Thursday, February 26, 2009

Less Show, More Grow - A sermon

I’ve decided what I’m giving up for Lent - Winter.  In fact, I’m starting to think about baseball because I’m looking forward to opening day at the Renegades.

You know, the crowds, the hotdogs, the national anthem and the first pitch -- it’s a lot of pageantry.  But could you imagine doing all that only to have the announcer then say, “Well, thanks for coming.  Time to go now.”

Now don’t get me wrong.  The pageantry has a reason -- it makes you feel like the game has importance, like you’re involved in something special.

But without the game itself, what’s the point?  And this coming from someone who thinks the pageantry is much more interesting than a baseball game itself where have have nine guys standing out in a field watching another guy holding a stick.  The game is tedious, but thanks to the pageantry, you understand what it’s about.

That’s sort of what was going on in the Old Testament reading and the Gospel.

Elisha gets to watch Elijah go up to heaven in a chariot of fire -- a chariot of fire!  And the disciples -- well, three of them -- get to see Jesus revealed for who he truly is, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  It’s not every day that your teacher goes all blazing white and starts talking with Moses and Elijah, after all.

The funny thing is, these fantastic events aren’t witnessed by anybody.  Elisha is alone, and Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anybody else, not eve the other disciples.  

So, why bother with them if they did not actually DO anything?  Because they changed the people who witnessed them.

Elisha knew that his calling was as a prophet, a leader of prophets in fact.  Peter, James, and John became more than just disciples -- they became leaders in waiting.  These events made they understand the importance of what they were about to embark upon -- the dull, unflashy work that was before them.

I mean, Elisha went out to work, and for the most part, aside from a few healings, purifying some water with an ax head, it wasn’t that memorable.  But it was the daily drudgery that makes up our lives, and in granting it that special event, God places his blessing on the tedium to follow.

The disciples had very important work after the transfiguration -- but dreary, sad work for much of the time.  They needed to know that it was important so they didn’t lose heart.  They needed to know that their work had meaning, so that when they went down the mountain, they could still press on.

Not much different from today’s baptism.  We like to make a big show out of it.  Maybe nothing quite as dramatic as chariots of fire or transfiguration, but we do water and candles and take pictures…maybe have a party.

Yet, just as surely as the point of Elijah’s ascension or the transfiguration was NOT about the event itself, the point of baptism is NOT this little drama we’re about to play out.  

It’s about the life that will be lived afterward.

Today we will baptize Samantha Haase.  Baptism will not magically change her into something.  No more than Peter, James and John were magically turned into brilliant leaders.

The change happens inside.  And it happens gradually.  Over the long course of a life lived much less dramatically.

The big events in our lessons, like the baptism itself, are the beginnings of a journey.  The people starting those journeys don’t know what they’re doing at the beginning, nor where they’re going.  They just know that they’re on their way, that their journey has meaning, and that they are not alone.

Today’s baptism will give meaning to Samantha’s life in years to come.  It will be tedious at times and exciting and mundane -- but because we now commit ourselves to being with her and helping her grow into the full stature of Christ, all the tiny steps of each day will have importance.

She can’t do it on her own.  That’s where we come in.  Each week, we have this pageantry called church -- but it’s not about being entertained or punching your religious time clock.

It’s about being changed, challenged, transformed.  We come in here at one stage in our life -- and we yearn to leave here different.  Maybe not dramatically, but with a grain of yeast that will grow in us so that we can go on the next steps of our journey.  That’s what we’re here for -- to help each other change -- and be changed into the people God sees in us.

But beware.  This is NOT all about me being fulfilled.  When God transforms us, we find ourselves looking BEYOND ourselves far more than at ourselves.  We look to those who are hurting, and we work to alleviate their hurt.  We look to those suffering injustice, and we work for justice.  We look to God’s creation and work to care for it.

One reason we come to church -- to be changed together -- is to remind ourselves that even as God is changing ME, God is changing you, too.  And that together, we are called upon to change our world a tiny bit to be more like the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s show in church -- baptism is sometimes the only one some folks ever experience.  But beyond the show is the call to grow.  The day in, day out part that isn’t flashy but is the entire reason for being here at all.  Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Are You Clean - A Sermon

It’s one of the sillier scenes I’ve read lately.  This big foreign genereal Naaman gets cured by the prophet Elisha so what does he do?  He picks up two donkey cart loads of dirt so he can worship Elisha’s God even when he’s at home.

You see, gods back then were tied to the land in people’s minds.  So even though Naaman figured out that God is the only truly powerful god, he did not understand that Elisha’s God is the ONLY God.  

Still, if Elisha had chosen to set him straight, Naaman probably would have believed it because this God of Israel had done a most fantastic thing.  He had made Naaman clean, after all, and that was a big thing.

I mean, he’s a big famous general -- but his shame is equally huge.  To be a leper wipes out most all of his fame and good will.  It’s like a steroids scandal on steroids.  He wasn’t clean -- and to be made clean made him acceptable again.

The same is true in Mark’s Gospel.  There we have a man who comes begging to Jesus to be made clean.  Interesting words he chooses.  “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

Jesus replies, “I do choose.”

After that we get a little more silliness.  Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone -- but of course, the second the man gets out of sight, he starts blabbing to everyone that Jesus is a miracle worker, so Jesus can’t do the real work he came for.  We talked about that last week.

Silliness aside, however, both Naaman and this man had a problem.  Their societies saw them as dirty.  Untouchable.  Naaman, being a great general, had an easier time of it because he already had great power.  The man in the gospel, however, was probably like other lepers -- cast out of society, forced to live away from everyone else, forced to yell “Unclean” if they came in sight of normal people so they wouldn’t get contaminated.

The fact that God chose to clean them both -- untouchable, foreign, unacceptable -- tells us about God.  Our unclean-ness does not make God flinch from us.  Whether we are clean or not, God will accept us.

Good thing because even though Leprosy is largely gone these days,  UNCLEAN people are not.  You might even be one of them.

I have been.

Back in seminary I got divorced.  When you’re under the watchful eye of the bishop, the seminary dean and all those professors, it’s pretty hard to hide when your wife moves out.  Even though they were understanding, it felt like I now had a dark mark on my forehead. 

The other couples we used to hang out with didn’t know what to do with a single guy.  I had to move out of married housing.  And then my home diocese told me they couldn’t ordain a divorced man.  In a way, that was a good thing because, that’s how I ended up in New York, so “Thanks, Diocese of Springfield.”  But do live with that stigma is no fun.

There are so many other kinds of “dirty” though.  Someone had an abortion, someone has a mental illness, maybe someone else is gay or a substance abuser or, or, maybe they’re a Liberal! - you name it.  Chances are, YOU are dirty in some way to SOMEBODY.  Just give it a moment, and you’ll know.

But you’re not dirty to God.  The point is that while WE have our many different types of dirtiness -- in fact, we look for the dirt in others -- Jesus sees us already clean.  Jesus sees you and me as clean.  While others would have run from that man, Jesus stayed with him and said, “I do choose.  Be made clean!”  Jesus will not run from us, either but always has and always will choose to make us the way he already sees us.  Clean.   Amen.

Hiding the Healing - A Sermon

5 Epiphany

February 8, 2009

There was once a boy who always carried a bandaid with him because his big brother was a scout, and their motto was “Be Prepared.”  One day he was out playing with his friends, and one of them got a cut.  Out comes the bandaid, and they go on playing.  A couple of days later, they’re out again, and another friend gets a cut.  They go to the boy, and out comes another bandaid.  After that, friends start coming to him for every little cut.  He has become “Bandaid Boy.”  They even get mad at him when five kids come to him at once, and he only has two bandaids. 

Bandaid Boy is a lot like Eternal Doorman.  You probably know Eternal Doorman -- maybe you’ve been him.  You know, you’re going to a restaurant, and you hold the door open for someone (to be polite).  Only, the second you turn around, you discover there’s a quarter-of-a-mile-long line streaming in behind that one person, and you can’t figure out how to get into the restaurant yourself.  Someone even hands you a tip!  

Well, Jesus is like the bandaid boy -- or the endless doorman.  Suddenly, that’s how people see him when that’s not what he came for.

He healed Peter’s Mother-in-Law out of compassion. (For Peter’s mother-in-law, it’s more than physical if only because hospitality was so important in those days -- people went into debt to practice hospitality.  It meant everything.  If she’s sick in bed, she can’t practice it, and she feels shame.  Worse than shame.  If she’s the householder, it’s a big deal.  So, for her to be able to get up and serve is relief.) Which seemed to spark a chain-reaction of everyone wanting healed -- and he couldn’t refuse.  So he took off in the morning even though everyone was looking for him.  He wanted to get back to what he came for.


The point of this gospel is that physical healing isn’t the point.  It’s not bad per se, it’s just not the point.  Sure, he healed many because it was the compassionate thing to do, but if Jesus came to raise the dead and heal -- then why would he pick and choose (discriminate)?  And Why would he stop?  Because it’s not the important thing in the big picture.  

What he really came to heal was our relationship with God, the relationship that is way beyond physical.  Because no matter how many times our bodies are healed, we know we’ll die.  We all do.  Healing is always at best temporary.  God’s love is eternal.  

That doesn’t mean we don’t heal those around us.  Of course we do to the best of our ability!  Jesus healed those who asked -- that’s compassion -- but he had to make it clear that it wasn’t his maid task or our main concern.  So do we.

Of course there’s another way to hide the healing going on -- refuse to see it.  When we see God at work -- heck when we refuse to see the good going on around us -- we have hidden the healing that is at work in the world all the time. 

Small example: A comedian named Louis CK was talking about how we live in an amazing world -- and nobody’s happy.  One small example he gave was airplanes.  He said nobody ever says, “Wow, I had a great flight.  We took off, we flew through the air, we landed safely.  I love it!”  No, each flight is a nightmare because they only served peanuts.  Or that the internet -- at 30,000 feet in the air -- was on the fritz.  Or that we had to wait for 40 minutes while they de-iced the plane.  How about looking out the window and thinking -- what a miracle that we can sit in a chair in the sky and go from coast to coast in a matter of hours, not months. 

There are more subtle miracles, too, and we refuse to see them as well.  People whose bodies fail them but who grow so deeply in their souls through a long sickness that they are healed even as they die.  People who find peace in the midst of turmoil, large and small.  This is healing, and we often miss it perhaps because we’re not looking.

This seems to be what Isaiah was getting at when he chides the people of Israel for not seeing God at work.  He calls out in frustration to the people, “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?”  God’s work seems hidden -- because we choose not to see it.  We too often see only the surface -- hidden healing sees deeper.

So, there are two types of hidden healing -- the kind Jesus hides so he can get to the main point.  So he doesn’t have to be bandaid boy or the eternal doorman.

And the kind we hide because we can’t see the miracles before us -- when we’re the airplane riders complaining about poor internet reception -- when we can’t see God at work before us. 

It seems the remedy for us all is to heal others as best we can -- and to celebrate the healing that is all around us -- but to remember that it’s the deeper, hidden healing in our souls that matters most of all.  Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kingdom of Uncertainty - A Sermon

A friend recently read me a story she wrote called “Subjunctive.”  It’s about how she took some private lessons to brush up on her Spanish.  When they got to the subjunctive mood, her teacher said, “You are know entering the Kingdom of Uncertainty.”  The subjunctive mood (you might remember from school days) is the form of verb you use for things that MIGHT happen.  “I would be impressed if you were to remember subjunctive.”

In time, the lessons skated close to the edge of romantic relationship, plunging teacher and student into their own subjunctive world -- their own Kingdom of Uncertainty where they dwelt for the duration of the lessons.  The Kingdom of Uncertainty is a familiar place for  most of us -- and an uncomfortable place.

Actually, we live with uncertainty all the time.  Not just the uncertainty of our jobs or our finances these days (although Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times wrote: “We are going to have to learn to live with a lot more uncertainty for a lot longer than our generation has ever experienced”), but our relationships, our grasp of what’s right or wrong, the meaning of life.  A good example of that is in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy.

In this passage, Moses is giving the people final instructions before his death.  He warns them to obey the prophets -- unless that prophet speaks a word that is not from the Lord.  Now, you may ask, how are they supposed to know if it’s a word from the Lord or just that prophet saying things like, “If you don’t pay me more, God’s going to cause a drought”?  Moses answers that in the next sentence,  which the lectionary doesn’t give you, but I will.

You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

Well, I would be frightened because now things are as clear as mud.   If you aren’t supposed to listen to the false prophets, and if the way to tell false from real prophets is to wait and see what happens, then you have to live with uncertainty about everything they say.  Because it could be years before a prophet’s words come to pass.  In other words, you’ll never really know if the words of a prophet are true or not,  so how can we ever trust them?

The Gospel doesn’t help us out all that much today.  Here we have a passage where finally somebody recognizes Jesus as the Son of God.  Problem is, it’s demons.  No matter how we understand demons today -- it’s often said what they called demon possession back then is really mental illness -- the fact remains that the “normal” people could not recognize Jesus.  Only those with something terribly wrong in their minds and souls.

If he were really the Son of God, wouldn’t it be obvious to US?  If he were really the Messiah, wouldn’t the religious leaders see God’s hand at work in him?  How is it that people are supposed to follow a guy that only the demons acknowledge?  How can he be the Son of God if he gets killed?

What you have to love about these passages is, they don’t tell you.  Ultimately, Jesus says, “Look at what I do, listen to what I say.”  Ultimately, that’s what Moses says of the prophets.  “You have to see and hear -- and look deep within your heart to ask, ‘Is this the work of a God who is Love?’”

This should throw you into your own Kingdom of Uncertainty for pretty much the rest of your life.  Because now you have to deal with all those questions that folks in scripture have been dealing with all along.  How can a loving God bring suffering?  How can my loved ones die?  Will God really throw me into eternal damnation if I sin?  How will I ever be able to do enough to gain eternal salvation?

How can God ever love someone like me?

We regular folks don’t seem to be able to sort it out.  We are in the Kingdom of Uncertainty.  But this is the Kingdom where Christ reigns.  In our uncertainty, in our fear, there Jesus sits with us and leads us through the dark, for he is the light of the world.

The people were amazed that Jesus taught with authority.  He didn’t merely quote others like the scribes and pharisees did.  Because the light dwells within him.  

The fact that you are alive means that you dwell in that Kingdom of Uncertainty and always will.  We have a guide and a companion who is trustworthy and true.  One who will not make all our decisions or tell us what to do but will constantly remind us:  Look, Listen, the search deep within your heart.  

It is often not a comfortable place because it is still hard to know what to do, what to trust and believe.  But the Kingdom of Uncertainty is not an impossible place.  As we make our way through it, keeping our eyes on the light, we will grow, and slowly over a lifetime, we will know more and more.  Will we ever know for sure?  If I were God, I’d know.  Amen.