Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rainbow Christians

* John 3:14-21 - And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Most of us see things every day, from the moment we get up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. We look at everything around us using light. We appreciate kids' crayon drawings, fine oil paintings, swirling computer graphics, gorgeous sunsets, a blue sky, shooting stars and rainbows. We rely on mirrors to make ourselves presentable, and sparkling gemstones to show affection. But did you ever stop to think that when we see any of these things, we are not directly connected to it? We are, in fact, seeing light—light that has reflected from objects far or near to us and reached our eyes. Light is all our eyes can really see.

Now I am no scientist, and I certainly don’t completely comprehend the phenomenon that is light. But there are some interesting insights into light that can shed some “light” on the subject. So here’s your very short science lesson. Light is actually electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength that is sometimes visible to the eye. Although there are many dimensions of light, we only see a fraction of its spectrum. This is called visible light, and is seen in the colors of our prism this morning. There are three basic dimensions of light.

They are: Intensity, which is how we perceive the brightness of light, Frequency (or wavelength), which we perceive as the colors and Polarization (or angle of vibration), which is not perceivable by humans under ordinary circumstances.

We perceive the brightness, colors and the vibration of light through its properties of both particles and waves. From the time of the ancient Greeks, people have thought of light as a stream of tiny particles called photons. We don’t normally see these photons, but that is because they are too small or moving too fast. If we could see them with the naked eye, they probably look like something from Star Trek. If you are a Trekkie you might know what a photon torpedo is!

It’s easier to understand the experience of light through its second property called waves. It’s also helpful to think of light as a wave that we can see in the water. One key point to keep in mind about the water wave is that it is not made up of water: it is made up of energy traveling through the water. If a wave moves across a pool from left to right, this does not mean that the water on the left side of the pool is moving to the right side of the pool. The water has actually stayed about where it was. It is the wave that has moved. When you dive into a pool you make a wave, because you are putting your energy into the water. The energy travels through the water in the form of the wave.

All waves are traveling energy, and they are usually moving through some medium, such as water. Light waves are a little more complicated, for they don’t need a medium to travel through. They can even travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields.

Light waves are waves of energy. The amount of energy in a light wave is related to its frequency: High frequency light has high energy; low frequency light has low energy. Thus gamma rays have the most energy, and radio waves have the least.

Of visible light, violet has the most energy and red the least. Any light that you see is made up of a collection of one or more of these photons circulating through space as electromagnetic waves. If you look around you right now, there is probably a light source in the room producing photons, and objects in the room that reflect those photons. Your eyes absorb some of the photons flowing through the room, and that is how you see. (

Whew! I feel like I am back in science class. So what does this all have to do with our Gospel text this morning? I thought by talking about the scientific properties of light, we might be able to make sense of the theological aspects of light in scripture. Is it possible? Is there a connection? If we believe that God is the creator of all things, then the presumption is, yes. We can begin to understand God when we embrace science, and the reality of our cosmos. So let me set the context for enlightening our scripture with science.

This week's text is at the tale end of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. You might remember the character of Nicodemus. He is presented to us as a leading member of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, something like a professor of theology or a religious judge who has come to see Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss things. Now many of us know the story of Nicodemus quite well. And it’s from this dialogue that we get a quote from Jesus that has become the very core, the crux, if you will, of the Christian experience. Of course I’m referring to John 3:16.

I put it on the screen for you in the translation of the Message so we can refer to it. Why did Jesus say this? What exactly did he mean?Nicodemus apparently comes to Jesus because he appears to be troubled by what Jesus has been saying and doing. He wants to question him, get into a debate. Nicodemus wants some sign that Jesus really is from God and that the things he is saying and doing are true. Yet nothing Jesus seems to say is getting through to Nicodemus. And Jesus continues to frame his discussion in metaphors that perhaps Nicodemus might understand. He likens the Spirit of God to the wind. That in order to make sense of God you must be born from above. Jesus tells him, you're going to have to decide whether or not you want to debate what I am about or start living the way I lived. The people who live life like I am do so in the light, where everything they do and are can be seen. The people who don't are the people who stick to the shadows. It is the way it is, says Jesus. Those who hate the light always have something to hide. Those who love the light are not afraid of being seen for who and what they are.

Now we know from other passages in John’s gospel that he was writing to a Jewish Christian sect that still maintained its primary identity within larger Judaism. At the time John wrote these words, these Jewish Christians were being persecuted and expelled from the only religious home they had ever known, the synagogue. The message that John was conveying through Jesus was not about Jew versus Christian. It was about the kind of discrimination and persecution that goes on within religious communities. He's talking about the kind of evil that gets perpetrated by religious people against their own kind. In fact, even today we know what kinds of cruel things religious people are capable of doing to each other.

The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not a story about private religious experience. It's about the radical protest Christ was and is against the evil we do to one another in the name of religion. Jesus is saying if you are going to trust God, then you have to be prepared to step fully into the light. You must embrace the light of God who loves the whole world—especially those who don’t believe the same as you do. Neither Jesus nor John was interested in establishing a belief system to be the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. They were more concerned about how we might recognize the spectrum of God’s love and embrace for all humanity? What are God’s true colors?

And now, perhaps our scientific understanding of light can inform us. Remember the three dimensions of light—intensity, frequency and polarization—so too is our experience of God multi-dimensional.

The first dimension is intensity; or how we see the brightness of God. And the best place to experience it is in a community of faith. Nicodemus comes to Jesus as one whose experience of God has been nurtured and supported by a community of believers. One of the unfortunate consequences of reading John 3:16 literally has been an excessive, almost exclusive focus on individual salvation. The central question becomes am I saved? Have I experienced personal salvation? Do I know Jesus as my Lord and Savior? But, for people like Nicodemus, whose faith was formed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the role of a community of believers was primary in his faith development. The songs we sing together on Sunday morning, the prayers we offer, the support we give and receive, the study and reflection of our sacred texts; all reflect the importance of our faith community in our spiritual formation. When we play hooking from our community of faith because of other commitments, or because we’d rather use our Sundays for some kind of recreation…we are cutting ourselves off from one of God's primary tools for inviting us into a deeper and more intimate encounter with God.

We also understand that in light is the dimension of frequency—or that which we see as color vibration—the visible light of God’s love. Service and caring for and about others, is the second dimension of faith when we encounter God. Nicodemus is quite clear the reason he comes knocking on Jesus door at night is that through Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and caring for those in need, they have experienced the presence of God. "No one can do the things you do apart from the presence of God", says Nicodemus. When we participate in the work of justice, caring for others, providing education to our community, and witnessing to God’s inclusive welcome we are shining the light of God’s grace to our world. For Nicodemus it was the acts of caring and compassion of Jesus, which further opened his heart to God's presence.

And finally our faith has a dimension of polarization—not in the divisive sense, but in the way that our light vibrates energy into the dark places through our openness to the guiding of God's Spirit. The question faced by Nicodemus and anyone seeking to grow in faith is, are you willing to let go of your certainties about who God is? Are you willing to experience God in new ways? Are you ready to step out on a journey with God without the comfort of knowing exactly where it will lead you? Jesus is inviting Nicodemus; and Jesus is inviting you and me to let the Light of God be our guide, to be reborn as waves and particles in God’s kingdom of light. Are we prepared to trust God enough to live without absolute certainty about whom God is?

When Jesus comes knocking on our door, it is an invitation to grow in faith through the guidance of the Spirit. It is the way in which we come to experience God’s true colors—the rainbow of God’s love shining in dark places.

(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Stepping Into the Light” for March 30, 2003 –

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Status Quo or Mojo?

John 2:13-22
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for thy house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign have you to show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

I grew up in Vandalia. You might know of this small town that extends east of the Dayton Airport. Vandalia was built at the height of the suburban craze in the 1950s and 1960s. Every house looked the same—a three bedroom, concrete slab, aluminum sided, one story ranch with an attached one car garage and a ¼ of an acre back yard. Every house in my block and in every other block for that matter looked almost exactly the same.

Down the street towards town and just off the I-75 exit was an unusual looking building. I remember it being a bit out of place for it looked like a castle next to the cracker box houses in my neighborhood. It was St. Christopher’s Catholic Church. Growing up we were taught that the Catholic Church was unholy, anti-Christian, and full of sin and iniquity. The xenophobic and prejudiced theologies that formed me as a child couldn’t fathom a church that allowed you to drink and gamble. In fact, when it came down to it—it was all about Bingo.

I remembering listening to our pastor preach on our gospel text growing up and thinking that it was also about bingo. Oh, it wasn't the game itself—it was the notion of playing bingo to raise money for the church. Looking back, I think it was more about Catholics than about bingo. Somehow along the way Protestants have picked up an anti-Catholic bias in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Parents worried that their sons or daughters might marry Roman Catholics. And when John Kennedy ran for president, some worried that the pope would soon be running America. We were suspicious of Roman Catholics and Bingo was further proof that Catholics were up to no good because they played bingo in church and we didn't. We were always waiting for Jesus to come and overturn the bingo tables, sending the cards flying all over the church basement and spilling the little numbers out of the cage that spun them around.

"Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Jesus would shout as he tipped over the cash boxes and Bingo balls. We were quite sure that Jesus would not have been upset, however, with our bake sales, the carry in suppers or the yard sales to raise money for missions. But our text today is not about bingo, or bake sales, or pork roasts, or yard sales. Jesus' actions that day in the temple were a powerful sign of Jesus' anger and frustration with the way things were in his society. He couldn’t stand the status quo, and wasn’t afraid to show a little mojo.

And a closer look at this chapter brings us deep into the heart of who exactly Jesus was. Just prior to this event in the temple we read the story of Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. Do you remember? They ran out of wine at the wedding and Jesus told the steward to fill six stone jars with water. Then he told the steward to taste the water, and--ahhhhh--the water had been turned into such excellent wine that the steward wondered why the host had saved the best for last. Now that wedding story is much deeper than just wishing Jesus would come to our parties and give us the best he has to offer—although we certainly would have liked him to eat pancakes and sausage a few weeks ago when we were raising money for our Back Pack program!

What’s really interesting about the wedding at Cana is not necessarily that Jesus turns water into wine, but that the water Jesus turns into wine was intended to be used for a specific purpose. The stone jars Jesus had filled with water were used for the rites of purification. By the time of Jesus, an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure and others impure. Women were impure seven days after the birth of a son, and 14 days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes such as leprosy were impure. Certain foods were impure and almost anything sexual was impure. The list had gotten very, very long.

In his book "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus Borg sees the ministry of Jesus as challenging this extensive purity system. The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries; between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Changing water into wine was not so much about getting people drunk so they could have a great time, but it was a way that Jesus could break down the barriers imposed by these purity laws. Jesus used water reserved to purify women and children and outcasts and diseased people, for the purpose of making the best available for everyone. It was a different way of seeing the world and God's care and compassion for it.

Following that story we have this event that takes place in the temple. The temple represented the very core of this purity system. The animals being sold there were for sacrificial purposes. These animals were required for sacrifice, and there were economic implications because poor people couldn't afford to buy the best animals. Moneychangers were an essential part of the system. It was idolatrous to use Roman coins stamped with the emperor's image to buy your sacrifice; so the moneychangers weren't simply making change for a twenty; they were giving pure tokens in exchange for impure money, often at a profit.

By attacking these money changers and overturning their profit making businesses at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised, Jesus challenged the purity system that these temple practices represented. Jesus anger was out of disgust and frustration for the way the rich and elite exhibited their power over the vulnerable and those lacking influence and social status. Jesus' life and ministry challenged the rules that named things and people pure or impure. Jesus saw an alternative society that was shaped not by the politics of purity, but by the politics of compassion.

Jesus was a political activist. He understood God’s realm being grounded in compassion and love. And all of his teachings and relationship sought to establish that. He had compassion for the Samaritan woman at the well. She was considered impure by her bloodline and behavior. He had compassion for the woman accused of adultery threatened with stoning. He had compassion for the sheep who were not yet part of God's fold. So we must ask ourselves, if we want to be like Jesus then who are those people in our communities who have been shut out of the church because of some archaic purity code? Who are the folks who don’t feel welcomed into our church because they don’t have fancy clothes to wear, or can’t afford to put money in our offering plates, belong to unconventional families or don’t fit the profile of a successful Christian?

Many have said that you can’t build a church on charity. We can’t grow unless we attract people of means. We shouldn’t spend so much time, energy and resources on children and families that can’t give back. That unless we have economically stable and wealthy people in our congregation we won’t be able to sustain our ministries. But I have to ask myself when I hear these accusations, what is more corrupt? Packaging the gospel so that people feel good about themselves—or telling people the good news that God loves them regardless of who they are, or how much they make, or what their relationship status is. Do we truly welcome everyone into the family of God?

There are many corrupt institutions in our society, and the church is often one of them. Belonging to a church used to be some kind of status symbol.  But times have changed. Through outreach, mission and service the church can stay true to the message of the gospel, and reach out to its community neighbors. And if we can keep ourselves from judging our success based on numbers, or economic status, or the amount of offering taken in weekly—but focus on reaching out to as many of these neighbors that we can—as a community, then corruption will never manipulate our ministry. Our journey to meet our neighbors right where they are will keep our hearts pure and our focus clear.

For no matter if our neighbors are rich or poor, young or old, woman or man, gay or straight, majority or minority; God’s grace and love is available to each and every one of our neighbors who haven’t found it yet. For no matter who they are or where they are on their journey—God welcomes them. And their journey to wholeness begins with us. And that is something they shouldn’t have to pay one cent for. For I ALSO once was lost, but now I AM found; was blind, but NOW I see. Amen and Hallelujah!

(Statistics from Sermon excerpts from Barbara K. Lundblad’s sermon, "Far More Than Bingo" from March 23, 2003

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Counterfeit Crosses

Mark 8:27-38
And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare'a Philip'pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." And he charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

I’ve had quite a few hobbies collecting things in my life. I’ve collected stamps, foreign money, beanie babies, and beer steins. But my most recent collecting craze has involved collecting symbols of my faith.
I actually have crosses that come from different cultures and theological perspectives hanging on my office wall; some of my favorites come from Brazil, Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, and various islands in Greece. I don’t know what it is about the cross—but I am intrigued at how my understanding of cross and its place in my spirituality has evolved over the last decade. For me, the cross is not just a nice artifact that I like to collect, but has become one of the most important symbols of my faith. It wasn’t until I looked into the cross’s own journey as a symbol throughout the last 2000 years, did I come to understand it could have a deeper meaning for me.

I’d have to start by saying that I’ve always been intrigued by ancient symbols. During the season of Lent and Easter our Christian symbols play a vital role in connecting us to Jesus’ own journey to the cross and his crucifixion. We use a lot of symbols to identify Jesus as our center of worship. Does anyone know what these letter stand for? It is the most common abbreviation used in churches, and they are on our altar, and on our banners. IHS stands for the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek—Iota Eta Sigma. The name Jesus was actually pronounced as Y-AY-SUS. Since there is no letter “J” in the Greek language, Jesus name actually begins with a “Ya” sound—as in “yoke.” The second letter of the Greek name of Jesus is the Eta. This Greek letter looks like an English “H” but sounds like a long “A” sound—as in “hay.” And of course the Greek “sigma” is our English “S”. Thus IHS is actually pronounced I-AY-S, and stands for the first three Greek letters of the name of Jesus.

Disciples of Jesus have also been symbolized from ancient times by the word fish, which in Greek is “ICHTHUS.” The letters, ICHTHUS, are also an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior. During the early centuries following the death of Christ when it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus, the sign of the fish was used as a secret indicator of being a Christian. It was a symbol of brave faith and of deep conviction.

It is however during the season of Lent that we focus on a symbol that are probably the most well known throughout the Christian tradition. It is of course, the cross. However, you may have noticed that there are many different images of the cross. Perhaps we are most familiar with the Latin cross shown here. Our own crosses in the sanctuary are modeled after this cross. The Latin cross is a very plain image. Its simplicity and clean figure appeal to the time of Lent when we seek clarity and simple expression in our worship.

My favorite representation of the cross is the Celtic cross. I have several images of that version in which a circle is added to the classic Latin design signifying eternity. The Celts believed that the work of redemption accomplished on the cross was planned in eternity—and that work continues permanently. This cross suggests the timeless dimension of God’s salvific work.
But the cross has a dark history as well. Did you know that a cross hung over the concentration camp at Auschwitz? The cross greeted the thousands of Jews, homosexuals and others who were murdered by the 3rd Reich. In the face of such tragedy and brutality delivered in the name of Yaysus Christos, we have to ask ourselves; how did this symbol of faith evolve from the execution of Jesus to a symbol representing the extermination of millions of people who don’t follow him?

Perhaps Jesus himself can tell us a little about that. Our gospel text this morning comes at the middle of Mark's story of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has begun his public ministry and people have started to follow him. But Mark wants this struggling and grassroots band of believers to know what's involved in following Jesus. In particular, he wants them to know that being a disciple is not some simple theological belief; but that it's about being willing to pay the price. Jesus asks outright, “Who do people say that I am?” The other disciples, of course, play the role of the clueless and ignorant. "How about Elijah?" one of them says. "Guess again." "John the Baptist?" another chimes in. "Wrong again." “Just another prophet?” still another suggests. Finally, good, old, impetuous Peter comes through for us. "I know who you are – You are the Messiah!" Ding, Ding, Ding! Peter hits the jackpot, he gives the winning answer. Peter has figured it out. Hooray for Peter! Hooray for all of us who know who Jesus really is.

But Mark doesn’t leave it there. Peter is immediately silenced by Jesus. “Yes, you are right. But I’m going to die for my cause. So keep quiet until it’s time.” Why would Jesus predict the end of his ministry this way? Why on earth would Jesus gain by scaring off his disciples prior to accomplishing his most important work?
Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to follow him they must confront the powers that be.
Jesus will not enter Jerusalem as the triumphant military leader everyone expected the Messiah to be. Rather, he will be executed by the leaders of the nation; and if that weren’t enough; he would choose not to avoid it.

And what is Peter's response?  “No Jesus! I refuse to accept this meaning of Messiah. There’s no way you are going to die. I won’t let it happen. Absolutely not! You’re not going to Jerusalem. I won’t let you. I won’t listen to this anymore!” This sharp exchange between the two escalates until finally Jesus silences Peter. "You are aligned with Satan!" he tells him. "Get out of my way!" Wow! Talk about a conflict of interest. But, if you think about it, we really shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. After all, we have had much in common with him. Christians still have trouble following a Messiah who ends up on an execution stick. The point being - the cross was not a religious icon in first century Palestine. Nor was "taking up the cross" a metaphor for surviving personal anguish. Crucifixion had only one connotation: it was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissidents.

But it didn't stay that way for long. Around 312 C.E. the emperor Constantine was leading an army to battle against another Roman emperor, Maxentius, for control of the entire Roman Empire. Before a crucial battle Constantine had a vision of a cross with the inscription, "In this Sign Conquer". And the rest, as they say, is history. Christians started planting crosses all over the world, usually in the bodies of their victims. All in the name of Jesus under the sign of the cross.
The Crusades were followed by the Inquisition, in 1232 and lasted for more than 600 years down into the nineteenth century. Its high point was the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492. Women were singled out by the thousands and burned at the stake as witches. All under the sign of the cross. The cross at Auschwitz, in other words, did not get there by accident. It grew out of that particular mindset, ingrained into the Christian psyche, that we had a right, even a moral and spiritual obligation to rid the world of those who were not like us.  
The question is: how much is there left in this symbol of the humble Galilean and his vision of the kingdom of God—a realm where everyone is equal in God’s eyes?
 It’s not easy to hear what has happened to this symbol many of us have treasured all of our lives, is it? But we need to own what the church has done down through the centuries if we are ever to understand those who see us now as the infidels, the faithless ones. After all, our history speaks for itself!

So where is the good news today? How can we reclaim the image of the cross of Jesus as a symbol of salvation it was intended to be? I suppose the answer to that lies in how serious Christians are willing to suffer for Jesus' vision as much as he was; because that's what the cross was really about for him. The cross is a symbol of Jesus’ self-sacrificing life.

And the cross in the daily life of a believer is not mere suffering, but is a symbol of our service to others—service which is often costly and burdensome. The authentic cross bearer is the one concerned about service instead of slaughter, kindness instead of killing, welfare rather than war, forgiveness more than fortune. That's what the cross really meant. The question is: are we prepared to live that way?
I collect crosses. I am intrigued by its symbolism, its beauty, and its meaning in my life. I enjoy reflecting on it as a vision of my own journey to be an authentic child of God. And like many of you, I’ve experience persecution because of that vision. I pray that I might live out that vision as one who embraces the cross of Jesus. For it is Jesus that asks us; "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." What will you trade for this kingdom value? What will you trade to join Jesus on his journey to the cross? Amen!