Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hair of the Dog

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Numbers 21: 4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Hair of the Dog That Bit You

When I read the Old and New Testament readings for today, all I could think of was the hair of the dog that bit you. For those who might not be familiar with the term, the original meaning refers to the supposed therapeutic effect of the topical application of the hair of a rabid dog that has bitten you to the bite wound itself to prevent rabies. The contemporary appropriation of the term is probably more familiar and more frequently employed. It has to do with treating a hangover by having some of whatever you were drinking the night before that caused the hangover.

Although I have never been a consumer of homeopathy, friends of mine have and I could see the parallel there as well, viz., whatever symptoms are manifesting of whichever disease, the homeopathic practitioner will prescribe miniscule amounts of substances actually connected with the disease to help cure it. The substance is put under the tongue and allowed to dissolve.

You may have heard on the news recently that children allergic to peanuts have been being treated in what sounds like a homeopathic way for some years now as an experiment. The allergic child is given the smallest amount of peanut or peanut product every day, very slowly increasing that amount, while the overseer of the experiment watches carefully for symptoms that might need to be treated swiftly if there is an allergic reaction.

Preliminary results look favorable. Some of the children documented in the study as allergic to peanuts have been declared allergy free. On camera, one of the formerly allergic children delighted in taking a bite of peanut-buttered bread.

Anyway, all that is what today’s reading about the serpent on the pole made me think of. If the people bitten by snakes looked on the serpent atop the pole, they would be cured or healed.While incidents in the Book of Exodus in which we have recently been reading, stressed the patience of Yahweh, who always listened to Israel’s needs and intervened to help, chapters 11-21 of the Book of Numbers from which Tony read today, on the other hand, stressed the people’s constant rebellion that led Yahweh to punish them time and again. In Exodus Moses intervened and interceded for the people, and God softened in his anger and turned back his punishment or healed the victims. By contrast, Numbers 11-21 is one series of the people’s murmurings after another––complaints about the lack of food, then the lack of meat, the lack of water, about Moses’s leadership, and so forth. In this morning’s reading, it’s the people grumbling about food again. They just don’t like it.

The constant repetition of the theme of rebellion would not have been missed by the Israelites of the sixth century for whom P, the writer of the priestly tradition of Numbers, wrote. They could look back on the centuries of injustice, disobedience and false worship, the condemnations of the prophets, the failures of the kings, and know that the loss of their freedom and land in exile had been richly deserved. The message was that God cannot be pushed too far without asserting his own justice and honor.
But even at that late hour, he could turn from his anger and spare them if they would only turn to him. More than most books of the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers lets us see why the Pentateuch––the first five books of the Bible––came to be what it is: a gathering of very old traditions and much later added developments. For Israel, each part of the ancient faith tradition had a message for later generations.

Including us. In the ancient faith tradition the Israelites in the desert looked on a bronze serpent, which Moses fixed atop a pole in obedience to God’s directive. Looking on that bronze serpent would heal the people from the bites of the snakes among them––whether those are literal snakes or represent a plague of some sort––that tradition has meaning for us. And that is why the writer of John alludes to the event in this morning’s gospel in verse 14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

That reminds me of a story. I once did a newspaper interview with a priest who had been the chaplain at Thomaston for years. He was a tough old bird, the antithesis of sentimentality. We talked about a man we both knew of who was in prison and had been convicted of the murder of his wife, whom the inmate professed to love and which murder he avowed was manslaughter, completely accidental. I won’t go into more particulars about the case, only about the man’s conversion.

The man was in an agony of regret about what had happened, completely depressed about the death of his wife and the prospect of years in prison. After he had been there for a few years, he went to see this priest, who had a crucifix up on the wall. A crucifix is different from a cross in that it has the corpus or body affixed to it. This inmate, convicted of the murder of his wife, suffering his own personal agonies tried to talk to the priest about it all. The priest, as he told the story to me, said he simply nodded toward the crucifix. There was nothing else to say.

The inmate, who had had no hands-on experience of Christianity, understood. For him, everything was in that suffering figure, and out of that first understanding came instruction and deeper understanding that carried him into new life and sustained him through the years before his release from prison. I don’t know what has happened to him in years since then, but the story of his conversion does make me think of the serpent on the pole. If the Israelites looked on that serpent, they would be healed from the bites of the snakes among them. If this inmate looked on the broken Christ crucified, he could be healed from the anguish of guilt and regret from which he suffered. And he was. Of course there was never rejoicing in the event, but life lived for God became possible. Hope revived. He could live and not die the death of the spirit or of the mind and emotions. Would the body have been far behind? I doubt it.

Having been raised myself with a keen awareness of sin and its consequences, the need to confess sin and be forgiven, and indeed an awareness of the suffering, crucified Christ––definitely an excessive awareness––I have happily done a 180 in adulthood into the life of the resurrection. I had thought and felt that too much time and energy goes into contemplating the crucifixion and the suffering Christ, and not enough emphasis is placed on the resurrected Christ, which is, after all, the basis of the Christian faith. While hundreds, who knows, perhaps thousands were crucified as a matter of course because it was a usual Roman form of capital punishment, only one man was raised up by God, and that was Jesus, the Christ.

“If there is no resurrection of the dead,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”I became and am a strong believer in the resurrection, the Christ who lives and moves among us and through us as we say yes to his ongoing invitation to the resurrected life and how that plays out in our lives, as our lives.

I repeat, I was early formed in the crucifixion, in perceiving the value of the crucified Christ. But with age and experience and the need for it, came the resurrection and a new understanding, which I advocate for strongly. However, I am not so foolish that I miss the lesson the crucifixion and the power of not just the image of the Christ on the cross but the reality that underlies it: An innocent person acquiesced to giving his life that others might have life. But this has happened before, you might say. We all have heard of heroic actions by different ones through the years. The one that occurs to me in the moment is the airline passenger who helped fellow passengers out of the water at the time of that plane crash into the Potomac River years ago. He kept helping others to safety until he himself quietly slipped under the frigid water in the snowy air. This is the Christ crucified in our time, and maybe each of us could come up with a like story––a person who gives of herself, himself to the point of surrendering life. And that not for a loved one, a family member, but for other human beings, strangers. Like Christ.

And we ourselves wonder whether we would be able to act in such a Christlike way in a similar circumstance. God willing we won’t ever have to find that out, but if it does happen that we are so challenged, may we have the unspoken but lived awareness of the Christ, crucified and raised up, who is at our right hand. Who is our right hand.

We have been impressed by and with the crucified Christ in the circumstances of our lives. When we are up against it and there is no recourse, no recourse, picture, if you will, the crucifix, the body of Christ on the cross, as that inmate at Maine State Prison did. Let the reality that informs that painful image be your recourse where there is none. I cannot predict what you will feel or think. That is between you and God, but you will come to a new level of understanding about the healing to be found in that horror, and the raising up that can follow. More often than not, it is that which crucifies us which also raises us up. There is a season for crucifixion, a season for resurrection.

So, while I had enough of crucifixion when younger and longed for resurrection that was surely waiting in the wings, I learned some of the lessons that that sad event had to teach, was able to know the crucified Christ as the serpent atop the pole, and that gazing on that one carried its own healing for my sins, my sorrows, and the sins of the world. And insofar as we imitate the selflessness of that one whom we recognize and hail as the second person of the trinity, the son of God, we can be part of bringing about the redemption of the world. That sounds way too big, doesn’t it? Way too ambitious, the redemption of the world. How about the redemption of one situation in our small corner of the world, whatever form that might take. Heartfully listening to a friend who has had some very bad news, testing water quality levels in the Sheepscot River to preserve the environment, having affectionate patience with a teenager who is demanding all of that by remembering how it was for us when we were teenagers. These are all acts of redemption, reclaiming for good and so for God that which might go in another untended direction.

As I mention those works of mercy, I think of the second reading today from Ephesians. Paul says clearly in this letter, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith––and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God––not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works...” This is the core of Martin Luther’s great revelation: that all of his works were as nothing. It is and was only by faith that he and we are saved. The good works will inevitably proceed from the faith, but it is the faith in Christ that saves us, that saved that inmate at Thomaston from his guilt and anguish. Who and what that Christ is will be revealed to us as worthy of faith.

Regarding works, as the writer of the epistle of James says, “ by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” I think this is a false dichotomy, yet it comes up again and again in Christian circles as the quality or mettle of one person’s faith as gauged by another. I maintain that the relationship between God and the individual is a privileged relationship and that it is the height of presumption for one person to judge another and what he or she does as far as expression of faith in works. Let us give one another the benefit of the doubt in this department, that we are usually trying to do the best we can at any given time, considering the constraints of work, health, time and all the responsibilities inherent in any life.

Let us trust that we are all looking at the same Jesus, but that he is revealing himself in our lives in different ways, depending on who we are and what our needs, our inclinations and individual histories are. God in Jesus is enough. Let us have faith in him, way more faith even than the Israelites in the desert gazing at the serpent on the top of a pole. The bronze serpent was an inanimate fashioned thing. The crucified Christ was a living man, who died and was raised up and lives now. How much more is he able to do for us who gaze on him than the bronze object that was eventually idolized by the people and broken in pieces by the fervent King Hezekiah, whose heart was after God.

God’s heart is after us. Know that. Be sensitive to that over these next three weeks as we move toward Easter. Remember, and respond as best you can. It’s all for you. Deal with it. Amen.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Question and an Invitation

Sheepscott Community Church March 15, 2009

Exodus 20: 1-17
1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
John 2: 13-22

A Question and an Invitation

When Ted Smith read the first verse of Genesis 17 last week, I was electrified by it: “I am God almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” I had read the verse several times in preparing for last week’s service, and had rolled right over it as though I were cutting grass, in a hurry to get to the other side of the yard and get the job done. What was the difference on Sunday? I attribute it at least partly to hearing someone read the word aloud. It’s like poetry in that sense. Poetry on the page, the text of poetry, gives its own satisfaction. But poetry––and much of scripture is poetry–– is an oral art and something happens in the air when it is spoken. It happens between and among people and between the Spirit and a person. That’s the first explanation I gave myself about my visceral reaction to that line: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” I wanted to do that. I wanted to walk before God and be blameless.

Another piece of the explanation is that the word itself, declared by God to Moses, is true. When we hear the truth spoken, our spirits respond, whether or not we fully understand what we are hearing. I remember falling in love with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins when I was a young undergraduate. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but the rhythms and the sheer beauty of the arranged words captured my imagination and engendered exultation when I would read the poems out loud or hear them read.

Bear with me as I cite another example of hearing truth in poetry. I taught units of poetry to grades K-8 at Whitefield School for probably 10 years. In one of the third-grade classes, the kids were assigned to write a poem. I took their poems home and was blown away by two written by a child who was labeled as “trouble.” He was set off by himself on one side of the room because he didn’t pay attention well and would distract the other students. He spent a lot of time looking out the window and was labeled a dreamer. I suspect if he were in school now, he would be labeled ADD, attention deficit disorder. He had written his poems as blocks of text, rather than in the arranged lines of poetic form. I marked the poems to show him where the natural breaks were and looked forward to talking to him about them the next week.

With undisguised excitement, I spoke to the teacher at the beginning of class about the boy’s work. “Yes, yes,” she said somewhat impatiently, “you see? He can’t even spell.” I was taken aback and handed out the poems, telling that child how good the poems he had written were and explaining briefly about lineation. I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to read his or her poem, and his hand immediately shot up in the air. He came forward and read one of the poems, which I’ll read to you now.

The snow covers an area so great
It’s like God making the bed of reality
And the dust of an old chair falling upon us.

In the only instance of this happening in all the years I taught poetry, those third graders broke into spontaneous applause for this poem by one of their own. I have always thought that was a response to the truth that they recognized in the poem, a truth that is at the heart of any artistic expression.

Just so you won’t be be left wondering about the second poem, I’ll read that as well.

A Sleigh Ride

The snow glistens in the sunlight
As the steel-runnered sleigh
Glides through the blanket
of silky white powder of winter
Leaving a trail of beauty.

Needless to say, that student shone in the weeks of poetry class and it was a joy to see him get recognition from his peers for good work. Why do I mention this example? I think there is a correspondence to my response to the first verse of that reading from Genesis––and perhaps yours as well––and the Whitefield third graders’ response to one of their fellow student’s poems. We all knew we were hearing the truth and were thrilled. That’s why they applauded.

That word of invitation from God to Moses in last week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, “Walk before me and be blameless,” is a perfect reading for Lent. And speaking of perfect, that’s actually the earlier translation of the word that became blameless. I think sensitivity to the idea of perfection in a human being, and the inevitable striving and failing that that gives rise to rendered the second translation more livable, shall we say.

But the challenge of the invitation was laid before all of us last week, and now we come to the giving of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Old Testament reading from Exodus. In trying to follow the Ten Commandments, we can begin to practice walking before God and being blameless. Actions follow thoughts and words, the words like the cement poured into the forms that will harden into the foundation of our actions into habitual behavior. I would argue for memorization of the Ten Commandments, of prayers. These form the foundation stones for our lives.

But before we delve into the matter of the commandments, let’s go forward to the New Testament reading from John, where we might get some help to hear those commandments. Jesus’s turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, calling them to task for making his Father’s house a den of thieves, running after them with a scourge, the high drama of the scene, his burning anger––not an easily forgotten picture of the so-called gentle Savior, the one who is foreseen in the servant sayings of Isaiah, including vs. 2 and 3 of chapter 42: “He will not shout or cry out,/ he will not raise his voice in the streets./ A bruised reed he will not break,/ a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Ha. I’d say we were dealing with another side of the Savior here, and it is a side we need to pay attention to, to learn a lesson from. Jesus was after all a whole human being. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” In relation to this incident, his disciples remembered after his death and resurrection the scripture, “Zeal for your house consumes me.” When those who witnessed what he did asked him on what authority he did that, he said that if they destroyed that temple, he would rebuild it again in three days. They mocked the assertion, not understanding that he was speaking about the temple of his own body and not about the center of worship in Jerusalem.

We’ve heard this figure used before––the body as a temple. As with Christ our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, God, and as such, taking responsibility for full understanding of the idea, we have to indeed treat them as temples of God. It can be easier to take better care of our dogs’ and our cats’ diets and bodies than our own. Easier to make good choices for them. Commendable even, but if we tell the truth of it to ourselves, it’s easier perhaps because we don’t have to deny ourselves what we like, what we want to have or do. Our virtue can be projected out there, on our animals, on our children, not in here, where the real work of caring for the temple of our God-given bodies is done.

I am suggesting that we need to hear this word that Jesus spoke about raising up our own bodies, not in quite so dramatic a fashion as the resurrection, but after that fashion nevertheless. What am I talking about? It’s Lent. Say no to something that you know is bad for you and yes to something that you know is good for you, for the glory of God and for your own health’s benefit, whether that’s a food or drink, whether that’s an action or behavior. Try to hear God saying, “Walk before me and be blameless.” The thrill that word was for me, as the week unfolded after hearing it, was that I wanted to be blameless. It wasn’t as though it were a breast-beating, woe-is-me kind of thing to do. I wanted to walk before God and be blameless.

I note, especially for the hedonists among us, one of whom I spoke with when preparing this sermon, the emphasis is usually placed on fasting and abstinence during Lent. While that discipline can be good for the body and the soul, and the idea of self-denial is attractive to some people, just the mention of it can cause others’ levels of anxiety to rise precipitously. Therefore, I must note as well that perhaps more important than these seasonal physical disciplines are the spiritual disciplines of forgiveness, that includes not seeking revenge, not wishing ill on the other, not being jealous, and so on. Surely unforgiveness, vengefulness, spitefulness, and jealousy, along with blaming, slandering, adultery––the list really is endless, isn’t it?––surely these are like the money changers in the temple, only here they are desecrating the Body of Christ, who we are.

I am suggesting that if we internalize the picture of Jesus driving out the moneychangers from the temple, if we translate that word into driving before us those habits and actions that prevent our approaching the altar of God in anything like a complete fashion, if we drive them before us with a cord formed of will and desire, we can make ourselves more amenable to the voice of God. And what does the voice say?

I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God;
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God;
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy;
Honor your father and your mother;
You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor;
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Of the sins catalogued in the Ten Commandments, the first three have to do with our relationship to God, and the other seven with our relationship with the community. They are social sins, viz., they constitute sins against the community. When Jesus was asked by a teacher of the law what was the most important commandment, his answer was, “’Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” That compresses everything in the Ten Commandments into two: Be right with God, and you’ll be right with your neighbor.

What happens when we fall down on the job, when we fail at carrying out our best intentions, when we sin against God and the community, the temple which is the Body of Christ, which is all of us together as one in Christ? Well, it’s a good idea to tell somebody about it. That happens most often informally with a trusted friend who can hear what a jerk we’ve been and not give up on us, which is the way Jesus is. The listening friend is in the place of Christ, of Jesus. We are Christ to and for one another.

I offer all this to you as a kind of question and invitation. The question? At this time of Lent, in terms of the first commandment, what does your strange or false god look like? If you ask, you will be shown. The invitation? To allow the Spirit of God to drive out, break down, free you from whatever that false god is to make way for the revelation that is your particular wider understanding-into- appreciation and adoration of what and /or who God is.

Your gaze and your listening, of eye and ear, might fall on fullness, emptiness, darkness, light, forest, water sounds, cats’ eyes, centers of blossoms, a child’s spontaneity, the beauty of a well-made book. God is everywhere in everything: that’s the point. And Jesus wants us to keep our temples and our acts clean, our hands clean, so that our lives can enjoy and reflect that infinitely faceted omnipresence of God and take the further step of embodying that understanding and acting out of it in the world. Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Is Anything Too Hard for God?"

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Sheepscott Community Church March 8, 2009

Genesis 17: 1-7; 15-16; 18: 1-15
Romans 4: 13-25
Mark 9: 2-9

“Is Anything Too Hard for God?”

As the gospel tells this morning’s story, “Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And if you knew my mother’s perfectionism in all matters having to do with laundry––washing, starching, drying, sprinkling, rolling and ironing my father’s white shirts––you’d appreciate how white Jesus’s raiment must have been if it was whiter than that. “And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

Now that is an extraordinary event to be part of, to witness, as Peter, James and John did. And I can imagine that some of you might be thinking, If I ever saw something like that, then I could really believe. Then I’d have no doubts. If Jesus said, N., N., N., come with me. I am going to show you who I am. Now that would be a life-transforming experience, would it not?

Think again. This transfiguration of Jesus, coming cheek-by-jowl in the gospel of Mark with his first prediction of his death and resurrection, apparently happened not too long before that death, pointing the way toward what the apostles would later better understand Jesus was showing them in his transfigured self, at least part of what the resurrection meant. Why do I say think again about this being a life-transforming experience? It was––in that moment––but think about Peter especially. How long after that did he deny that he even knew this Jesus, this one he had been privileged to see transfigured?

Peter truly does stand in for us: one day up, the next day down, our faith solid as a rock one day, and the next day a pool of quicksand we flounder in. But this is good; it reminds us who we are, and who God is. It reminds us who is in charge, whom we need to turn in faith, with our empty hands and our not knowing.

I had an experience last week in this area of remembering who I am, and who I am not. We’re just over a week into Lent and I stumbled badly over my own personal work I had set myself for this season. In considering my shortcoming that night in prayer, ready to make yet another promise and declaration, I had a new and better thought: I’ll sleep on it and see how I feel in the morning.

In the morning I was full of peace and balance and was able to go into Sunday service remembering , as I say, who was finally in charge. Whose business is this anyway? We must make it our own, as God’s business in the world is our own, but we must cultivate perspective. Mistakes? Stumbles? Backsliding? Actually denying the Christ by denying what is the reality of our own sinful humanity that needs our cooperation in being re-redeemed as it were again and again? Sure, regrettably but understandably we do stumble often. Paradoxically it is that thorn-in-the-flesh that Paul speaks of, the habit we cannot seem to break, the sin itself that humbles us and moves us to call on God. Like Peter, forgetting the power of what he saw on the top of the Mount of Transfiguration and focused only on his fear of what might happen to him if he were indeed associated with Jesus in the eyes of Roman law or in the gossip of the neighborhood. Although we might be impressed permanently by the effect of seeing such a transfiguration, we are still fully human, and fear for our own well-being, or that of those we love in this world, might obscure the memory for a period of time.

Then I would ask, if Jesus is transfigured and we are one with him in the Body of Christ, then might not we too be transfigured, perhaps in a less dramatic way? I think this month of March is the wildest month of the year, predictable only for its unpredictability. Howling winds and snow like we had last Monday, and yesterday it was 53 degrees at noon. From 13 below on Wednesday morning to 53 at Saturday noon, a 66-degree span within a week in North Whitefield. Let’s hear it for the month of March.

The snow-covered landscape and the weather are an appropriate backdrop and metaphor for our own lives as we approach Easter. It’s a cliché that life is stirring under the ground even now in every crocus bulb, every tulip, every daffodil. We have faith that they will grow again in our fields and gardens because we’ve see it happen every year, but fulfillment of the bulbs’ destiny, from bulb to bloom to seed, and our expectation out of experience doesn’t diminish the sense of wonder and gratitude we feel in the face of this annual resurrection; it enhances it.

How much more our sense of wonder in the face of the resurrection of Jesus toward which we are inexorably moving in our liturgical celebrations? Jesus was transfigured atop the mount and it foreshadowed his later fuller resurrection. Can we, observing the natural landscape and believing in the resurrection insofar as we are able, can we expect to be transformed like plants? Like Jesus? Why not? We are not separate from the natural world or the supernatural world. We are part and parcel of the whole package. We have as much potential in us for change and transfiguration as any flowering bulb. We are budding with possibility even now in the form of good intentions. And although we fall down in trying to fulfill some of them, like the lilac bush where some of the buds are shriveled by late killing frost, still others come to full bud and blossom and beauty, and then go to seed to produce more beauty, more change, more participation in this landscape of life.

How can God work with a sinner like me, you might ask. Maybe you’re one of the apostles who didn’t get invited up the mountain with Peter, James and John. Sure, they’re the special ones Jesus is always singling out for attention and the special moments. But you? You’re still out on the Sea of Galilee fishing and trying to figure out how you’re going to get everything done today you’re supposed to do, including keeping your wife happy when she’s been complaining about all the time you’ve been spending with Jesus and the boys. And then you have to get done whatever it is Jesus needs you to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and so on. Discouragement, resentment out of jealousy... the track a person’s thoughts can take.

Can that person, can you, can I be transformed, transfigured as Jesus was? As Peter, James and John saw happen? I remind you that the title of this message is right out of Genesis, “Is anything too hard for God?” One of the three visitors whom Abraham addresses as Lord––and who is understood to be Lord––asks that rhetorically of Abraham. The answer is understood to be, No, nothing is too hard for the Lord. In this case it is conception taking place in the womb of a woman who is menopausal with a man who is no longer fertile. Here there would be no question that the product of such a conception would be God’s person, God’s doing. That’s the point. He would be named yishaq, Isaac, which means “he laughed,” which is just what Abraham did when the Lord told him about the son of the promise. He fell on his face and laughed. Sarah laughed as well, at the seeming impossibility of it. The difference with Sarah was that when she was accused of laughing, she dissembled and denied it. How foolish we are to think that anything we think, plan, act on or laugh at is hidden from God. Back to the question, “Is anything too hard for God?”

Let’s appropriate that question for ourselves. We have a situation in our lives that has been draining us for years, whether it’s a habit, a difficult child, a burdensome relative whose care we have, depression, chronic pain, unrelieved sadness, sheer orneriness that we wish we didn’t have but don’t know how to come out from under. “Is anything too hard for God?” Think of Sarah’s barren womb; think of Abraham’s infertility. Think of Jesus actually buried inside a cave, as dead as dead can be.

There’s a wonderful line in this morning’s reading from Romans, characterizing God as the One “...who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
And God credits Abraham with righteousness because “he was fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised,” indeed to call things that are not as though they were, and so into being. The fact of Isaac as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and the fact of Jesus’s resurrection argue for a negative answer to the question: “Is anything too hard for God?” No. Nothing is too hard for God. We and our problems are a piece of cake next to these earthshaking situations, which brings me back to the transfiguration, a kind of shaking of the earth before the dreadful last week of Jesus’s life.

Another feature of that event is God speaking to those assembled––Peter, James and John––from a cloud. He is confirming the rightness of Jesus’s choices and life here at the near-end of his earthly life in some of the same words used in Matthew’s gospel at the baptism by John, at the beginning of Jesus’s public life, and which I quoted last week: “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The difference in today’s gospel of Mark is that the voice exhorts those present to, “Listen to him.”

In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with the cloud. It was in the cloud that Moses met God. Listen to Exodus 19: 9: “The Lord also told [Moses], ‘I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.’” It was the cloud which filled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. 1 Kings 8: 10: “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the Temple of the Lord, so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the Lord’s glory had filled the Temple of the Lord.” And the Jews believed that when the Messiah came, the cloud of God’s presence would return to the Temple. Elijah, the prophet of prophets, and Moses the lawgiver appeared with Jesus in his transfigured state and thereby at the very least represented the fulfillment of the messianic tradition and the expectations of the people Israel. Here we have these three good Jews atop Mount Hermon hearing the voice of God speaking to them from a cloud, and the figure would have been very familiar to them and identifiable as associated with the Messiah.

It is not so familiar to us, except as we read about it in scripture. However, it’s a very useful figure and one I would like to appropriate to finish up on these thoughts about transfiguration. It is out of the cloud that God speaks and once again identifies Jesus as his Son with the new directive: Listen to him.

In our lives, it is much more likely that we will learn the lessons of those lives from the dark clouds that inevitably come into them. We are merry and bright and ready to party on sunny days, and we are grateful for them. Those days teach their lessons of the joys of life. But it is on those cloudy days, those days the weatherman in March has not necessarily predicted, when anything can happen, it is on those days that we need to remember the voice of God speaking to our apostolic stand-ins, Peter, James and John, reminding us that Jesus is the one with the answers and that we would do well to listen to him.

If Jesus could say yes, and he did, to what was before him, trusting the Father and the experience he had on Mount Hermon, especially including the validating and vindicating voice of God again, he can enable us to say yes to whatever the circumstances of our lives are, especially in those areas where we are trying to be better people. He can help us by his Spirit to be more responsive to God directly and more responsive to those around us in whom God lives.

We are all on pilgrimage up that holy mountain and we have our glimpses of God along the way, whether in nature by ourselves, in communion with others in this church, in the workplace where we see the best and worst in people, in random encounters on the street. We meet God, and we are transfigured by those encounters in small ways. What we don’t register fully with the mind is impressed on the spirit, where we listen with an acuity of hearing our bodily ears cannot even dream of.

In these remaining weeks of Lent may we recognize the transfigured and transfiguring Christ in one another and in our circumstances, where God is always at work sharpening his tools so that his purposes can be better accomplished, so that the work of art that is the unfolding of universes may be truer and more beautiful for our having lived. Amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Do You Want, God?

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Genesis 9: 8-17
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

What Do You Want, God?

Lily Tomlin has rather famously asked the question, “Why is it that when we speak to God it is called prayer, and when God speaks to us, it is called schizophrenia?” It’s funny, but it’s also an important question. When we hear someone say, “God told me to––––––––,” fill in the blank, a yellow warning light starts flashing. It flashes more brightly and with greater frequency when we hear, “God told me to tell you to–––––––.” Fill in the blank.

And we are wise to be cautious around that kind of talk. We need to practice discernment when we are trying to figure out, for instance, the next step in our lives, whether that means refinancing a home mortgage, retraining for a completely different job, saying yes to one of the kids who wants to come back home because he or she can’t afford to live on his or her own in this economy; or, a similar dilemma, we have an aged parent or relative who needs to be somewhere other than in his or her own apartment or home. We ourselves, or we and our family are the likeliest candidates for taking in the domestic refugee. At the same time, we know how disrupting this will be to our family life as we have known it, and we have reluctance. All of these scenarios are opportunities to exercise discernment.

But I again raise the caution, if you hear someone say what God wants you to do in these instances, take two steps back from that and ask God yourself.

What does this have to do with this morning’s readings? Today’s gospel of the baptism of Jesus is from the Book of Mark. In Matthew’s narration of the same event, along with those gathered around John the Baptist at Jesus’s baptism, we hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It’s a public declaration in the third person, which serves the writer of Matthew’s purposes, viz., to put Jesus in charge right at the beginning of the gospel, right at the beginning of the Messiah’s public life story. Everybody hears it; everybody knows it. There is always an agenda going on, especially in something as charged as the writing around religious figures or events. Never assume there is a neutral point of view in these writings.

If the writer of Matthew is putting Jesus in charge of the events of his life by having him publicly recognized as God’s Son right at the get go, by contrast Mark’s gospel about the same event is a bit more nuanced. What we have can be construed as an inner dialogue between Jesus and the Father. Remember that little prayer I taught the kids? “God speaks to me and to my mind/ And tells me to be good and kind.” It’s like that. The wording of the gospel is, You––direct address to Jesus, second person––you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. The inner dialogue is the same as some of us may consciously have with God in our prayer. Jesus was no different. In fact, we can see this as one model of permission not to think we have lost our minds if we partake to any degree in this kind of inner dialogue with God. What we have to watch, even in our own lives, is the fruit of that dialogue. As Jesus says in another place of the fruit tree––a metaphor for a person’s life––By their fruit––good or bad––you will know them. By the outcomes of the directions we discern about our lives in prayer, we will know whether something is of God or not. Does it finally bear good fruit?

Further expansion on Mark’s gospel of the baptismal event has Jesus seeing heaven torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. The voice from heaven which Jesus heard following that vision may have been an entirely private visual and auditory experience for Jesus alone, one he very much needed, considering what he was about to embark on. The point of those images––heaven torn open, the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove and the voice of God approving of him––is to indicate that the traditional barriers between heaven and earth are broken down. What in the past have been separate spheres have been joined together.

We have to look at the fact of Jesus coming forward for John’s baptism of repentance and ask why? What does this sinless one have to do with such a baptism of repentance for sin? The writer of Matthew has the Baptist object to the idea of baptizing Jesus on just these grounds, and Jesus’s reply is “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Mark, on the other hand, does not satisfy the question. It simply hangs in the air over the Jordan unanswered. However, biblical commentator William Barclay suggests that for Jesus the baptism as recounted in Mark meant four things: First, it was the moment of decision. Jesus has stayed in Nazareth, as legend has it, helping Joseph in the carpentry shop, waiting for the sign that his time had come. When John appeared on the scene, that was the sign he had been waiting for. It was his hour, his decisive moment and he was ready to answer the summons and challenge of God. Barclay quotes Shakespeare to good effect:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their lives
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

We all have these moments of decision in our lives. While they are a universal experience, they are unique and particular to us because of the unique particularity of our individual lives. On my 43rd birthday, I was full of joy and expectation. I had spent the better part of the previous 15 years dealing with old issues to effect what used to be called inner healing––self-explanatory. Getting rid of the stuff, dealing with the stuff that keeps us from our own lives. What I was talking about last Sunday: ending the blaming, forgiving where we need to, appropriating the healing God has for us and moving on into the lives we were made to live out. So, at 43, finally feeling that my life was my own and I could do with it what I would––return to school, knit a sock, learn to sew well, learn more languages––the world was open to me. I felt the energy and power of my own life for the first time in my memory.

I was on my knees thanking God for this moment and for my life, when God as I had come to know that One advanced toward me with the understanding, Now that you have a life, are you willing to give it up? I was shocked. No! No! I just got this life. Don’t take it away from me. But God kept coming, and as I was so far down a highway I had chosen many years before, while theoretically I had a choice, I did not in fact. Choosing otherwise would have meant giving the lie to all of what my life had come to be, and so I said yes. Truculently, with no joy, with a good measure of resentment for what I thought to be the greediness and implacability of God, I said yes. And I didn’t want to talk to God for three days afterwards. During that time, I was the cat with her back toward God whom I was talking about last week.

But I got over it, and I started again, just to live this further surrendered life. As I look back on how it has continued to unfold from that 43rd birthday, I am filled with amazement and gratitude that the Spirit of God did not let the poverty of my imagination prevail and limit any more than it has the life God envisioned for me, which I could not have imagined.

We all have had our moments of decision. What were yours? Think about it. Jesus’s moment of decision narrated in this morning’s gospel was also a moment of identification. While it is true that Jesus did not have to repent, he did want to identify with the people who were coming to John for baptism, who were preparing themselves for the full manifestation of God’s kingdom. He wanted to be one with the anawim, the poor and sinful ones, as they re-turned to God through John’s baptism of repentance.

Decision, identification, and also approval. It was the moment of God’s approval. No one sets out lightly on the course of action that will determine one’s life, and Jesus was no exception. He had been preparing and waiting, praying and discerning for a long time before he recognized what John represented and made his move. In the early Jewish writings, there is reference made to the bat gol, which means the “daughter of the voice.” At the time of Jesus’s entry into his public life, the people believed in a series of heavens, in the highest of which sat God in light which no one could approach. There were rare times when the heavens were opened and God spoke, but God was so distant that it was only the far away echo that they heard of the voice, only the daughter of the voice.

However, the voice came directly to Jesus, as the writer of Mark tells the story. It was a personal experience which Jesus had and not the public manifestation found in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus submitted his decision to God and that decision was unmistakably approved.

Decision, identification, approval, and fourth, equipment. Jesus was given what he needed to do the job he was called to do, and whom and what he needed was the Holy Spirit of the living God, who descended upon him in the form of a gentle dove.

It was that dove that next drove him out into the desert to face temptations unique to him in his calling, as we in ours have our own unique temptations. That gentle dove, that Holy Spirit strengthened him as he was tempted, as the writer of Mark tells it.

Jesus as a man with a man’s nature was tempted as we are but didn’t give in. We ourselves are haunted by both sin and goodness, and the coming of Jesus unifies that divided personality, that schizophrenia into one. This good news we can believe, which is what Jesus said when he emerged from the desert. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Repentance, or metanoia, is a change of mind and heart, a lifelong transformation, not a one-shot deal. The metanoia to which Jesus invites us during this season of Lent is both a turning away from whatever inhibits the full flourishing of the divine intent for creation and a turning toward the source of divine love. There is no better time to begin turning than right now.

Let us be willing first of all to believe we can change, we can turn; we’re not too old or too young. We are just the right age in just the right situation with just the right people we need to change a habit, a condition, a relationship that has wanted truthful addressing for years. Everything is lined up, including the spirit of God who will undertake on our behalf as soon as we decide to turn and look at God who has never taken his eye off us. God loves us. God wants us 100%, whether it’s our 43rd, our 16th, our 85th birthday, or just another day in just another year: God wants us and all that our fullest life can give to us. Amen.