Tuesday, March 25, 2014

You know, I've never seen a sunrise... at least not the way you see them.

The Gospel lesson for Sunday is the story known simply as "The Man Born Blind."  Basically, what happens is this—Jesus miraculously heals the sight of a man who had been blind from birth on the Sabbath.  Now keep in mind that healing was work and it was forbidden to do work on the Sabbath—even God didn't work on the Sabbath!  It didn't take long for the man to end up in front of the religious authorities, who asked him how he came to be healed.  And he told them exactly what Jesus had done.  Some of them said that Jesus must not be 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.  So they asked the blind man, "What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened."  He said, "He is a prophet."

But that's not the fun part.  There's a whole lot of disbelief going around.  They actually call in the man's parents to ask them if their son is, in fact, really their son.  And when they say "Yup, that's him, alright," the authorities as them how he cam to be able to see!  And his parents said what most parents would say in their position "He's a grown man, ask him!"

So the authorities haul the poor man back to them and he verbally owns them!  They started in on him:
"Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner."
"I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."
"What did he do to you?  How did he open your eyes?" 
"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?" 
"You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 
"Here is an astonishing thing!  You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
That's the point where the authorities call him names and kick him out—a sure sign that they just lost the debate!  Later Jesus points out that the blind man sees the world better than the religious authorities do, so who's really blind in this story, hm?

That delicious irony—combined with the awesome cleverness of the man born blind—can't help but remind me of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Non-trekkies may recognize him as that guy from Reading Rainbow.  Trekkies might be interested in Geordi's page in this Star Trek wiki.)

La Forge was also born blind, but he had the advantage of living in the 24th century and so he was fitted with a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) which allows him to see in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges—and beyond.  He's also very intelligent, and by the end of the series he'd risen to the rank of lieutenant commander and was the chief engineer of the Enterprise.

I don't know firsthand what it's like to be blind, but I absolutely adore the story of the man born blind talking circles around his "betters."  And I've always loved the way Lt Cdr La Forge was the blind man who could see so much more than his compatriots—not to mention the way LeVar Burton managed to play a man who could see so much more than his compatriots while wearing a costume that cut off 80% of his vision!

We would all do well to remember the words of Jesus, "If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, 'We see', your sin remains."

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for March 30th—The Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A—are:
1 Samuel 16:1-13Psalm 23Ephesians 5:8-14John 9:1-41

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In praise of your efforts thus far...

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday may not be the most well known event in the life of Jesus, but it might be one of my favorite minor miracles—not to mention one of the longest recorded conversations of Jesus in the whole Bible!

Basically, the story is this: Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.  And his disciples had gone off in search of food, leaving him there by himself with no means of drawing water from the well.

Now keep in mind that the Samaritans practiced a religion very similar to Judaism with a shared history—and they hated each other.  That's why Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan—to the minds of most good Jews, there was no such thing.   Keep in mind also that the Jewish purity laws have some strict rule regarding when and how a man can be in contact with a woman.  So it is absolutely strange when a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."  And she says so!

But Jesus replies, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."  The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

What Jesus is describing does sound like magic, doesn't it?  It sounds like the Fairy's Fountains from the classic video game franchise, The Legend of Zelda.

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The Fairy's Fountains are beautiful, serene sanctuaries—safe places of healing.

But best of all, if you have an empty bottle, you can catch a fairy and keep it with you.  If Link falls in battle, the fairy automatically revives him!

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Ok, so it's not water that makes you never thirsty again, but it's still pretty handy!

Of course, Jesus was using water as a metaphor for a spiritual reality.  I'm pretty sure that poor woman will have to continue hauling water from that well every day.  But he revealed something much more important to her that day, and through her testimony, many more came to believe.
The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." 
...Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."  So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days.  And many more believed because of his word.  They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."
Pretty cool huh?  But what makes it especially awesome is that thing I asked you to keep in mind—these were Samaritans, hated to the point of complete physical avoidance.  And Jesus is there teaching them about their salvation as well as the salvation of the Jews.

And on that note...
Be good to each other,
Rev Josh

The scripture lessons for March 23rd—The Third Sunday of Lent Year A—are:
Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 95Romans 5:1-11John 4:5-42

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In War, Victory. In Peace, Vigilance. In Death, Sacrifice.

One of the things I love most about fantasy and science fiction and horror is those genres's ability to externalize forces that we in the "real world" are forced to deal with internally.  Zombies represent unrestricted consumption (Day of the Dead) or unbridled hatred (28 Days Later). The fear of losing our livelihoods to advances in technology become robots who want us dead (The Terminator, I, Robot). But I think my favorite example is from the fantasy setting of Dragon Age: Origins, where the Darkspawn are—quite simply—evil.

(I should pause here and give you a spoiler alert.  Later in the post I'm going to reveal an aspect of the Dragon Age world that isn't revealed in-game until just before the climax.  Don't worry, I'll put up another spoiler alert when the time comes...)

 I'll get back to Dragon Age: Origins in a moment.   But first a moment back in the "real world."  The Gospel lesson for Sunday is all about abstract, difficult to understand concepts like grace and being "born again."  And in the lesson, poor Nicodemus hears Jesus literally, "How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" So Jesus is forced to explain that it's a metaphor—he's talking about a spiritual rebirth, here.  Sometimes I hear Christians talk about being born again as if it were something you can accomplish yourself—as if it were something you could just set out to do.  Personally, I'm with Scott Black Johnston on this point:
"It is ironic that many Christians treat the question, 'Are you born again?' as if it involves making a decision for God.  Yet babies do not decide to be born…  Instead, God is the primary player in this passage."
This being born again thing, this spiritual transformation that Jesus is trying to describe to Nicodemus, is difficult to wrap your mind around.  But with Jesus the point is always how we relate to God, neighbor, and self—and the answer is always "love."   The transformation happens when you realize that you've won the spiritual lottery—that despite the fact that none of us really deserves it, God loves us anyway.  And when we let that fact transform us, we end up being good to each other.  Or as Jesus puts it, you can "...see the kingdom of God..."

Like I said, that's all really esoteric and difficult to wrap your mind around.  Which is why it's so refreshing to immerse yourself in a world like that of Dragon Age: Origins.  Darkspawn are the physical manifestation of the evil, or corruption, that occurred when a group of mages tried to get into heaven.  There is no gray area—Darkspawn are evil.  Period.  End of sentence.

And when you're talking about being born again, or transformed, you're talking about a literal transformation.  There is an order of knights dedicated to fighting the Darkspawn known as The Gray Wardens.  The Wardens are known for ignoring a person's gender, social status, race and even criminal background when they're recruiting (kind of sounds like grace, doesn't it?) because the only requirement is a willingness to attempt a transformative ritual known as The Joining.  The result is a literal, physical transformation that gives the Warden powers necessary for defeating the Darkspawn and their Archdemon leader at the price of becoming somewhat corrupted themselves.

In the end, it turns out that defeating the Archdemon requires a Warden because of that taint:  when an Archdemon is slain, its spirit jumps into the nearest available Darkspawn.  Because Darkspawn are soulless, the Archdemon can avoid being destroyed in this way.  A Warden, however, has a soul.  So if a Warden is nearest to the Archdemon when it dies, it is drawn to the corruption and both its spirit and the Warden are destroyed.

Every time I get to that point in the game, I can't help thinking, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

But as much fun as it is to slaughter Darkspawn, I have to return to the real world.  Luckily I know in my heart that God loves me, despite all my failings.  I try to let this transform me every day—even though I know that I have about as much choice in the matter as I did in being born.

God loves you,
Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for March 16th—The Second Sunday of Lent Year A—are:
Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Your Friendly, Neighborhood...

I didn't intend to get stuck on the work of Stan Lee, honestly I didn't. I guess it's just one of the hazards of working with the geek subculture!   This time I'm not looking to talk about a Stan Lee / Jack Kirby character, but rather one that came into being through the collaboration of Lee and Steve Ditko.  I'm talking about a character who some experts believe never would have been given a chance in today's publishing world, where every character is run through test audiences and marketing gurus before they ever see the light of day.  And yet, this character is considered by many to be the flagship character of Marvel Comics.

 I'm referring, of course, to your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.

One of the things I love about Spiderman and his alter-ego, Peter Parker, is that his story isn't so much about how he received his powers, but rather about how he decides to use them and the effects it has on his life.   That and the fact that just like most of us, he seems to need to learn things the hard way—despite the loving care of good parental figures and all the advice that comes along with it.  There's a reason that one of the most quoted lines from the series is attributed to Peter's Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility."

But Peter doesn't use his new-found powers responsibly right off the bat. In the original comic books he seeks to capitalize on them by donning a costume and becoming a television star (stupid arachnid tricks instead of stupid human tricks?)  In the 2002 film, Peter immediately enters a contest to last three minutes in the ring with a professional wrestler.  In both cases, he chooses to stand aside when he could have foiled a robbery—a move that would come back to haunt him when the same villain would victimize and ultimately murder his Uncle Ben.  Only then does Peter begin using his powers for the benefit of others.

Immediately following his baptism—complete with a voice from heaven and the Holy Spirit falling upon him so hard that people actually saw it—the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness.  According to the scripture, Jesus stays out there for 40 days and 40 nights before "the tempter" came to him and, well, tempted away!  There were actually three temptations:  the temptation to turn stones into loaves of bread for Jesus to eat; the temptation to throw himself off the roof of the temple and miss the ground, aka flying (I'm paraphrasing); and the temptation to rule the world.

We have to assume that these were all feats within Jesus's power (ok, I was having fun with the flying thing—the text actually says, "...throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'")  But, like Peter making a buck off his super powers, these were all feats that only benefited himself.  Bread for Jesus to eat, the joy of falling (flying?) and not dying, unadulterated political power...  I imagine that last one would have been the most tempting, actually, since a lot of good might theoretically be done with that kind of political power.  On the other hand, that was the one that came with the price of worshiping the tempter...

In any case, Jesus didn't have to learn the hard way, like Peter Parker—and the rest of us!  Jesus counters every argument and refuses to serve himself.  The tempter leaves and angels suddenly appeared to take care of him.

And then he went out into the world and used his super powers for the benefit of others.

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

The scripture lessons for March 9th—The First Sunday of Lent Year A—are:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11