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Some Things Are Worse Than Denial

2018-02-26

 

This week our text offers us a hard look in the mirror –if we are willing to see it.

Peter denied Jesus three times. Who am I to think that I will do any better?

Or do I care enough to even bother denying Jesus at all?

John 18:12-27

12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ 18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ 22When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ 23Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ 24Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ 26One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

For Lent’s long journey, our focus narrows. Starting last week and continuing right up through Palm Sunday, we will hear, in great detail, about the last hours of Jesus’ life. It seems to me that these stories serve to show us ourselves. Are we really ready for God to come among us in Jesus Christ? Will we respond faithfully?

These stories suggest that we will not. We will fail the test. We are not ready for this.

It may be nothing more than a mere linguistic coincidence, but I am struck by the fact that one of the words for judgement in Greek is krisis  -root of the English word “crisis.” The coming of God calls the question of our life and existence. It is the crisis through which we must pass.

And Peter fails the test. Lucky for him, it is only the midterm.

There is a crucial bit of context here. If we had read on just a little further last week, in Chapter 13, we would have read this:

36 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ 37Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ 38Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

Our story opens only hours after Jesus has spoken these words. We find Jesus under arrest –not (at this point) by the Romans (that is next week) but by the religious authorities. And so we see two distinctly religious forms of faithlessness playing out in parallel. While the religious establishment interrogates Jesus and fails to understand him, Peter denies him three times.

I think the text speaks pretty well for itself. Peter’s denials seem almost in proportion to his earlier vehemence (I will lay down my life for you!). And for me it raises a painful question:

What if the times when I feel like I am most faithful are the times I am actually closest to denying Jesus? Does my zeal have a shadow side?

Or maybe I am not like Peter. Because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t see a lot of Peters in the mainline Protestant church. Maybe I am the kind of lukewarm Christian who never gets fired up enough to even bother denying Jesus. Maybe I am not even in the courtyard during his trial, but off somewhere absorbed in my own concerns.

Which is the greater sin: denial or apathy? Where am I in this story?

These are the questions I will be living with this week.

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It’s time to think scholarships!

2018-02-22

The Marie Green Award is given each year to two outstanding high school seniors who have been actively involved in the life of Plymouth Church. As both participants and leaders, they have learned from their experiences and have also given back to Plymouth through their involvement. Marie Green grants are intended for use in buying books, art materials, musical instruments, or other special equipment. Two scholarships are awarded in the amount of $750.00 each. Click here to download a fillable-form PDF of the current application. Get yours in by April 2!

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Uncategorized

Green Team: “Chickadee Check-Off” time again.

2018-02-21

Couldn’t be any simpler to support Iowa’s Wildlife Diversity Program. Just add one dollar or more to your taxes to support wildlife habitat development and restoration, protection of 1000 or so fish and wildlife species and you will make a difference. Wildlife Diversity or non-game wildlife is not supported by any other dedicated public funding. Please take a moment to find the “Chickadee Check-Off” line near the end of the tax form or remind your tax preparer to add a donation. It is so simple and so beneficial to Iowa’s natural resources.

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Blog News

Bring on the Feet!

2018-02-19

After a brief, flu-related hiatus, this blog is back. And just in time: Bring on the feet!

John 13:1-17

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Before I turn to this story in particular, I would like to take a step back and look at the big picture. Lent will be a bit of a journey through the Gospel according to John. And taken together, these texts will pose a question for our Lenten journey: Are we really ready for God to come to us?

Here is how Lent will shake out.

It started, last weekend, with The Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). It may seem strange to start the season of Lent with a story of resurrection, but in John’s Gospel the story serves a sinister purpose: this is the moment when the religious authorities finally turn on Jesus. By bringing Lazarus out of the grave, Jesus has signed his own death warrant.

This weekend’s text, Washing the Disciples’ Feet, is set at The Last Supper. On the Second weekend of Lent, we have already arrived at the last night of Jesus’ life. More about this text in a moment.

What will we read between now and Easter? Peter’s Denial (John 18:12-27), Jesus Before Pilate (John 18:28-40), and Jesus Condemned (John 19:1-16). It’s Lent as one long passion story!

And let me give the whole thing away right here: It seems like Jesus is the one on trial here. But really it is us. We take the test, and we fail the test. We are not ready for Jesus to come to us.

It starts, this week, with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the beginning of their last meal together. Two things to note about foot washing: First, in world with no sewers and lots of strappy footwear, foot washing was utterly essential. But second, foot washing was the work of servants. And in a group of people that had no servants, you might well imagine the disciples exchanging glances, eyeing each other uneasily.

Who will do this dirty and humiliating work?

Jesus will. Jesus steps up to do the work of the servant.

For me, this story works on two levels. On the one hand, it can be taken as a kind of parable about servant leadership. (Our friend Jim Autry has written an excellent book on that very subject). To lead after the fashion of Jesus, we must take up a towel and do the dirty work of meeting people’s needs.

But there is another angle that I find fascinating, even if I do not completely comprehend it: Peter’s reaction. At first, he refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. (As someone who has participated in more than my fair share of foot washing, I completely understand this reaction. Foot washing is intimate and vulnerable and I would just as soon keep my feet to myself, thank you very much). But when Jesus explains that this is important, Peter’s pendulum swings in the complete other direction: ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 

And I think Jesus tries, gently, to tell Peter that he is overcompensating here.

You don’t get to refuse the ritual.

But you don’t get the above and beyond extra treatment either.

Because you aren’t the worst, Peter, and you aren’t the best. You are just another dirty-footed disciple, seated at the table.

And that’s enough. And when you realize that is enough –when you stop trying to be worse or better than everybody else—maybe that is when real life begins.

Peter has got a ways to go.

 

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Blog News

See?

2018-02-05

At face value, it is a pretty simple story: a man born blind is healed. But the more closely we read the story, the more complicated—and interesting!—it becomes.

Who is truly blind? And who can really see?

These are the questions we take up in the 9th chapter of John’s Gospel.

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Like I said: a seemingly simple story. Until we realize that John has some literary tricks up his sleeve. The name of this particular trick? Chiasmus.  According to the internet,  “Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which two or more clauses are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures in order to produce an artistic effect.”

Chiasmus can also serve to shape an entire narrative. In the case of John chapter 9, we have two intersecting stories: one a man who moves from blindness to sight to insight, and one of the Pharisees moving from lack of awareness into something like willful ignorance. If we think of the man born blind as ascending, and the Pharisees as descending, you can imagine the stories intersecting like an X.

Let’s walk through this in a little more detail.

INITIAL HEALING (v.1-7). The first seven verses of this text read like a pretty typical healing story. There is someone who is suffering and Jesus compassionate response, which results in healing. But John adds an unusual element: the question of responsibility. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples seem to be stating the conventional wisdom of their day: suffering must be earned by sin. Somebody must be to blame. But Jesus rejects the premise of their question. No one sinned, he says. But this is an opportunity for God to get some glory.

And so he sees.

SEEING BUT NOT SEEING (v.8-12). In the next 4 verses, John starts playing with the idea of “sight” as a metaphor. The people who knew the man born blind do not accept the evidence of their own eyes, saying he cannot possibly be the same man who used to beg. For his part, the man born blind now has the ability to see, but he lacks insight into the identity of the one who healed him.

CONFRONTATION WITH THE PHARISEES (v.13-34). This longest section of the passage unfolds as a confrontation between the man born blind, his parents, and the Pharisees. And as they speak, the pairing of their journeys becomes more evident.

Scholars speculate that this passage reflects a time, perhaps late in the 1st or early in the 2nd century, when Jewish Christians were being expelled from their synagogues for believing in Jesus. There is a heightened sense of drama here –his healing could cost him and his family their place in community.

But a funny thing happens as they argue: the man born blind and the Pharisees harden in their positions. By the end of this encounter, the man born blind seems to have inferred faith in Jesus from his own experience of healing; he has begun to believe: If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” But the Pharisees, for their part, have dropped any pretense of objective investigation. They have come to despise Jesus openly.

WHO CAN REALLY SEE? (v.35-41). So the last part of the passage—the coda—feels like a fait accompli. The man born blind confesses faith in Jesus and worships him. This is one of the most faithful responses that anyone anywhere in John’s Gospel has toward Jesus. But the Pharisees, for their part, are confirmed in their unbelief.

There is so much in this story! Let me offer a couple of quick thoughts.

THEODICY. It isn’t central to the story, but that bit at the beginning (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”) really grabs me. It expresses a belief that so many of us share: things happen for a reason. People are to blame for their own suffering. This belief is so widespread that it takes both religious and secular forms.

I could go on about it, but your time would be better spent reading Kate Bowler’s thoughts on all of this.

EXPERIENCE. I love the way that the man born blind theologizes out of his own experience. What do I mean by that? He knows he has been healed, and from this fact he goes on to infer that Jesus is a healer and comes from God. And he is not dissuaded, even when his theology draws a rebuke from the elite theologians.

In churches like Plymouth, we have tended to privilege the experience of straight white men and ignored all others. The story of the man bon blind suggests we would do better to encourage all people to own their experiences and theologize boldly from them, especially—especially!—when that experience differs sharply from mine.

WHO IS WHO? I believe every preacher should have to read Mark Allan Powell’s What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. It is a very accessible introduction to something called reader-response criticism.  He focuses, in particular, on “empathy choices.” When I read this story, with which character do I identify? And how does that shape my experience of the story?

(Powell contends that many sermons fail because preachers tend to identify with Jesus and congregations do not).

In the history of the interpretation of this text, Christian readers have been quick to identify the Pharisees as stand-ins for the whole of the Jewish people or for “nonbelievers” generally. This leads to predictable sermons about how much better we are than “those people.”

But a better reading might begin with this insight: I am among the religious elite. (I mean, I graduated from this place). If I am anybody in this story, I am one of the Pharisees.

That should give me pause.

BELIEF IS A CHOICE. John 9 reminds me of a line from Upton Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” None of us reasons with complete objectivity or disinterest. We are motivated to believe some things and disbelieve other things.

But in the light of Christ, we are invited to examine ourselves, inquire into our own blind spots and seek to see more clearly.

And the good news—the really good news—is this: in the presence of Jesus Christ, all of us can start to see.

See you (get it?) in church!

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Announcements

Training Plymouth Volunteers to Help Hospitality Industry Recognize Signs of Human Trafficking

2018-02-02

Hotels and motels are primary locations for sex trafficking both across the nation and here in Iowa. The Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery estimates that 75% of sex trafficking takes place in hospitality venues, often unbeknownst to managers and staff. Traffickers bring women, many of whom are minors, to hotels and motels where they are sold for sex. It’s been shown that trafficking increases significantly during major events but these events are not the root cause of sex trafficking.

The root causes are greed, and a subculture that accepts treating people, especially women and children, as sex objects that can be bought and sold.

In order to stop this heinous crime, the Plymouth Human Trafficking Task Force is facilitating a training program. As part of this team, you’ll learn how to go into local hotels and educate their staff on the signs of trafficking, and tell them what to do if they suspect it is occurring in their hotel.

If this is something that you feel God is calling you to do , call Shirlee Reding at 515.778.6724 or email her at shirlee5@q.com for more information.