Wednesday, February 25, 2009

07 Epiphany B 09
Transfiguration of Our Lord
February 22, 2009

2 Kings 2:1-12
1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent."

4 Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent."

6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 10 He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not." 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Psalm 50:1-6
1 The mighty one, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 "Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!"
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Mark 9:2-9
2 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, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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." 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 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.

Walking the Whole Way

There’s a picture downstairs at the home of a certain widow I know. She’s in her sixties now, and she’s a very beautiful woman. The picture was taken in the fifties. It’s black and white. It shows a very handsome young man with a delicious young babe of a thing. Somehow that picture captures the essence of young love, the endless passion, the heat.

The delicious young babe in the picture is of course the widow I’m talking about, and the man was her husband.

I had the privilege and honor to walk with them in his last days. I have had that honor with many a couple and it’s one of the joys and certainly one of the heartbreaks of being a minister. What amazes and humbles me whenever I have to take that walk with my brothers and sisters is the devotion of the care-giving spouse.

In this case, the husband had a long and very painful illness, with multiple surgeries and torturous treatments. He was a very good man, but the pain and misery he was experiencing sometimes made him angry and combative. I wonder too, as I often have in these situations, if he lashed out at his wife because he wanted her to distance herself, as if he were saying, “Turn back. I don’t want you to suffer with me. I don’t want you to have your heart torn out watching me die.”

Of course, for his wife it was a no-brainer. There was no thought of turning back. She walked right through his ranting and kept on loving him. “I will never leave you.”

And she never did. She had plenty of time to see the cost of that decision looming on the horizon, but it never stopped her. And she didn’t do it because it was her duty. She did it because she loved him. And love, real love, walks the whole way.

Elijah had been like a father to Elisha. A mentor, a guide, who introduced him to the joy of knowing and serving God. For most Jews even today, Elijah is the very essence of the spirit of every man or woman of God, every prophet who dares to say, “Thus says the Lord.”

It’s not dissimilar from the way I feel about Lewis McPherren. He came into my life at a time when I sorely needed him, and he was abundant in his loving care toward me. I love him as my friend and my mentor and my colleague. Of course, he’s 82. He’s told me many times with a chuckle, as the latest diagnosis has come in, “Well, you know, I have to die of something.” I don’t like to hear that. I don’t want to hear that. I want our wonderful talks and adventures together to go on forever. I want the shining light and the exaltation and the joy of God’s glory. I don’t want to walk with him to the cross.

“Be silent,” Elisha tells the sons of the prophets who keep reminding him that it’s Elijah’s time to leave. Even Elijah, wanting to spare his child in faith the terrible loss, urges him to turn back. “No,” says Elisha, “I will never leave you.”

When the disciples climbed that mountain with Jesus, they had an amazing, life-changing experience. The shining light, the vision of glory, the return of Moses and Elijah. This story is what the cliché of the mountaintop experience is based on, that ecstasy of fulfillment and joy. It’s the pure hot passion of newlyweds, the joy of your firstborn child, the thrill of victory. Peter wants to stop the train right there, build the nice church buildings and call it a day. But the author of the gospel, Mark, seems almost apologetic about Peter: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

There are many churches today that trade on our craving for that mountaintop experience.

Most people want worship to be a rally for the blessed, a rock’n’roll anthem to being in and not out. They want that rush.

Theologian James Alison has called it “Nuremberg Worship.” The Nazis knew very well how to manipulate a crowd. Loud, rhythmic music, lots of symbolic behavior, stirring hymns to sing. Emotion, emotion, emotion. We’ve been wronged, but we’ll have the last word! We’re the chosen! And all the outsiders want to take that away from us! We are superior, and here are the reasons why! Can’t you feel it? Sing with me now!

But craving worship like that is like paying for dinner to get the doorstep kiss. We want the mountaintop experience, and we want it in a box with fries. We want that pleasantly full feeling.

But the walk to the light is not that simple, and we know it.

God spoke to the disciples, echoing his word to Jesus when Jesus was baptized by John, “This is my Son! Listen to him!” And as they were coming down the mountain, they listened to Jesus telling them not to say anything about what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead.

Just FYI, as soon as they got to the bottom of the mountain, they encountered a boy possessed by a spirit that convulsed him and threw him to the ground gnashing his teeth and foaming at the mouth. Quite a contrast, don’t you think, between the shining white robes and the dirty twisted child?

Paul talks about a veil lying over the minds of those who don’t or can’t believe. I think the veil he is talking about is our revulsion at the messy and sometimes heartbreaking work of the ministry to which Jesus leads us.

We are a culture addicted to the mountaintop experience. We crave the heat and joy and passion of young love, but we find it more difficult to deal with the mess and pain that will always eventually come with it. We like the idea of helping poor people at Christmas and we forget them for the rest of the year. We pour out our help for the victims of a natural disaster and we forget them as soon as the headlines disappear. We like the feel-good experience of going to church, but we don’t want the sometimes heartbreaking work of loving the unlovable and remembering the forgotten.

God’s love is like the love of that widow for her angry, suffering husband, and it’s a love he extends not just to those we know but to those we don’t, not just to our friends, but to our enemies, not just to the lovable but to the unlovable. It was Moses’ mission, and Elijah’s mission, and Elisha’s mission, and Jesus’ mission, to help us see as God sees, to challenge us to walk the whole way with God.

We like to walk with God when he is comforting us and loving us and helping us with our difficulties. But do we want to walk with God to the dark places, to the jail cells on death row, to the dens of terrorists, to the dark streets of the slums, to the mental institutions, to the halls of oppressive power, to the people God loves with a love that doesn’t turn back, that goes the whole way.

If you see this, Elijah says, your desire for God’s Spirit will be granted. If you see this, the veil is lifted from your heart and God’s power will fill you.

So I ask myself this morning as I hear these words, “When do I stop walking with God? When am I unwilling to go the whole way?” I come up with all kinds of reasons. But the real reason is that I don’t want the heartbreak. I don’t want to see the twisted child foaming at the mouth. I don’t want to stand in the execution room when they lethally inject someone. I don’t want to walk out into the battlefield and see people ruthlessly killing each other, and know every soldier who dies the way I know my wife and child. I don’t want to risk my friendships and my reputation for people no one cares about. “Turn back,” the god of this world tells me. “Let me lay this comforting veil over your heart. You don’t have to see this. You can just have the nice part, the part that feels good.”

But God sees them. God goes to all those places. God loves them and grieves for them and desperately wants them back. It’s a no-brainer for God. He wants to walk right through their hatred and their contempt, with his arms spread wide.

I am willing to go the whole way with my beautiful Liz, if that is the way it happens. I am willing to go the whole way with my daughter, if I must. But am I willing to go the whole way with God, to the cross? Am I willing to allow the love God has for all the world to flood my soul? Can I say to Jesus, “I will never leave you”?

For this is the way to resurrection. This is the way to enter into the kingdom of God. This is the way to overcome death. This is the way to receive all the power of God.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

06 Epiphany B 09
February 15, 2009

2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. 3 She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Psalm 30
1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
"I shall never be moved."
7 By your favor, O LORD,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
8 To you, O LORD, I cried,
and to the LORD I made supplication:
9 "What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me!
O LORD, be my helper!"
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Mark 1:40-45
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Saved From Below

How many of you heard about the robbery at the Tall Chief last week?
It seems that the store clerk was held up at gunpoint by a man. Some of us who have scanners heard the call to the Rescue Squad for the poor clerk, who apparently was so traumatized by the experience she required medical attention. I can sympathize with her.

I was the victim of an armed robbery. I know how it feels. It changes you forever. It imprints on your psyche the strange and terrible fact that it is quite possible for another human being to suddenly decide to threaten and perhaps even take your life, that it is possible that someone might somehow find a way to dehumanize you, to rationalize in their mind that whatever it is they must have is more important than your life. They will not think about the fact that you might be someone’s father or mother, someone’s sister or brother, someone’s son or daughter. They will completely put out of their mind that you might be the image of God.

Our concern is for the victim. Our compassion goes out to her. This is a beautiful thing, this compassion. The story we heard about Jesus and the leper describes Jesus as filled with pity. The compassion we feel for someone who has been so dehumanized comes from God.

And yet this concern for the victim quickly changes to anger and outrage at the perpetrators. And our society, and most civilized societies in the world have devised ways of protecting the innocent and the weak by arresting and detaining such perpetrators and in some cases punishing them.

How many of you read the newspaper account of the arrests made in connection with the robbery? The faces of the alleged culprits looked out at us from the pages of the Sentinel. One of them was a particular woman. I’m not sure what she is supposed to have to do with the robbery, but I know something about her history.

I know she came to the county about three and a half years ago with a man she said had rescued her from an abusive relationship. She suffers from a various birth defects that has badly deformed her hands and this, along with a number of internal deformities requiring a lot of medication, has undermined her capacity to find work. She and her boyfriend fled a state up north, leaving behind her two children, whom she hoped eventually to send for when they found work and had settled into a home. They had first gone to Virginia Beach where she apparently was arrested several times for prostitution. She then came here with her man who tried to find work in the area. About a year later, he left her.

I know all this because she worshiped with us here at Philippi. She sat right over there. She was the one who was covered with tattoos and body piercings. My impression when I got to know her was of a person who was consumed with fear and desperation, overwhelmed with the stress of too many problems. I certainly got the impression that she would lie to me and perhaps take advantage of me if she could, and I suppose that sense rather scared me, particularly because I was newly installed as a pastor and really didn’t have enough connections and relationships to be able to help her in any meaningful way. I’d have to admit I was glad when she disappeared, and I didn’t work too hard at keeping track of her.

But our society has a way of forgetting all these things. When someone threatens our security, we consider our security more important than her humanity. We dehumanize her in careful and orderly and what we call “legitimate” ways. We do not think about the fact that she is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s sister, perhaps even the image of God. She is a mugshot of a bloated, tattooed woman with beady eyes.

Of course, I am not saying we should set her free. I am not saying we should forget that she may be responsible for badly violating a human being who had done nothing to her. I am saying that to dehumanize her in response is not sane. The good news here is that we in Middlesex have a rather exceptional security facility that believes very much in rehabilitation. If one of our female elders would like to visit this woman, she could. It would in fact be encouraged by the warden.

But the situation gives rise also to other thoughts. Who in our community, who around the world, are being dehumanized, marginalized, deprived? And how long will it take for them to become so desperate that they turn to violence and destruction to get what they need? And what kinds of systems are causing this?

We are the people of God. God has chosen us, and millions like us all around the world, to bring a new approach to the brokenness and misery that so many in our world suffer. It is the way of healing love and compassion.

The great secret of AA and the twelve-step fellowships, the heart of their success, was borrowed from the Christian tradition, though many members of those fellowships don’t know that.

I heard a group of recovering alcoholics talking about faith. One said he had trouble believing in the Christian God as he understood it. Others said they were spiritual and not religious. And then one spoke up and said, “I believe in the suffering alcoholic.”

They all turned to him with perplexed looks. He said, “Look. This fellowship’s primary purpose is to help the suffering alcoholic. When I’m doing that, when I’m working with the fellowship to help that suffering alcoholic, I’m healed. I believe in the suffering alcoholic. He’s the one that is saving me.”

Tommie Sue Anthony, one of our preaching students, noticed a fascinating truth about the story of Naaman. Did you notice that the people that made the difference for Naaman were the servants? One of them was a Jew, one captured as a slave in a raid. The Jews of course had been slaves in Egypt, a fact God has never let them forget. In the story of Naaman, the servants coax him toward humility. The oppressed save the oppressor.

Conversely, the readiness for healing grace begins with the complete abandonment of trust in any earthly power. I’m not talking about medicine. I’m talking about the worldly powers of money and violence and dominance. The leper in the story of Mark is begging. He has no other hope but Christ. Neither Herod nor Caesar nor the priests of the temple can help him and he knows it. To come to such a place either happens to you, as it does to many who are sick or poor or mentally deranged, or it is something people gently help your toward, as did the servants for old Naaman, or it is something toward which you strive. Paul talks about that very striving, the striving not toward greatness, but toward humility, in his letter to the Corinthians.

Jesus tried to keep the healed leper from making his healing about Jesus. His purpose in life was not to become famous or powerful or well-respected or successful. His purpose was to give his body over to God for God’s use. His purpose was to heal the leper, because it was God’s purpose.

Our healing is in touching the one that disgusts us. Our healing is in loving the one who hates us. Our healing is in respecting the one who doesn’t respect us. Our healing is insisting on everyone’s rights, but giving up our own. Our healing is in embracing the stranger as our own child, the enemy as our mother and father. Just as the one who wants to recover from alcoholism sees the path to that recovery in helping the suffering alcoholic, so I believe my salvation is in my loving service to the suffering Christ, as I encounter him in the insane, the possessed, the jailed, the lost, the violent, the proud, the dying, the diseased and especially the poor.

As far as I know, that doesn’t leave anyone out.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany Year B 2009

05 Epiphany B 09
February 8, 2009

Race Relations Sunday

Isaiah 40:21-31
21 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?
22 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;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 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.
25 To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 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.
27 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"?
28 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.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 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.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Praise the LORD!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
6 The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Praise the LORD!

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Mark 1:29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 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.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." 38 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." 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A Stranger on a Bus
When I was an actor and playwright in New York in the mid-eighties, I lived in an apartment on the fifth floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights with two cats. My home was one eight foot by twelve foot room with a small bathroom that included a sink, a toilet and a shower. I had a hot plate for cooking and a little half-refrigerator. I began to write plays using legal pads and cartridge fountain pens. I would write four to eight pages a day, then type them on an old Smith-Corona electric typewriter, revising them as I went. I wrote six full-length plays in as many months. Almost immediately I got an agent and a staged reading of one of my plays. It was the happiest time of my life till then.
The experience of writing those plays was one of some outside power flowing through me. I was very much a beginner at this faith business at the time, so I found it very difficult to put into words. It seemed to be about perspective. I wrote about my friends, gave them different names, put them in different situations, and it seemed they took on a life of their own, became whole new people, people other than the real friends on whom they were based. And I came to love them, all of them.
One night, during the time he was writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suddenly burst into tears at the dinner table in front of his whole family. His wife asked him what was wrong. He said, “Today I killed Anna.” That was how I felt about those characters I was creating. They were like beloved children. I knew what they were thinking, what they wanted, and yet how tragically limited their perspectives were.
The artist enters into the perspective of the creator. Isaiah entered into God’s perspective and saw humankind as nothing much more than grasshoppers, her empires as nothing more than ant colonies, wiped into non-existence with the brush of a toe. Our current economic woes, the ecological crises we face, the war and rumors of war, all of these things will pass into dim obscurity, and all of us will be forgotten, having lived in a span of time no longer than a millisecond in the billions of years of the universe’s majestic life.
But at the same time, the artist enters into the love the creator feels for his creation, as did Tolstoy when he created his beloved Anna. When you read that book, you fall in love with Anna as she makes a terrific mess out of her life and breaks the hearts and the trust of many people. I read the book on the F train from Brooklyn to New York when I was working a survival job at Telecharge, the Broadway ticketing company. Packed like a sardine into the train, I sobbed when Anna died, completely unaware of the four people who were pressed against me. From the perspective of the other characters of the book, Anna was a sinner in every way, a wife who betrayed and dishonored her husband and a mother who abandoned her children, but from her creator’s perspective, the situation was much more complex. All the characters, including Anna, were fully human and fully lovable, caught up in forces far larger than they, forces they only dimly understood.
But the reader or the writer who enters the mind of the creator understands those great forces, the winds of history and politics and economy and culture that blow people this way and that.
Isaiah tells us our creator God who sees us as nothing much more than grasshoppers also knows each one of us by name and passionately loves us. He sees how limited our perspectives are, and lets us know through the prophet that he can be trusted to fulfill his promise.
Paul entered into the mind of God through Jesus Christ and was thereby able to tell the self-righteous and self-centered congregation at Corinth that the freedom they insisted they had a right to was but one dimension of the great thing God was doing, and that he himself willingly shed all his rights and privileges as a child of God in order that the mission of God might be more fully served. Paul understood the forces that shaped people into Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free people, women, men, oppressors and oppressed. He was a character in the story, but he had the mind of the author. He even describes himself as something of an actor:
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

Paul is describing the way in which a Christian person seeks to see others as God sees them, not only outwardly, but inwardly, not alone but in the context of their culture and history. Paul saw himself as the servant and agent of a great force, a great power sweeping into the world. He has offered his body, the body of a character in the story, to carry the Spirit of the story’s author.
Today is Race Relations Sunday in our Disciples’ calendar. Last Wednesday night elder Sig Langschultz asked us to imagine an undocumented immigrant as someone in our family or someone we worked with before we considered legal questions of rights and abuses. In a way, she was asking us to enter the mind of God, to take the label off of people different from us, and see them as God sees them, as his beloved, amazing and extremely complex creations.
What if Tolstoy had become a character in his novel and visited Anna early in the story? Many people don’t realize that authors often begin writing their stories with only a vague idea of what is going to happen, that the characters often take on a life of their own and make choices that take the plot in surprising and unexpected directions. If Tolstoy had come into the story, warned Anna about her choices, it certainly would have changed the story. But even Tolstoy might not have known exactly what she would end up doing.
What if God entered human history as a character in the very story he was creating? This is in essence what happened in the person of Jesus.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is an ordinary human being who offered himself as a vehicle for God to come into the world. Jesus, a character in God’s story, became the vessel for its author. There’s a wonderful Joan Osborne song:
What if God were one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on a bus
Trying to make his way home?

Entering the body of an ordinary mortal who has to sleep and eat and die, God became a character in his own story. If you think about what it was like to be Jesus, to see everyone around him as God saw them, to see the world as God saw it, to be challenged to communicate God’s point-of-view using only the actions and words available to any ordinary human being, I think you will begin to understand what is asked of you as a follower of Jesus.
As characters in God’s story, we are dearly beloved. God sees us and our little plans and desires, understands the pitiful limits of our perception, and nevertheless loves us as passionately as Tolstoy loved Anna, even when we blindly follow some dark path to ruin. And if God so loves each one of us, does he not also love everyone else, all the other characters in his story, even as we clash with them in politics and wars and social and economic struggle? And does he not see that the only real problem we all have is that we don’t see as he sees, we don’t know as he knows, we don’t do as he asks?
Through Christ, God offers us, the characters in the story, the opportunity to receive the spirit of the story’s author, to become in the flesh the author’s presence to all the unknowing and unbelieving characters in the story, to see them as they truly are, his beloved creations, full of desires and hopes and dreams and worries and fears and demons and disease, lost in the darkness and brokenness of an unfinished creation.
The Spirit of God is the Spirit of an artist. The God of Israel is in the creation business, the business of taking raw and imperfect materials and making them something new and wonderful, making Peter’s sick mother a healthy and willing servant of God, making people broken in body and spirit new and whole, making a dark and miserable future into a shining joyous hope, making life, and not death, the end of the story.
And just so is the work of the Christian, and the work of our congregation, is the work of that same artist. It is the work of finding the beautiful under the ugly and releasing it. It is the work of creating loving community out of suspicious, lonely, even hostile individuals, the work of creating heavenly movement out of demonic inertia. It is the work of the life-giving God.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany Year B 2009

04 Epiphany B 09

February 1, 2009

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." 17 Then the LORD replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die."

Psalm 111
1 Praise the LORD!
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the LORD is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A Friend in the Highest Places

Is there anyone here who can tell me a story about changing someone’s mind? How about healing someone who was sick? How about purging someone of some demon that torments them?

I suspect there are stories out there. I believe these things happen. I have seen them happen in my own life and ministry many times.

And yet I think a lot of us are accustomed to thinking we don’t have much power over anything in this world. As much as we’d like to change things, we throw up our hands and say, “well, that’s beyond me.”

I know I’ve had lots of frustrations, particularly with those closest to me. I know a lot of Christians who have similar problems, members of their own family they feel like they can’t do a thing with.

And yet the great message of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is very near, that the power of God is close by, ready to chisel away the things that are wrong and reveal the magnificent thing the world was always meant to be. And perhaps the most awe-inspiring idea that Jesus brings to us is that God will use people as his agents.

People. That would be you and me. He really expects us to wield his power, his awesome, world-creating, life-giving power. He really wants to put that power in our hands. And he really expects to transform the world through us.

Now there are other powers in the world, as Paul tells us today. Other forces. These forces are immensely powerful. The power of violence for example. The power of judgment and punishment and retribution and threat. These forces seem much more powerful in accomplishing goals than love or mercy or grace, which feel weak and ineffective and naïve. We even tell ourselves that we can use evil to accomplish good. The famously corrupt but very well-loved politician Huey Long was fond of saying, “if you’re going to clean things up, you have to get your hands dirty.”
But Jesus went to the cross instead of using violence to resist the evil forces arrayed against him. He trusted God to do what God alone has the right to do. And because he was able to do that, God raised him from the dead in a spectacular display of victory.

But how, how, how in the world can something as weak and spineless as love be truly powerful?

Tell me a story about someone you love.

When I minister to people who are grieving, I invariably ask them to tell me stories. Almost always, they come spilling forth with hardly any prompting from me. Important moments, funny events, characteristic sayings.

Because I love my daughter, I know everything about her, I can tell you all the stories. I can remember all the conversations. I can speak with authority about my daughter. I have often predicted her reaction to others and they are amazed at how accurately I can do this. I had to work hard at this, but the work didn’t seem hard. I spent days and days with my daughter, playing with her, talking to her, listening to her. But it didn’t seem hard at the time. It seemed easy. I was delighted by her. I love her.

Jesus loves God the way we love our parents, our children, our spouses. Jesus took as much interest in God as we take in our most intimate loved ones, the kind of passionate loving interest the psalmist takes in God when he sings:

2 Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.

When you love someone, really love them, you become an expert on them. You know everything they ever did, or at least want to know it. You will tell anyone the story of the person you love with little or no invitation to do so. You’ll be listing off the trials and tribulations and the way the loved one overcame them. You’ll be whipping out the wallet to show people the pictures. You’ll know all about your loved one’s goals, and you will do everything in your power to help him or her achieve them. And if you ever lost him or her, well, you think you might just die.
Jesus loved God that way, and because Jesus loved God that way, God knew Jesus. And because God knew Jesus, all the powers and principalities hidden underneath the brokenness of the world knew Jesus as well, so that the unclean spirit in our story this morning could say “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”

In the book of Acts there is a compelling story of an attempt by the seven sons of Sceva to exorcize a demon. The demon says, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?”

What if we spoke to our friends about God with the same passionate interest we tell stories about our children or about our sainted parents and our wonderful childhoods? What if the stories of God’s mighty deeds in history were as interesting to us as the stories of our child’s athletic achievements?

There is a saying in the twelve step fellowships about the spiritual program of recovery they propose for addicts: “Whatever I put ahead of my recovery, I will probably lose. When I put my recovery first, everything else is first class.”

I have found this to be true about all the things and people I care about. If I don’t put God above them all in my heart of hearts, then I am likely to lose them anyway. But if I put God first above them all, God will care for them just as he cares for me. And I can say that with authority, because God knows me. I have a friend in high places.

The power of God to change the world is offered to you. The power of God is also able to remove all your fear, all your doubts, all your suspicion about love and its power. It will not be easy to have these things removed. There may be some convulsing, some crying out. But when you are ready, God is ready to give you his Holy Spirit, which is nothing more and nothing less than a passionate and intimate love for him, a love not very different from the love you have for your most beloved friend or family member. When you come to love God that way, the knowledge of him will come to you because you will seek it with pleasure and delight, and more importantly, God will know you. You will have a friend in the highest places.