Archive for March 2018

John 20:1-18

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.


I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:


    1    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs, yet refuse to believe:

    ◦    "the world"; "chief priests"; most "Jews" and Pharisees (12:37); even the "brothers of Jesus" (7:5)

    2    Those who hear Jesus' words and/or see his signs and begin to believe, but don't fully recognize Jesus' identity:

    ◦    some crowds (6:36); some of the early "disciples" (6:64); some of "the Jews" (8:31; 11:45; 12:11)

    3    Those who come to believe in Jesus, but are evidently afraid to acknowledge their faith publicly:

    ◦    Nicodemus (3:1-10), some of "the Jews" (12:42); the parents of the man born blind (9:18-23)

    4    Those who encounter Jesus and come to believe in him, and are recognized as his disciples:

    ◦    the core group of disciples (1:50), the Samaritans (4:41-42), the man born blind (9:35-38), Thomas (20:24-29)

    5    Those who believe even without seeing signs, on the basis of hearing the words of Jesus and/or other witnesses:

    ◦    the royal official from Capernaum (4:53); Martha (believes before Lazarus is raised, 11:27); later believers, down to today (cf. the Thomas story, 20:19-29; and the first conclusion to the Gospel: 20:30-31)


Stage 1 - Hearing and not believing: Yes, some of these people snuck in today — they may be relatives and teens who couldn’t find a way to avoid attending church. We live in an age where religion gets blamed for everything wrong with the world. The story we want these people to see and believe, has nothing to do with politics or organized religion. It is the simple witness of God with us. Let them be John pondering the mystery of a folded napkin, or Mary, embracing the friend she just saw die. 

Stage 2 - Accepting the story of Jesus as a great man: Many of our best church leaders are here, they can’t accept the identity of Jesus as fully God. On Easter, Mary Magdalene has to let go, Jesus is more than she can grasp. Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to preach a miracle that goes beyond our ability to reason and pigeon hole.

Stage 3 - The private believer: I was taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company; see where that got me. Jesus makes his death and resurrection a public event. The post-pentecost church can’t be private. Let this Easter take you out of your comfort zone.

Stage 4 - The recognized disciple: This is where we all pretend to be. It means that what we saw at Easter has set us on a life long challenge to live as instruments of God’s power. Discipleship is a wonderful thing, but let’s all take a moment to recognize that God practically had to knock us over the head with a two by four to get us here. We have been slow learners when it comes to spiritual things. Easter can be very successful if you just help those who are stage four to recommit to being ‘all in’ with their discipleship. We can save the next stage for next week with Doubting Thomas.

Stage 5 -  Those who believe without seeing:  These are those who have a ‘child-like’ faith. They simply know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of by our reasonable religion (Hamlet).

Spiritual progress is a developmental thing
Easter Day
Mark 11:1-11
John 12:12-16

The story of Jesus falls into two halves; the part before Palm Sunday and the week after it. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus very rarely says or does anything overtly political. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition other than to teach and heal people. Then suddenly he comes to Holy Week and everything he does is political. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus deals with us on the level playing field of interpersonal relationships and the fair exchange of ideas. He teaches in open fields where people can interrupt him and ask him questions. He forms an intimate circle of disciples where everyday life — how are you today, Peter?—is valued. He heals by touching and his favorite miracle is having a few loaves of bread multiply as they are passed from one hungry person to another.

On Palm Sunday he exits the egalitarian world and enters politics as we know it today. As he transitions into the walled and gated city of our newsfeed world, he does three symbolic acts to ask for our vote: 1) He accepts the nomination of his followers who shout that he is Messiah or King of Jews, 2) He rides a donkey through the Eastern Gate, fulfilling prophesies relating to a new political age, 3) He has people wave palm branches, which are symbolic reminders of an earlier revolution when the Maccabeans kicked the Seleucids out of Jerusalem.

In doing this Jesus challenges our hierarchal world. In a world where Caesar is over Pontius Pilate, who is over the people of Judea, Jesus says, “You would have no authority if God hadn’t given it to you.” In the religious world where the High Priest rules over lesser priests who rule over laity, Jesus announces his own unique relationship as the son of God. His very presence in Jerusalem, the capital, circumvents the established authority.

On Palm Sunday, everyone says, “I’ll vote for him.” But having accepted that nomination Jesus is the same person that he was in Galilee. He still heals. He calls us each as individuals to leave our proud positions of honor and live compassionately. By the end of the week he is broken. “Behold the man,” Pilate says. He is hung on a cross. As he hangs there, I picture people walking by him and saying, “I didn’t vote for him either.” 

What do you say? You might be tempted to say, “I want the old Jesus back,” and “give me the Jesus I voted for.” Jesus can’t do what he came to do, without entering the walled city of our culture, our political institutions, our world. He is the same Jesus as he stands before Pilate as he is when he breaks bread with us in Holy Communion. We must live, as Karl Bart once said, with the Gospel of Jesus in one hand and our daily newspaper in the other.

Newspaper in one hand and gospel in the other
Palm Sunday
Lent 7
Type of Event : 
Conference with workshops
Date of Event: 
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 6:00pm to Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 1:00pm

May 1-3 at the UMC Conference center in Des Moines, Iowa


Who is Invited : 
Any church leader interested in ministry in and through transitions, especially those working as interim ministers.
Event Sponsor : 
John 12:20-33
Psalm 51

I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death. 


In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”


Jesus is not rationalizing his upcoming death, nor is he saying, “I can’t wait to die so I can go to heaven.” He is speaking of a process. Seeds have a purpose. They are planted in a variety of soils, because spirituality has to be lived out in context. We have to confront our own self-centeredness and learn to be compassionate in our relationships with other seedy-souls. To be a seed is to be human. Life cannot be rushed. The journey is important. Jesus speaks about his death as, his hour. Timing is important. Transition is sacred.


I noticed something this morning; Psalm 51 is much more powerful when I hear it in church. Praying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” and hearing the response, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” adds grace to what can be a difficult time of self awareness. Sin is a shell — I am a seed within that shell. Lord, let me live as someone who has found mercy in your miracle of new life.


There are two types of people in this world; those who realize that they are seeds and pray for new life, in whatever form. And, those who say, “Huh?”

We don't see the big picture
Lent 5
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Back before we had a treatment for rabies, you had to catch the dog that bit you and put a bit of its hair into a potion. The thinking was that having a little hair of what caused you pain could magically cure you, kind of like a day-after flu vaccine. Magical thinking prevails in the advice that a shot of alcohol in the morning will cure a hangover (Carrie Fisher’s alcohol soaked memoir is titled, “Magical Drinking”). Hence we say, “hair of the dog” when we repeat an action in miniature that got us in trouble the night before. In actuality a heavy drinker would be better off drinking water (they are usually dehydrated), and seeing a counselor (any hangover is a sign of a toxic relationship with booze), rather than taking something that delays their reentry to reality.

Moses might well have said, “hair of the dog,” or its yiddish equivalent, when the people of the Exodus were faced with snakes in the dessert. Moses had them cast a snake in bronze wrapped around a pole. People who were bit by poisonous snakes were told to look upon this snake, lifted up, and they would be cured (Numbers 21:4-9). In an unrelated bit of mythology, the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius, had a pole with a snake around it, which today is the symbol for medicine. The truth behind the magical thinking is that the prayers of Moses brought forgiveness and healing to the people. In looking to the snake and pole, the people were meant to focus on their dependance upon God, and repent from the sins that had broken their faith.

Four hundred years later, that bronze snake makes a reappearance in the story of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), where we learn that the people had made an idol out of it and were worshipping it instead of God. Magical thinking is a curse, even when it is done religiously. Like the hair of the dog, it is so close to reality that it misses by a mile. Vaccines work by giving us a little bit of the disease — but, they would kill us if they were not developed scientifically.

So we come to John 3:14-21, where we learn that Jesus’ death on the cross will function for our sins like the bronze snake that Moses lifted in the wilderness. Magical thinking transforms the cross into a good luck token around our neck. Crosses are used to kill vampires, magically. But like Moses’ prayers, Jesus’ compassion and sacrifice is really what saves us. The atonement on the cross can never be put into fully rational language, but it can be taken — and here symbols, songs, and great artwork help — into our hearts and made the focus of our faith. Just don’t make it the hair of the dog.

Snake Doctor -- asclepius
Lent 4