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“In the beginning was the Word…” (Seen through a clearer lens)
The year was 1967 and three films starring Sidney Poitier had come to the Big Screen; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir with Love.” The cultures portrayed in the films could not be more different. One dealt with an aging upper class west coast family of privilege struggling to come to grips with racial diversity in an intimate way. Another addressed the deep rooted prejudice of the impoverished American south. The third film was set in a poor school district in the outskirts of London. It was the only one of the three to be filmed in black and white.
The story line in, “To Sir with Love” begins with Sidney Poitier having earned his engineering degree now seeking a job in his field. He sends out letters of application but must take a temporary job as a teacher in an impoverished local school to earn a living. He finds that trying to teach the jaded students through traditional methods impossible and so he tells them to put the books away and he will teach them about life. This act of nonconformity becomes the key to his success. At the end of the term he is recognized by the students whose lives he has touched. Overcome by emotion, he seeks the solitude of his empty classroom. Two young and unruly students burst into his private moment and comment that he will be their teacher next term. As they leave he realizes his true life calling. He reaches into his coat pocket and takes out the job offer from the engineering company and tears it in half as the film ends.
John’s gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning…” but we should realize that he has written them practically at the end of his life. John is no longer the young, adolescent follower who rested his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. He has been the man standing at the foot of the cross to whom Jesus entrusts the care of his Mother, Mary. He will live in exile and look inside himself to become a conduit of the Holy Spirit as he writes prophetically, “The Revelation.” As he writes our passage he is looking back through the lens of his life to recognize the true nature of Christ. This man whom he followed was not just a charismatic leader and teacher. He was not just a healer or prophet. He wasn’t even the Christ figure that some had been waiting for to bring them political and religious freedom. He was the Word. He was with God in the beginning and always. He was the Creator. All things that exist came into being because of him. He was God. He is God!
John, like the character, “Sir” portrayed by Sidney Poitier has had the opportunity to live through a season of life and look back through a lens polished clearer by the experience. That allows him the necessary vision to see new and deeper truths within the Scriptures and in the institution of the church, even in his personal interactions with the people in his life. It cajoles us to take the painful step of discarding our preconceptions... of ourselves and of the larger world. It encourages us to embrace a new vision of the Creator and to recognize our calling to live our life as a reflection of that Grace. It is only then that we can then look back at our lives and recognize, “…the beginning.”
“The Moment of Our Visitation”
Some people have ignored the Scriptures because, in their view, there is a “disconnect” between its message and their own lives. After all, how can a collection of writings assembled over many centuries and not added to in some two thousand years be relevant for us today?
The historical context of the bible normalizes cultural variants far from our own experiences, i.e. the subjugation of women, the acceptance of slavery, and the assumption that one culture is superior to another... Well, maybe not all of them are too far outside of our historical norms.
I readily admit that there are challenges in approaching the Scriptures from the perspective of one who is incapable or unwilling to probe its contents for deeper meaning; and once found, to test those meanings against their own value system.
First, one must recognize the different components of the bible. Writings that are intended to identify a generational connection of a people differ from writings designed to articulate origins and the relationship between the creation and Creator. In the same way descriptions of historical events differ from stories told to convey ethical or spiritual meanings.
When an individual asks me, “How long did it take God to form Creation?” I assume that they are trying to place me within a theological cubicle. Do I take the creation account found in the Book of Genesis literally… or not? I admit to trying to put them back on their heels with just a bit of humor when I respond, “Well, I was very young then… and it has become somewhat fuzzy in my memory. But maybe… just maybe what the writers of Genesis were trying to state about humanity… in addition to us being here because of a creator’s intention… was not meant to be a science lesson but simply to say that if you put a man or a woman in a perfect environment with only one chance to screw up… we will.”
In Luke’s gospel Jesus steps aside from what biblical scholars have entitled his “triumphant entry” into Jerusalem to pause overlooking the Holy City. The bible tells us that he weeps as he mourns the consequence of their not recognizing the “time of their visitation” from God.
It caused me to ponder the significance of that statement for a reader today. Are there moments within our lives that have a deeper significance that we choose to ignore? Does it have to be a beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds and striking the stained glass window for us to “see the light?”
Maybe our time of visitation is found in participation in worship… Or might it be as simple as a smile made to a stranger, or a gesture of kindness in a parking lot?
I think Jesus weeps because his gestures of love are rejected by so many… I pray that we might be more open to recognizing God’s love in our lives every day.
“I grew up, together with my brother and sisters, a child of the Samaritan Woman…”
Jesus was travelling through the region of Samaria. Near the city of Sychar he and his disciples stopped at Jacob’s well. The bible says that Jesus was tired and thirsty. He rested as his followers went into the city to face the community (who were hostile to Jews) to attempt to buy food. This is when Jesus begins his interaction with the woman of Samaria. It has been suggested by scholars that the woman came to the well alone in the heat of the day because she had been ostracized by the other women of her community. I can attest to their behavior. I grew up, together with my brother and sisters, a child of the Samaritan Woman…
We come from a small Midwestern community. Our family had been well known and respected. The local American Legion Post is named after my great uncle. My grandparents were active in leadership in the most respected social organizations. Our family had recovered from the economic losses encountered during the Depression. They were well educated and well regarded. Then my mother became pregnant out of wedlock. In what may have been an act of rebellion she married a man other than my eldest sister’s father. After my brother was born and later myself our mother divorced her first husband and married her second. Together they adopted my second sister.
These were difficult years. This husband was an alcoholic who like her first husband had not been acknowledged by his own father. He became violently abusive and our mother suffered a mental breakdown leading to her becoming institutionalized. Witnessing acts of violence and suicide attempts left it marks upon all of us. We became wards of the court when our father abandoned us leaving the State and marrying another woman.
While in the mental hospital our mother met and fell in love with a man who had killed his children in a domestic dispute and had been institutionalized by the courts. After he and my mother were released we moved across the State where we lived until she was re-institutionalized and we were once again placed in the foster care system. Upon her release she was able to regain custody of all of her children and lived as a single mother until she met the father of my adolescence. My third sister was born. They were married for several years until their divorce.
In spite of all my mother’s challenges she had many wonderful qualities. She was fiercely protective of her children. She had a wonderful wit and sense of humor. She was creative and intelligent. She was sympathetic to anyone in need… and she loved with all of her heart. The men in my mother’s life who she either married or who fathered children were: Bill, Ernie, Kenny, Ace, and Garth. At the end of her life she was once again dating Bill until her sudden death at age 64 from cardiac arrest.
Like the Samaritan Woman she knew what it was like to be judged by her community and those in her church…
What I love about Jesus’ interaction with the woman of Samaria is her question following his revelation of her past. Jesus did not judge her past behavior; he commends her for speaking the truth. In response to his supernatural display of knowledge she poses a fundamental question of how her faith differed from the Jews. Jesus respects her search for a greater truth and describes a faith model in which the spiritual life of an individual is more important than the physical.
This debate continues in the church today as we pray, not for spiritual maturity but for physical blessings.
We expend so much energy worrying about our appearance to others… our material wealth… our homes and our cars… the people whom we associate with… and we judge others by these same standards. Jesus sees beyond lifestyles into the heart and offers to satisfy the thirst within ourselves that is often the origin of our life choices. In doing so, throughout the gospels he is embraced by the outsiders and too often, rejected by the religious leaders.
This is the passage where religious assumptions are turned on their heads.
Jesus has confronted the very profitable practice of the church exchanging Roman coins; which, having the face of the emperor were considered unacceptable currency for use in the Temple. This caused a stir among the church leaders who detested Jesus’ challenges but struggled to explain away the miracles he performed among the people. Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus to apparently seek clarification and is immediately given more than expected as Jesus calls his doctrinal understanding into question.
To better envision the narrowness of religious thought expressed at the time… There is a story told about a student asking a famous teacher why God created “unbelievers?” The teacher responds, “To provide fuel for the fires of Hell.” In this case it was a rabbi who made the arrogant statement; but it could have just as easily been a pastor making a similar comment in some churches today. And sadly, there are many congregations that would welcome the remark.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit of God blows like the wind throughout the world touching anyone. The suggestion that God is not “owned” by one small group is revolutionary to a people who hated their neighbors, the Samaritans. Jesus goes on to say that God so loved “the world” that he sent himself to die that whoever believes in him (not some imperfect human doctrine that lifts up some people over others) would not perish but have true life. Jesus expresses frustration that one who is a religious teacher does not comprehend the difference between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that the Messiah which the church is waiting for will not be what they expect. They were looking for a political redemption that would show the world with power that they were God’s chosen. Jesus explains that God’s Messiah would be a servant that would sacrifice himself (be lifted up) that the whole world might be saved through him.
It is not surprising that the message of Jesus continues to challenge the church today.
This is the passage where Jesus encourages his followers to be “salt” and “light.”
Could it be that Jesus chose two very different elements to describe his followers for a reason?
Not long ago I had the privilege of attending a seminar led by Barry Johnson Ph.D. where he described his theory of Polarities. He states that there is a “Law of Polarities” as fundamental as the “Law of Gravity.” His theory suggests that opposing positions may never be resolved by one being found completely “correct” and that this tension can be desirable if properly understood.
One polarity describes the operational dynamics of a hospital. On one side doctors seek to treat illness or injuries regardless of a patients’ ability to pay. On the other side administrators seek a positive economic outcome to keep the hospital functioning. Barry labels this tension between the “focus on treatment” versus the “focus on profitability” a polarity.
In any polarity both sides feel passionate about the need for their position to be prioritized over the other. They recognize the weaknesses in the opposing viewpoints. Dr. Johnson points out that this is the power of his model; to seek constructive criticism not from within your world view but from the opposing world view. Recognizing weaknesses and taking corrective action leads to a stronger overall model with more positive outcomes. Whereas, listening to those who see everything the way you do is inherently self limiting.
When Jesus describes the attributes of his followers (the church) as salt and light, he is describing two differing behaviors. One gives flavor and the other provides vision.
Jesus says that salt which has “lost its saltiness” is worthless and should be thrown out like sand. Its ability to provide flavor and passion in life must be celebrated and shared in order to be maintained. This is the church which celebrates its worship service but rejects the life outside the church which it should be enhancing.
Putting one’s light “under a bushel” is the church that only serves its own needs. To the people with this unhealthy model, focusing outward is only wasting resources on outsiders. Too many churches today are in a dying spiral as fewer “outsiders” are drawn to their light as they seal off the cracks to keep their light for only themselves.
The church today would do well to reflect on the fact that the Jesus of the Gospels was rejected by the institutions of organized religion and embraced by those “outsiders” who were seeking a “passionate vision” of creation.
This is the passage where Jesus affirms a fisherman’s nature.
One of the many mistakes that I have made in my evolution as a Christian has been the attempt to become someone I am not… If only I acted more like a “Christian…” If only I dressed more like a “Christian…” If only I spoke more like a “Christian...”
Many years ago I attended a conference as a school board member on Mackinaw Island. That was back in the old days when pharmacology reps would buy office staff expensive dinners, and taxpayers didn’t even blink when elected officials attended training events at resort locations…
Back on topic…
I had the opportunity to attend training events that were designed to help school board members function more effectively. One was a class on public speaking. As a preacher I thought this would be a breeze. As I listened to the instructor I was stunned to learn that everything I did was wrong. I didn’t dress correctly; I didn’t speak correctly; I didn’t behave properly; I didn’t fit the mold.
I literally lost my confidence to preach effectively as I tried to squeeze myself into the product that the professional speech instructor held up for me to be “a success.” Then someone who cared for me a great deal said, “I wish you had never attended that conference!” He was right. I was never going to be any good at being someone other than myself.
In our passage Jesus recognizes it is time to begin his ministry… and he invites Peter (and his brother Andrew) to follow him and use the gifts that were already innately within them. He didn’t say, “Come with me and I will teach you to be great speakers, or healers, or prophets.” He said in essence, “I will show you how to use the gifts that are within you to impact the lives of others and the kingdom of God. I will show you how to fish… for people.”
The institution of the church too often tells people that, who they are is not acceptable to God; “You need to become someone you aren’t…” and they will show you the way. But the Jesus of the Gospels is saying, “God values the person that you are right now.”
What an amazing thought… Gay, straight, inked, pierced, young or old… that God loves you just the way you are. And like Peter, he invites you to follow him and use the gifts that God has already placed within you.
This is the passage where Peter comes to grips with his own prejudice.
We presented our grandchildren a Christmas gift that we forgot to purchase. Our oldest daughter “home schools” her six children… God bless her! She takes them on field trips to museums and concerts and they take music lessons and science classes taught in public programs. She does a great deal of research into the curriculum that she purchases. She also pays for standardized tests to measure their level of understanding and progress …and Diane and I buy them a Family Membership to swim at the Aquatic Center through the winter months. We announced it (to great applause) on Christmas Day as everyone opened presents …and then we forgot to purchase it!
We were gently reminded by a grandchild this past week and we somewhat sheepishly drove over to the High School to pay for the membership. As I drove up to the front door I was amazed to watch a young man step into the path of our vehicle, looking straight ahead with our car in plain view, almost daring us not to stop. There was no eye contact, no wave of a hand, just a rather arrogant, privileged stride across the roadway…
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident. But it seems all too common in our fairly affluent lakeshore community (Many of the cars parked in student parking at the High School are newer than our family vehicle). I have met people walking on the sidewalk and greeted them with a “Hello!” only to watch them lock their eyes straight ahead and walk past without acknowledging my presence.
This is learned behavior. We may not realize the lessons we are teaching our children when we talk about others in a derogatory manner… placing ourselves above them because of their income or dress, their lifestyle or the color of their skin. Our children hear (and see) our judgmental behavior and live it out themselves in their day to day lives. That young man was making a statement when he walked out in front of me with a calm, confident stride; “I am more valuable than you.” Sadly, I have seen this same arrogance in some Christian churches …and it is not a new phenomenon.
In our passage, Peter expresses amazement that God could offer salvation to someone other than his own people. His understanding of faith is stretched as God commands him to break spiritual laws.
In, “The Book of Joy” which chronicles stories of the special friendship between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu… there are two rather profound examples of breaking the boundaries of faith traditions in the name of love. In the first, the Archbishop is dancing as Tibetan refugee children are making music. The Archbishop invites the Dalai Lama to join in the dance …in violation of his monastic vows the children cheer as the Dalai Lama “shimmies” to the music. In the second instance …and in violation of Christian doctrine the Archbishop serves the Buddhist monk Holy Communion.
Maybe these spiritual leaders, like Peter in our passage, have learned to see beyond their social, economic and religious prejudices to see all people …as loved by God.
This is the passage where Joseph learns that his fiancé is pregnant and the child is not his own.
(Spoken with a tone of sarcasm) Don’t you just love those Christmas letters mailed out every year by your friends? The ones that describe how their Johnny was accepted into medical school and that Lisa was nominated for the Nobel Prize… The font is carefully chosen and there is a seasonal stamp stylishly placed in the corners. As you read about this perfect family your memory takes you back to the dinner party spent in their immaculate home decorated with designer furniture, with nothing out of place.
Then you glance around your own home and see the dishes stacked near the sink; laundry staged in piles and bills and newspapers covering the dining room table. You reflect upon your family’s imperfections as you suddenly realize that you have crumpled their letter in your tightening fist.
The reality is that there is no perfect family… there are only carefully staged images. In the past we knew this because we just showed up at the door with a loaf of fresh baked bread or a pie. We didn’t carry telephones in our pockets; they were tied to a wall or desk. We didn’t place the camera on our phone above our heads to make us appear thinner than we really are… We simply stopped in expecting to be welcomed into an imperfect home that looked much like our own.
Our society has evolved with technology that allows us to hide behind carefully chosen cover photos.
Perhaps we would all be better off is we had the confidence to… simply be ourselves.
Our passage of Scripture is a gift describing a very human family. It begins…
“Our son, Joseph was engaged to a lovely girl named Mary. He was brokenhearted when she told him that she was “with child.” The baby could not be his… so he decided to end the engagement. He is such a good hearted man and he cared deeply for the girl. So he made up his mind to do so as privately as possible so as not to cause her any more social stigma...”
The letter continues…
“Then he told us that he had dreamed that an angel told him that Mary had not been unfaithful… that she was pregnant with God’s child. They were married soon after the dream and now she is very, very pregnant. I don’t know what they will do when he has to travel to Bethlehem for the upcoming census. Keep them in your prayers.”
Why can’t we be… or seek to become… that transparent in the church; an imperfect people dependent upon God’s grace every day. Perhaps we might judge others less harshly and even learn to love ourselves as much as God loves each of us.
God choosing less than perfect circumstances as the instrument to bring his greatest gift to the world is the reason to celebrate the holiday!
2 Kings 20:1-6: This is the passage where a king is told to put his affairs in order as he will soon die… and in response to his humility God extends his life.
Acts 9:1-19: This is the passage where a man seeks to destroy Christianity and becomes one of history’s greatest evangelist’s.
1. Helen was just about ten years old when she met Pearl. It was the 1960’s in Chicago and Pearl’s family had just moved from Mississippi. It didn’t take long for Pearl’s southern accent to draw unwanted attention from some of the “popular” kids. It didn’t help that Pearl wore the same cleaned, pressed dress to school every day. She was sweet and kind and intelligent and the “powers that be” in a ten year old’s government… decided to destroy her. Helen co-opted a friend and they decided that they would reach out in kindness to help integrate her into their school. In a matter of days Helen and Pearl and her friend were forever outside of the circle of popularity. (sigh)
2. It has been one of my favorite movies since its original broadcast in 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” appeared in theaters in a year when multicultural marriages were still illegal in 17 states. Pairing Spencer Tracy with Katherine Hepburn as parents who are coming to grips with their daughter’s engagement to the charming black character played by Sidney Poitier. There is a powerful scene where Poitier’s character passionately tells his father, “…not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you've got to get off my back! Dad... Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
3. It was a church member who had called to make an appointment to see me in my office. She was visibly shaken as she told me about the emails from trusted friends who attached links to “verified” news articles reporting that “the Muslims” were making headway in taking over our country. [Note: NEVER click on a link in a forwarded email!] She had begun to outline their plots when I interrupted her and asked if she knew that my Son-in-Law was Muslim. As she looked at me in shock, I told her… “It’s fine. He has us on the “Do Not Be-head List” and I would see if he could add her name as well.” (smile inserted here) It was the beginning of a lengthy and healthy discussion of the grace that we had been shown at the mosque, twice. The first being the signing of a wedding contract where I acted as the “Wali” and the second, was as a Father-in-Law grieving the death of my daughter’s husband. In both cases I was treated better than I have been treated in some Christian churches. (sigh)
4. As a Police Officer I have two letters of commendation on the wall in my office. One was for not shooting a violent individual as I was making an arrest. The second was for solving a series of home invasions along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In the second case I still struggle with the imbalance of justice which addressed the two men allegedly involved in the burglaries. The first was a young black man who was sentenced to prison; the second was a white man from a very wealthy home who arrogantly never feared prosecution because of the standing and resources of his family. (sigh)
I believe that… like King Hezekiah in our Old Testament passage, the Church is ill “unto death.” Too many in the world today feel that we are an irrelevant institution; disengaged from issues of justice and focused inward upon our own needs… But the story offers hope. As Hezekiah turned his face and cried out to God we are shown that our God is a God who hears our prayers! The New Testament story in the book of Acts describes how one man’s views were changed from fear and hateful judgment of others different than himself… to seeing God’s love for all creation. All it took was for him to be literally, “knocked off his ass” (or horse… what did you think I meant?) and given the opportunity to see creation with new eyes.
Bishop Banks, the African American pastor of a 30,000 member church in Dallas said in a recent program following the election, “We have to acknowledge that we cannot perfectly understand the life of another person. But we can be empathetic… and ask them to teach us about themselves.”