Jesus at a Distance

School breaks and “spring” vacations have ended.  The chocolate bunnies have been eaten, the eggs have been found, the lilies are fading. The emotional highs connected with Easter Sunday have dissipated, even though the Church celebrates Easter for fifty days.

In John’s Gospel, the disciples, too, are back at their old jobs: fishing on the Sea of Tiberius, the events that happened in Jerusalem now a memory.  They have fished all night and caught nothing; they don’t even recognize the figure on the shore, calling to them to switch their nets to the other side of the boat.  They seem to have distanced themselves from all of it and are back where they started.  It’s not that hard to do.

Distancing is putting physical or emotional space between yourself and something or someone else.  It is pulling away, drawing back, refusing to engage.  Sometimes it’s necessary to have some distance to heal or regroup but other times it is avoidance of something important. Friendships can be threatened by distance; problems ignored, growth stymied.

Sometimes distancing is intentional.  We know how to distance ourselves from another person: we don’t return their messages; we avoid seeing them; we don’t pay attention; we zone out; there but not there.  All of these things can be relationship killers; death by distance.

However, I think that there are special ways that we distance ourselves from God.  Like the disciples, we don’t see the resurrected Jesus on shore, calling us to have breakfast.

We can distance ourselves from God through technology.

More and more people are getting their religion from television. GMC, a network that specializes in spiritual programming  saw its ratings rise 90% over the last year. The History Channel, of all places, is airing the series “The Bible,” averaging 200 million viewers a night beating out top-of-the-charts reality programs in the ratings.

According to one critic, “’The Bible’ is “a fast-paced, violent series that plays out like an action flick.”  There’s nothing wrong with religion that is entertaining, but when there is more emphasis on the blood and guts than on the love and forgiveness, when it causes conservative commentators to crow that Satan looks just like President Obama, and when angels defending Lott’s family are packing heat — armed with weapons, that, at least is, well, un-Biblical.

Mary Hess of Luther Seminary, says, “There’s a longing for some kind of spirituality but without being part of a worship community.”  This is troubling if you believe that religion calls you to community, to be the body of Christ to each other, while television keeps you comfortably distanced from any personal obligation or pesky invitations to show up at a meeting or a class, or to have your own beliefs and theories challenged.

However, it’s not just television, it’s more. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to say that if aliens arrived on earth and saw humans walking behind their dogs and scooping up their excrement into little bags, they would make an understandable conclusion about who was in charge of the planet.  Similarly, I think that if aliens came to earth and walked down a city street, seeing all of the people staring at devices in their hands, they might conclude that these people — were programmed — to follow — critical directions –being received– from this device.

In spite of all of this connectivity, we have epidemic rates of loneliness in this country.  As a professor at MIT said recently, “Students leave their phones on the seminar table and wait for the little red light to blink, just to see who wants them.”

Technology is a gift beyond belief but ask yourself —  How much time a day do you spend alone without a distraction of some sort?  If you say none, you may be distancing yourself from God, who is found often in solitude, in quietness, in attentiveness to the real world, not the virtual one, and in the people right in front of you.

We also distance ourselves from God by refusing to ask our nagging questions in a context where they could be answered. Questions such as “How do the rest of the world’s religions fit in with Christianity?  Are all these people just wrong?”  Or “There are two different, contradictory stories of creation in Genesis.  Which one is right?”  Pretending the questions aren’t there just keeps us stuck—at a distance.

We distance ourselves from God through language, by how we talk about God especially in church.

We use The Book of Common Prayer as our worship guide in the Episcopal Church and it is a rich history of the faith, as well as offering choices about the language we use in worship. At the main service, unless its Lent, Advent or this year Easter season, we alternate between what is called Rite, I, Rite II and Morning Prayer with Eucharistic– so if you are new and confused, this rotation may be why.

Speaking for myself, let me admit that the language in some of these services is very difficult to hear; I am distanced from God when our service language portrays God as aloof and punitive and so different from what I have experienced God to be – and as God is portrayed in the Christian Scriptures:

Terms such as “Your divine majesty” speak to me of a medieval king, not the Good Shepherd I have come to know in Jesus.

When the language tells me that is “my bounden duty” to worship God, it takes away the joy and freedom of being here.

When I am asked to confess “my manifold sins and wickedness” – I feel insincere and manipulated.  Jesus never asked this of the worst sinner he encountered.

Of course, the fact that God is referred to as male automatically puts me in a subservient class by my very existence  and distances me from feeling I am created in the image of God – as Genesis tells me. When I only hear about “thy Fatherly goodness” I flinch and wonder about the nature of God who gave birth to Creation and said it was good. I think about the motherly goodness of Jesus who wanted to protect the people of Jerusalem by gathering them under the wing as a mother hen would gather her chicks.

For me – for ME – the greatest distance between altar and pew, between pew and pulpit can be created by the language of our liturgy and some of our hymns.  And the elephant in the room is that we are too afraid, too cautious, too uninformed, maybe even too respectful of each other, to talk much about it.  This statement came across my desk this week from the bishop of Oklahoma:  “We get used to living with something because we cannot bear the raw emotions we would have to confront to change it.”  But not to change, to refuse to grow, is a kind of death by distance.  And the Church is vulnerable.

“Timeless language is nonsense, “ CS. Lewis said, but we love what we love.  Liturgy can be the storehouse of our fondest memories and deepest connections – I respect that. It’s why my heart swells when we start singing the great Lutheran battle cry “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on Reformation Sunday or “Onward Christian Soldiers” and I am back at James Lutheran as a kid with my mother and friends and the dear people who nurtured me there.  But then I notice the words about going off to war – to kill for Christ – to attack the people who are the forces of Satan, “the evil foe” — and I cringe and am silenced. For me, warm memories too high a price to pay not worth this abhorrent language.

I love beautiful language and words.  I’m the proverbial English major.  So Shakespeare? Bring it!  The Romantic poets?  I get them!  But here’s the deal: It’s not just the language; it’s the theology the language reflects that should give us pause.  Much of it does not reflect what the Church believes any moreAnd it is up to each of us to decide if what we say here each week brings God closer or if it keeps God far away, hidden behind words we might be afraid to admit we don’t understand– and then not to be afraid to have honest conversations.  We are committed to giving you places to have those conversations here at St John’s.

What defeats distance and brings us closer together, closer to God?

What defeats distance is invitation:

“Come and have breakfast.”

What defeats distance is an awareness of blessings and God’s abundant love: John says that 153 fish jumped into the nets and after that the disciples came ashore, ready to meet the giver of the gift.  Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers: please please please and thank you thank you thank you.  In her new book she has added a third: wow.  Wow wow wow.

What defeats distance is engagement; Barbara Brown Taylor asks what would have happened on Easter, if Mary had been too reticent to speak to the “gardener”?

What defeats distance is grace and graciousness. At the breakfast on the beach, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and Peter says yes, and in that most respectful of exchanges, Peter is given a dignified opportunity to repent of the three denials in the Garden and they are forgiven.

Sometimes we draw closer to God, sometimes God will draw closer to us.  Sometimes God not only comes closer but adapts to us and our good intentions, our mixed motives, our uncertainties about life, our small grasp of truth.

Listen to what Pope Benedict the 16th said about Peter and that transforming moment on the lake-shore that is our Gospel for today: “Peter followed the master with precise awareness of his own frailty; but this awareness did not discourage him. From his ingenuous enthusiasm (when first meeting Jesus,) passing through the painful experience of denial and the tears of conversion, Peter came to entrust himself to that Jesus who adapted himself to his poor capacity to love.”

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

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