February 10, 2019
John 5:36-40, 10:11-16
But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
“What if we read scripture like a love letter from God?”
I was on the Oregon Coast with my pastor and Mentor Rev. Dr. Ken Evers-Hood. We were gathered around a drift wood fire with the high school youth group of the church that raised me. I had been hired to help lead our confirmation class’ retreat, and Ken’s invitation that night crackled along with the fire and possibility.
What if scripture was a love letter? What if we read the collection of books passed down to us through the millennia like a series of texts sent to us from a desired Beloved? Your phone vibrates with that specially assigned ring you’ve programmed, maybe a heartbeat, and your hand dives for the phone, your yes Searching for that deeply desired, impossible feeling confirmation that maybe, just maybe, you’re loved. You pour over every word. You savior the phrases. Each comma, each line a possible invitation into something beautiful.
Our youth were an eclectic mix; there were the jocks and old friends who were thrilled to get away together so they could stay up late and gossip. There were popular kids who were trying to navigate expectations that seemed like a path to professional success, but also the constant fear of failure and disappointing so many adults who were invested in you making it. And There were the teenagers who wondered if they would ever feel good enough for anyone to take notice of them. One young woman we’ll call Rose, absolutely stood out from the rest. She was all goth black makeup and hair. Over her signature black hoodie, which never changed, were a varied wardrobe of chain mail, that she made by hand. She had been signed up to go on this retreat by her parents, and she stuck close to Ken and I. You could sense she wasn’t sure about the other youth, or this whole God thing, but she knew enough about Ken and my irreverent senses of humor to sense kindred misfits, intrigued by the idea of the Holy Mischief we seemed to manage.
That weekend, we started by that salt air infused bonfire, the air thick with its salty incense, and Ken’s invitation to read scripture like a love letter, a text from someone you think might have a crush on you. We invited folks to write their hopes for the weekend on envelopes, filled with powder that transformed the flames to beautiful greens and purples, and as the youth chucked them into the fire, speaking an intention into the circle. As Rose threw her envelope in, her wish was to feel Belonging.
Our Reformed tradition insists that, when we consider what will inform and inspire us, that we start with scripture. For many of us though, around that fire years ago, and for more than a few of us gathered in this little church in the woods, Scripture can be a difficult starting place. The Bible is a strange land where many folks don’t find Belonging, that it can be hard to feel at home in. If I’m honest, as someone who has spent well over a decade studying the Bible and sourcing my day to day work from its pages, this dis-ease seems to be a helpful corrective to the prevalent ideas about scripture that swirl in our midst these days. Our collection of texts was written in very different languages from English, with words that we don’t usually come in contact with in our daily lives. Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek are beautiful and complex languages that can be poetic and full of art, double meanings, rhythms that our English translations don’t always give voice to. Then of course there’s the cultures these texts were written in; societies that held incredible beauty, but also patriarchal attitudes, violence, genocide, displacement of native peoples. There are philosophical differences between those who wrote these words and our post-post modern sensibilities. To begin with there’s the Hebrew understanding of the Cosmos, with stores of Water above the earth and below, storage rooms in the heavens full of snow, ice and fire, waiting for the trap doors to be released. Our Christian Scriptures, written in Koine, or commoner Greek, are written by people who are occupied by a violent empire where women and children can be seen as property, where multiple religions and philosophical understandings of the body devalue human experience, and elevate philosophies that seek to transcend existence rather than reform our daily lives. And while the communities who authored scripture takes on these ideas, and argue against Greek devaluing of human life, we can feel like foreigners in a land where we don’t speak the language or understand the customs.
And all of this before we get to the baggage so many of us carry, about how the Bible is supposed to be read, or what it provides for us. Some of us grew up with the Bible standing for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, that somehow Hebrew Poetry should be distilled to what we should do, and what we shouldn’t, that the stories are literally history instead of myths that hold larger truths, and questions to be debated, as opposed to easily answered. Others of us were told that we should read scripture so that we can realize how wretched we are, that we should repent and live some kind of “leave it to beaver” American dream where individual piety and purity are the goals, while forgetting about the tasks of life together in community, and social responsibility to the marginalized in our midst. But what if scripture could be something else? What if it was a liberative Word, a subversive text that can fuel revolutions of love and societal transformation? What if it’s poetry and stories held an invitation to be inspired to love ourselves, our neighbors, and the Holy One in our midst more deeply?
What I’ve always found paradoxical about my moments of discomfort with scripture is that the same did-ease I sometimes have with starting our encounter with a text as a way to experience the Holy, is that the people who populate the Bible’s pages give voice to these concerns, especially Jesus. The Gospel of John, which is often a favorite of Televangelists and Tent Revivalists, holds discussions and debates of our Grandparents in the Christian Faith who tried to figure out what would inspire and motivate them.
When I was in College studying religion, one of my professors dove into this text with us my Freshmen year, and offhandedly mentioned that the community who wrote the Gospel of John seemed to have a unique relationship with time. They weren’t particularly linear. Throughout the text the narrator jumps ahead to after Jesus Resurrection, then back to the creation of the world, all over the place, and my professor mentioned that it seems that this community didn’t think of Jesus as a figure of the past, but a figure of all time; past, present, and future. When did Jesus say this? Well, it could have been during his Ministry in ancient Palestine around 30 CE, or it could be the week before the author set down to write, sometime in the early 200’s CE. Our class was stunned, which for a bunch of mostly agnostic or atheist college students was quite a feat. “What?” He laughed. “These people are encountering Jesus every day. His voice is a real part of their lives as they go about living. Can’t you hear it in the text? For them, the Word of God is among the community, within them, and that’s what brings the text to life, makes it Holy. It’s not about the words, it’s about The Word, the Living Word, who they call Jesus.”
As we think about where we find inspiration, where we encounter the Holy in our world, the wisdom of our tradition suggests that we begin with scripture as a starting point, but often we have taken that a little too literally, and never let our gaze come up from the page. And, what I love is that in the text of John, Jesus warns us to keep an eye out for where he shows up. “Are you going to ignore me when I show up among you? Really? I’m bringing you New Life in your midst, of only you’ll look.”
And, if that invitation isn’t revolutionary enough for us to hear as American Christians in 2019, there’s this whole conversation in this morning’s text about other sheep, who will know this voice, who will be gathered as well, that we will find ourselves among. Theologians have wondered, could he be talking about people very different from us, maybe even folks from other religions, other traditions, even no spiritual community at all? Maybe even in poetry, or music, art or creation itself?
All those years ago on the Oregon Coast, we started with scripture as a love letter, but that’s not where we stopped. Scripture wasn’t the only letter we had that week. On the second night, after a day full of games and team building, of cooking our meals as a family, and doing life together at a church camp, we led the youth out to a beautiful sand dune, with trees that gave way to a small beach on a lake. Before the youth had arrived, we had put candles all through the sand, and floated candles into the lake, and as we turned the corner their gasps reminded us the power that light and beauty can have, playing across still waters. Each of them received an envelope that was full of letters from people who loved them; teachers, coaches, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, adults from the church. The letters told them where they saw the Holy in their lives, how proud they were, their dreams for their lives. The youth sat down and read those words, slowly, seeing between the letters something beautiful; their deepest hopes, to be loved and cared for, that the parts of who they were that were confusing, or brought them joy, delighted those who loved them most. And then, after Jesus showed up in those letters, we gathered the youth to plan a worship service for one another the next day. We would hold it wherever they wanted to at the Church Camp we were at. Whatever music they wanted, whatever scripture, they were in charge.
The next day was one of the most beautiful reflections of what inspired these young people, of where Jesus was showing up in their lives. Our Gathering Hymn was Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” our scripture came from John with their reflections, we shared communion, and then we came to the Benediction. At first, when they hit play on their iPods, we didn’t think the speakers were working, and then we heard it. Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond. Right as the Chorus began, Rose got up and flung her arms wide. “Shine on you Crazy Diamonds. You seers of visions, you beautiful artists. Find the light and dwell in it, and know you are loved. Amen.” It was so true and honest, so real and beautiful.
Beloved, as we consider what inspires us, I encourage you to risk starting with scripture, knowing that these human words, between them, hold an invitation, a love letter, from the Holy One who continues to speak into our world through the sources of your delight. May we be a community that searches for invitations to love, and may we shine on in the darkness, knowing Jesus walks with our neighbors, and us, in surprising and beautiful ways. Amen.