Being Family

Being Family

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 1, 2015 on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.”I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” 

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

31-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

.
.

A photo of a dress on a mannequin has been making the news and is all over social media.  I first saw it on Facebook.  It has horizontal stripes of two colors.  What two colors?  That is the controversy.  Some people see them as white and gold, others see blue and black.  In my family, for example, Ben and Nathan see it oppositely.

Scientists have explanations; it is all about the eye and the brain.  But the interesting thing is that whichever way you see it, you are absolutely certain.  The comments people make on social media show how certain everyone is of their own perceptions.  Often you hear the question, “How can you possibly see it differently?”  But people do, in fact, see it differently.

This dress color controversy came at a perfect time.  It is a striking illustration of a controversy that has no clear way to be solved.  You cannot make me see those colors your way no matter how much you argue with me, no matter how emotional you get, no matter how many other testimonials you line up on your side.   Nor could I convince you.

Dealing with Controversy

.
.

Our church has been going through the process of dealing with controversial issues of far more consequence than color perception, as we all know.  People are divided, see things differently, and emotions can get intense.

In another case of perfect timing, the texts we are given in the lectionary for this second Sunday in the season of Lent can help us, if we are open, to answer the question: how do we deal with a situation of deep controversy?

Importantly, the texts are not about the controversial issues; they are about something much deeper.  They are about who we are; our identity.

Abraham’s Family

The text we read from the Hebrew Bible is the famous promise God made to Abram, when he changed his name to Abraham; from “exalted father,” to “father of a multitude.”  Abraham was promised a family.

.
.

The whole remainder of the Hebrew Bible is about this promise of a family and of land for the family to live on.  The family has a hard time getting started, as Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children.

But God is able to bring fruitfulness into situations of barrenness – which he does rather frequently in the stories of the Hebrew Bible.  So Abraham and Sarah finally have a son, Isaac. Isaac receives the sign of the covenant, which is circumcision, and the story of the family is off and running.

The family that came from Abraham grows into twelve tribes, and eventually does come into the land of promise many years later.  Their family story has quite a few  dark episodes.  Beneath the surface, every family has issues and problems.  I do not know any exceptions.

Circumcision – the First Church Controversy

Our lectionary text, you may have noticed, skipped over verses 8 – 14 of Genesis 17.  I do not know why, maybe they decided it was unsuitable reading: it is all about God’s command to Abraham to circumcise Isaac and every male member of the household.

Circumcision, God said, was the sign of the covenant for all generations.  It was serious.  God said an uncircumcised male should be cut off from the people.  God called it an “everlasting covenant.”

So, it is no surprise that circumcision became a huge controversy in the early church.  Paul went around preaching the gospel beyond the bounds of Jewish Palestine, and starting communities of faith among gentiles.

.
.

In his mind, according to his letters, these church groups were supposed to think of themselves as families.  They were to treat each other as brothers and sisters, and treat older members with the respect and dignity of fathers and mothers.

For Paul, these people who put their trust in God and who embraced Jesus as Lord were a natural extension of Abraham’s family.  He said it as clearly as it can be said:

if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring (lit. “seed”), heirs according to the promise.”  – Gal. 3:29

The promise to which we are heirs, as Abraham’s offspring, is that promise to Abraham, the covenant that started the whole story.

But if we inherit the promise, and if the sign of the covenant that seals that promise  is circumcision, should not Christians become circumcised?  After all, it is for “all generations”!  That’s what the bible says.

But to a Greek-speaking, Hellenized gentile in the Roman empire, mutilation of the body was unthinkable.  They considered it barbaric and disgusting.

The Disgust Emotion

This is typical.  When we humans are faced with other humans who look at things differently or act differently, we often feel the disgust emotion.  We automatically feel superior to people who disgust us.

.
.

It is funny how things can change though.  The idea of eating raw fish and seaweed used to disgust most Americans, and the people who ate them seemed strange if not a bit barbaric.  But then sushi became more and more available, and eventually we got used to the idea.  Some of us even tried it, and now enjoy it.  Disgust became acceptance and eventually even delight.

But anyway, the early church was deeply divided over the circumcision issue.  They had to have a big church conference about it, according to the book of Acts.  Each side made their case.  One side won and the other side lost the debate.  The rest is history.

The take-away is this:  both sides, the circumcised Jews who had followed Jesus and become Christians (who lost the debate) and the uncircumcised gentile followers of Jesus, were all in one family.  And they stayed as one family after the vote was over.

I have to give the Jewish Christians a lot of credit.  They had history on their side,  they had centuries of tradition, they had faced ridicule, and they had bible verses to quote to support their opinions.  But after they lost, they were willing to stay together; not without bumps in the road, but they stayed together.  Why?  Because that is what families do (or, ought to do).

Practicing Self Denial

In other words, they were practicing the Christian discipline of self denial.  They put into practice Jesus’ words when he said,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me

.
.

There is maybe no greater form of self denial than to say “no” to the voice of the ego in our heads.  It takes spiritual maturity to say “no” to the internal voice that wants to assert itself, to justify ourselves, and to win the debate.

It is painful, and a kind of death to self, to stay at the table with people we disagree with.  But that is what mature families do.  It is easy to leave.  To slam the door.  To pick up the marbles and run off the play ground.  It feels good.  And that is why taking the high road of staying involves self denial.

Habits of Self Denial

I am sure that in your family, you have formed habits of self denial.  You practice self denial every time you keep your voice down in an argument.  You practice self denial each time you resist the urge to cut off the other person’s monologue.  You practice self denial each time you forgive the others when they were not able to act maturely, and each time you forgave a hurt.  Of course you did.  That is what families do.

Families that develop habits of self denial end up having long histories together.  They build up a treasury of shared experiences.  They have memories of going through rough times together – times of illness, times of loss, times of pain.  And they have the happy memories too, the vacations, the celebrations, the graduations, weddings, the baptisms, and the anniversaries.  Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 7.13.15 PM

That is what we are: a family.  And that is why neither this current controversy nor the next one will kill us.  Winning is simply not the reason we stay in.  We stay because we are family.  We have a history with each other.  We have been to each other’s hospital rooms.  We have prayed for each other.   We have grieved with each other as we have stood side by side in funerals and memorial services.

We have worshiped together, shared meals together.  We have watched the children among us grow up.  We have attended their weddings and witnessed the baptism of their children.   That is what families do.

Missing the Community

I was in a conversation recently with a person who grew up in a Christian home; they all went to church regularly.  But in adulthood he left and does not consider himself a Christian, and does not attend church.  We were talking about ethics, about what is good.  He is a person who tries to be good and to do good.  He told me he does not miss going to church.

I told him I get that, but asked him if he misses the community?   He freely admitted he did miss the sense of family that a church is.

The church – unlike any other gathering, a club or a political organization or social group – functions like family.  We care for each other.  We call and text and write emails and cards to each other.  We miss each other when one is absent.  We are interested in hearing each others stories.  We jump up and go when someone needs help.  The short hand way to say this is that we love each other.

Being the Family We Are

There are all kinds of theological bases we could give for our unity in Christ.  But today, we simply give thanks for the family that God has put us in, as spiritual descendants of father Abraham.

We give thanks too, for the many times people around us have found the maturity and grace to practice self denial when we have been difficult to live with.  We commit ourselves to following Jesus and practicing self denial in our relationships with each other, recognizing the great cost he bore to bring us into the family.

Today, we will again gather around the supper table as the family of God.  We will break one bread and share one cup, and know ourselves as the body of Christ, the family of God.

.

Life in Wilderness

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

.
.

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

.
.

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

.
.

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

.
.

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?

.
.

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

.
.

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.

.
.

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.

.

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.

.
.

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

.
.

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.

.
.

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.

.
.

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.

.
.

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!

 

.

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.

.
.

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.”

.
.

“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.

.
.

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.

.
.

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.

 

.