On Entitlement: Serving a Grace-Filled God in a Merit-Based World

Luke 7:1-10

We hear a lot these days about entitlement.

Much has been said and written about it in recent years. People accuse my generation in particular of being the most entitled generation in history. A minority of people older than I have for years imagined that we are a bunch of entitled brats, expecting to be handed things that we feel like we deserve. In reality, I have not experienced my generation to be particularly entitled — at least, not any more so than the entitlement I see in folks both younger and older than myself. In truth, we all think that we are entitled to certain things — whether it’s because we’ve endured something, because we are older, because we are younger, because of our educations, or any other factor — we all, to some degree, feel somewhat entitled.

But still, the stereotype of my so-called entitlement generation remains. It’s not untrue of young people in every age, I don’t imagine: young gunners are known for thinking that they know better than the generations before, that because they have obtained certain things — namely for my generation, an education — that we inherently deserve to be listened to. Young, ambitious people might imagine that they are automatically entitled to excel in whatever they choose to do. They feel they’ve earned it.

I have to tell you that I have found this particularly true of preachers. And not just young preachers, since many come to ministry as a second or third career. New preachers are known for it: a sense of entitlement that we deserve to be listened to, that we are inherently talented and can start writing good sermons immediately.

You see, after a year or two of seminary, one’s brain has been filled with so much information and preparation that one imagines that one is ready to tackle anything in the local parish, especially writing a simple sermon. By my second year, I felt like I’d worked so hard — from working at a local homeless shelter to studying in the library to the wee hours of the morning to going without sleep for a day or two because of the academic rigor — I felt like I’d earned the right to be listened to. I thought that, after tackling so much, writing good sermons would be easy. I’m not alone in that.

For this reason, this sense of entitlement and cockiness that new preachers sometimes have, one’s first sermon can be … how do I put this delicately … comically bad.

There is story after story of preachers’ first sermons. I would tell you the story of mine, but there isn’t much to tell. It lasted four minutes. And it was four minutes of literally everything I knew about Christmas. Unfortunately for me and the United Methodist congregation to whom I preached, it was only the first Sunday of Advent.

When I was at the festival of homiletics last week, one of the speakers talked about a pastor he knew who gave his first sermon after his first year of seminary who prepared meticulously for the occasion. He was ready to give them everything that the church needed: good theology, sound exegesis, Spirit-filled preaching. He was ready to tell them everything they needed to know and everything he had learned from his first year in seminary. Because of his merits as a rising second-year seminarian, he felt that he was worthy to deliver the best sermon that they had ever heard. He had studied and earned it, after all.

Just as he got up to give the sermon, the wind, or perhaps the Spirit, came through and blew his meticulously prepared sermon to the floor. (I suppose I’ve always been scared of this, so I have always numbered my pages every. Single. Time.) Knowing that he was unable to put the pages together in the right order in a timely manner, the rising second year seminarian simply stood in front of the congregation for the next twenty minutes and said, in the Southern and/or African American tradition, “Mmmmmmmhmmm. Alllllright.”

After about ten minutes of this, the first-time preacher heard in that congregation the one thing that Southern preachers never want to hear but so many first time preachers have: the woman in the back raised her hands and said “Help ‘im, Lord.” She continued, as he continued to intone “Mmmmhmmm… allllright,” to shout back and answer him as if he was giving the best sermon she’d ever heard. When he finished, after church, when he met the woman in the receiving line, he said, “That must have been the worst sermon you’ve ever heard. Why did you answer back so much?” “Honey,” she said in her sweet Southern accent, “Just ‘cause you didn’t do your job doesn’t mean I don’t have to do mine.”

Sooner or later, all preachers learn that it is not merits or education that entitles us to preach good sermons. Preach long enough and you will discover that your best sermons — those that would get you a sure A in preaching class — may go unnoticed. And by the same token, sermons that you are 100% sure are stinkers will make people weep and tell you they’ve never heard the Word preached like that because something in that sermon was a healing balm for them. The Holy Spirit is crazy like that.

But one thing you do learn: no preacher’s education or holiness or merits makes the Holy Spirit show up. The Holy Spirit blows where it will. And sometimes it blows your meticulously prepared pages and your sense of entitlement right off the podium.

In the same way, people often talk about healing as if it’s something to be earned. When I was a hospital chaplain, I often heard it: “I don’t know why God isn’t acting, I’ve prayed all night,” or “I must have sinned, because God isn’t healing me.” They figure either that they’ve earned healing with their faithfulness, or that God has somehow turned God’s back on them because they weren’t good enough. It is a heartbreaking and constant common theme for the chaplain.

In today’s Gospel text, the Pharisees come out to meet Jesus with a special message: a local centurion has a slave who is in need of healing. Knowing how Jesus might view centurions — they were occupiers of Jewish land, after all — they go to great lengths to explain why this centurion is worthy of having his servant healed: he’s a good man, they say, who loves our people and helped us to build our synagogue. If anyone is entitled to a healing, they say, it’s him. He’s earned it!

And Jesus, for his part, gets up and goes towards the centurion’s home, presumably to heal the slave. Who knows why Jesus does so — I tend to think that it’s out of concern for the slave, since Jesus always tends to favor the least powerful and most vulnerable. Whatever his motivations, he never gets all the way to the centurion’s house. The centurion’s friends, presumably Romans themselves, come out to meet Jesus and to tell him that the centurion says that he doesn’t need to make a home visit, but that the centurion knows that he can heal his servant from where he stands.

I admit that I don’t know why the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to come into his house. Maybe he’s afraid of what Jesus will see — or afraid of his judgement. Maybe he just doesn’t have a clean house and doesn’t want the Savior of the world just walking in. Or maybe it’s as simple as we assume — maybe the centurion doesn’t want to trouble him. Whatever his motivations, this is another time in Luke’s Gospel where the outsider, the Roman occupier, in this case, gets it while the religious leaders do not. They were bent on convincing Jesus that the centurion was worthy, but the centurion himself did no such thing. He sent his friends out to tell him how unworthy he was to have him come under his roof. And Jesus is so impressed by his faith that he says he hasn’t found anyone in Israel, Jew or Roman, with such faith. (Which, by the way, is a major dig at the religious leaders.)

The Pharisees felt entitled to approach Jesus and to vouch for the centurion based on merits and accomplishments.For sure, we often try to justify ourselves and other people by talking about merits. We’re proud of what we’ve earned and what we’ve done. Seminarians and other new preachers are proud of their accomplishments, and they should be. But what we often fail to realize — or at least, I did — is that it’s God, not our accomplishments, that does the heavy lifting.

Jesus does the healing, not the centurion’s merits. None of us earns God’s favor, which is something we’re entirely unused to in this credential-obsessed world.

In a few moments, we will do a few acts of worship that we do not normally do. One is the lighting of candles to remember those who have served our country who have gone on the join the communion of saints. The other is a rite of healing, as May is Mental Health and Lyme Disease awareness month. In both of these rites, we are tempted to think that it is merit that is at play; that some are entitled to be remembered and some are entitled to be healed. But I want you to think of it like this: we remember the private as well as the general on Memorial Day, and we light candles for every saint on All Saints’. And just as Jesus healed in this story regardless of anyone’s merits, and in doing so healed the least powerful of all, the slave, so Jesus offers wholeness and life abundant to all of us alike.

Beloved, we serve a grace-filled God in a merit-based world.

We like to think that our education, experience, and good deeds put us above others, as they often do in the world. But in God’s kingdom, healing is offered to all. Wholeness is offered to all. And most importantly, grace is offered to all. Thank God.

My sermons today are longer than four minutes and now placed in the right liturgical season, but I am as dependent on the wind of the Spirit now as ever — to blow my merit-based entitlement to the floor so that I can preach the Gospel of a grace-filled God.

May the graceful tempest of the Spirit continue to blow through your lives, also. Amen.

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Image: Pastor Anna preaching at her internship congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church of Atlanta.

 

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Pentecost 2016: Dancing with the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27

I struggled all week with these words: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” and “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

And I admit that I came no closer to understanding the advanced calculus of the Trinity than I was before. I cannot explain the Holy Spirit, so I wrestled in my uncertainty, and I came here this morning with a very simple message. I came here this morning to say, in the words of Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The fire, the Holy Spirit, has indeed always burning since the world’s been turning. It moved over the waters at creation, it stirred the heart of Abraham, he pushed back the waters of the Red Sea, and she showed up big on Pentecost day after Jesus had ascended. The Holy Spirit has always been mysterious and undefinable, but on that day in Jerusalem it really put on a show. As Jesus’ disciples drew a crowd who came to gawk at these local people who spoke and spoke in various languages about all of those other deeds of God’s power, and each heard it in their own language.

Luke tells us as the crowd gathered around that house in Jerusalem, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
“… others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

It occurred to me this week that there are two things in the Pentecost story told in the Acts text today that dance — flames and people who are assumed to be drunk but are actually filled with the crazy, unpredictable, ever-present Holy Spirit, declaring with great joy what God has done. So, in essence, flames and presumably drunk persons are known to dance.

Both of those, as it were, also remind me of springtime. And so, instead of trying to explain to you what I cannot explain — namely, the Holy Spirit that’s always burning since the world’s been turning — I figured I would just tell you of a couple of times when I have felt the Spirit’s presence and explain to you something about what it felt like.

Flames

Each year during Easter Vigil at the church in Atlanta that I call home, they begin just like we begin — just like every Easter Vigil begins. They light the new fire of Easter that is then used to light the paschal candle, which burns until today — the day of Pentecost, the last day of Eastertide. This Vigil service, as many of you know, is special to me for many reasons, but most notably perhaps is that it was the first ELCA service that I ever attended. That first Vigil night, I watched the flames of the new fire dance high into that late Saturday night as we stood silent, watching, and I wondered what, exactly, I had gotten myself into.

At the beginning of the service, the flames dance, but by the end, the people take over. We were given brief instructions as we all gathered in two circles around the round altar. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick.

Some of the diverse crowd gathered looked a little skeptically at the music director as she gave the instructions. I was one of them. Dance? All of us? She didn’t care. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. “Ready?”

She began to lead us in an alleluia – [sing] “Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia!”

All of my skepticism melted into the rhythm as we sang and danced with joy around the altar as the flames of the paschal candle danced in time with us. Step in front, step behind, step, kick, step, kick. What joy!

Only years later did I discover the poem by W.H. Auden about his experience of Pentecost that so perfectly captured my emotions in that moment. I could not explain the Spirit’s movement in that moment, but I could echo Auden’s words: “…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

And so I did.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 3.10.31 PM The Easter Vigil crowd dances at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta, GA

Presumably Drunk People

The month of May also inevitably reminds me of the glorious Atlanta spring five years ago when I graduated from seminary.

Just the other night, reading the Acts text for Pentecost here with the prayer group along with the warm air hanging over the parking lot here at the church reminded me of one night when I had been out in the warm May air in Atlanta with my friends to celebrate our graduation. We were walking out of one of our favorite little establishments after having a few beers together, laughing and enjoying our last full days together. Suddenly, a man sitting on the sidewalk lifted his arm into our lines of sight and flagged us down. In the very good spirits we were in and being the pastoral types that we were, we struck up a conversation with the man.

It turns out that his name was Melvin and he was homeless. He had his guitar and he explained to us how he’d learned to play it and that he liked to play the blues. He asked us what we did for a living. We explained that we were graduating from seminary in a few days and going on to be pastors. We didn’t have cash (hearing that we were both students and preachers, he wasn’t surprised), but we gave him the two carryout containers we had, figuring that he needed the food more than we did. He thanked us profusely and told us that he felt the Lord telling him to play for us preachers. As we joyfully clapped along, Melvin played and sang a joyful tune called “God’s been good to me.”

We clapped along as some people sneered a little as they passed us by, perhaps thinking that this man had captured these tipsy people who were only willing to listen because they’d had too much beer. And we had had some beer, but we’d also, I believe, followed the Holy Spirit in listening to Melvin and offering him company.  When he was finished, we high fived him and thanked him and wished him the best, all of us leaving in even better spirits than before, and Melvin leaving the encounter having been seen and heard and now, for a moment, no longer hungry. If Jesus is truly present in every person who needs us, Jesus had sure played us a joyful tune on his guitar that night.

“…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

And so we did.

“We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

No, I cannot explain to you the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today in one sermon except to tell you that we didn’t start it and we can’t control it but there are times when we can feel it. And when it dances, we must dance.

You yourself, no doubt, have your own experiences of it, or perhaps you’ve spent years trying to experience it. Personally, I’ve experienced it in a few ways: in the still, small voice that people talk about, though I’ve often had my doubts about whether it was the Spirit or my own crazy mind doing the thinking. I’ve felt the Holy Spirit in the love that I have felt for and among other people. And I’ve felt it with the unspeakable joy and feeling of presence that I’ve described in these two little vignettes today.

I cannot offer any advice on how to feel the Spirit, nor do I believe that it can be controlled or felt by power of the human will. No, we didn’t start the fire. We can only pay attention when the Spirit begins to dance and will ourselves to dance too.

“…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

I guess my only advice is not to overthink it when you feel that presence, but instead, rest in it, dance in it, glory in it. When he ascended, Jesus promised to be with us forever.

So look for him. Look for where Grace dances in your life, where the fire that has been burning since the beginning of time dances, and join in. Dance like the flames of Pentecost, even if people think you’re drunk. “…what do I know, except what everyone knows – if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” So let us dance, church. Let us dance. Amen.

Ascension Sunday: Rise UP!


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Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
South Hadley, Massachusetts
on the Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:20-26

When you preach every week, every week you have this weird thing happen to you. The Scripture for the next Sunday follows you around for the week. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but it certainly happens to me. Every day chores or things I wouldn’t normally notice stand out to me, and memories come back to me, all as the words of the lesson I’m preaching on follow me around. If it sounds a little weird and awkward to you… well, it’s because it can be.

This week, the words for the Gospel lesson followed me — this is Jesus’ final recorded prayer before his arrest. It comes at the end of what scholars call John’s “Farewell Discourse,” where Jesus tells his disciples what he wants them to know over dinner before he is arrested. At the end of that dinner and that long talk, he prays — and this is what he prays.

He prays for his disciples and for all who would believe because of their word — us, y’all. And everyone who has ever believed in Jesus or ever will after. And he prays that we may all be one, as he and the Father are one.

That we all may be one.

How’s that coming, Church?

Sure, we could talk about fractured denominations and schisms and the sad state of the church that argues with itself all the time. We could talk about how Christians have been in conflict since biblical times (ever read Second Corinthians?). But instead of lamenting our conflicts, I want to think about this differently. Did Jesus actually mean the absence of all conflict when he said that we should be one? Furthermore, I don’t think that the absence of conflict necessarily entails unity. It’s often quite the opposite, in fact.

I’ll explain as I walk you through my week of sermon prep, starring Jesus, Hamilton the musical, my friend the Episcopal priest, my college softball coach, and a hike up Mt. Holyoke. It might be a weird ride — it was for me. But I’ll promise a good ending. Here we go.

Monday. The hip hop lyrics of the Founding Fathers.

“Talk less, smile more,” intones Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Hamilton made history this week — the contemporary hip hop musical based on the life of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards. The musical takes us from Hamilton’s arrival as a young immigrant through his death. Central to the narrative is Hamilton’s arch-nemesis, Aaron Burr. Burr in the musical represents one path to getting what you want — people pleasing, smiling, avoiding conflict and rocking the boat.

“Talk less, smile more,” he sings, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You wanna get ahead?” the Burr asks the younger Hamilton at the beginning of the musical. “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead!”

Tuesday. Memories of old church meetings.

“Christ said we should all be one!” cried a church member. “This is dividing the church — can’t we just drop it?”

From time to time, I’ve heard this argument used to try to stop a conflict — that in order to “be one,” we can’t have disagreements, and contentious issues should be avoided, even if the “issues” are real people’s lives. Of course, this kind of thinking favors the status quo — the way things already are — even if the way things are is problematic to some of us.

I heard it often when I was a kid. I heard it even more often when I became an adult and a pastor. How often we become Aaron Burr as the church — “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” — we sell the vulnerable short in the church to keep the peace. Like when serious allegations are swept under the rug to protect the powerful, like in the Catholic church some years ago. Or when some white Southern churches refused to take a stand against racial violence in the 1950s and ‘60s. Or even today when we in the church don’t stand up for those who are being hurt or bullied for fear that doing so will cause conflict.

But we forget that we are to love one another — both those with whom we disagree and with vulnerable people who need us. We also forget that we are neither Jesus nor the Father, and that we are far from perfection. Conflicts happen. It’s what you do with them that matters.

I’ve found that if a relationship survives conflict in a healthy way, it gets stronger. If even church bodies can weather conflict via honest dialogue, relationships and bonds can actually be strengthened through hard conversations. You all know this as well as I do.

I found myself musing on Tuesday about exactly what it means for “us all to be one.” If by “one” Jesus meant for us to be free of conflict, that was one unanswered prayer. But if by “one” he meant that we manage to stick by each other and talk through things and protect even the most vulnerable among us — then we might have a shot at being Jesus’ answered prayer.

Wednesday. Prayer Group.

On Wednesday, the prayer group — which this Wednesday was Bev, Sue, and I — decided to do something different and try lectio divina. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, it involves reading a Scripture passage multiple times and reflecting on and praying about the words. We did so on Wednesday night with this passage.

It occurred to me that when Jesus says that he has and will make the Father’s name and love known, he is praying this right before the cross. Jesus was not one to “talk less and smile more” like Aaron Burr. He made the Father’s love known by laying down his life for his friends — for us — not by avoiding anything.

Thursday. Rise UP!

On Thursday, I wake up to my friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, telling me about his Ascension sermon for later that day. When he’s finished preaching, he sends me the audio file. I listen.

He talks about Hamilton too. He focuses on the character of John Laurens, Revolutionary War hero, also a character in the musical. Laurens was a staunch abolitionist who died in the Revolution. During the song “My Shot” in Hamilton, Laurens’ character says, in the midst of exciting talk about the Revolution, “But we’ll never be truly free / Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”

Later in the song, set in a pub with several of the founding fathers including Hamilton, Laurens sends the bar patrons to their feet when he chants, “Rise up, when you’re living on your knees you rise up…when are these colonies gonna rise up, rise up!”

In his sermon, my friend Joseph made the point that Jesus’ last words before his ascension were “You will be my witnesses!” As Jesus rose up and ascended, he called on the disciples to do just what John Laurens is calling for: Rise up. Rise up and be witnesses.

But remember what Laurens said: “But we’ll never be truly free / Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”

Until we are all truly equal, the work is not finished.

This could entail conflict.

Rise up.

Friday. Memories of Running for Money in College

Before that title makes you feel any weirder, let me clarify: I played softball in college.

We would often work out early in the morning. One morning early in my career at Troy, I remember looking our across the outdoor football field. It was the middle of January, and even though it doesn’t get as cold in Alabama as it does here, it was pretty stinkin’ cold that morning. Too cold and wet, at least, to be spending our time running outdoors. A fog hung over the field as one of our teammates struggled, over and over, to get across the line during our timed sprints. Finally, we were told to run the stadium (which meant running every stair in the lower part of the football stadium) and we could go home. You know, that was all.

When I finished, I looked back, put my hands on my hips, and tried to catch my breath and found one teammate still struggling. She was only about halfway done, and most everyone else was finishing.

“You gonna let your teammate run alone?!” our coach belted across the football stadium. I quickly learned what this meant. Each time this happened for the rest of my tenure there, if someone lagged behind the rest, someone had to go back and finish the run with them. It didn’t have to be all of us, but no one was allowed to run alone, because we were not just completing our runs as individuals — we were one team.

That stuck with me.

“That they may all may be one…”

Saturday. Saturday I took a hike with you people.

Yesterday we took a hike up Mt. Holyoke, into the clouds and the fog, not unlike that morning in the stadium. Though the way up was steep and the way down was slippery, we got there. One thing that I noticed quickly: no one, no matter how they struggled, was left alone.

We got up the mountain and came down the mountain as one.

Sunday. Conclusions.

If “that they may all be one” means that we as a church do not have conflict, then we’re sure to be disappointed when we read this passage. Besides that, even if we want to avoid conflict, there is no just way to do it this side of the Kingdom. There are times when churches who have actively sought to avoid conflict have ended up hurting people or standing on the wrong side of justice. Jesus certainly didn’t avoid conflict — he shows us the Father’s love most clearly when he rose up — on the cross.

We live in a broken world. Even the Son of God didn’t avoid conflict. The Father did not promise Jesus an easy walk, but the Father never left him — they are one.

Conflict will happen.

But if “that all may be one” means to be as kind to one another as my coach required my teammates and you require of yourselves, then Jesus’ prayer for us may actually lift us up and bind us together. When we walk with one another through heartache, when we provide for each other, when we listen to each other — when we manage to stay in relationship despite all odds and count on the Holy Spirit to continue to bind us together in love, when no one walks alone —- then we are truly one.

That is when we truly rise up to be witnesses. That is when we truly rise up, as John Laurens sings in Hamilton, as one.

And when no one of us has to walk alone, that’s when we are one body.

So on this Ascension Sunday, may you rise up with courage, Church.

You are not alone, you are with us. We are one. And as one, we rise UP. Amen.

“It’s a Miracle!,” or How the Kingdom of God is like Spring in New England

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Spring in New England (+ Diego the dog)

A sermon on John 14:23-29
Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
South Hadley, Massachusetts
on the Sixth Sunday of Easter

So you might find this hard to believe, since I’m so much like him, but my father is a ham.

Once, when I was young, he had a slipped disk in his back. We took him to the orthopedist (who, in rural Alabama fashion, was also the uncle of my best friend Samuel).

Always an observant man, he noted as we waited for his appointment in the orthopedist’s (Samuel’s uncle’s) waiting room that he must be the only back patient that day; nearly everyone besides him had some sort of cast or brace or was on crutches. Even when the nurse called him back, he had to specify where his injury was as she looked for a brace.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to be a ham, when his appointment was finished and he walked out of the waiting room, when everyone looked up at him from their magazines when the door opened and he saw that he was still the only patient with no braces or crutches, my father high stepped as well as he could with a slipped disk and exclaimed, “I’m healed!”

This wasn’t because my father doesn’t take miracles seriously; quite the contrary. When he had other back problems some years before, he believes he found relief through prayer (and rest, of course).

While some people are natural skeptics, I think it’s human nature to be open to miracles. When we usually think of miracles, we think of them as just that — healings, flashes of light and visions (like Paul had in his vision today in the Acts reading, or like Peter had last week) or some other sign. People have told me over the years of experiencing miracles. Even for a natural skeptic like me (I know, funny for a preacher), basic humility requires that when someone tells me their experience, I do not immediately discount it. So when someone tells me that God intervened in their lives, my first instinct is to believe them unless I have a really good reason not to. Lots of people, maybe you included, have stories of miracles and signs — of light and visions and healings.
Whether we experience them personally or not, big miracles fascinate us as humans. At their best, these things can draw us into a mystery of hope that things can improve and that God walks with us. Especially when we are afraid and hurting, we hope for miracles.

There are drawbacks, of course, to always thinking of miracles as signs and healings. When openness to miracles turns to expectation, faith turns to certainty. When faith turns to certainty, bad things can happen. Miracles stop being a beautiful mystery and turn into a tool that can be manipulated to exploit the vulnerable.

One of my favorite TV shows is the HBO series Game of Thrones. Over the past couple of years, I confess I’ve become completely enthralled with it. I don’t recommend watching it if you’ve got easily offended eyes or ears, but I’ve loved the fascinating storylines and unexpected endings.

Game of Thrones is set in a fictional, roughly medieval world created by author George R. R. Martin. It is a world of knights and kingdoms, fortresses and deep wilderness. One of the most fascinating aspects of this imaginary world is the diversity of religions that are interwoven in the society that Martin has created. One religion in particular, a fire-centered one called the religion of the Lord of Light, comes to the forefront of the story line when one of the kings in the story converts. This king’s primary counsel is a character named Melisandre, known as the Red Woman. She performs signs and miracles, mostly with fire and smoke, awing the people into believing in the Lord of Light. She even has her own form of liturgy. They proclaim their dependence on fire by saying: “For the night is dark and …” [wait] Thank you.

Don’t worry. I am not one for spoilers.

What struck me, though, is something that Melisandre said about the way she performs miracles. She shows her queen her cadre of potions and says, “Most of these potions are lies. Deceptions to make men think that they witnessed our Lord’s power. Once they step into his light they will see the lie for hat it was — a trick that led them to the truth.”

This fictional character shined some light on a real religious phenomenon. Religions that are based entirely on outward signs and certainty require lies to keep them alive. And this openness to deception so easily slips into corruption, because those most likely to look for signs are the most vulnerable and hurting among us. I think of the scandals around healing ministries, when vulnerable people, looking for cures, came to certain faith healers, because they had seen others healed on television. Or of mediums who claim to speak to the dead, also charging money from grieving people.

It’s not that supernatural signs and miracles are impossible — it’s that the demand for signs lends itself far too easily to lies and deception.

And this is precisely what Jesus is trying to get away from for nearly the entire Gospel of John.

Over and over in the Gospel, people ask him for a sign. And he obliges more than once: he performs healings, he turns water into wine, he feeds a ton of people at once. Over and over he says that it’s better not to demand signs, that true faith is not about believing impressive divine acts but about love — laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

And in the Gospel lesson today, Judas (John says, not Iscariot, the other one) has a question. We all do what the Gospel writer did here when we tell stories: we’ve all got two friends named Jessica. No, not bad Jessica. Good Jessica.

Anyhow, Judas (not Bad Judas, Good Judas) asks Jesus a really important question: “How come you show yourself to us, not not to the world?”

I think there’s a suggestion hidden in that question.

Jesus, so… you’re the Son of God. Have you thought of going public?

The world is hurting, Jesus. Reveal yourself now.

It seems like a good idea on the surface. But Jesus knows better. He knows of the drawbacks of relying on signs.

So, as Jesus is wont to do, he turns Good Judas’s question back around on him — and the whole church.

“Those who love me will keep my word.” He goes on to say that God’s presence is with those who keep Jesus’ Word. I spent way too many years thinking that by “my Word” here that Jesus means the Bible or the Law. It worried me as a teenager. “If I don’t keep Jesus’ word, he won’t be with me,” I thought. But when I studied John further, I learned something.

You see, Jesus, in context of the rest of John’s Gospel, has given them a lot of words — almost all of them about his identity as the Son of God, the Light of the World, the Gate, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When Bishop Hazelwood was here for my installation and he asked us about Jesus’ “I am” statements, every last one we shouted out was in John’s Gospel. In John, Jesus is really concerned that the disciples know and understand who he is — he is the Word of God made flesh who lays down his life for the sheep.

In fact, through the whole Gospel, Jesus tells his followers to do two things: to believe in him and to love one another. That’s it. The “new commandment” is such a big deal because it’s when Jesus finally gets to the participatory part of the program. So for Jesus to say “keep my word,” he means the word that he just gave them the chapter before, the one we read last week: love one another as I have loved you.

By “keep my word,” he’s not handing them a list of commandments that they can check off and be proud of. It’s not about big signs and miracles. No. Jesus knows that leads to all kinds of ills: pride. Deception. The privilege of those whose interpretation of the law is favored. The oppression of those who disagree.

The revealing of God in the world is about sacrificial love. It’s about Jesus on the cross. It’s about our love for one another. It’s about the Holy Spirit, poured out of Jesus’ love for us, that Jesus talks about holding us together. Jesus has turned Good Judas’ request for a sign back around on us: We are the sign of God’s coming reign. So that the world may know, not through divine magic tricks, but by our tender care for one another. That is the kind of religion that cannot be propped up on lies and cannot benefit from deception and oppression.

The best miracles from God come in the form not of signs, but of other people. Of support given. Of grace shared. Of the times when God cared for us through the hands and hearts of others.

Jesus knows what the biggest sign of God’s reign is: tender, self-giving love.

It needs not rely on deception but only on grace.

And how much do we need that these days? We stand as a nation more divided than ever. We’re impatient with grace because the temptation to crush our enemies with both weighty arguments and bombs is strong. On every side of the political spectrum, we are not out for grace but out for proof. We want the ultimate victory, the ultimate proof.

We think proof solves the problem, but it really doesn’t help. Studies show that when people are shown proof positive that they are wrong, they still fall back on emotions and cling even more tightly to their opinions. What we need is to connect. To practice redemption. To love one another. Problems can’t be solved all at once, but we can begin. We can reach out. We can connect.

A colleague in Minnesota who had moved north, like me, from Atlanta recently remarked that he was a little jealous of his South-dwelling colleagues because it is easier to believe in the resurrection when everything is always green, blooming, and gorgeous by the first Sunday of Easter. 

As this Eastertide has gone on, I find that I disagree. This year, the first Sunday of Easter happened when things were barely budding. All we had was a promise. Slowly, slowly, through a couple of snows, everything has come to life, but not all at once, like in the South. Little by little. Bud by bud. Green leaf by green leaf.

I think we’re inclined to expect the kingdom of God to happen at once through big, impressive signs and wonders.

But God’s time works differently. Instead, we begin to see the kingdom as we love our neighbor and are loved by one another. If God brought in the Kingdom all at once like Spring in the South, there would be no need for faith.

Instead, God does things more like spring in New England: you may think it’s never coming, but if you watch, you can see the buds. It happens, bit by bit. Bud by bud. Person by person, knit together by the Spirit of love. And one day, you wake up, and Spring is here in its glory. Like now.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not. That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.”

So let us love as Jesus loves, for that kind of love in this world of division is the realest miracle that I can imagine. Amen.