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.