Sunday, October 9, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Earthly and Heavenly Things"

John 3:9-21

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son. 19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Five

I want to talk with all of you for a minute about a man who I know is a hero for almost all of you as Mariners fans, and for me, despite my own allegiance to my hometown Kansas City Royals: Ichiro.

He is a hero for you because he is a club legend up in Seattle, but he is a hero to me because he so treasures something that I too have come to treasure: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the heart of my childhood city of Kansas City. Bob Kendrick, the longtime president of the museum, related a story to ESPN about Ichiro when he came to visit the museum in 2007:

Kendrick showed Ichiro a rare program from a barnstorming tour of Japan that a Negro League team called the Philadelphia Royal Giants made in 1927. Ichiro held the fragile paper in his hands, read from the Japanese on the cover. Then he got around to why he had come. He pulled out his checkbook. Kendrick won’t say how much Ichiro donated to the museum, but he says it was the biggest donation from any active player.

Kendrick sees a kinship between Ichiro and the black players who integrated the major leagues. It’s not apples to apples. No one fought to keep Ichiro out of the majors. But Kendrick believes he faced similar hurdles. “So many people were skeptical that his skill set would transfer from Japan. People thought he wasn’t as good,” Kendrick says. “I always understood the parallels between the guys coming out of the Negro Leagues and what Ichiro had to deal with. They were always trying to erase that doubt.”

It is easy to forget now, because in the wake of Ichiro, so many incredibly talented Japanese ballplayers have plied their trade here in the States, but Ichiro was the first to really break in and stay in here in the big leagues. He showed that East Asian ballplayers were worth our fandom and adoration. He showed that East Asian ballplayers are not just some exotic novelty thing—no small thing when we are still having to deal with FoxNews segments that revel in racist Asian stereotypes—but that they can be the type of players you can build an entire franchise around.

Ichiro, I think, saw a glimpse of what Robinson saw in having to break down those cultural preconceptions, and to do so with a smile on his face, never reacting to peoples’ stereotypes and never lashing out in the media or on the field. He empathized with the Negro Leagues ballplayers in a unique way. He understood what Jesus would call here in John 3 an earthly thing—and it caused him to commit to a heavenly thing. And that is what is at the core of John 3—even John 3:16!

This is the final installment of the first of sermon series for the fall season before we arrive at Advent—summer has at long last finally given way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we have returned to a thematic sermon series, one that concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We have discussed several such verses—Jeremiah 29:11, John 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 4:19, and Philippians 4:13—and are now returning once more to the Gospel of John to talk about perhaps the most famous verse of all: John 3:16—for God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.

It is a verse that so many of us have committed to heart. It is a verse that the burger chain In-N-Out prints on the bottoms of its soda cups. It is a ubiquitous, omnipresent verse that is taken out of its context within a discourse with the Pharisee Nicodemus as a summation of the Gospels.

Except that this summation is predicated on something critical. Eternal life is something that we have taken to mean something heavenly—that is, that we will, after we die, live forever in heaven. It is, then one of the ‘heavenly things’ that Jesus refers to in verse 12: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

In other words, if we do not take Jesus at His word when He teaches us about earthly things, then whether we believe Him or not when it comes to a heavenly thing like eternal life is all for naught.

This isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus teaches this: it also shows up as the moral to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, when Abraham—a proxy for YHWH—says to the rich man being tormented in hell and asking to warn his relatives of the torment that awaits them too, a la Jacob Marley, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

Think about that for a minute. If we are not persuaded by an earthly messenger of God’s like Moses or Isaiah—someone extraordinary but still, when you get down to brass tacks, completely and utterly human—then why, Jesus says, would we be persuaded by Him, and His message?

And in truth, we really aren’t persuaded by His message, *especially* as it concerns the earthly things. Jesus taught complete renunciation of wealth, not just to the rich man asking for eternal life, but to all of us: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:35)

He taught giving to everyone who begs, to not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from us, and to not pursue anything of ours that gets stolen from us (Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:30).

He taught that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

Do you think that we really believe Jesus when He says all these things? We can profess that we do, but our actions—a far more accurate diviner of beliefs than professions of faith, I think—tend to say otherwise.

We still glorify wealth. We still look for reasons to be stingy with others. We still seek retribution. And we still pursue, at all costs, our own glorification rather than God’s.

And since we do all these earthly things—and not just do them, but revel in them and cherish them and highlight them—just how much do we really believe Jesus, then, when He says that whosoever believes in Him shall have the heavenly thing of eternal life?

Indeed, far from even believing Jesus, we seem ill-equipped to even believe each other, or to believe God when God speaks to us through each other.

We still do not believe the African-American neighbor when they say that they were mistreated because of how they looked—“You must’ve misinterpreted that,” or “That cannot have been what they meant,” we say.

We still do not believe the victim of sexual or physical assault when they finally come forward—“You must’ve invited it somehow,” or “You were secretly wanting it to happen.”

If we cannot believe these earthly things, said by earthly people, how can we be entrusted with believing in heavenly things from the most heavenly being of all, Jesus, the one we call Christ?

That is, for me, why Ichiro’s example matters. He believed in the story and the meaning behind the Negro Leagues—what they campaigned for and fought against. And he backed up that belief with perhaps the most earthly—but also most potent—statement of value there is: his pocketbook.

It was a sacrifice of Ichiro’s, and when you consider that this most heavenly of beings, Jesus, was Himself a sacrifice, then the heavenly dimensions of a gesture like Ichiro’s really does come into focus.

He was prepared to embrace the heavenly thing of sacrifice because he already believed in the earthly thing of the Negro Leagues’ story that was placed before him.

Who are we to say that we really are prepared to do likewise?

Hopefully perhaps one day, someday soon I pray, we indeed will be.

For God so loved the world…perhaps it is time to love the world, and to believe in its earthly things, right back.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 9, 2016

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