Life in Wilderness

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B, Feb 22, 2015, on Mark 1:9-15

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I attended a seminar in which we were all given a piece of paper and instructed to make a timeline of the significant events of

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our lives. Maybe you have done that. If you did that now, what moments of your life would you consider significant? Many of us would include graduations, getting hired, getting married, having children, and probably we would include significant losses as well, because loss changes us too.

Then we were asked to look at our timelines and to try to find the red line that connected the dots. What was consistent about ourselves through all the changes and the meandering paths our lives had taken? I guess the idea was that our essential selves would emerge from that effort to connect the dots.

The Line Stops at Today
But it made me think of where the line stopped. Of course whenever you do the timeline exercise, it stops at today. And what is ahead? What will tomorrow hold? We all wish we could say for certain, but we cannot. We do not know what will happen.

We know what normally happens, we know what we want to happen, we know what our plans are, but there are no guarantees. We are all one slip and fall away from the hospital; one distracted driver away from disaster; one microscopic virus away from serious trouble.

So, in that way, we are often in the experience of wilderness. We have a clear view of the footprints behind us, but there are no

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certainties ahead. The one thing we all know for certain is that someday the timeline that stops today will not have a tomorrow. We are mortal. We will die. The timing and circumstances we do not know, but the result, we know.

If you were here for the evening of Ash Wednesday, you heard Sara Miles say, in the video, that the church is about the only place we say the truth of our mortality. Our culture is full of messages telling us that this product or diet or pill or treatment will not only keep us alive, it will keep us young.

Most of us here know better. So, in the church, we face our mortality, we receive ashes, and we speak of death and we acknowledge the wilderness-like uncertainty of our lives, and the temptations that condition creates.

So the question then is how do we live? We have all received the terminal diagnosis that we do not live forever down here, so, how do we live as terminal patients?

The Jesus Paradigm
In the first Sunday of the season of the lengthening days, the season of Lent this year our gospel reading is from Mark, who shows us the way to live by showing us Jesus as the paradigm, the pattern.

Mark’s short gospel has none of the details we get in Matthew and Luke. From Mark we hear that Jesus was tempted, but get no specifics – no bread from stones, no jumping off the temple tower. That is not Mark’s focus.

What we are left with in Mark are cryptic notes about the event. Notes about timing: when Jesus went out into the wilderness and how long was he there. A note about why he went, and who or what was out there with him. We hear about what happened out there, the temptations, and what Jesus did following the whole experience. So we will take a look at each of these elements.

Timing: Beginning with Baptism

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First, timing; this is important: it was immediately after Jesus’ powerful, mystical experience of being baptized, and seeing a vision of the heavens being torn open and God’s Spirit descending on him in a nearly palpable way. In that experience, Jesus heard God name him as God’s beloved son.

Jesus is the paradigm for us: the spiritual journey for all of us begins in baptism, and becomes real for us when we come to know ourselves as sons and daughters of God. When we embrace that identity as children of God, created by God, loved by God, known personally by God, the spiritual journey has begun.

Upon knowing himself as God’s Son, Mark tells us the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The picture to have in our minds is not the chauffeur as driver, the picture is a herder, driving an animal. There is not a lot of choice involved.

This is simply how it is. From the first cry we make, fresh out of the womb, to our final breath, we live in a world without certainty; wilderness, and therefore, of temptation.

Jesus spent forty days there, as Mark tells us; a day for each year his Jewish ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egyptian slavery. The journey with God is all about a journey in the wilderness of uncertainty and temptation.

While all of life is wilderness, in that it is uncertain, there are periods of time that are more intensely wilderness than others. Times of rupture, disruption, of unexpected events that throw us into the dark valleys of the wilderness. There is something significant to looking back on a period of time and realizing it as an episode that has concluded.

I experienced one of those the first year we were home from Croatia. I knew things were going to change for us, for all kinds of reasons, but the future was not a all clear to me, and it was a difficult year. But now I look back on that time as an episode, a period of intense wilderness that had a conclusion. The “forty days” which lasted a year for me, finally ended.

You have, I’m sure, gone through periods of intense wilderness as well. And probably there will be more ahead. But they do come to an end. This is helpful to remember when we are in the middle of one of those “forty day” periods. One day, we will be able to look back on this episode.

So, the question is, what do we want to see when we look back? How do we live in wilderness?

Let us look at Jesus’ experience as a model. Mark tells us that Jesus was not entirely alone out there. Though there were no other people, Jesus was joined by Satan, the tempter, and there were “wild beasts, along with angels who waited on him.”

Satan

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You are welcome to read this as you like; I read this Satan character as a metaphor of the spiritual struggle with temptation that Jesus endured, and that we all endure. This too is a paradigm of the spiritual life.

There is no one I know who does not struggle with all kinds of temptations, and the forces that allure us seem strong. We have desires. Usually, the desires we feel on the surface are merely ciphers for the deeper desires of our hearts.

For example, below the desires of the flesh are deep desires for human intimacy. Beneath the desire for wealth is the angst of insecurity and the quest for respect and admiration. Even the desire for food is often a manifestation of the need to sooth deeper hungers and longings.

How should we satisfy our desires and the temptations they bring? We all know right from wrong. We know that there are healthy, life-giving, life-affirming ways of pursuing our deepest desires, and there are the opposite. There are good ways and bad ways.

The good ways are the ways that promote our human flourishing as individuals and as communities. The bad ways always lead to destruction, division, conflict and illness. But the good ways are often long and hard, and the bad ways promise short-cuts and ease. So, yes, we live with temptations.

Wild Beasts
Besides the tempter, Satan, Mark cryptically tells us that the “wild beasts” were there too. I take the beasts, which seem scary to me, to be symbols of fear. Fear is the source of many temptations. We all have them: the fear that keeps us from really living our lives, from being our true selves, from getting out of our comfort zones. And the fear of taking risks, like the risk of loving, and the fear of failure that keeps us from attempting anything.

The beasts are also the forces that tempt us into hopelessness and despair. They are the forces of cynicism that smirk at the idea that there are life-giving alternatives, that there can be a morning of joy after a night of weeping; that forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption are possible.

Angels
Besides Satan the tempter and the fear mongering, cynical wild beasts, Mark says that angels waited on Jesus in his wilderness time. I take these ministering spirits as a metaphor for the constant, active presence of God’s Spirit who is there with us in wilderness. This is the key to overcoming the temptations.

We can only make it through the wilderness with the knowledge that we gained at baptism, that we really are God’s beloved children. That’s why the timing was important. Yes, we are in a place of uncertainty and temptation, but we are not abandoned there. God is there, with us all the time.

Alone all Night?

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I am told that some native American traditions have a male initiation ceremony which concludes with an all night experience. The young man is led into the forest blindfolded and taken to a log or stump to sit on. There, he must spend the night alone. During the night he has to confront his fears as he hears the hooting owl in the distance, the leaves and grass rustling in the wind, and as his imagination plays with the forest sounds and their unknown origins.

In the morning, he is allowed to remove the blindfold. As he does, he discovers his father who has sat through the night behind him, observing him, there to protect him if the need arose. He was not ever alone, though he did not know it.

We are never alone, though we often feel as though we are. But when does God our Father ever abandon his children? Look back at each of your periods of intense wilderness – were you abandoned? In fact the opposite. I have heard many of you describe how you have felt supported and accompanied by God in very difficult times – wilderness times.

Good News After Wilderness
The next thing Mark’s gospel shows us what happened after Jesus’ time of wilderness.

“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Somehow, after the powerful experience of baptism, and following the 40 days of intense wilderness temptation, Jesus was newly energized to proclaim the good news of God. The good news is that God’s kingdom has come near.

Invitation: Make a Change

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The offer of the kingdom comes with the invitation to make a change, to “repent” to change our minds, to embrace a wider reality. To leave a narrow conception of the God-abandoned life, and to accept a vision of a life lived in the presence of a loving God, in the kingdom of God, in sight of the father who stays up all night in the wilderness with us.

The invitation to repentance is implicit acknowledgement that there are times we have succumbed to the temptations of wilderness. There are times we have chosen against the life-affirming path and have opted for the short cuts of self-protection.

There times we need to repent from and change; times when we acted out of selfishness and xenophobic-tribalism, neglecting the needy, apathetic at injustice, wishing for revenge instead of making peace, and falling into cynicism and despair. Times the beasts have gotten the best of us.

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So, the season of Lent is an invitation to embrace a wider consciousness. To believe the good news of God. To see that the line that connects our timeline’s significant moments is a close parallel line; that God was there for us and with us each zig and each zag that wandering line took.

The lines stop, so far, at today. Today we have choices. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, but we can choose how we will live, if given another day. Lent is the time we look at our spiritual practices and ask if they are rigorous enough to sustain us in faith and hope during wilderness periods.

In Lent we hear the invitation to make changes. Perhaps we are being called to a life of contemplative prayer.

Perhaps we are being called to new forms of action, or to new courageous advocacy on behalf of the powerless, on behalf of victims, and on behalf of voiceless ones, on behalf of our fragile planet.

Some of us may be called to reconcile relationships by initiating forgiveness.

All of us are called to repent, as the necessary pre-condition for receiving the good news of the kingdom.

So hear the call and believe the good news. Respond as children of God. Today, the timeline is still in motion. And the line, even in the wilderness, is parallel.

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Reasons for Singing

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B on Mark 9:2-9, February 15, 2015

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I was at a youth camp one summer where, after the teaching sessions we had open question and answer time. I remember one student asking if there was any evidence that Jesus sang songs. I said, yes, because Mark and Matthew both tell us that on the night of the last supper, before they left the upper room to go to the Mount of Olives, the sang a hymn.

The comment is made so off-handedly it is clear that this was just the normal, expected thing to do. And of course it was. Jesus was Jewish. He worshipped in the Jewish synagogues. He read from the part of the bible we now call the “Old Testament” which has, within it, a hymnbook of 150 songs we call the book of Psalms.

Judaism is a singing faith. Some of the Psalm-songs even tell the people to praise the Lord with songs; enacting what it teaches: a song, telling us to sing. We Christians inherit the musical tradition in worship from our Jewish ancestors in the faith.

I am sure that the memory of that question about Jesus and singing came to mind because of this special day for this congregation: today we dedicate and begin to worship from the new Presbyterian Hymnal, “Glory to God.” It has over 800 hymns in it, selected from the thousands of possible songs from our tradition.

These songs link us to the faith of our fathers and mothers in past generations. These songs also bear witness to the living faith that, in each generation, continues to express itself in new songs.

Deep Reasons for Singing

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What do we have to sing about? Of course we can start with the good things in life that we are blessed with – the myriad of reasons for our gratitude, just as the song “For the beauty of the Earth” speaks of. But this morning we are going to consider another, deeper, more profound reason to sing.

This Sunday is more than hymnal dedication Sunday, it is Transfiguration Sunday. As I was thinking about dedicating a new hymnal on Transfiguration Sunday, it struck me how fitting it is.

We read the gospel story from Mark this year about that mysterious, numinous mountain-top moment. What happened on that mountain? A vision? A shared mystical occurrence?

However we want to imagine the meaning behind this thickly, intertextually layered narrative, the story is not about a rational event, but a powerful spiritual experience, similar to Jesus’ experience at his baptism.

That too is fitting to consider, on a day of hymnal dedication. Music too is non-rational in its effects. Somehow, music gets to places in our hearts that logic and reason never go. It moves us, sometimes to joy, other times to tears.

In the transfiguration story, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John see figures they recognize as Moses and Elijah, who died hundreds of years before, and they are talking to Jesus. There is a lot going on here. The most obvious meaning of their presence is that the story of Jesus is part of a larger story, the story of Israel.

We remember that Moses and Elijah both had direct experiences of the presence of God on mountains. Elijah was hiding in the rock as the earthquake, the wind and the fire terrified him, only to finally experience the presence of God as “the sound of sheer silence” (1Kings 19:12).

Moses, on Mt. Sinai, experienced the cloud, along with a “devouring fire” lightening, thunder, trumpet blasts, and a voice that terrified everyone. In the Transfiguration story too, the presence of God is terrifying for the disciples.

Just as Moses and Elijah heard God speaking from the cloud, so again the voice of God, speaks saying:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The timing is perfect. In Mark’s gospel, we read that Jesus has been saying things, but he has been having a hard time getting his disciples to listen to them so far.

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Specifically, just before they went up that mountain Jesus was telling them about his impending suffering, death, and they did not want to listen. When Jesus spoke of these, Peter actually rebuked him. That was the famous scene in which Jesus has to tell Peter “Get thee behind me Satan”.

They had a hard time wanting to listen those words. Suffering and death did not fit into Peter’s plan for Messiah. The music Peter and the others wanted to sing was a victory march.

But life is not like that, is it? Life involves suffering. We all have heartache, disappointment, grief and pain. We all go through experiences we cannot understand. And, we are mortal. We are alive today with the full knowledge that someday we will not be. That knowledge conditions all of our experiences of life, even its joys and successes, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us.

See Jesus, See God

And this brings us to, center of the story of the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah disappear and only Jesus is there, and the voice says: this is my Son, listen to him! How could you make the point in any stronger way? We are to look at Jesus and see God in him. This is called “incarnation.”

Consider it for a moment. What does it mean to tell a story about God in human form?

What does the incarnation mean if not that the God we know is the God who totally embraced humanity, thoroughly, and completely.

This is why this is such a huge reason to sing. How should we think of God? How should we understand God? Like a volcanic eruption? Like a terrifying, rock-splitting whirlwind? Yes, that truth never goes away – God is overwhelming. But this story is here to say: to know God, look at Jesus. To understand God’s will, listen to him.

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And this is where it gets amazing; what happens to God in human form? He suffers.

The God we know, if only in part, analogically, as Paul says, “as through a glass, darkly,” we know by seeing what Jesus reveals about God. That God is willing to suffer just as we mortals suffer. That God is even willing to go all the way, and experience the suffering of death itself.

Jesus fully embraced his future suffering and death and was still able to know himself as God’s son, to understand that God was with him, even in his suffering, even in his death.

This is surely what we are invited to know: that we too, as sons and daughters of God are so cared for by a loving Heavenly Father that we can trust that he is with us every living moment of our lives. That he suffers when we suffer. That he knows the pain we feel. That we are never abandoned, never forgotten, never left to suffer alone. God is for us, and with us. This, if nothing else, give us reasons for singing.

Compassion for Suffering

And there is even more to sing about here. The God who knows human suffering has also given us eyes of compassion that are open to seeing the suffering all around us. And the God who calls us from the cloud on the mount to listen to the words of his beloved son has, in those words, given us a charge to keep. We are now God’s agents of compassion in the face of suffering.

We do listen to Jesus. We hear his call to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We see people who are poor, people who experience discrimination, people who are disabled or challenged by a host of issues, and we feel the call to respond compassionately.

We know that it is not enough merely to pat ourselves on the back that there is equal opportunity for all of the able bodied and gifted people to “make it” in our society. We, who know the God who embraced human suffering, know that God calls us to respond in kind. So we are inspired to respond as we sing songs of justice and mercy, songs that anticipate the peaceable kingdom we long for.

So, the worst mistake to make on the Mount of Transfiguration is to want to stay there, up on the mountain, in mystical ecstasy, a long way from the people. Peter’s idea to build some booth-shrines was innocent, but wrong-headed. The action that counts is down the mountain.

The whole point is to go down to where the other humans are, and to be there for them. To be the people who have also been transformed, who now see what they could not have imagined before: that God is going to walk down that mountain with them.

And yes, the path will lead to suffering and even to death. It is the path all humans take. But new life will follow.

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So, yes there are millions of great reasons to sing praises to God. We are so blessed! But even more, we know that in our times of pain and suffering, God is with us, literally “feeling our pain.” He understands as one who has been there, and has the scars to prove it. And he will be with us right up to the end, and lead us through that final curtain.

In the mean time: he has put us here for a reason. We are to listen to Jesus, and respond to the call to discipleship and to service.

People of faith in the God who suffers: we have reasons to sing!

 

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The Message that Matters

Sermon for 5th Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, Feb 8, 2015, on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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What do you take with you if you have to gather up the essentials and flee on foot?  Among your most necessary belongings, would you include your tambourine?

That question came up in bible study this past week.  The ancient Rabbi’s noticed that after the Israelites fled from Pharaoh’s Egypt and crossed the parted Red Sea, they sang songs.  Exodus tells us that Miriam led the women’s song, and

“all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing (15:20).

What would possess all the Israelite women to grab their tambourines when, for all they knew, they were fleeing for their lives?

The Rabbis say that they brought them because they were prepared for a miracle that would require a celebratory song and dance.  What gave them such confident hope?  Those women had experienced the miracle of God’s care for them when they had their babies, and so they were expecting redemption.

The babies they bore in Egypt were signs to them that the Creation blessing “be fruitful” was still in effect.   Not only the creation blessing, but for them, the blessing of Abraham and Sarah was being fulfilled as well.  They believed the promise “I will bless you and make you a great nation… and in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  So, they took their tambourines, and were ready for the song and the dance.

So here is our question: would we have grabbed the tambourine?  How confident is our hope?

Maybe you are thinking that hope would be easier if, like those Jewish mothers, you had seen some miracles.

The Jewish Rabbis who gave us these reflections knew where the story was going.  The same people who sang and danced, the men and the women, would soon lose their hope when water became scarce in the wilderness.  They would lose their hope again when food got scarce, and even after the miracle manna, they would have other occasions of hopelessness in the face of trouble.  The path though the wilderness was a zigzag, and so was their spiritual journey.

For the Jewish people, hope or hopelessness was a question of which story, which narrative a person is living in.   The narrative we are living in tells us the answer to life’s questions: What kind of world am I living in?  What does this all mean?  Where is this going?   How will this end?  What then?

Some tell the narrative of hopelessness.  They have plenty of evidence.  Bricks without straw; a wilderness without water, Pharaoh’s approaching chariots; that was then.  This is now: ISIS, Putin, global terrorism, the economy (at least for normal people), health issues, family issues, politics, and the constantly ticking clock counting down our lives.

There always has been and there always will be abundant evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  A single news broadcast confirms it – if you can even believe the news anchors anymore!

Our Counter Narrative of Hope

We are here to assert a counter-narrative.  This is what it means to be a person of faith.  We are willing to believe that there is more to this world than meets the eye.    There is more than one possible way to tell the story; an alternative message.

To people who were beginning to loose hope, people who had plenty of evidence for hopelessness, Isaiah said, basically, “wake up and open your eyes!  Open your ears to an alternative narrative.”

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“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Then, he begins to tell the God-narrative.  How do you think all of this got here?  Look around; start with the stars that fill the sky:

“Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name”

Isaiah wonders how people could have missed the message they proclaim:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”

Yes, there is evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  But open your eyes to wonder and your heart to awe.  Every leaf, every turtle, every burning candle can tell a story of beauty, of artistry, of amazement.

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My niece just had a beautiful baby.  Of course she has posted pictures on Facebook.  But not just pictures of the baby.  She has posted pictures of herself and her husband looking at that new life with the wonder and amazement of new parents.  Can anyone look at a newborn without getting the message?  Life is a gift.  A mystery.

So how do people who live in the context of real-life, of real problems, of zigzags, and of the full knowledge that none of us gets out of this alive, as mortals, internalize the creation narrative of hope?

Waiting as Spiritual Practice

This is the role of spiritual practice: to connect us with the source of hope.  Isaiah says:

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Wait upon the Lord.”

Sit down for twenty minutes of silence daily.  Turn off the narrative the ego plays in the mind.  Consider only the breath that moves automatically in and out of your body, and simply let the moment be the wondrous gift that it is.

They shall mount of up with wings, like eagles.”

Soaring effortlessly is a beautiful picture of life lived in hope.

Creation, Evolution and Faith

The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeopteryx

The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeopteryx

I need to complexify this picture a bit, because today, faith based on creation and its Creator has become a challenge to modern, educated people.  We actually know about evolution.  We know, for example, that feathers did not evolve for flying, originally.  We have fossils of dinosaurs with feathers on their limbs  that could not possibly be of use as wings. Feathers were probably for regulating temperature and for mate selection.

We also know that our bodies contain carbon just like the carbon found in stars, formed at the moment of the big bang.

There are two more things we know now also: That scientific cosmologists admit to a whole series of conundrums when it comes to origins.  How was it that life exists, starting from lifeless matter?  And how does consciousness arise in living beings?  How do we account for anything being here instead of nothing.  No matter how far back you push the question, the question remains.  This is one thing we know.

The second thing is that we can, and we do, still feel wonder at the stars, and wonder at the sight of a bird in flight.  We were made to read an alternative narrative, a meaningful message that includes a non-material world.  We believe in things like justice, fairness, compassion, and love.  We believe in waiting in silence upon the Lord.  We believe it does renew our strength.

Jesus and the Message

This is what Jesus came to proclaim: the alternative message of hope.

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I wonder if you found this morning’s gospel reading odd?  Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and she springs from her sick bed to serve people.  Jesus is met by a whole town full of sick people and possessed people and heals them, only to set out the next day for another place.

In the mean time, he disappears in the wee hours of the morning to go out and be alone in the dark.  When they found him, they said everyone was searching for him – presumably for another round of healing and exorcism, but he answers oddly:

“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

For Jesus, his message was more important than his healing ministry.  If we allow Jesus to say how he understood the purpose for his coming, we hear him say that the reason he came was to tell a story, to announce a narrative; to give a message.

What is the message?  What is the gospel?  So far in Mark’s gospel there has been exactly one message that Jesus has gone around proclaiming:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

Let us unpack this message:

The time is fulfilled” meaning the present moment is the one that matters.

Repent;” meaning, change your thinking.

Believe in” – nor trust in – or commit yourself to the good news.

What good news?  The message is that “the kingdom of God has come near,” – is among you, is present.  God is king.

This is the narrative to live in.  You are not alone.  You are not unloved.  God is here and God is for you.  God is your source and God is your destination.   In God we live and  move and have our being.

And this is why Mark told the story in this compressed and symbolic way.  Jesus did not just heal Peter’s mother-in-law; he “took her by the hand and lifted her up.”  This was on the Sabbath when no such work was allowed.  Jesus broke with the old understanding of what it meant that God was present, and turned it upside down.

God was not present, for Jesus, like a line judge in tennis, announcing faults.  Rather God was on the side of healing and redemption.  And the person who gets the message, automatically starts living a life of grateful service, just as Simon’s mother-in-law modeled.

The Primacy of the Message

Yes, Jesus’ presence was a healing presence, and yes his ministry was a confrontation with evil on many levels.  But that was not primary.  The message was primary.  Why?

Because all the people Jesus healed probably got sick again, and all of them died.  No matter how many miracles you get along the way – water from a stone, manna in the desert, remission from the cancer – eventually we all go down to the dust.

So the question is, how are we going to live our lives?  Which narrative are we going to believe?  What is the message that will matter to us?

Jesus invites us to trust the narrative that says, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  God is here, not to evoke guilt and shame and fear of punishment, but to awaken us to love.  We are loved.  We are beloved.  We are sons and daughters of a loving heavenly father.

The Spirituality of the Hopeful

Partly because there are so many problems in the world, and in our lives, and in our heads and hearts, so many zigzags, this narrative, this message of hope is not the loudest nor easiest to hear.  That is why the person of faith is a person of spiritual practices.  Faith is sustained by “waiting on the Lord.”  Faith, trust, grows by doing what Jesus did – escaping for silent prayer.  Communion.  The experience of union with God.

And so Jesus’ goal was to go to the next town, and the next, and the next, and to spread the message that matters in every moment of our lives, and at the last moment of our lives.  The message that God is present.  The message that God is with us.  That God is good.  That God can be trusted.  The message that the  kingdom of God is at hand.

If that is not the narrative you believe, then hear the invitation to “repent;” to change your thinking.  What do you have to loose?  We may be wrong.  We may just be carbon in a soul-less universe that does not care one way or the other.

But we will risk paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve.  Because we may be right.  Look at the stars.  Look at the flight of an eagle.  Look at a newborn.  Believe the message of hope.

 

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Kingdom Challenges

Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, B, Feb 1, 2015 on Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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On Mondays we have a group that meets together to practice Lectio Divina, or “spiritual reading” of a bible text.  Lectio Divina is an ancient practice with four parts: a reading of a text, spontaneous reflections about the text offered by several of the group, a brief time of silent prayer about the text, followed by a 20 minute silent, contemplative meditation.

In that silent time, we use a word or a phrase or an idea that came to mind during the reading or reflection time as our anchor, to keep our minds at rest in the present moment and in the presence of God.

A Sunny Day in Capernaum

4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum

4th cent. Synagogue built on site of 1st cent. synagogue in Capernaum

So, Monday we read this gospel text about Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in Capernaum.  As we read, I was imagining the story – for me, it was a sunny day.  Jesus and his new followers went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, probably in the same frame of mind that we had when we showed up here today.  They, like we, were expecting to worship, to sing, pray, hear from scripture, and go home, hopefully encouraged and spiritually blessed.

So Jesus went into the synagogue to teach.  Normally the teaching was from the Hebrew Bible, perhaps from the prophet Isaiah which was apparently one of Jesus’ favorites.

People were impressed.  I imagine some elbow nudges were going on and some glances were being exchanged.  He seemed to know what he was talking about in a way that appeared authoritative – like he really “got it” at a deep level.  It was literally “remarkable,” and people remarked to each other about it.

Mark does not tell us what Jesus was teaching.  Up to this point (we are still in chapter 1) all Jesus has “taught” has been one sentence:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

So far, Jesus has done nothing to antagonize anyone, so I imagine he and everyone there was surprised by the outburst that

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followed.  A man, who is  only identified by the “unclean spirit” he is under the influence of, confronts Jesus with obvious aggression.  We are not told anything about him, though I picture someone ugly and misshapen – I know, I’ve seen too many movies.

The voice that comes from the man is hostile.  It speaks using first person plurals:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

The demonic voices assume that Jesus is the one being aggressive; they assume that Jesus’ presence and teaching are a threat.  I picture the man sneering and maybe even slobbering as he screams is venomous accusations.

Picturing this man and his outburst, by the way, is not good at all for the brain.  It is completely negative, maybe it even brings up fears; certainly disgust.  Neuroscientists tell us that these kind of thoughts make the brain send stress hormones shooting around our bodies.  Well, sorry, but this is how the story goes.

So, this ugly screeching, de-humanized person fires off an odd sentence, strangely reverting to first person singular:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Elisha the prophet was called that too, so probably the assumption is that Jesus is a powerful prophet.  But why scream it out like that?   In those days, the idea was that if you named a spiritual being you had power over it.  Probably the demon wanted to overpower Jesus.

But the attempt fails.  Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit.  It threw him down, but then went out of him, and the newly re-humanized man was left unharmed.

The people, Mark tells us, were amazed.  Not only does Jesus teach with the authority of an insider with God, he clearly has authority over the spiritual realm as well.  They say,

“What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 

So, I guess the demons were right to think that Jesus was a threat to them.  He  rebuked them, silenced them, and dispatched them.  Bad news for unclean spirits.

But to the person who had been their victim, what Jesus did was good.  He released a person who had been in bondage.

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Setting the captives free is what he came to do.  It is what Moses did, also by the power of God, many years ago.  It is what God wants to do for all of us.

As I pictured this in our Lectio Divina group the phrase that came to me was this:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”   – Romans 12:21.

So, for the next 20 minutes in silence, I used that phrase as my anchor.

Spirituality: Enough?

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Meditation has become quite popular now.  You see and hear articles about it everywhere.  People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for centuries – maybe millennia.  Now, neuroscientists report its benefits.  It is great for your brain, and from there its benefits affect all your body’s systems.  So, it is great, and it works, and I recommend it highly.   Most people say it even makes you more compassionate, which is always a good thing.

There are a growing number of people who practice meditation but who are not connected to the church.  They feel alienated from institutional religion.  They sometimes define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

I have great sympathy for them.  Just like the in the story, in which a man with an unclean spirit was harboring inside the synagogue – as if at home there (no one seemed to be surprised that he was there) so too, the church, through its history, has had some bad people in it, doing bad things.  For many, the church has been an unwelcoming place, even a place that practiced open discrimination.

But even though I get the reasons why the “spiritual but not religious” people have rejected the church, nevertheless, for me, it is not enough to be spiritual in some vague, general way.  For me, it is important that my spirituality be connected with a set of teachings, specifically the teachings of Jesus.

The Kingdom Confronts Evil

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Why?  Because, though it is bad for your brain to dwell on it, there really is such a thing as evil.  Whether or not you believe in literal demons and demonic possession is completely beside the point.  The point is that the one teaching of Jesus we have heard so far in Mark,

Repent, the Kingdom of God has come near,”

means that we are called to take sides in a cosmic struggle against evil.

This means that simply being personally spiritual, meditating or taking nature walks or other spiritual practices is great, but not enough, if it leaves us un-engaged.

And this is exactly why we turn to the teachings of Jesus and hold them up as our authority.   To follow Jesus is to be a person of both deep personal spirituality and of active engagement on the side of good, on the side of setting the captives free.

Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

An Insider: Me

Reflecting on the story, I thought about how that man with the unclean spirit was found inside the synagogue.  He was an insider.  This makes me think about insiders like me.  The evil in me.  My pride.  My selfishness.  My reluctance to turn the other cheek or go the second mile.  My relationship with my money.  But especially, my own tendency to demonize others instead of finding ways of overcoming evil with good.

These, for me, are powerful reasons for developing and maintaining spiritual practices, like silent prayerful meditation, the daily examen, and lectio divina.  I need them all. They all  help, and they also reveal how much room for improvement I have.  They both draw me to God and make me more mindfully aware of how I am living.  They push open doors to compassion too.

And these practices expose me, on a daily basis, to the teachings of Jesus that were so amazing to the people who heard them for the first time in Capernaum that day.  I need to hear them, daily.  I need to learn to look at my world with eyes open.  To ask myself “What does it mean to live as one aware that the kingdom of God has come near?”  What does it mean that the first word in Jesus’ kingdom proclamation is “repent” “change your thinking” “embrace a higher level of consciousness” as we discussed last week.

Seeing the Victims

I believe the teachings of Jesus make me more sensitive to seeing the victims, the people who are being dehumanized by evil.   For example, I go down the street and see all these Pay Day Lenders and Title Loan sharks who squeeze the last few dollars off people who are in financial trouble already, and I grieve for the pain they cause.  This is one of the reasons we and other churches started the Christian Service Center and work hard to keep its food pantry open.

In fact, Jesus’ teachings open my eyes to see that every victim is my neighbor, because I learn that the question that began as “Who is my neighbor?” quickly became “Who was a neighbor to him?” in the story of the Good Samaritan.

So, Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to all the people on the Edmund Pettus Bridge bridge in Selma. Jesus teaches me that I am a neighbor to the children who the Presbyterian Home for Children ministers to.  I am a neighbor to everyone who is being discriminated against, with no exceptions.  And I am a neighbor, as St. Francis figured out, to “father sun and sister moon,” to the whole eco-system that supports life for all of my neighbors on this fragile planet.  As a neighbor, I am called to be an advocate for all of them.

The Community under Jesus’ Authority

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Jesus also teaches us to be a new community, a family, a church, so that we can journey as followers together.  We organize so that we can worship together, learn together, and find ways to “overcome evil with good” together.  Today we will install a new session of elders to lead us in that quest to be a worshiping community, following the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus teaches us to recognize him, among us, in the breaking of the bread.  So today we will celebrate the Lord’s supper, according to his instructions.

We are something like the people in that synagogue in Capernaum: we too are amazed by Jesus’ teaching.  And we too take them as our authority.  We too, have heard his call to follow, and we have responded.

The only question we have left is how can we live in such a way that we are not overcome by evil, in us and around us, but find effective ways to overcome evil with good.   This is the kingdom challenge.

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Being Followers

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-3 & Mark 1:14-20 for 3rd Epiphany, B, January 25, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-3
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

Mark 1:14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Sometimes, the most profound truths are hiding in plain sight.  Like this one. Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.59.50 PM

According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life,  of the world’s population, as of 2010 people who self-identify as Christians comprise 32%, Muslims 23%, and Jews 0.2%.  So, these three major monotheistic religions account for over half of the world’s population.

They all have a the same foundational narrative.  All three faiths tell the story of Abraham and Sarah who are called to leave home and to go on a journey.  God says,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” 

If the three monotheistic religions are doing their job well, half the world should already know that the spiritual journey beings with leaving behind the safety nets that, up to that point, had defined us.  The journey towards spiritual maturity begins when we respond to the call to move on from one kind of consciousness to a higher level of consciousness, which always involves a leaving.

The Original Call of JesusScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.58.18 PM

So, Jesus begins his ministry, just after his baptism and following his period of wilderness temptations, by calling followers to leave home.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, all fishermen, hear the call and respond.

Mark could have told us this story without any mention of nets, boats or parents.  He could have just said that Jesus met them, called them, and they followed.  But he draws our attention to nets, boats, and parents, to make the point: the call to follow Jesus involved leaving behind things that had been essential to their lives.

They were fishermen; that was their identity.  Their nets and boats defined them.  So did their families.  They had names, first names and tribal names inherited from their fathers.  And Jesus was calling them to leave these behind, just as Abraham and Sarah had done so long ago.   Mark tells us:

“immediately they left their nets and followed him…Immediately…they left their father…in the boat” Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 10.14.42 AM

The Two Halves of Life

What does this leaving look like?  In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr unfolds the spiritual journey using Carl Jung’s paradigm of the two halves of life.

In the first half of life, we all needed to work on forming a sense of who we are, and of course, we did that by reference first to our families of origin.  If that process went well, we developed a good sense of self-worth and resilience.

Later, we established ourselves as adults.  We identified with our roles and titles.  Many Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 10.23.04 AMof us took on the role of being fathers or mothers.  We identified with our jobs – we became stay-at-home parents, or engineers, teachers, or business people, maybe even fishermen.

We defined ourselves by our permanent features like our race, gender, and sexual-orientation.  We identified with the groups that we were part of, like our nation, our religion, our political party and so on.

Rohr likes to use the analogy of the container.  Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.07.25 PMThink of your life as a container.  All of these ways we developed our identities were like features of our container.   He says,

the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: “What makes me significant?” “How can I support myself?” and “Who will go with me?

(Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 1).

So what is the task of the second half of life?  He says “It is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.”

Once we have completed the task of building the container in the first half of life, we are ready to answer the call to the task of the second half of life.

The call to the spiritual life is a call to a journey that will require leaving behind the well-built container with its iron-clad certainties, its rules for how things have to go in order to be acceptable to us, and its notion that following the leaders we like makes us the good guys.

In short, the journey of the spiritual life is always a risk.  It is, like Abraham and Sarah learned, a call to an unknown land that lacks map boarders.  Like the disciples, it is a call to leave behind what used to work so well in order to take the next step towards spiritual maturity.

Jesus’ Proclamation 

I love the way Mark describes the process for us.  Jesus comes, Mark says,

proclaiming the good news of God”.

Remember, the people he is “proclaiming” to are Jewish – they know all about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and the prophets.

So what is God’s good news that Jesus proclaims?Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 8.58.45 PM

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The time is fulfilled.

The moment has come.  The moment is now.  The present moment is where it starts.  It begins with the mindful awareness that this moment now is the only moment we ever get to live in.  In this moment, we live our lives.  The past is gone and cannot be altered.  The future is always in the future, whether we long for it or dread it.  The only moment we have is now.

I just saw a Facebook post from the philosopher Winnie the Pooh.  Winnie and Piglet are out for a walk.  “What day is it?” Pooh asked.  “It’s today” squeaked Piglet.”  “My favorite day.”  said Pooh.  Exactly, since today is the only day we ever get to live.

So today, in this moment, we are called to “repent” which literally means to change our thinking.  This means letting go of an old way of imagining the world and my place in it, and becoming open to a new way of understanding, a new consciousness.  Leaving the nets and the boats and the nest behind.

In a moment we will run through some of Jesus’ central perspectives, and this is what we are going to see.  Jesus constantly called people to a higher level of conscious, to an awakening.

Here is the way it looks:  The old consciousness was literalistic.  In the first half of life we had either-or, black or white, all or nothing, in or out, for-me or against-me kinds of categories.  This is called dualistic thinking.

There is no room for paradox or mystery.  All the coloring must be within the lines;  the music permits no improvisation.  The call is to move on to a higher level of non-dual consciousness.

So, here is the question: if the time is fulfilled, the present moment is the moment in which we are living, and the call is to repentance, to a change of thinking, to a new non-dual consciousness, on what basis do we take the risk to follow?

Jesus proclaims,

the kingdom of God has come near

Jesus’ Kingdom Project

Jesus will spend all of his short life inviting people to accept the good news that the kingdom of God has actually come near.  Listen to all of these challenges to a higher level of non-dual consciousness:

He will heal people and announce that their sins are forgiven without recourse to a temple, a sacrifice or a priest.  He will turn the concept of Sabbath upside down and teach that people are not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for the benefit of people.

He will teach the parables of the kingdom, explaining that it is not a physical kingdom to kill and die for, but a present reality, like seed sown on four kinds of soils; like an illuminating lamp on a stand, like invisibly growing seeds that suddenly sprout, or like a huge plant bursting up from a tiny mustard seed.

Through all of these, Jesus will be inviting people to abandon their old dualistic thinking and embrace a new consciousness.  He will coax and bemuse and sometimes irritate people, calling them to embrace a reality that is present, but present only to those who are open to receiving its presence.

The good news is that the kingdom of God has indeed come near.  Forgiveness is a fact.  Healing of old wounds and cancers of the soul like bitterness and envy is possible.  We can be forgiven forgivers who turn the other cheek.

Guilt and shame are categories that can now be abandoned, in favor of grace and liberation.  God can be known as Jesus knew him, as Abba-Father instead of as the rigid score-keeper.

Us-and-them dualistic thinking can be left behind, back at the shore with the old nets and the boat, and a new openness to others who are different, but equally loved by God can blossom.

Lost sheep and prodigal sons and daughters are welcome.  Sinners and tax collectors are welcome.  Samaritans and Gentiles are welcome, lepers, the sick and the lame are all invited to live into their true identities as sons and daughters of God.  When a person can accept that, then the kingdom of God has come near for them.

The Call to UsScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.00.39 PM

This call is for all of us.  Jesus comes to us inviting us to journey into the second half of life.  “Follow me” he calls.

Leave the nets and the boats.  Leave the nest.  Let go of the group-think, the herd mentality, the devotion to the status quo, the dualistic either-or consciousness.  The moment is now, the present.  There is a much richer, more satisfying, holistic  and open way to live.  It is life lived fully aware and connected with God, and compassionately involved in the real world.

Follow me” Jesus calls all of us.  Follow me out to the place of solitude and silence.  Follow me to the practice of prayer and contemplation where the ego can be ignored and contemplative consciousness can grow.

Follow me” to the crowds that need food.  Follow me to the sick who need healing compassion.  Because the good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand!

Come; follow me” Jesus invites us.  Find the contents of your container – your true self, in God.  Know that you are loved.  Believe that you are forgiven.  Come to recognize the presence of God in everything.  Learn what the great spiritual teachers know, that:

“God comes to you disguised as your life”  (source: Paula D’Arcy, in Falling Upward, p. 66, by Richard Rohr.)

Yes, there will be suffering and pain.  Life is difficult.  But God will be there for us.  There will be obstacles and even enemies, but even these can be redeemed for good.  There will be deaths, but resurrections will follow.  This is the pattern built into the universe.

Come” Jesus calls us, “the time is the present moment, the kingdom of God has come near, change your consciousness; follow me.”

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Being the Called

Sermon for January 18, 2015, 2nd Epiphany, B, (Ordinary 2), on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.11.27 PM

We read the story of the call of the boy Samuel.  I have noticed that when there is a story with children in it, people think of it as a children’s story.  But there is a big difference between a story about children and a story for children.  I am not sure who should be reading Little Red Riding Hood, for example, because it ends with way more blood on the floor than children should ever have to imagine, not to mention all the innuendos that we cannot discuss here.

I first heard this first story about the call of Samuel as a child, and I bet you did too.  On one level, that is a good thing.  I hope every child gets to hear someone call their name and say, “God is calling you.”  I hope we all learned that the response of the called is to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A Life Changing Call

On another level, this is not at all a children’s story.  Samuel was called to say some pretty adult things to an adult, about bad things to come, based on bad things done in the past by adults, and none of it is fit for children.   I have often said that the bible is an adult book, and this story is one of the reasons.

We call this story a “call narrative” because it tells of a person receiving a calling.  Being called is life changing.  When a person understands that they are called to do or to be something, a new chapter in their life starts.  Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.17.01 PM

We read another call narrative today; actually two call narratives.   We read of Jesus’ call to Phillip and then Phillip’s call to Nathanael.

John tells us that Philip, Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida. I am always curious when an insignificant detail is mentioned, especially in the Gospel of John where nearly everything seems to have both a literal and a figurative meaning.  It turns out that Bethsaida means “house of hunting or house of fishing” and that is exactly what is going on in this scene.  People are hunted or fished for, which is another way of saying they are “called.”

Jesus’ call to Phillip is simple and direct:  “Follow me.”  Phillip does follow.  The first thing Phillip does as a follower of Jesus is to hunt or fish for Nathanael and call him to follow as well.

Nathanael is a bit skeptical.  His call has come, not from Jesus directly, but second-hand.  Philip recognizes this obstacle and immediately offers a brilliant solution: “Come and see.”  Meet Jesus personally for yourself, as I have done, and you will be drawn to follow as I have been.  Simply, “come and see.”

Being CalledScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.25.53 PM

This call narrative is written for us.  I hope you see yourself in these first disciples.  I hope you are able to picture yourself in this story.  I wonder when you first became aware that you have been personally called to be a follower of Jesus?  I wonder when you first responded to that double call: “follow me…come and see.”?

Certainly our calling began at our baptisms when we were called by our Christian name and someone said, “Child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  We became children of God, recipients of God’s spirit.

Most of us were too young to remember the water that touched our skin at our baptisms, but we have felt the call, the tug, the pull on our hearts to follow Jesus.  Probably we have felt called for the same reason Phillip did and offered to Nathanael: we have come and seen.

Seeing 

We have seen, in Jesus, a life lived as intended; fully human, fully alive.  Awake to God’s presence in the world, open to experiencing God in the moment, welcoming people into his life of all sorts, without distinction, and allowing God to bless them through him.   We have “come and seen” in Jesus, a possibility of life as God intended.

This past week we probably all saw the news about the climbers who made it to the top of 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in YosemiteScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.11.37 PM Valley’s El Capitan Meadow. Tommy Caldwell, and Kevin Jorgeson free claimed to the summit.  That meant enduring incredible pain as their fingers were cut and scraped by the rock face.  Climbers are amazing people; the very presence of difficult mountains seems to inspire them.  They feel a call to a challenge, and they welcome it.

Challenge

I thought of them as I was reflecting on these call narratives we read this week.  There are some obvious similarities.  Samuel, as well as Philip, Nathanael and all the rest of the disciples were called to face enormous challenges.  And yet, the call was compelling.

What does the call to follow Jesus mean?  It is not a call to comfort, nor convenience. It is not a call to confirmation of all our previously held conclusions.  It is not even a call to certainty about where the following will lead.

But it is a compelling call, to us, because we have come and seen something in Jesus that gives us a glimpse of the life we long for.

ConnectionScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.30.18 PM

Nathanael was pretty impressed when he came to Jesus and learned that he had been seen under the fig tree before Phillip found him.  But Jesus tells him that was nothing compared to what he is going to see: “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

As I said, John’s gospel is full of figurative language.  We are meant to remember the dream Jacob had of the stairway, or as our translations often have it, the ladder between heaven and earth, on which angels are ascending and descending (Gen. 28:12).   It is a meeting point of heaven and earth; God’s realm and the human realm seamlessly connected.

John is making the point that in Jesus, the divine and the human are totally connected.  And this is exactly what the call to follow Jesus is all about.  It is a call to live life totally connected with God.

Union

I know that Protestants are far more comfortable speaking of “communion” with God rather than “union” with God, but we need to get over it.  Union with God, oneness with God is what Jesus prays for all of us to know (John 17).

Union with God means living in the reality that we are beloved sons and daughters of God.  It means living with complete trust.  We trust that God is with us, we trust that God is for us, we trust that God will lead us through every step of our mortal lives; that God is our source and our final destiny.

This can be a source of great comfort and encouragement, which I hope it is for you.  But remember, a call to follow Jesus and to experience union with God is not a call to comfort or convenience.

We are human.  There are a lot of obstacles that get in the way.  Some of them we bring on ourselves.  And we live in a world that seems to be rigged against those who try to follow the Jesus path.

So what does the call to follow Jesus, the call to “follow” and to “come and see” involve, if not comfort and convenience?

Silence

For me, it means answering the call to contemplation, the call to silence. If following Jesus means, at least, at some level, imitation, then it means following Jesus by imitating his practice of solitude and silence.

Silence is hard.  In silence, we die to ourselves.  It is, in fact, difficult to sit for twenty or thirty minutes without speaking, and without mentally speaking to ourselves as we normally do.  We die, in that time of silence, to the voice in our heads narrating our plans for the future and ruminating about our past experiences.  We die to our narratives of self-justification for our past and our narratives of control over our futures.

But, somehow, in that silence, we become more present to the Presence of God.    We become more conscious of our true union with God, the source of everything. We become more mindful of the present moment, the only moment we ever get to live in.

And the effect of the practice of silence, over time, is that we become more alive and more present to the moments  we are living.  We become more mindful throughout the day.

CompassionScreen Shot 2015-01-16 at 4.31.14 PM

The practice of silent, centering prayer leads to greater compassion.  We develop a greater capacity to see, as Jesus saw, the real people around us and the pain they carry.  We become better listeners to the stories of others.  We become more conscious of how much we are alike, despite surface differences.

I have not doubt that it was Jesus’ practice of solitude and silence that enabled him to see the world as he saw it and to know how to respond to what he saw.  He was at one with the Father and knew himself as God’s son, and was able to see people with compassion.

Instead of being disgusted by disease, as the natural response is, Jesus reached out and touched people in healing ways.  Instead of being put off by people who were different – ethnically different like Samaritans or Romans, or different from him by gender, or age, or status, he was able to welcome and engage them in life-giving conversations.

Instead of seeing hopeless tragedy, in the presence of thousands of poor hungry people, he took, bless, broke, and shared what was available, and multitudes went away satisfied by the abundance.  There was even left over abundance.

Justice

I believe it was also Jesus’ time in solitude and silence that enabled him to see with God’s eyes the injustice going on at the temple in those days and to take the risk of acting against it.  It was Jesus’ seamless sense of connection with God, his Father, that inspired him to say, to the money changers in the temple, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!

So, both Jesus’ compassion for people in pain, and passion for justice were direct products of his practice of silent union with his Father.

Being The Called

Follow me” Jesus calls to all of us.  Follow me, he calls us, into union with the Father.  Follow me to a life of compassionate welcome and healing.  Follow me to a risk-taking passion for justice, for advocacy on behalf of the powerless and on behalf of our fragile, hurting planet.

Follow me” Jesus calls to all of us.  Come and see what life can be like.  Come and follow the one who knew what it was to live personally with heaven and earth in seamless contact.

And then, Jesus calls us,  “follow me” out to places of pain and suffering, people in desperate need of compassion, and accept the challenge ahead.

We always close our Contemporary service by singing a musical setting of  “Prayer of Good Courage,” which I think is fitting for us:

O God you have called us,Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 4.26.55 PM
to ventures where we cannot see the end,
by paths never yet taken,
through perils unknown.
Give us good courage,not knowing where we go,
to know that your hand is leading us
wherever we might go.
Amen.


Leadership?

Here is how my day went.  This morning I stopped by a hospital were Bob, a 93 year old, was dying.   Later, in the afternoon, I Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.19.44 PMgot a call to come back to the hospital because it appeared that he was close to the end.  So I went back, met with the family members who had been there, keeping watch, and about two hours later, Bod died.  During the wait, I read scripture, prayed, and was present.  When Bob died, I read another scripture, and said a prayer of commendation to the Lord, of the deceased.  Then I stayed awhile with Bob’s son as he took in his father’s death.

Then, I went back to the church, met with a couple to plan the memorial service for the woman’s brother.

Immediately after that, I gave the blessing prayer for the Wednesday night church supper.  After supper I led the younger youth in a game of “Mother, may I?” followed by music, and a lesson on Psalm 23.  In between, I worked hard on the bible study I will lead tomorrow on Exodus.  That was my day.

Two days before this day, I attended a clergy seminar focused on “leadership.”

I want to be a good leader.  I know I have a lot to learn.  I know I have failings.  I never knew, before this weekend, that if my “to do” list did not have a date for each “to do” then it was killing me.

I have never been able to put a date beside a “to do” such as “be there when Bob dies.”

I want to be an effective leader.  I don’t think I know much about that.  I feel badly that I could be a much better leader than I am. I did not take any courses in management or business, and I have read a few, but only a few books on the subject since then.

Here is my question: how much of what I do falls under the rubric of “leadership”?  Some, for sure.  But how much?  Is it even 50%?  I don’t know.  I doubt it.

At the pastor’s leadership seminar, we talked some about having a vision.  What is my vision for my congregation?  I think there is fertile ground here.  I want to have a congregation with a sense of shared vision.  That seems like a good idea.

But how does it fit into a vision statement to say: “I want to be a pastor to people who are dying and to their families.”?   This is part of my vision.   And so is this: “I want to help develop the faith of 10 year olds, beginning with the game “Mother, may I?”.

Here is what my day will be like tomorrow: First is prayer group: a gathering of 3 ladies and me who pray for the world, the church, and people in need.  Then, there is bible study.  About 40 people will gather expecting solid bible study from me.  In the afternoon, praise team practice.  I will lead the musicians in rehearsal of the songs we will play in the contemporary worship service this Sunday.

Then I will drive 50 miles to visit Wes in the hospital, recovering from a head injury after a parking lot fall. Wes is  93 years old; part of our Winter Family from Indiana.

So, I attended a seminar on leadership.  And I want to be a good leader.

And that aspect of my life and ministry seems rather narrow at the moment.  Important, but narrow.

I’m struggling with this.

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