two young men, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question: “Where are you staying?” Literally, “Teacher, where are you remaining?” The same Greek word for “stay” is repeated five times in this passage alone. Remain. Remain. Stay. Stay. Stay. The word can actually mean a few things: stay, dwell, lodge, rest, settle, endure, persevere, abide, and indwell. Dwelling is not the same as turning, right? Staying has to do with basking in God’s presence. Turning involves facing God’s future. Staying has to do with stillness. Turning involves movement.

These two young men who question Jesus -- they want to know about staying. They want to remain until they are sure what they are getting into.

Jesus turns.

Our tradition sings about these movements.
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”
“To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.”
Shall we abide in God or turn and change direction? When should we stretch out in the hammock of God’s love and when should get up and follow the invitation to go where God is going and do what God is doing? There is a time and a place for each. It takes a lot of listening, and practice, and failure to learn when to remain and when to change.

If we are looking for social change, then we can’t just stay, remain and abide. We can’t have revolution without turning. There is no justice without changing and repentance. There is no peace without a change of heart. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

I’m reminded of this lesson as we remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King helped America begin to reject injustice by turning to non-violence. In 1963, Dr. King actually had his marchers sign a pledge of non-violence. Have you ever seen this? It says the following:
  1. As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus
  2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
  6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Perform regular service for others and the world.
  8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstration.
Here is my two-sentence paraphrase: Change is in the air. Turn to God’s non-violent will, and God’s non-violent will circle back to you. 
Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

As Dr. King reminded us, we can turn from hateful words and physical attacks and judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

We can turn from the burden of hate or revenge and express anger in ways that lead to peaceful give and take.

We can turn towards others and listen carefully, especially to those with whom we disagree.

We can turn towards those who have hurt us, and offer forgiveness.

We can turn away from wasteful lifestyles that consume the earth’s resources and turn towards sustainability.

We can turn away from entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny, or acceptable and cultivate healing relationships.

We can turn from fears of inadequacy, and turn towards courage: Courage, to confront violence and injustice wherever we find it … Courage to challenge prejudicial jokes or remarks … Courage to challenge the purveyors and sponsors of violence … Courage  to stop gin violence … Courage to fight for the new frontiers of equality, whether it be transgender rights in the workplace, food security for those who are hungry, or health care for all, religious freedom for those whom we fear… Courage to put into practices the words and example of Dr. King, "to meet physical force with soul force." 

It all begins with a change in direction. A change of heart. Jesus turned. So can we.

Loving God, you sent Jesus to show us how to turn and live nonviolently.  Jesus, you turned listened carefully to everyone. You turned and cared about the feelings of others.  You turned and forgave those who hurt you. You turned and paid attention to the people no one else cared about. Jesus, send us your Spirit to help each of us be truthful whenever we speak, loving whenever we act, and courageous whenever we find violence or injustice around us. Amen.


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