Some Stories on the 6th Friday of Lent

26th March  Triply Churched

During March the faculty, some staff members and some students of Tainan Theological College visit local churches to ask for donations and support. This year I went out twice. On the 26th I was happy to be at a church in Tainan City, because immediately after worship I had to be at Dongning Presbyterian Church to lead the international small group. I’d made arrangements for a speaker and for someone else to take care of administration, but had to pop my head in and have lunch with people, too.

So, one church on one side of the city, then another closer to the center, followed, later in the afternoon, leading worship at the Tainan International Community Church.  I was particularly tired the next day.

 

27th March  A Fellow Californian on Campus

It was good that on the 27th I wasn’t asked to do much other than sit in lectures. David Vasquez-Levy, the president of the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkley, California, was on campus to talk about his particular field of study, immigration. He did great stuff with Bible stories applied to very current issues about refugees worldwide, and particularly in America. His comments were all the more powerful because he, himself, is an immigrant from Guatemala, who only moved north for graduate school many decades ago.

 

28th March  Dinner Conversation

A banquet was held to thank Dr. Vasquez-Levy for his service to the college. Chinese banquets are at round tables, and there were 3 in the room. I was NOT at the head table, which is fine with me. Over the meal I conversed with our college chaplain, who told me about an independent church in Kaohsiung led by a dynamic pastor who has no theological training. The congregation has grown from 70 to 700 under his leadership. I asked what that church “does”, and the only answer that I heard was that it brings people in and trains them to bring more people in. Having recently read an article about “multi-level-marketing” companies and pyramid schemes, I inquired more deeply. Eventually we came to the place where there were no answers to the questions. This dynamic church doesn’t do any particular service to anyone outside its own membership, and eschews theological training for ministers. I told my colleague that I’d rather follow Jesus, who served for the physical and spiritual benefit of people whether they would join his little band of disciples or not.

30th March  Spring Break Begins with Spinning Wheels

When the college goes on break, I often spend my time in the office. Char’s university runs on a slightly different schedule, and her work never ends anyway. I attempted to spend the first day of my spring break in the house, working with the computers there to get ready for church on Sunday.  It turned out to be an exercise in spinning my wheels.

Tainan International Community Church doesn’t have a steady list of accompanists to play the piano with our singing, and since we sing 10 things every week (including a couple of song practices, 4 hymns and 4 responses), there’s a need for music. I have managed, so far, to find most of what we need in MP3 and MIDI files online. But the software on the computer at home is different from that in the office, and instead of walking across campus to use what I can do easily, I elected to stay at home and try harder.  I learned a lesson.  Smarter is better than harder

.

 

31st March  Late Sermonizing

Pride comes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.  The Old Testament lesson for April 2nd was Ezekiel 37, the valley of dry bones, a text I’ve preached from many times in English, Taiwanese (and my only ever sermon in Spanish). I left things till late in the week, figuring that I was familiar enough with what to do with the text.  It resulted in some panicked and frantic writing on Friday morning & afternoon. I ended up more with the Gospel lesson, on Lazarus coming out of the tomb. I was still making adjustments as I preached the thing on Sunday afternoon. Then even more amendment was necessary before putting it online.  I hope I’ve learned something from the experience. .

 

1st April  35th Anniversary

We’ve been married almost 37 years, but April Fool’s Day was the 35th anniversary of the day we began to learn Taiwanese in 1982. We felt like proper fools that day, and probably still sound like proper fools today.

 

3rd April  Once Around the Lake

Char’s spring break began on Monday and extended through Wednesday. We made firm plans not to do any school work on Monday We motored to a nearby lake for a morning’s walk. It was pleasingly sunny with a cool breeze. Perfect way to spend our time, and mainly a level walk. The lake is a reservoir, originally constructed in 1846, then repaired in 1905 after an earthquake, and further improved over the decades. It was such an easy trip that we might well make it again some time. The “cricket museum” was especially amusing.

 

5th April Stand Back!

The young man who led the community of Tainan Theological College in worship on Wednesday afternoon showed himself to be not very experienced at writing or delivering a sermon. I think he knew that in advance, so he “put a lot of lipstick on that pig” in other ways. Worship began with a processional in which a couple of his friends carried in a cross and a Bible while a choir sang. Only after the singing was done and the items were in place did he approach the pulpit to speak to us. Then, in his enthusiasm, he shouted!  But his mouth was too close to the microphone, and the sound was turned up too loud. We all jumped!

 

6th April Happy Jesus Presbyterian Church

I was scheduled to lead morning prayers on the 6th. Vauvani, the aboriginal woman who did the scripture readings and led the hymns, came to me a couple of weeks ahead to learn my plans. I gave her what she needed, then left space for myself. In the end, I used bits of what I’d done in church the previous Sunday with the story of Lazarus and bits of what I’d done in my “Platform Skills” class the day before. I put together a little skit of a pastor going to homes of inactive church members and calling them to repent of whatever kept them from attending church and come out. The church was named, “Happy Jesus Presbyterian”, but one could tell from the attitude of the pastor that there wasn’t much happiness there, and which side needed to do the repenting.  

 

6th April  Department Meeting

The theology department at Tainan Theological College meets twice a semester to deal with graduate student thesis issues and who is to teach what next term. I’ve proposed an elective course in preaching to children (a skill that is lacking in Taiwan) and another one in writing one’s own catechism (which I’ve taught before, and enjoyed). They are given such mundane titles by the department chair,(“children preaching” and “applied catechesis”) that I’ll have to “sex them up” in advertizing if I’m to attract any students in the fall.

 

7th April  Diagnosing Ecclesial Dysfunction

Once every semester the entire faculty of Tainan Theological College gathers to share the research and writing we are doing. Last term I submitted an article on “The Joy of Theological Lex”, which was published in the college’s December issue of its journal. I’ve got another one based on Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” paradigm submitted for the June issue. For weeks I’ve been toying with the idea of an article about inward-focused churches. I’ve seen various blogs about the topic and have read a few articles. On the 7th there was a note in my mailbox announcing this term’s meeting, which will be on a Saturday morning (What the ???). That got me moving. I outlined, researched, wrote and submitted the article to the registrar in an afternoon’s time. Felt so good that I even sent it to the journal. If it doesn’t make the June issue, then I’m 6 months ahead for next December!  

Come Out Of There!

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14,  John 11: 1-6, 17-22, 38-44

2 April 2017 in English at Tainan International Community Church

Since God is livelier than we are deadly, it’s time for us to choose God’s side.

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Introduction

Longer ago than I would care to remember (I was 12 or 13 years old at the time) I was invited to a party at a friend’s house. There were snacks, music, dancing and games. One of the games required a person who did NOT know what was going on to lie on the floor and be covered up to his neck with a blanket. He was then told, “you have to take something off before you can rejoin this group.” The fun was to see how many pieces of clothing a person would remove and throw out before stopping, and then being told that the thing that had to be taken off had always been “the blanket.” When the game began, I was sad that I hadn’t been picked to be the center of attention (I certainly didn’t know what was going on). By the time it ended I was very glad not to have been picked.

Religions that ask people to “convert” (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, even Buddhism when someone enters a monastery or convent) often demand that “converts” to give something up on the way to the new faith. The “old life” is exchanged for the “new.”  A British evangelist who lived in Taiwan decades ago once told me about his conversion to Christianity while serving on a British naval ship in the second world war. Because of how HE had come to faith, he believed that the best way to persuade someone to believe in Jesus was to first get them to be aware of, and sorry for, their sin, then tell them how they could be saved by believing in Jesus. One problem with this method is that it begins with the BAD news “you are a sinner” and only after a person feels bad about that can he or she be shown the way out, which is in Jesus. Because most of us stop listening as soon as someone starts talking about sin, it doesn’t draw many people.  

Today we’re going to look at a couple of Bible stories, both of which we’ve just read, from the point of view that we’re not being called “INTO” something new (faith in Christ) as being called “OUT OF” something very human, a preference for death.   

Lazarus

    We didn’t read all 44 verses of the assigned Gospel text for today, 19 were enough. Most of the rest of them weren’t about Lazarus, anyway, and it’s him we want to look at.

    He is described as Jesus’ “dear friend” (v3) and is listed with “Martha and her sister” as a person whom Jesus loved. (v5). Nothing written in the verses we read, or in the ones we didn’t read, says anything about Lazarus being sinful, or of his being aware of his sin, or of his being sorry about his sin.  Then, in verses we didn’t read, Lazarus died.  Other characters in the story, even Jesus himself, used “nice language” to talk around death  (“Sleep” is mentioned in vv 11, 12 and 13). This was so confusing that Jesus had to speak plainly and tell his friends “Lazarus is dead”(v14).  But it was too late. The delay between hearing the news (v3) and Jesus arrival at Mary and Martha’s home was several days. The body had already been in the tomb for 4 of them. That’s rather dead.

    All through the chapter there were many opportunities to connect his death with sin, either someone else’s or his own. This is a common thing among good religious people like Jesus, his disciples, Lazarus,  his sisters, and US. But there’s no mention of sin or connection to sin at all.  For whatever reason that Lazarus came out of his grave tomb (v44) saved from death, it wasn’t because while he was in there there he “repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior”.  Whatever it was that had Lazarus dead in a tomb (and, apparently it wasn’t sin), Jesus called him out, and he came. God is livelier than we are deathly.  It’s time to be on God’s side. It’s time to “come out of there” and live.

    The idea that we can avoid death, or come back from death, is not uncommon in religions. Right there in the story Martha told Jesus that she believed he could do something about her dead brother, if not immediately, then in “the resurrection”. Bringing people back from death is a common enough part of stories in both the Old and the New Testaments of the bible. Elisha did it, Jesus did it, Peter did it.  Part of the “deal” we’re offered through faith in Christ is “eternal life”, and during the years that the New Testament was being written some people expected Jesus’ return to make all things right to be so near that they didn’t expect to ever see death themselves. But death surrounds us.

The Valley of Dry Bones

    The stuff we read from the Old Testament this afternoon never happened. It even says so right in the first line, “I felt the powerful presence of the Lord, and his spirit took me and set me down in a valley where the ground was covered with bones.”  This prophet had a dream or a vision. Let’s not doubt that. Though there was never a real happening of bones coming together in a valley somewhere, the metaphor and parable are powerful lessons for us in our own “here and now.”     

    Like the prophet looked on the situation of his nation and saw “a valley of dry bones”, so dry that there was no life in them at all, we need, from time to time, to look at the situations of our own lives. It’s likely that there have been, there are, or there will be times in our own lives when a valley of dry bones is not a bad way to see things.

    In his vision, the prophet understood the bones to be his people. In the vision he saw them dead and scattered, incapable of being a “people” ever again. But under the direction of the Lord he prophesied to them, he gave them orders about how things were to be, and they got organized. No longer scattered dry bones, but a bunch of dead bodies. (Not much better.) Then, again by God’s command, the prophet turned to “the wind” and told IT how things were to be, and life came into the bodies.

    Like the parables that Jesus told to the people who came to listen to him, this vision was told to a people who needed some simple and powerful images in their lives. They were discouraged and needed hope.  Life was hard and they were pretty well settled into the mindset of “life is hard.” Regarding that mindset, they needed to be told to “come out of there.”

    Remember, God is livelier than we are deathly.  

    Sometimes it seems that the occupation of some humans is to deal out death, either by air strikes killing people who are NOT fighting a war (as recently in Mosul, Iraq) or by drone strikes (as recently in Yemen) or by traffic accidents (as on the roads in any country). But there are many kinds of death, some of which leave a body living and a person functioning in society. NO, I’m NOT talking about Zombies.

Though In the Midst of Life we Be, Death Surrounds Us.

    Medical science in the first world has advanced to the point where many conditions that would have caused a child to die only 100 years ago are treatable, so kids live on. In the third world, childhood death remains common, so there’s a long way to go.  

    But for we who have survived childhood, living on to whatever age we’ve already attained, and hopefully for many many years to come, there are other situations which the Bible stories we read today can be applied. There are other tombs and valleys from which we need to be called out, or re-organized, or “re-spirited”.  

Graduate students generally have to write a thesis of some sort, right? And if one is writing a thesis, there’s usually an adivsor somewhere in the picture. From time to time between the thesis “idea” and the finished thesis, the student meets with the advisor for encouragement and guidance. It’s been known for students to get off track, to follow some idea that the advisor, who is supposed to have knowledge and experience, knows will go nowhere. Sometimes a student can get very enthusiastic about this “new idea”, and need to be called to “come out of there” because you’re headed for a valley of dry bones, or a tomb.

    Parents in Taiwan are often very suspicious of the friends their children make at school. It’s probably true around the world, but you hear it more here, that children should not enter into friendship with “bad” people. Parents naturally worry about many things related to their children, things that may never happen and often never have a shadow of happening, but that doesn’t stop parents from worrying. When I’ve personally gotten lost in those kinds of worries about my own children, I eventually realize that God has been shouting at me to, “come out of there” rather loudly and constantly, but once again, as is often the case, I’ve been deaf to the call.

    There are seasons in life when the “romantic” life calls to us from somewhere deep inside our bodies and souls. Personal loneliness, sexual desire, the life of couples around us— these call to us. “Everybody else is in love, why aren’t I?”   But when romances fail, and instead of a sigh of relief we ache from a broken heart…. It can be like we’ve been entombed, or our entire life is a valley of dry bones.  There’s no promise here of “just trust in Jesus and all will be well.” Falling in love feels great, falling out of love is the pits. At these times, whether we want to or not, the voice of God calls us to the one who loves us unconditionally, and whose liveliness is stronger than our deathliness.

    Spiritual or religious life, even for Christians, isn’t as “happy” as we might want people to think it may be. Even Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that wonderful little nun who served God so beautifully and inspired so many of us, had struggles. 10 years after she died, a collection of her private letters was published, in which she described that for at least 40 years she had felt abandoned by God. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote in 1957, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

   She was living through what St. John of the Cross termed the “dark night of the soul.”  All of us are confused in our desires and attachments. We seek first our own comfort, pleasure and will. On the way to spiritual maturity we must pass through our dark night or nights of the soul. To the person passing through this type of dark night, it feels like God has left them to deal with their cross on their own.

    When we experience ourselves in those kinds of places spiritually it doesn’t feel good. In fact, it sucks. But we haven’t been abandoned and we’re not being punished. We’re being taught (not tested).  At those times we need to be especially attentive, because God, like a prophet’s voice speaking to bones, or the savior standing outside the tomb, is calling, ”Come out of there.”  

CONCLUSION

When the dead guy came out of the tomb, it wasn’t just him and Jesus there. Others were watching (we read about that in the way Jesus prayed). When it’s not us in the tomb being called out, we are the other ones standing around. Remember how in the story Jesus gave them orders?  “Untie him and let him go.” Our job, sisters and brothers, is to be the people who untie others, who liberate others. While others go through their struggles, we stand with and by them, helping them through. When others come out, we help them get back into life. This is not just a matter of words, it’s a matter of loving caring support.

God’s liveliness is stronger than our deathliness. When we’re the ones whose lives seem like valleys of dry bones, we are to listen for that voice calling us out of the graves and depressions of our lives, out of our closets and prejudices. And to those of us who were not in the valley, in the grave, in the closet, God’s call to us is to stand with those who come out, welcoming them into our communities of love, and setting them free to live.

In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

(Credit Stimson Chapman at Our Sunday Visitor for insight into the dark night of the soul. https://www.osv.com/OSVNewsweekly/ByIssue/Article/TabId/735/ArtMID/13636/ArticleID/17512/Understanding-the-%E2%80%98dark-night-of-the-soul%E2%80%99-.aspx )

He said, She said…..

TITLE: “He said, She said”    TEXTS: John 4:5-30, Ephesians 5:8-14

26 March 2017 at Tainan International Community Church

INTRODUCTION

Twelve years ago, two women from India spent a year as international students in Tainan. As soon as they arrived, they  began discovering differences between “home” and “here”. They did not like some of the differences, but eventually they found something that made everything they DIDN’T like fade away. They once remarked on how safe they felt in Tainan, out on the streets, in public, even when they were otherwise alone.

Like every place else in the world, there’s sexual harassment of women in Taiwan. The difference these women experienced was that here, it’s not out in the street. In India, sexual harassment has a “cute” name. It’s called, “Eve Teasing”, and it happens everywhere, especially on busses or trains. Women outside of their homes and not protected by a man have to endure strangers touching their breasts and buttocks. That’s the Indian  “penalty” for going out without a man’s protection.

In Jakarta a woman out alone might be approached by a man, or by many men, with the simple request, “give me your phone number.” In Egypt women outside of the house, even in groups, will suffer touching from boys as young as 13 or 14 who will reach through a group of other women to touch or fondle someone. In New York City there’s something called, “Street Harassment”. It happens on the street or in the city’s train system. Men will approach women of color and say something as innocent as “Hey Mama, How you doin’?”. They expect a response and a conversation for no reason other than that they have been “friendly and nice.”

Every person comes into every encounter with a history and background. Today we’re going to consider a story from the fourth gospel, often called “Jesus and the Woman at the Well.” We’re going to try to look at it through the eyes of the main character…. The woman. She enters the conversation from a background of having been “Eve Teased”, or “Street Harassed”, or otherwise sexually mistreated by the men whom she has known up to the moment she meets Jesus. That’s when she heard the voice saying, “Wake up sleeper, and rise from the death…”

Be aware, Jesus is NOT engaging in Eve teasing or sexual harassment. To the woman, though, it doesn’t matter. HER responses come from the place where women around the world have, for all too long, been forced to live. With regard to these negative things that go on in the lives of our sisters all around us, it’s time for all the brothers here to wake up! Let Christ be OUR light, too.

Round 1:

Her Internal Dialog

I’m out here alone on a legitimate errand. But I’m not safe, there’s a guy sitting there He’s alone, too.. I’m glad that along with this water jar, I’m carrying a knife.

He Said

    “Give me a drink of water.”

She Said

    “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan -so how can you ask me for a drink?”

Comment

      Women are often harassed by men who approach them with “innocent” comments and requests to start the dialog that leads to abuse.

     Wake up, brothers. When you are the only man in a room, or when you’re in a room with many men, and a woman comes in alone, she has reason to be afraid. It’s time for you to “wake up and rise from death, let Christ shine on you.

Round 2:

Her Internal Dialog

This guy won’t take a hint. I shouldn’t have responded to him at all, but I was taught from the time that I was little to be nice and to consider others’ feelings. Being “nice” has gotten me into some bad situations before, when will I learn. I’m glad that  I’m carrying a knife. I think I’ll put my hand on it.

He Said

“If only you knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water.”

She Said

“Sir,” the woman said, “you haven’t got a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his sons and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?”

Comment

Sexual abusers disguise their intent, even from themselves, behind manyhigh-toned words. They imagine that the women they use really “want” what they’reoffering and like to be treated roughly and as objects. Sexual harassers and abusers imagine themselves to be GIVERS of life and pleasure, when all they are is TAKERS. They do not listen when told to go away. They consider themselves to be irresistible, so any woman’s resistance is considered fake. She really means, “I want you.”

      Brothers, it’s time to “get woke”. It’s time to rise from our sleep. We are not irresistible, we are VERY resistible. If we’re going to be attractive and magnetic, it will have to be because the light of Christ shines in and through us.

Round 3

Her Internal Dialog

    Challenging him about the bucket and about his respect for the ancestors should stop him. But, maybe it’ll make him mad and he’ll try to grab me.  If he makes a move, I’ll stab him.

He Said

    “Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.”

She Said

Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water.”

Comment

    Basically, she told him to “Put up or shut up”. If he had something to offer her that was real, he should be able to show it, otherwise shut his mouth. Maybe that wasn’t a very nice way for a “lady” to act. Maybe she didn’t feel she was being treated as a “lady”.

    Our words mean something. Have you ever met someone who makes an offensive or  Rude comment, and when challenged, says, “I was only joking.” ?  Having been drawn in to the conversation, because Jesus was promising something she thought she might want, this woman woke up from her sleep and challenged HIM. It’s kind of like someone saying, “show me the money.”

Round 4

Her Internal Dialog

    Like so many of the men who come through my life, from the time I was just a little girl, he’s probably all talk and no walk.

He  Said

    “Go and call your husband,” Jesus told her, “and come back”

She Said

    “I haven’t got a husband,”

Comment

    Why should an adult woman need male sponsorship or approval for anything? We’re not talking about a child here, still under the authority of her parents.

    We cannot hide behind our “culture”, because cultures in places like Jakarta, New York City, Cairo, Delhi, and Rome ALLOW the physical, verbal and emotional harassment of women. Sometimes “culture” is what has to change. And it does, when even a “culture” wakes from it’s sleep and death, and is exposed to the light of Christ.

Round 5

Her Internal Dialog

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Now he’ll attack me for sure because he’ll assume that a single woman has no man to claim that his “rights” to me have been violated. Around here, often a single woman is considered to be available to any man, but to assault a “connected” woman is punishable because it offends the man who owns her.

He  Said

“You are right when you say you haven’t got a husband. You have been married to five men, and the man you live with now is not yearly your husband. You have told me the truth.”

She Said

    “I see you are a prophet, sir,” the woman said. “My Samaritan ancestors worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where we should worship God.”

Comment

    Having been abused and trafficked from one man to another, sometimes under the sometimes false legality of marriage contracts which were not contracts, and other times without, she was not about to fall into the trap of discussing her morality. She changed the subject to talk about religious traditions and how Jesus, being from a different tradition, had no right to tell her anything.

    The terrible revelations of sexual abuse of aboriginal children in church-run homes in Canada, Australia and other places show that religion can be used to mask all kinds of evil. This woman turns the tables on that technique, and uses “religion” to protect herself from having to talk to someone she believes in about to abuse her.

Round 6

Her Internal Dialog

    If he pegs me as a sinner, not as the sinned-against and abused woman that I am, the attack is just around the corner. I think I’ll bring the knife out to where he can see it.

He Said

    Believe me, woman, the time will come when people will not worship the father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans do not really know whom you worship, but we Jews know whom we worship, because it is from the Jews that salvation comes. But the time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God’s spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him the true worship that he wants. God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.”

She Said

    “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes he will tell us everything.”

Comment

    So, Jesus picks up on her talk about mountains and traditions, and switches it to talking about God and the superiority of HIS people’s traditions and religion. She ignores all of that, picks up on one word that he has used, “time”, and says, “now that we’re talking about time, LATER.” There are bigger people than you, we can agree on that.

     In cases when women are abused, police investigation, court cases, verdicts and punishment can often be very slow to come. In the year 2000 in America, it took 219 days between the time a person was arrested for rape and a conviction was done in a court. For a woman to respond to an offer by saying, “Later, Maybe” is no surprise when, should abuse happen, resolution is often far, far away, and many times never comes.

Round 7

Her Internal Dialog

    Appealing to Jacob didn’t get this guy to stop when we were talking about water. Now that we’re talking about religion, I need something bigger than Jacob. That “messiah” comment should have done the trick.

He Said

    “I am he, I who am talking with you.

She Said

    Nothing, And for good reason. A big group of men showed up, and  One knife wasn’t going to be enough to keep her from being gang-raped. It didn’t take all that many men to rape and kill a 23 year old medical student on a bus in South Delhi in India in 2012. It only took two men to rape a 28 year old mother on a bus in Uttar Pradesh last year while her 3-year-old daughter hid in a corner

Comment

    Fleeing a group of potential abusers, likely regarding them as scary, This group of strangers from out of town scare me. I’m leaving the jar, taking my knife and runningfor my life. My people, back in town, will protect me. Testifying to her own community, she says, “come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” So they left the town and went to Jesus.

    Her community MAY have included both men and women, but it’s my guess that she probably felt safest in the company of other women. These responded to her story because they accepted her as one of their own. In responding to her, they went to Jesus, and woke from their sleep. Christ came to shine on them. People respond to her story, because they accept her as one of their own.

      We don’t get out of this story easily, especially the brothers among us. We can make Jesus as sweet and wonderful as he was, as he is, but that doesn’t change the implied threat that he WAS just by being male. That doesn’t change the “felt danger” that increased when his disciples showed up.

CONCLUSION

       What’s wonderful about this story, which goes on through verse 42, is that a community of people come to faith in Christ. Stuck right in the middle of the story there’s a lot of early church teaching about the need to go out and spread the word of God. That’s good stuff, too. But we can’t let ourselves off so easily, brothers. Though we may not regard ourselves as threatening to our sisters here and in society in general, the experiences they and other women have endured may make them suspicious of us. As we are instructed in one of the verses we read from Ephesians today, we should have nothing to do with the worthless things that people do, things that belong to the darkness. We should bring them out into the light. Do this, and Christ will shine on you!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

Stories on a Slow Friday Afternoon

March 22 Midterm Video Assignment

It’s been my practice in recent years to put students as much in control as possible during midterm and final examinations. I absolutely avoid asking people to memorize information and parrot it back at me, and often give them the opportunity a few weeks in advance to choose the topic area on which an exam or project will be based.

On March 22 the “pulpit skills” class discussed videos about making videos, not of sermon recording, but of one person talking to a camera. That inspired the midterm project I assigned.  “Imagine yourself to be the pastor of Happy Jesus Presbyterian Church. Your church has a website. The website has a FAQ tab.  Make a 1-3 minute video in which you respond to the question, “How do I become a member of Happy Jesus Presbyterian Church?”  The videos are due in my inbox by midnight on March 31st, and we’ll look at them together on April 5th.

March 22 The Secret Death of a Bread Machine

Before heading out to class on the afternoon of March 22nd I set up and started our trusty second-hand (purchased years ago in a thrift shop) bread machine. When Char got home from work she could smell bread rising. She heard the machine beep, so pulled the plug and ran some errands. When she returned, she went to get the bread out of the machine and discovered uncooked dough. She vowed to be more careful in the future, and I put the dough into a pan in the oven to bake. It came out rather dense and chewy.

March 23 Over-reaction

Morning prayers at Tainan Theological College were led by the guy for whom I find it hardest to translate. He speaks rapidly and seems to hop from one thing to another, so I can’t follow his train of thought. I’ve settled for just translating sentences as they come into my ears, and not trying to make the entire thing make sense.

At the end of his talk to us, he delivered some news. That morning a dead cat was found in the chapel. He surmised that it had been abused and left there by a mentally ill person, so he warned us all to be careful of strangers on campus.  Then the college president got up and doubled down…. We have to be very careful about keeping the gates on one half of the campus locked after dark and all weekend. We’ve been ordered to inquire the purposes of any stranger whom we might meet on campus. He said that his plan is to move all of the women in the dorm on the unlocked half of campus to a dorm on the locked half.

All this because of a dead cat: which maybe had been hit by someone on a motor scooter and had crawled to the chapel where it died; or maybe had been hit and injured by someone on a motor scooter who put it in the chapel where there was sure to be someone eventually to give care; or maybe was the victim of another such accident and had died, resulting in a superstitious person’s placing it in a “holy place” rather than hanging the body on a fence (which is the old custom here for dead cats).

March 23 Street Harassment Sermon

I got out of synch with the lectionary last week. I had good reasons, but the result is going back and picking up the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well for the 26th. Some feminist clergy have issued loud warnings not to preach this story in the assumption that this woman was immoral or a prostitute.

A week ago I saw a blog about street harassment in New York City, and it struck a chord. Women there have been harassed by guys sidling up and saying things like, “Hey, sis, you oughta smile more.” They are in open rebellion. I’ve chosen to use this as the lens through which to see the woman at the well. She’s afraid when, going to the well alone, she finds a man sitting there. Later, when a whole group of men arrive, she flees, fearing gang rape.

Maybe talk of gang rape from the pulpit isn’t the nicest way to tell a story that includes Jesus saying good things, but it may alter the way that the guys in church, including me, see our interactions with women.

Find it, as yet unpreached (unpraught?) at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3R7z0v0ZWtnakdoS05NSTdEZVE/view?usp=sharing

 

March 23  Dinner Out

Rose (the English name she uses) is a senior in the ministerial training course. She was a single mother until last year, when she married an older Taiwanese guy (David) who had returned from life in the USA to retire here. His two sons remain in America. Last semester, Rose made a last minute try to put together a dinner, but there wasn’t enough lead time,  so it didn’t happen.  This term she started well in advance and got commitments for March 23. There were 9 people around the table, good food, good conversation and a pleasant walk home.

March 24 Public Death of a Bread Machine

Friday morning before heading out the door I set up and started the bread machine, which takes 3 hours and 40 minutes to complete a loaf of whole wheat. I got it going before 8, so figured to smell warm bread when coming back from lunch for a nap.

At about 12:30 I opened the door and did NOT smell bread. I opened the machine and found dough.  Just put the pan with the dough into the oven and set a timer for an hour, went and napped, and got a loaf when I was awake. Bread maker is now with the recycle stuff. The “spare” machine will now come out from under the stairs and become the only one in the house. Since the “spare” was older than the one in use, I’m concerned that before we leave Taiwan in August of 2018, there won’t be fresh bread in the house.

Unfinished

Not Finished Yet    19th March 2017 at Tainan International Community Church

1 Samuel 16:1-13

“Because God is still speaking, we have to keep listening. “

 

Introduction

Jewish believers around the world celebrated “Purim” last week. It’s a festival when they read and remember the stories of Queen Esther, whose story is told in the Bible book that carries her name. Little girls are taught to admire Esther and to take her as a hero and model for life. Feminists prefer Vashti, the queen whom Esther replaced, because Vashti stood up to her husband.  Boys and men are told to model themselves on the character Mordechai, and everyone hates Haman, the terrible villain in the story.

We find our heroes in many places. For many people, it’s in the world of entertainment or professional sports. When I was a young kid, the home-run king of American baseball was a guy named Mickey Mantle, who played for the New York Yankees. I wasn’t much of a sports fan, but everyone knew Mickey’s name and he was widely admired. But apart from hitting a lot of home runs, I later learned, Mickey wasn’t really a great hero. He was a drunk whose alcoholism often resulted in cruelty to family, friends, and fans. In 1994 he entered an Alcoholic Rehabilitation program, partly because his doctor told him that the damage to his liver was already so severe that “your next drink could be your last.” He finished rehab, but only months afterward he required a liver transplant. Because he was rich and famous, he was allowed to “jump to the head of the line for an available transplant after only one day on the waiting list. He had surgery on June 8th 1995. At a press conference later that month, he said, “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.” He died with his new liver 2 months later.  

Because I was one of those kids who grew up in Sunday School, I was encouraged to find heroes and role models in the Bible. When as a little kid I found my name, David, in the Bible, he became my hero. The boy who killed a lion, a bear, and a giant! What more could a kid ask for?

Transition

Now that I’m older and because as a guy my age David wasn’t very heroic, I relate more to Samuel, the old man we read about today. I find much to be admired in Samuel, but he had his “Mickey Mantle” side, too.

I God commands and opens a way (vv. 1-5)

When I began to learn Taiwanese 35 years ago, I had to differentiate between the verbs that indicate “I have learned how to do that”, “I am able to do that”, “I am permitted to do that” and “I am willing to do that”. My mother tongue is not that exact. The words indicating “I have learned how” and “I am able” are the same.

In the first few verses of the story we read from I Samuel today, God told him to go do something that he had learned to do and was able to do, but he was “unwilling”. He had anointed one king, so we know that he “knew how”. There was nothing wrong with his hands and legs, so we know that “he was able”. His problem was that he was unwilling. Even though he was unhappy with the king, he was scared to do anything that would make the king unhappy. God commanded, Samuel refused, but God was not finished yet.

A few weeks ago in Taiwan we marked peace and reconciliation day, otherwise known as 2-2-8. I heard a lot about the events that happened 70 years ago, and some about what happened for 40 years after that. What lingers on, even in recent 30 years, is a reluctance on the part of many people here in Taiwan to touch political issues. In part, that is because there are so many more interesting things to do in life and on the internet. But in part it is because of what happened to those who “got involved in politics” in the decade following the second world war, and what happened to them.

Like Samuel, who didn’t want to go to Jesse’s house and anoint a new king, like Nicodemus, (whose story we considered last week), a man who told Jesus it was impossible to “go back into his mother’s womb and be born again”, we find reasons why we don’t need to do the things that God tells us to do. Consider how in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive our sins “as we forgive those who sin against us”, and yet we sometimes hold onto the sins of people who have sinned against us for years, if not until we die!   

But as God opened a way for Samuel to go peacefully to Jesse’s house and do what he was told, even though Samuel would not be living when David actually became king, we have a way open today for our doing what God wants each of us to do. I don’t know what that is in YOUR case, it’s between you and God. If you want to involve me in the conversation you’re having with God about it, I’ll get involved. Otherwise, I’ll stay out of it.

Transition

Who knows the roads in the city better than anyone else? Who can get you anywhere without a GPS in the car? Of course, a taxi driver. But have you ever known a taxi driver to get lost?  Rarely, but it happens.  In the story we read today, the prophet got lost.

II The prophet loses his way (vv.6 & 7-11)

When God has cleared a way for something, has shown us that we know how, and that we are able, and that we may go, any claim we might make of “I’m not willing” is pretty weak. Everything was clear for Samuel, so he went to do what God told him. But, like a taxi driver who should know the way, but sometimes gets lost, Samuel started off in the wrong direction.

The culture of his place and time, like many cultures of our OWN place and time, respected the elder over the younger. (If you remember how, in Genesis, Jacob got two wives, it’s the same story. It’s not proper to prefer the younger one.)  When he came to anoint a king, Samuel was pre-disposed to look at the eldest son of Jesse as the most suitable. Where did he get THAT idea? It was already in his heart. Jesse was of the same mind. He had 8 sons, but hadn’t bothered to call the youngest in from where he was looking after the sheep. He “looked down on youth.”

I worked in Shou Shan Presbytery’s Campus ministry center from 1984 through 1995. During those years, Taiwan became a country of freedom and fair elections. I recall once how a pastor on the university ministry committee said to me, when talking of an election going on in Kaohsiung at the time, that one candidate was obviously unsuitable because she had no experience. She was running on her father’s famous name. I politely reminded that pastor that my work was with young people. He had forgotten.  

Upon whom do we look down in our social, political and church lives? Though I’m no longer in the campus ministries center, I still interact a lot with young people at the theological college (and with some older students as well). Like Samuel who initially got lost, we can, also like Samuel, be guided back to the way we should go.  Even when we’re lost, God is not finished yet.

Transition:

We are not Samuel. We are neither Barclay (who founded the college) nor Shoki Coe (who helped re-open it after it had closed). We won’t make those mistakes. But, maybe we will. Verse 12 shows how someone else with whom God was “not finished yet” got lost.

III: The prophets’ heirs lose their way (v 12)

More than once in life, even after we’ve been given clear directions, we get lost, don’t we? In verse 7 Samuel was told, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature….” That’s pretty clear. But Samuel isn’t the one who wrote this stuff down. It was years, decades, even centuries later that, after this story had been told over and over, someone put it down for us today. Probably the same person who wrote verse 7 also wrote verse 12, and in that short space in between, he also lost his way.  Look at what it says there in verse 12: “David was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” These are exactly the things that God apparently told Samuel not to look at in verse 7.  

In a class that I teach at the theological college we are learning with “platform skills”, the kinds of things one does using one’s body, face, eyes, hands and other things to make sermons come across better. As we’ve looked at techniques of public speaking, some students say that these are inappropriate in church. When I ask them why, they can’t exactly say. They believe that church is supposed to be serious, and even boring. It should not be like a television program. I’m not yet finished with them.

We who have followed the prophets and the apostles have sometimes reduced them from the human beings they WERE to the white paper black words in which we read about them. The less familiar we are with the content of the scripture, the more likely we are to depend on only what is written there as we live our lives of faith. We need to read our bibles together, discuss what we read, and come to understand what we are reading, both as it was put down long ago and as we take it up today.  We need to be able to think if we are going to be able to interpret scripture, culture, current events and human life to be spiritually healthy. We can’t “outsource” this kind of thinking to the pastor or church leaders.

Transition

If even prophets like Samuel, and holy people like those who wrote the stories into what we now hold as the bible, can lose their way, what hope is there for us?

Conclusion  (v 13)   God does what God intends

One of the joys of Bible reading is staying with the story to its very end. And in this one, a story people losing their ways, the conclusion is what saves us. In verse 13, we learn that God did what God intended. “The Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

May that same Lord who came mightily on David, do the same for each of us, that we might serve each other and God all the days of our lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

 

Let us Pray

Lord God, writer of your own, of this world’s, of the nations’, of the families’ and of of individuals like ourselves, we offer ourselves to be edited and corrected by you. Seek us in our lostness, correct us in our wrongness, bring us home from our wanderings, and use us in the eternal story that you are writing eternally.  In Jesus’ name.  AMEN

The Pastor is Feeling Cranky!

Ordered Confession  (March 14)

Unlike the previous week, when by inattention I crashed the senior students’ practice preaching session, I attended the one I was supposed to be at on the 14th. The student did a very good job with  her assigned text and demonstrated confidence in the pulpit rivalled by few of her classmates (and even by a some of the faculty). She had provided me advance copies her sermon and the order of service that she intends to use when her turn to lead worship comes up early in April.

Though I had nothing but praise for her presence and preaching, I took her to task for something in the service she had written.  She had all the standard bits that we use at the theological college, including some that are rarely, if ever, used in local churches. The way she arranged the things done around confession of sin has been getting under my skin more and more lately.  

In previous years I would naile students for leading us to confess our sin without telling us afterwards that we have been forgiven. I told them that after they made me think of the rot in me and bring it to the surface, they owed me the comfort of assuring me that God had taken care of it. Now I’m on to something else, something from John Calvin. It’s that AFTER we have been assured of being forgiven that some sort of instruction for how to live (otherwise known as “the Law of God”) is needed.  If not, we’ll just go out and make the same dumb mistakes again.

What had been happening of late at the college was a reading of the law FIRST after which an invitation to confess sins was given. Then there would be time for silent reflection, OR a unison prayer of confession, OR a confession prayer spoken by the leader. Singing a short response asking for God’s mercy (the Kyrie) sometimes followed, then some words about being pardoned. That’s all well and good, but I like Calvin’s order, with the law coming last. It doesn’t have to be something as heavy as the 10 commandments. Something as light as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “Be kind to one another” suffices. I ask students to do it this way because I want the entire “confession of sin” thing to leave us not only cleaned up, but armored for the battles we fight daily with our own weaknesses.

Required to be Boring (March 15)

The pulpit skills class that I’ve been teaching this term gets ever more deeply into creative things a preacher can do to make the entire “sermon part of worship more” effectively communicative. Students are becoming restless and uncomfortable because these skills seem more and more like showmanship and television presence than what they think ought to happen in church.  Last week one even suggested that the techniques we were learning from videos were not proper for church where we are supposed to be “… more dignified, serious and…”  I stopped him there, and added “boring.” There was nervous laughter and nodding of heads around the room.  I’m not finished with these people,yet.

 

Pricey Hardware (March 18)

One of the stalled projects that I set out for myself last semester came around last week and kicked me into gear, only to go right back into neutral a couple of days later.  The chapel at Tainan Theological College is a basilica with large windows on each side and a clerestory with its own set of windows. The light is spectacular! Last fall I went out onto the roof of the side aisle, pried open some of those clerestory windows, and hung banners across the chapel ceiling. The guy in charge of buildings and grounds made me promise to take them down before Christmas because the chapel had been rented out to people who were going to use it for weddings late in December.

`A week ago a woman who will preach to the community on March 22 mentioned that she would like banners aloft as part of her decorating scheme. That got me moving again. I pulled out my plans and made a shopping list for the hardware needed to make the entire process easier to do. Then I went shopping and got sticker shock.  All I need are several knobs, hinges sliding bolts and eyelet screws, but the monster self-service hardware store I went to had only first class cabinetry fittings.  I’m neither needing things that good nor wanting to spend that much.  I left the store without buying a thing.

Project back in neutral, I’m wondering if I’ll EVER get it done.

 

Lost (March 19)

Owing to a history as a martial law dictatorship (which ended, thankfully, between 25 and 30 years ago), cities in Taiwan tend to have a collection of streets with the same names. Among the most important roads in any town are those named for Dr. Sun Yat-sen (the founder of the Republic of China) and for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (the military dictator whose army took over Taiwan after the second world war).  On March 19th I was assigned to preach at a church in the city of Feng Shan, located on Chung Cheng (Chiang’s “royal” name) road, but went looking for Chung Shan (Dr. Sun’s “royal” name) road instead.  Had I driven to the church, or taken a bus, I could have found it with no trouble at all. I’ve been going there since the early 80s.  But this year I took the train.  After wandering for about 3000 steps, I finally consulted the address written on a piece of paper I was carrying, saw my mistake, and asked for directions. Got there on time.

 

Curtains!(March 20)

Classes are cancelled today to give people a day off in exchange for having been sent out preaching yesterday. Last week I noticed that I was feeling particularly tired, and put it down to having not really taken a day off for a LONG time. So today I am avoiding the office across campus and anything having to do with school or church work.  Result…. I took down all the curtains in the house and ran them through some washing machines and dryers at a laundromat. That only took a little more than an hour…. Ironing required a couple more, and rehanging another 30 minutes.  Things don’t look an awful lot different, but we can KNOW that they’re clean now. I can’t recall the last time we could say that.

Growing (March 15th)

Growing  (March 15th)

Last week I began indexing the 1995 Chalice Hymnal to create a list of where to find the tunes therein set out in Numbered notation. This will make the entire thing more useful with pianists who have learned to play from numbers (a system familiar in East Asia) rather than from notes in 5-line staffs.  I didn’t know when I began how big the project would turn out to be. The first thing that I dropped out was the idea of having a list of url’s so that computer versions of the tunes could be accessed. That was REALLY going to mean running down a rabbit hole.

The Chalice has 725 items (hymns, litanies, prayers, inspirational sayings, etc.) plus a selection of psalms with sung responses.  I skipped the psalms, cutting down the number of things to deal with to 725.  Then I skipped anything that didn’t have a tune, further cutting my task to about 600 items.  As I worked through the Chinese hymnals and songbooks available to me, I figured that anything in the Chalice that was written after 1980 would NOT be in my sources.  That cut me to about 450.  I think I’ve found better than 350 of those.  My next job will be to find more recent Chinese “youth song books”, which may have some stuff from 1980 and later. 

Other things I discovered in the Chalice (which will be useful as time passes) are those litanies, prayers, inspirational sayings, etc.  Rather than writing my own, or doing “copy and paste” from the internet, it will become my practice to choose from the hymnbook and  say, “turn to # 319 in your and let’s read together what we find there”.  It will also serve to imprint on the participants the usefulness of the book and the quality of what’s presented to us there NOT in musical form.

A hymnal is more than a songbook, and worship is more than listening to a sermon. Maybe, at age 65, it’s time that I grew up as a pastor.

Bi-directional Ego Massage March 12

Ahead of church Sunday afternoon I posted invitations on a couple of local facebook pages. One of them is mainly composed of foreign people in Tainan who share information about jobs, try to sell motorcycles, and stuff like that. I used a very light touch in what I wrote. The other post went to an international students’ group at the big national university in town.  It was pretty much the same ad as the first pitch.

    When church started it seemed that the ads had had no effect at all. The numbers were the same as usual, about 15. (We put out 20 chairs in 2 rows, and there were a few empties). But as time passed those empties filled up, and more people kept arriving and grabbing other chairs. We had a third row!  I was getting excited about how well my “outreach” had gone.  It was a great ego boost.

    Then during the time when people share prayer requests before the intercessions one guy mentioned that it was one young woman’s birthday.  I included that in the prayers and thought nothing more of it, until after worship when the birthday party began. More and more people began to show up, demonstrating clearly that the day’s  attendance increase had nothing to do with anything I’d posted online. People hadn’t come to experience a little bit of church or anything like that. They came to be part of an Indonesian birthday party.

    Ego properly massaged back down to size, I had a piece of cake.

 

 

Who You Gonna Call?

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pyrIkDFYJMq1S0yTiNnsogdJRGFuNW87byLrjaxJrko/edit?usp=sharing

12 March 2017     TEXTS: Psalm 121, John 3:1-17

TITLE: Who you gonna call?

INTRODUCTION

Today could be called, “take a risk Sunday.”  The first risk I’m taking is the sermon title and the pictures on the screen from the 1986 and 2016 versions of a movie. You might just begin thinking about one or both of those, and not listen. The second risk is that we’re going to look at a video for a couple of minutes. It’s from an American university, and it’s meant to be fun. It is modeled on the kind of TV commercials often seen in America during the kinds of programs that old folks like to watch. It identifies a disease, and announces the discovery of a new medicine, and recommends that you ask your doctor to prescribe it for you.

(Show Video)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQq1-_ujXrM

 

OK, now, when you need help, “Who you gonna call?”  Both of the places we read in the Bible today asked this question, and in each of them we got “approximately” the same answer, though by different routes.

I: Psalm 121:  Not the Mountains

30 years ago I visited a little harbor town on the Pacific seacoast of America. The town had ocean on one side, and forested mountains on the other. From some places in that town on clear days you could see far away to mountains so tall that trees didn’t grow on the tops of them.

At the church I was visiting there was a beautiful painting of that clear-day mountain view on one wall, and under it were the words that we read at the beginning of Psalm 121 today, “I look to the mountains where my help comes from.” It was a beautiful picture, and the verse is a good one, but the two didn’t go together very well. The painter changed the words of the second part from a question into a statement.

Considering the mountains to be the “land of the gods” is pretty common in religions ancient and modern and around the world. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion are considered holy. In the New Testament we can read about the Mount of Olives and Mount Carmel. Greek Folk religion had gods living on Mount Olympus. Hinduism in India has Mount Kailash, and modern-day North Korea, a non-religious or anti-religious state, relocated the birthplace of their Great Leader Kim Il-sung from wherever he actually was born to Mt Baektu, which was held as holy in ancient Korean folk religion.

Assuming that the mountains are the dwelling place of gods or of God is natural enough, but the Psalm we read today told us not to expect much from mountains. The poet starts by telling us of his action and his hope, “I look to the mountains, where will my help come from?” (Action: LOOK. Hope: HELP.) The second part is clearly a question. The answer begins in verse 2 and continues all the way to the end of the last verse. It’s NOT the mountains, but the God who made the mountains who will help. We get a description of what to expect when looking to God for help: protection, attention; guarding, shielding, safety at home and when away.

I enjoyed the video we watched. I hope you did, too. Being a student and not understanding is very common. In one class I was teaching last week, I described what I want students to do for next Wednesday 3 times. Four of my five graduate students “got” it, but the fifth one had to have his classmates explain it even more. I had thought I’d been clear enough. At the school where I teach, and, apparently at the university where the video came from, students who don’t understand don’t like to ask their teachers. (Maybe it’s different in your school.) What happens with students who don’t understand is they EITHER suffer OR they ask their friends, who maybe didn’t understand, either.

Our instruction from the psalm is: don’t look to the mountain, look to the one who created it. In the “Jesus story” we met someone who actually went to the teacher to ask. But it doesn’t look like it was an easy conversation.

II: Nicodemus’ Visit

Nicodemus was identified to us as a leader of his people and a member of the group of the Pharisees. That’s all. Don’t try to put too much into that word, but don’t ignore it, either. Going to  Jesus, Nicodemus called him “rabbi”, which means, “teacher.” He added that he believed Jesus to be “a teacher sent by God” and mentioned the signs that Jesus had done. It seems that he had questions about God and the things of God, which is why he went to the guy who he believed to be a teacher sent by God. Hey, when you’ve got questions, “Who you gonna call?”

Jesus didn’t wait for the question. He just began talking, and along the way mentioned something that seemed to be more than a common miracle. He talked about being born “again” or “from above”.  That probably wasn’t the question that Nicodemus came with, but eventually Jesus forced the conversation this way, and it stayed there because being “born again” or “born from above” seems so strange. So this student (a leader of his people) and this teacher (sent from God) went “around and around”. After a while, Jesus got tired of the conversation.  Verses 10-13 show him first criticizing Nicodemus for being slow to understand, and then teaching him a Bible lesson from his own people’s history.  

What Jesus may said ends at verse 15, where the gospel writer takes over to explain the whole thing to us in two verses. Among Christians, many people hold John, chapter 3, verse 16 to be so central to Christianity that we forget the conversation with Nicodemus that comes before it and the verse that comes right after it. Since we’ve already talked through verses 1-15, I’ll read those last two: (John 3:16-17)

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”

Remember the video from the university?  Compare this story: Though Nicodemus was NOT suffering from FMOOWMP, he still took the medicine, “FOH”. He went to the professor (Jesus) for help. The video promised that FOH would be the answer for FMOOOWMP.  Did it work for Nicodemus? We don’t find out in chapter 3, but near the end of the gospel, when Jesus’ dead body was taken down from the cross, Nicodemus was as one of the guys who put it body into the tomb.

III: What do you need help with?

In some religions with many gods, there are hierarchies, some gods higher up and more powerful than others. Christianity doesn’t allow that. Only ONE God, and even though God is described as ‘Trinity’, there’s no rank there, but an equal fellowship of “three persons in One God.” That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried.  Through creation of the cult of saints, prayers are sent first to saints and only passed  “higher up” if the saint herself or himself can’t take care of the matter directly. So you’ll find people praying to St. Anthony for help with finding something they’ve lost. Irish women are supposed to pray to St. Bridget of Kildare when they need help while in labor to give birth.

What do you need help with?  It depends, doesn’t it?  And when you need help; “Who You Gonna Call?” When I encounter computer troubles, I’m not likely to pray, I’m more likely to curse. For computer troubles I don’t turn to the mountains, or to heaven, or to a saint. I turn to a book, or I listen to my wife and phone our son in America.

When I feel that I’m in danger, I DO pray. That’s when Psalm 121is helpful. Not because it tells me how or what to pray, not because it contains magic words to get God to do what I want, but because it reminds me to trust in the ONE to whom I’m praying, the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

And in those frequent times when I’m confused about the nature or content of my faith in God, I also pray. That’s what Nicodemus was doing in the story we read from John 3. He was confused. He believed some things about God, then saw or heard about the signs that Jesus was doing, and connected these with “being from God”, so went to get answers.

We’ll never know exactly what questions he INTENDED to ask Jesus, because the people who wrote John’s gospel hijacked the story and used it to teach about being born “from above”, which they regarded to be a VERY IMPORTANT part of relating to God in Christ. They wanted the folks of their time to know about it, and THAT’s the message that comes to us today through this gospel story.  Nobody doubts that “being born from above” was central in Jesus’ teaching. We’ve no reason to doubt that Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus one night. But putting the teachings and the event together, that’s the ART of gospel writing, and through that art we learn important things: 1)about Jesus; 2)about what he taught; and 3) about the community of believers who carried those things along and eventually wrote them down for us decades later.

CONCLUSION

To answer the question of the title, “Who you Gonna Call?”, we’ve had three inputs today. They come in an order of importance from lowest to highest for us to remember. The lowest is the video, the middle is the Psalm, and the highest is the Gospel story.

FROM THE VIDEO: If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to visit your professor in his or her office. Doing so can result in success.

FROM THE PSALM: You are protected by God. Compared to that truth, the fact of a mountain is only a little bump.

FROM THE GOSPEL STORY: Getting born from above, or born again is something that God does to and for us. We don’t earn it, we can’t make it happen. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. So stop trying to save your soul, and begin growing it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

Let us Pray:

We call on you God, because you are greater than the mountains, so we trust in you to help.

We call on you Jesus, because yours are the words of eternal life.

We call on you, Holy Spirit, because through your action we are born again.

We call on you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be our guide, now and forevermore. AMEN

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