Saturday, October 10, 2009

Not So Random Acts

Forgive me if I seem a bit rushed today while I put this together. I’ve only got so much time to get done all my usual Saturday chores (Bible Study, Sermon final prep, Finalize Class notes, stuff like that - oh and someone wants me to take laundry down and help rearrange the basement! But that’s for another complaint session). Because I am performing a wedding out of town this evening, and I’ve got a two and half hour drive before me (and then one back, duh). The wedding is for a former member of my youth group in a previous church. I’ll pause here for all the gratuitous getting older comments. ... All done, great. Let’s move on then, shall we.

Sarah and Zach are getting married in Lebanon (Indiana!). Well, outside Lebanon, at this resort/wedding place called Lumiere which is tucked away in the middle of the corn fields. It’s a nice place, I think. And I say "I think" mostly because we didn’t get to see much of it last night for the rehearsal. It is an outdoor wedding place and it was pouring down rain yesterday, so we couldn’t actually rehearse where the wedding is going to take place. There is this chapel like place perched on a pile of rocks and they wedding party stands in the chapel, and I stand on a pile of rocks sort of halfway up and everyone else sits on chairs on the green lawn below. At least that is how it is supposed to go.

We did the rehearsal in the side room of the reception hall, looking out the windows. The coordinator would line us up and then point out the window. "You see that copper post?" "What the one there by the big rock?" "No, over there, a little further. It’s a white post with a copper top." "No." "Well, its there, trust me. Stop there and wait. Then when the bridesmaids come down that sidewalk.." "You mean the one here?" "No, the big one over there." "Over the creek?" "No, on this side." "Oh."

Well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say, once we had run through the ceremony, sort of, no one really felt like they had any idea what was going to happen. And did I mention that the groom got lost and was over 45 minutes late? And we still had to wait on half the wedding party that they were trying to direct via cell phones like air traffic controllers dealing with rookie pilots way off course. By the time it was over and I was about to drive back home, the bride and the groom were nervous wrecks, looking a lot like the too young teenagers I remembered from youth group all those years ago.

While Sarah was fighting back tears and still trying to give instructions to her bridesmaids for the decorations, I came to say goodbye to let her know I was leaving. I patted her on the back and said, "I’ll be all right tomorrow." "Really," she looked at me with pleading in her eyes, saying even if you don’t think it is lie to me! "Really," I said confidently, "Trust me." She took and deep breath and nodded before going back to handing pumpkins out to her nervous bridesmaids and family. Her mom, who was a member of that church, shook my hand and smiled, thanking me for trying to help calm Sarah down. Then as we walked past other family members who introduced themselves, someone said "where are you from?" "Fort Wayne," I said. "Wow, and you came all the way down here for this?" "Yeah, and I’ll be back tomorrow!" "That’s very nice of you." "It’s nothing," I shrugged and ran out into the rain to my car before heading back, two and half hours to Fort Wayne.

It’s nothing. That’s our normal response to acts of kindness. Sometimes it is humility. Sometimes it is a feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes it is a recognition that it was a small thing when we could have done a bigger thing. But often it is because we don’t really recognize the enormity of an act of kindness.
In Paul’s list of the aspects of love that make up the Fruit of the Spirit there are some that might raise an eyebrow or two. Some of the words seems to inspire greatness, some demand great sacrifice, others call for lots of commitment and or energy. But then a few seem so insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Kindness is one of those words. We almost want to skip over that one and get on to the more significant matters. We want lessons on how we go about changing the world, how we go about saving souls for Jesus Christ! Kindness? Come on. We invited Dear Abby to this party? Why turn to Miss Manners when we’ve got more important things to do? We want John the Baptist talking about the axe laid at the root of the tree, not a big purple dinosaur telling us to say please and thank you!

What comes to mind when you hear the word Kindness? Does it somehow describe the Christian life for you? Is it something that you can rally behind as a watchword? As a motto for our faith? Or our church? How’s that for a mission statement: "At Our Church, We’re Just Really Nice!"

Or maybe I’m being unfair to the concept. Micah thinks so anyway. Take a look a what the prophet says in one of the most powerful verses in the whole bible.

Micah 6:6-8 "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

I probably should have taken the whole chapter as the reading, to get the full impact of verse 8. The writings of the Prophet Micah begin with an appearance from God, and needless to say, God isn’t happy with the way God’s people have conducted themselves. In fact things have gotten so bad, that in Chapter 6 we find ourselves in court. Micah depicts a trial for divine favor. And so here in verse 6, we are basically throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. The pleading gets higher and higher, bordering on the ridiculous. Until we sinners offer everything, even our children as sacrifice to the God of Judgement. Maybe that will appease, maybe that will reduce the punishment so richly deserved.
But Micah, who represents a God more gracious than the people’s desperation could ever imagine, tells us we are way off track. God doesn’t want bribes, or offerings, or sacrifices. God wants lives well lived. God wants lives lived in three dimensions. And Micah names those three for us.

The first and the last make sense to us right away. God wants Justice! Do Justice. Let make things right. Let’s treat people rightly, fairness, equality - of course that makes sense. And God wants connection. Jesus told us that. God wants us to walk with God, side by side, but with humility. What’s that old joke? "Many people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity." Humbly walk with God, means knowing our place, means listening more than talking.

But that middle one - love kindness. Huh? Surely there are more important things than that. But no. It’s on the list. Kindness. Treat people well. Respect, politeness, value the other. There are two things about this kindness idea that we need to know. First of all, love kindness is not so much an attitude as an action. Second of all, the Hebrew word for kindness is really an attribute of God. So, the call from the prophet is to act like God, even while we remember we aren’t God. Take on the aspect of God, who does justice and who loves acts of kindness.

Now, does that mean it is sort of like blasphemy when we say "It’s nothing"? Hope not. For my sake. And yours. Thank you for taking time to read this. That was kind of you...


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cross Training

Another shortie this week. Which my daughter will be glad of. She says I write too long. That was after she came and said she finally finished April - I’m catching up, she declared.

The reason for the shortness is that there is work to do! First of all I have to attend a District Training session to learn how to do something I’m not all that excited about doing. But I gotta. So, I’m going. But I’ve got lots of attitude tips from my teenagers to draw upon.

Anyway, that is going to take most of my Saturday. Then when I get back I need to help La Donna get ready for the Confirmation Party that we are having after church on Sunday. Since it is Maddie’s Confirmation. I guess I can blame Kent for that, since he set the date.

So, there isn’t the time to leisurely approach the biblical issues. I’m just throwing it out there, and you can make of it what you will. I don’t have the time or the inclination at the moment. So, here you go:
Mark 8:27-36 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" 28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." 29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Great, just great. I can’t even whine on a scripturally appropriate day! Why couldn’t it have been one of those laments from Jeremiah, wishing he’d never been born? Why couldn’t it have been Ezekiel plumb tuckered out in the desert saying, I might as well be dead? Why couldn’t it have been some Psalmist complaining about the load he was carrying and wishing God would show up and make things all better? Why?
Because it is Confirmation Sunday, that’s why. Which is a Sunday that is great for a group of young people who have spent some several months studying the faith and now get a chance to make a declaration before the body. But more than that it is an opportunity for all of us to remember that moment, to remember our own Caesarea Philippi.

You remember that day, don’t you? When you said "Jesus Christ is Lord!" in a public kind of way. And when you did, you also said "Jesus Christ is My Lord" whether you remember that part or not. And when you declare an allegiance to a Lord, then you follow. Even on the days when you don’t really want to.

I took a vow to be obedient to the Word and Order of the United Methodist Church, so I’m going off to a seminar tomorrow. In part it means submitting to authority, even when I’m not sure of the bigger picture. In part it means trusting that there is value in this small obedience, even when I can’t see it right now. I will go because I took a vow of ordination.

Before that I took a vow to uphold the church with my prayers and presence and gifts and service (and would have included witness if it was a part of the vows at that time). And one way to uphold the church is by celebrating when another daughter or son says yes to the church as well. It is not just a small thing that Maddie will do Sunday morning, it is something worth celebrating. So, I’ll help - when I get back - and light a lamp and sweep the corners looking for my lost joy, and when I find it I’ll call the neighbors and say come and celebrate with my daughter, who went to Caesarea Philippi this morning and came home a member of the church, and a follower of Jesus the Christ.

If you read Mark’s account carefully, you’ll discover that Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He never promised us that we would only go the directions we wanted to go. He never promised that it would be easy, or always fun, or at least painless. In fact he said some uncomfortable things about carrying a cross. That doesn’t sound easy or fun or painless.

And the odd thing here is that he doesn’t tell us to get nailed to a cross. He doesn’t ask that we take a plunge and get all the difficult stuff done with. He asks us to live daily as followers. He asks us to pick up that cross and carry it. All the time. Any place. Day by day, giving ourselves up, spending ourselves little by little. Cross training. We’re in it for the long haul.

In fact, as I look it over again, the only thing he promised is that he would go first.

Follow me, he said, follow me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Eat You Up

I actually overheard this monologue some time ago. It was a mother and her baby playing together while they enjoyed the summer sunshine and fresh air. They were laughing and playing and having a wonderful time together. It brought joy to many hearts who were passing in the busy green space downtown somewhere. You couldn’t help but smile as you watched the obvious pleasure they were taking in each other that day. It made you celebrate God’s design for families, it made you appreciate the power of motherhood and the blessings that this child would receive being raised in such an atmosphere of expressive love.

But then as I drew closer I could hear what she was saying. "I’m going to eat you up," she said with a gleam in her eye. "Yes, I am. I’m just going to eat you right up." And she would put the baby’s hand in her mouth, or nibble on his toes, to the obvious pleasure of the child. He would squeal with joy and reach for her, even as she continued her threat. "I’m going to eat you right up." And would sometimes even make devouring sounds while she played - "Nyum, nyum, nyum" she would say.

Needless to say, I was disturbed. OK, it was, as I said, a long time ago. B.C., as we say around here - Before Children (or BK - Before Kids, or BO - Before Offspring (but that gets problematic too)). Having children changes all sorts of things. You think differently once children are a part of the mix. Stuff that is disturbing to you suddenly makes sense when you have children. Things that you never in a million years thought you could or would do, now are fairly commonplace. At the very least language changes. You say and think things you would never say in another context. "I’m going to eat you up" made perfect sense that sunny afternoon.

But I didn’t know that then. It happened, as I said before I had children. And in fact, it was before I had fallen in love. At least love like I know now, love like I am blessed to experience. That too changes language. That too changes perspective.

The Gospel of John is full of the language of love. And if you take it out of that context, if you remove the relationships fundamental to the story presented here it doesn’t make much sense. On the surface it is disturbing. Like the passage for this weekend. Take a look:

John 6:51-58 am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

See what I mean? Before you go saying "well, it is obvious what he is talking about," let me give away a hint to next week’s reading and remind you that everyone around him at the time was deeply disturbed by these words. There were those who simply didn’t understand. Some of those closest to him were in that category. And there were those who were offended by these words. Offended and disgusted and ready to call for his death. Which was part of what he was saying.

But only part. Jesus was here offering his literal flesh and his literal blood. He knew what the rest would only discover later, that this faith, this relationship that he was offering to the world was going to cost him everything. The cost was going to be exacted from his own body. He would pay in pounds of flesh and in liters of blood. And here he is saying that he is offering this sacrifice as a gift, to any and to all who would taste the life that he brings. He hands over his flesh and his blood, he gives it up willingly.

That in itself would be hard to take. It is disturbing that someone is so willing to give away so much, to suffer so much on our behalf. It is troubling that he is so willing to endure such pain for us. Our modern - or postmodern - sensibilities are agitated by this sentiment, and worse, we are disgusted by such an idea. Even some of those who purport to be followers of Jesus Christ are known to say such things as "I don’t need all this blood, I don’t need such a sacrifice. I’m doing all right on my own, thank you." Which only goes to show that they haven’t understood the language, or the need. Or the opportunity. Or the love.

That’s the other side of these words in the sixth chapter of John, this is love talk. This is that mother and baby cuddling on a blanket on a sunny summer day. This is the love talk that runs out of words to express the depth of feeling, the depth of desire to be connected, to be united, never separated at least on the spiritual level and falls back on talk of devouring. "I’m going to eat you up."

In a few hours I am going to Aldersgate to preside over a wedding ceremony. This young couple took it upon themselves to rewrite the wedding ceremony, so I will be reading a combination of the traditional words, and some other words found on the internet (God bless the internet) and some that were written by the bride and the groom. Now, normally when this happens I get very nervous. Often the new creation leaves much to be desired as those young and in love struggle to put into words the kind of commitment our faith calls for. I have often been forced to radically edit what couple come up with. But this case was a surprising one. The words they cobbled together are beautiful and even more overtly Christian that the traditional words we use - if that is possible. It was as if what drove them was the desire to express not just their love for each other but also their faith. And at least three times there is a reference to the biblical injunction to "become one flesh." Even setting aside the sexual connotations from such a phrase, it is almost embarrassingly intimate. This bride and this groom want their family and friends and even their church and their Lord to know that they want to eat each other up, they want to consume and be consumed in their love for each other.

We’ve taken these words from the Gospel of John and turned them into a rather formal ritual we call the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is usually done with solemnity and habit and tradition. And often without too much thought, I’m afraid. Now, while I in no way want to diminish the sacrifice, and indeed the suffering on our behalf, I can’t help but wonder if we were to approach the bread and the cup, the body and body like that mother who wanted to devour her child out of love and the joy of relationship what would happen to our experience? If we approached the table like the couple this afternoon who comes to devour and to be devoured, to be made into one flesh with the object of our love how might that taste of a crumb of bread dipped into a chalice of juice change into something else?

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them" said Jesus. And our ritual, liturgical response? "I’m gonna eat you up. Yes, I am."

Thanks be to God.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

The PG-13 Bible

Everywhere I have been as pastor there has been a tradition that bibles were given to young children. I never started this tradition, but then I never stopped it either. It was always one of those cross your fingers sorts of acts. You know, stuff you do that a part of you thinks "This isn’t really a good idea" but you do it anyway hoping that nothing will come of it. And I kept doing it because the other part of me said it was a good thing to do.

I love the bible, for all sorts of reasons. Not the least that it is gripping literature. The stories can out pace any thriller on the shelves. The passion can shame any romance novel you can name. The poetry reaches heights that most poets can only dream of attaining. The wisdom can reduce front porch philosophers to puzzled silence. It is a wonderful read.
Yet, as you are no doubt hoping I’ll admit, it is much more than that. It is Truth. Not just truth, but Truth. Not just good advice, not just rules for living, not just a sacred text, but it is Truth. Truth without regard for feelings, Truth that sometimes hurts, Truth that reveals, Truth that points out the fundamental disconnect between the life we claim we want to live and the life we actually live. Truth that acknowledges that evil exists in the world, and sometimes in us. It is dangerous, an IED - improvised explosive device that just might cripple us if we aren’t careful.
Is that something you want to put in the hands of children? I console myself with the knowledge that they won’t read it. Or that they will be guided by those who know how to handle such volatile materials. I trust that the sheer weight of the words will keep them safe enough until they are given a context within which they can read the terrible texts.
Like this one. Well, our Gospel lesson for this week isn’t the most gruesome in the bible, or the most - uh - racy. But still it is hard to see much uplifting content in these verses. In preparation for the bible study I was checking some of the sources I usually use and it is interesting how some of them don’t even mention that this is the assigned passage for this Sunday. As if they were suggesting that we take a look at the Epistle, or the Old Testament reading for this week. There might be something of value elsewhere. But for some reason I decided to take a look at it, during our "Fun in the Son" summer month of July. Here you go. But be warned!
Mark 6:14-29 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." 17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it."
23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
John had made Herod’s commitment, or lack thereof, to family values a point of discussion . One of the problems with this family is that they had a shortage of names for boys. They were all Herod, or something Herod or Herod something. Needless to say it got confusing. Kinda like Prince Michael I and Prince Michael II. Anyway, this Herod stole his current wife Herodias (yeesh) from his brother Philip (actually Herod Philip). Some say that he killed Philip first (or had it done - royalty don’t actually do the deed) and then married her, others argue that Philip was still around wondering what happened while Herodias packed up. Either way, it was messy, and John wasn’t one to let sleeping dogs lie.
Well, Herod didn’t like what John was saying, but Herodias was murderously angry. She convinced Herod to have him arrested, in order to be killed, but Herod kind of liked hearing what John had to say. So, he would go hang out in the dungeon and have tea with the imprisoned prophet.
Not satisfied, Herodias cooked up a plot and sent her daughter, who might have been named Herodias too (sigh) or Salome, depending on which version you read, to entice step-daddy into a promise. So, on his birthday she danced for him. And he enjoyed it. A lot. More than a step dad should have, let’s say. While panting for her, he said "anything, you name it, you got it!" After checking in with mom, she comes back with the classic "Give me the head of John the Baptist." And the prophet was served up.
Truth. Ugly, to be sure, but Truth. The truth is that sometimes we make decisions based on less than rational thinking. The truth is that given proper motivation or stimulus, any of us might be prone to rash acts. And then feel caught in a corner we can’t get out of. Sometimes we worry too much about how we might look, and not enough about what is right. And often we regret it.
Mark inserts this little flashback to explain Herod’s reaction to the news about Jesus in verse 16. There is some argument as to whether Herod actually believed that John was raised from the dead in Jesus, or whether what he was saying is that his guilt followed him, even beyond the grave. There is no indication that Jesus was pointing out Herod’s indiscretions, like John had done. But he felt the shame anyway.
Which is another painful truth, I suppose. When you encounter Jesus there are no more secrets. We aren’t able to hide out faults, our sin, our weakness from him. And sometimes just knowing that hurts. Luckily, he doesn’t leave us in our hurt and our guilt. The invitation is to come and be forgiven, come and be healed and then to find a new way to live. "Neither do I condemn you.." What a wonderful grace that would be to hear. "Go and sin no more." Live a new way, with a new priority and a new hope. Live out of love rather than worrying about what others might think. Live fully alive, fully engaged, fully in joy.
Which, come to think of it, must be why we give bibles to children. They come closer to living like that than we do. Maybe we sound find some kids to read the bible to us. Maybe.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Way to Go Home

“Show me the way to go home.” Do you remember that scene from Jaws. They are out there on that boat, it is late and they are waiting for the monster to come. And they start singing “Show me the way to go home.” Remember? “Show me the way to go home, I’m tired and I wanna go to bed. I had me a drink about hour ago and it’s gone right to my head.” It is a silly moment in the midst of a great horror. But I wondered why that song. There are lots of other little ditties to take our minds off the troubles to come. So why that one?

Is it perhaps that it wasn’t a little distracting, nonsense ditty, but in fact was a real plea? The veteran shark hunter, the marine scientist and the land-lubber sheriff might have been giving words to what was in the back of their minds - get me out of here! When things look bleak, when options run out, when enemies threaten, we want to go home. It is a natural impulse. It is a place of safety, a place of peace.

There is a pull toward home in the best of situations, not to mention the worst. We are all like those birds who baffle scientists with their ability to find their way home. Or the salmon who swim upstream for miles to get to the spawning grounds - to get home. Show me the way to go home. Robert Frost said that “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Or do they? Jesus went home in our gospel text for this week. Didn’t seem to be much taking in going on there. Take a look:

Mark 6:1-13 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.
7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

The lectionary writers gave us two passages this week. Or maybe not. Maybe they are really about the same thing, but one is a failure and the other reaches the goal. Maybe.

Jesus goes home. Why he goes home, Mark doesn’t say. Mark isn’t given to reveal motivations and deliberations. He just says that Jesus went home. But we can imagine why Jesus went home, because he is like us. So, he goes home for the same reasons we go home. He goes home because, well, because its home! He goes for comfort, he goes for identity sake, he goes because maybe he thinks that Robert Frost is right and that no matter what he has done to this point, they will take him in. Or maybe he is riding a bit of a high and wants to share it with those who know him best. The previous chapters have Jesus performing all sorts of incredible acts, and now he is going home to let them see how the local boy has made good. Or maybe he is going home to try and heal what might have been broken by a misunderstanding.

Go back to chapter three in Mark’s story. Jesus heals the man with the withered hand and gets in a fight with the authorities who wished he had waited a day to do this work! But the crowds loved him and came by the hundreds. Then Jesus took a teaching time out with his disciples, went up a mountain and taught and prayed. But word got back home. And their conclusion was that he was crazy. Carpenter kids from Nazareth don’t go off and do such things. He’s upsetting the powers that be and drawing attention to himself in all sorts of ways. He must be off his rocker. So, they went to bring him home.

When they got there and word got to Jesus that his mother and his brothers were waiting with one of those white coats with the sleeves too long, Jesus said “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” That had to hurt. So, maybe in chapter six, Jesus goes home to explain what he really meant. Maybe he goes to heal the hurts of misunderstanding. Maybe he goes to give the family another chance to catch a larger vision of what family might mean, what family needs to mean to live in the world in which we live.

So, he tries again. And it works! For a moment or two anyway. He spoke in the synagogue and they were astounded by him. For a moment. When they listened to his words, they were knocked out of themselves for a moment. They were swept up in his vision, they leaned into his promise. Until someone said “wait a minute. Isn’t this that carpenter kid? Who does he think he is?” And everything fell apart. They turned away from him, because they thought they knew him. They turned against him because they thought he should stay in his place. They called him names - “Son of Mary” instead of the usual “Bar Joseph” implying that his parentage was suspect. They laughed, they sneered, they ignored him. And even Jesus was amazed at the level of their disrespect.

Jesus went home, but home didn’t take him in. My inclination in such a scenario would be to feel sorry for myself. Poor me, they don’t understand me, the real me, the me I have become. They still see the goofy kid I was instead of the man I have become. I could have a real self-pity party if such a thing happened to me. Because there is within us the desire to go home. Or maybe better, there is within us the desire to be home, to be welcomed home, to feel at home. And if home won’t take you, what’s left?

“He called the twelve and sent them out, two by two.” What’s left when you’ve left home, or home has left you? Make a new one. He sent them out to create a sense of community, build relationships, care for those you meet, trust them, rely on them, make yourself at home with them. Jesus vision of evangelism, or of mission (and he never really separated those two as far as I can tell) is not one of “winning souls” or of drive by mission efforts. Instead, Jesus seems most interested in relationships. His work is done in the presence of relationships, and because they refused to enter into a relationship with him “he could do no deed of power there.”

Home is not so much a place as it is a level of relationship. It is a welcome, Robert Frost was right, they will take you in at home. But Jesus tells us that home is about a commitment to a vision of home he called the Kingdom of God, and a commitment to love one another with the same kind of love he pours out on us. In other words, he is trying to show us the way home.

On this holiday weekend, it seems to me that what we really celebrate is neither a historical happenstance or the glories of a richly blessed nation. Instead it is an ideal, a vision of what we could be, what we long to be. We who call the United States of America home love our country, but at the same we hope for more - more justice for all, more equality, more hospitality. We celebrate who we are even as we celebrate who we might be. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” We want a country that feels like home. Which means we need people, all the people - of the people, by the people, and for the people - to show us the way to go home.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

In the Storm

So, was Jesus a lake person? I mean in the modern Methodist sense! You know, the lake people are the ones who get away to the lake during the summer. Sometimes regularly, sometimes occasionally, but they like to have a place to go to get away. A place to retreat to, away from the cares of the daily grind. A place to go and recapture yourself. A place to put some distance between you and all the stuff, all the demands, all the burdens. You know.

Getting away is a good thing. I’m not here to grumble about the lake people. I’m a bit jealous of them, to be honest. But then my lake is a range of other things, and other activities, and other places. I guess the first point of my bible study this week is everyone needs a place to go. Everyone needs time to regroup. Everyone needs those relationships that build up, because they are giving, pouring into rather than always needing.

So, if you are blessed enough to have a place on the lake - enjoy it. And if don’t have a house on the lake, find your place, or time, or activity to be built up. Or the people who build you up. A few years ago I was a part of a team of folks working together to run a summer choir camp (oh, the irony!) It was one of the best functioning teams I have ever been a part of, and while we had our struggles with the task and even with one another sometimes, it was a wonderful group of people to work with. Most of us are no longer on the team doing that job. But when we left the team we promised to keep in touch with one another. Well, we didn’t do so well with that, like most of those kind of promises. But last evening, due to the efforts of one member of the team, we got together again for dinner and conversation. It was a wonderful evening, we got caught up and relived some of the “old days” and just enjoyed one another’s company. It was like time at the lake.

That’s what I mean, seek that out. Go and find ways to be built up. Find ways to get away. Head for the lake. But, let me toss in one warning. Sometimes getting away is harder than we realize. Which brings us to our gospel lesson for this week. An account of getting away that didn’t work.

Mark 4:35-41 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

Another camping trip spoiled by bad weather! Sorry. Didn’t mean to be flip. Although that is my larger point. But I’ll get back to that in a moment. First of all let’s unpack the myriad of issues in these few verses. And each one could rate an essay or sermon or two! So, fasten your seat belts!

First of all, Jesus says, rather simply it seems, “Let’s go across to the other side.” And off they go. But we need to pause for a moment and consider what is on the other side, and it is the other side of. On the basic level it is the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Not a large body of water in world terms, but significant enough to give pause to the fishermen and boaters of that day. Most fishing was done close to the shore. It is possible, indeed likely, that the four fishermen had made a substantial career on that lake and had never gone across it. That crossing represented a foray into the unknown. Scripture is full of images of the sea as the representative of chaos, or that where God is not. When Jonah was running away from God he went to sea. In some ancient coastal cultures, whenever fishermen were heading out to deeper waters there was a ritual performed before they left that was essentially a funeral - a chance to say goodbye for what would very possibly be the last time. And when, or if, they returned there was a celebration that had little to do with the catch, it was more like resurrection. So, when Jesus said follow me a couple of chapters ago, what he really meant was put your life at risk.

And he didn’t say, sail out a way to get away from everyone. He said go across to the other side. He had a destination in mind. But on the other side was “them.” Jesus was heading to non-Jews. He was leaving the land of people like him and venturing off among strangers. Go to the other side is almost a threatening kind of statement to them and to us. We don’t like going to the other side - whether it is the other side of town or the other side of the tracks, or - for politicians - the other side of the aisle. The other side is where foreigners dwell, the ones we don’t know and don’t like if we were to admit it. The other side is where the habits are strange and the behaviors are worse. The other side is where the folks we stare at, and shake our heads and tsk under our breath. Let’s go across to the other side. And off they go.

OK? One verse down! Then it says they gathered up and took off. But that Jesus went “just as he was.” What does that mean? To be honest, I don’t know. But Mark who is so sparing with words wouldn’t include something just as a throwaway. So, there is something here, some clue, some foreshadowing. Jesus is always showing us how to live, how to be. That was his main purpose in spending time among us. He got frustrated when we focused all our attention on the spectacular, the miracles and the healings. He wanted us to see something else, something deeper, more significant. And perhaps his statements at the end of the passage - to jump ahead for a moment - came about for the same reason. He was upset that those closest to him were missing something vital, some clue about life. And maybe that clue is revealed in the statement that Jesus went “just as he was.”

Maybe the invitation is to live within ourselves. To be centered in who and what we are and to be satisfied with that. Maybe our security in the end comes not from something or someone or some condition outside, but maybe it comes from within. Maybe his rebuke to them was not that they were afraid to die, but that their fear was translated as “Don’t you care that we are about to die?” It was their misunderstanding about the gift of faith that bothered him. Don’t you care? Because if you cared you would do what we want when we want it.

Here’s my point - since the end of the page is looming and Maddie says I write too much anyway - storms follow us wherever. The promise of the Christian life is not for constant sunny skies and clear forecasts. Storms will come, you can count on it. The question is what will you do in the midst of the storm. When you live your life, fulfill your obligations, make something of yourself, even when you set out to retreat and be built up for the tasks ahead, storms will come. Faith is not a ticket out of the storm. Sometimes it feels as though we live from one storm to the next. But the question remains, what will you do in the midst of the storm? Or maybe better, who will you be in the midst of the storm?

Commentators will tell you that Mark’s proclamation here is a reminder that Jesus is stronger than the storms. And if Paul is right, that it is “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” then there is no storm that can make me less than I am in Christ. Which means that in spite of the fear and the sometimes panicked activity in the midst of the storm, I can find a place of calm. I can be, like Christ, just as I am. Even in the storm.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

I'm heading south again Sunday afternoon. For those who didn't know or remember, my parents live in Paris. Tennessee (and yes, there is a replica Eiffel Tower in the city park.) Which means I don't get to see them all that often. Because my life seem so busy, and their lives are busy and travel is difficult and time consuming, it can a long time in between visits. Both of them have had health issues (though as soon as they read that they will say they are doing fine - and they are, but I still worry) so I sometimes feel the need to check in.

Plus, full disclosure here, I'm not that great on the telephone with them. I promise to call, I intend to call, and then I don't. I get busy with stuff (I don't know what kind of stuff, just stuff, OK?) and I forget to call. My wife La Donna will say, "did you call?" Or "you ought to call." Or "here's the phone, call your folks!" as she drops it in my lap when I am in the midst of something vital like watching sports on TV.

When I do call I try to listen between the lines. What is really going on down there, I will wonder? How are they really doing? I just prefer the face to face. Communication theorists will tell you that only a small part of the message sent in a communication event is carried in the words that are said. How small a part? Some argue as little at 10%, some claim it is only 3%! The communication environment is much more communicative. It is everything around the words, the tone of voice, the facial expression, the body language, the non-verbals that really carry the weight of the message. They call that part of communication "meta-linguistics." I need some meta-linguistics, that's why I am taking some time to go south.

I need them, I want them to see love. My love for them. I can say it on the phone, I can write it on an email or a letter (google it, kids!), but I want them to see it. I don't doubt that my parents know I love them. But I want them to see it. I don't know what all might happen when I get there Sunday night, I don't know what conversations we might have or jobs we might do, or plans we might have, but I want them to see my walk through their door and know that they are loved.

"See what love..." That's how our scripture text for the week begins. And I know that last week we remembered the post resurrection of Jesus and there is that Thomas story where Jesus says "Blessed are those who haven't seen and yet believe." I know that is there. But like Thomas, from time to time I want to embody the love and care I have for others. I want to live it out. That is what this passage from I John is all about. Take a look:

1 John 3:1-7 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

See? What do we see? Why did John start chapter three with See? OK, there is some wiggle room here, I have to confess. "See" or "idou" in Greek is an imperative, a command and at times an interjection. Some think it would be better understood as "pay attention" or "look here!" or "tune in." "Focus people!" He is about to express some important point. He is not really asking us to see love. He is saying think about it. He is saying meditate on it. He is saying get this through your thick skulls. You are not the wretched refuse of a world gone haywire, you are a child of God. And why are you a child of God, because God loves you. That's why. Nothing less, nothing more. Nothing you have done, nothing you can do - to gain it or lose it. It is strictly because of God's love for you that you have been claimed and remade and set on a path that leads to righteousness.

Righteousness? Now there's a word we sprinkle throughout our daily conversation, right? What does that word mean? Righteous. That sounds like an attribute for God and not for us. And didn't Paul quote something to that effect? Romans 3:10, "as it is written, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one." Yikes. Even John sets an impossible standard in this letter: "No one who abides in him sins." No one who really loves God, who have been claimed by Christ sins. Which either means that no one really loves God and no one has been claimed by Christ, or something else is going on here.

We United Methodists struggle with our founder John Wesley who advocated this idea of Christian perfection. Talk about something out of our reach. Talk about the impossibility of faith. How in the world are we to understand this? What does it mean to be righteous?

In the first chapter of this letter, John writes, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9) Both 1:8 and 3:6 are true. How can this be, you wonder. At least I wonder. I think the only way we can make sense out of this apparent contradiction is by coming to an understanding of righteousness.

I once heard a preacher say that righteousness is being faithful to relationships. Why do we live in certain ways? What is it that determines the choices we make or don't make? It is some sense of right and wrong? Well, maybe. But that sense of right and wrong is experienced through the relationships we make and choose to honor. When we acknowledge the love of God, when we claim a relationship with God we will want to live in ways that honor that relationship. We will live in certain ways because of that relationship. And that is true with all of our relationships. We will honor those with whom we have a relationship by living out our love for them in tangible, visible ways. See what love...

We will still make mistakes. We will still hurt others when we intend to love, because we are imperfect beings. But we can contain a perfect love. Not my love, I don't generate this love, I see it in Jesus and understand it from God. But I am privileged to live it out as a child of God, I am privileged to live out - to show love. See what love...

Being righteous then is being willing to show love, to act in loving ways, to honor those with whom we are in relationship with love. So, I'm heading south to fulfill all righteousness. And, if I may be confessional yet again, to see it for myself. Just like I don't doubt that my parents know I love them, I have never doubted that they love me. But every now and then, it is nice to see, face to face. See you soon, mom and dad.

See what love


Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Have ever visited a church that was a different tradition than your own? If you have then you know the sense of disorientation that often afflicts us when we are out of our comfort zone. We aren’t sure when to stand or when to kneel or when to sit or even when to come in and go out. You might frantically search the bulletin, if there is such a thing, to help you navigate these unfamiliar roads through the act of worship that seems more and more alien the more lost you feel. A few places, who pay attention to those who might be traveling these roads for the first time, might think to add in the notes that help you feel on the right track. But many places are places that assume you already know and leave you to stumble up blind alleys or to head north on south roads. It is confusing, to say the least.

What we need is a Global Positioning System for worship on occasions like that. Something that will put us in the right place in the right time so we don’t look like we don’t know what we are doing. Even when we don’t know what we are doing. I mean, it’s ok to not know, but no one wants to look like they don’t know. You know?

And that is just the issue in front of us in the first of our Lenten Series of 2009. Yes, Lent has begun again. Talk about disorienting! I thought I had more time!! Yikes.
Anyway, our Lenten Series is titled "Selah," which is a word that is found in many Psalms. The problem is we don’t know for sure what it means. Some think it means a rest in between ideas or verses in the Psalm. Others that it is a musical interlude of some sort. Still others think that it means a crescendo of sorts, a peak of words and music, an exultation.

Even though we don’t know exactly what it means, we know it is a direction for worship. It gives a signal to the fact that worship requires some sort of action, some sort of response. The Psalms were the worship book for the people of God for hundreds or thousands of years. They helped the worshipers find the rhythms for worship, to find the moods of worship.

So, this Lenten series is about worship. It is about the centrality of worship to the Christian life. It is about the structures for worship and patterns of worship. It is about the attention we pay during worship to the presence of God and our willingness to present ourselves as we worship.
Which is what the first Psalm of the series is suggesting. Take a look:

Psalm 25:1-10 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD! 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Lifting up one’s soul was more than simply saying ‘I am happy,’ or even ‘I love you.’ It was actually a pledge of faith, it was a commitment. The soul was the essence of the person in Israelite thinking. It was not a separate entity that separated upon death, but the core of the being. To lift up one’s soul was to offer the essence of the self. It was the ultimate statement of trust and obedience. The Psalmist is saying I have found the source of direction, I have found the one who will show me the way.

The "way" is repeated often in this Psalm, both in the passage we have chosen and the verses that follow. The Psalmist is declaring that the source for direction and purpose, for meaning is found in the One to whom we would lift up our souls. "Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth..."

Your truth. In part this is a realization that for many truth is relative. There is no objective truth that is self-evident to everyone. If there were it would be so much easier. We could just point. We could just say, use your brain, people, use the sense that God gave geese! A no brainer, we declare. Everyone should know that!

The truth is not everyone knows that, whatever the that might be at the moment. Not everyone claims the same truth, not everyone agrees on the same behaviors, not everyone accepts the same priorities. Truth grows out of relationship. Or perhaps better, truth is discovered in relationship. Lead me in Your truth, declares the Psalmist, help me to understand, help me to live by that which You declare to be of ultimate importance. Show me the way.

The Psalm is about learning to live a godly life, or we would say, a Christ-like life. And at the beginning of such a life is the realization of the need for a savior. It begins with humility, "He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way." There is an acknowledgment of brokenness or sinfulness: "Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love... Do not remember the sings of my youth or my transgressions." Don’t let my failings define me. Let my relationship with You be that which determines who I am - "according to your steadfast love, Remember me, for your goodness’ sake!

But wait, I thought the Psalms were about worship. Now we seem to be talking about life, about living one way as opposed to a different way. About learning right and wrong, about being defined. That’s a whole lot more than just worship, isn’t it?

Just worship. I get asked, usually by the musicians of the day, sometimes the ushers or worship leaders, even on occasion by someone in the pew, "Anything special today?" I know what they mean, but I want to answer and sometimes do answer with "Yes! It is all special. It is Worship of the Living God! It doesn’t get any more special!"

Worship is where we learn God’s way, and worship is where we practice living it out. The way we encounter the act of worship is reflective of the way we hand over our souls to God, it is indicative of the allegiance we place to God’s kingdom living. If our worship engagement consists only of passing judgment on the talent of the musicians or the eloquence of the preacher, then we are missing the opportunity to be shaped, to be taught, to led through the wilderness of living by the light of Way that is our faith through Jesus Christ.

The GPS that we need is not really for worship. In fact it could be argued that worship is the GPS for life. Without that orientation that comes from gathering with the community around the living word and lifting up our souls again and again, we are truly lost. And if we are lost without it, what about those who have never experienced worship at all?



Do I seem different to you today? That’s an odd question to ask in a medium like this, I realize. So, I guess I’m not really asking the question. I’m just using it as a set up. Which is precisely the problem with a question like this, it is often a set up. The responder is set up to fail, most of the time. It is sort of like that famous "Do I look fat in these jeans?" question that is a no win situation.

OK, it may not be quite as toxic as that question, but it is often right up there. "Do I look different to you today" is sometimes a question that has an expected answer. Either the asker has done something to themselves that seems significant or has passed a milestone or accomplished a goal and wants to know if the askee can figure out this achievement, or someone else has made a comment and the asker is seeking confirmation or denial of said comment.
Do I seem different to you today? Because I am different. Maybe not in a visible way, but different all the same. Change happens to all of us. We are constantly in the process of shedding the old self and putting on the new. And this is a physical reality as much as a spiritual one. We shed our cells at an amazing rate and they are replaced with new ones. Every minute about 300 million cells are replaced in your body. You are in a constant state of change. Do I seem different? Wait a minute, and you will be.

Our Gospel lesson is about change this week. But not what you would normally expect. This isn’t a call to change for the better, it isn’t a turn around or repent passage. It is about a different kind of change all together. Take a look:

Mark 9:2-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 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.

He changed in front of them, it says. Transfigured is the word that we have become used to reading here. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration after all. That sounds more holy somehow, more theological than to say simply that he changed. But the Greek word here is metamorphothe from which we get metamorphosis. Or change.

So what happened on that mountain six days after a conversation about suffering and death? Something. Hard to say, except by repeating the words that we read there. He was transfigured, he was changed before them. What they were used to seeing they no longer saw and something they hadn’t seen before suddenly became evident to their frightened eyes. And what did they see? Something well nigh indescribable. Luckily, there were aids to their seeing all around them to help them define what it was that had happened in front of them.

First of all there were those other guys. Mark says it was Moses and Elijah. I always wondered how they knew who it was. Did they come with name tags? Where there prompters running around with signs? Or was it one of those "they just knew" kind of things? Maybe Moses had his famous staff - the staff by which he parted the sea and then struck the rock to get water. Maybe Elijah had his wilderness clothes on, a John the Baptist motif that showed he was a man of the desert, a man uneasy with so-called human civilization. Maybe it was a wild look in his eyes. Maybe Jesus called them by name when they appeared. We don’t know, because not a lot of attention is paid to the two of them. They were there as props, they were scenery for the lead actor, they were in supporting roles on this day. It wasn’t about them. They represented the law and the prophets, the story of the people of God, the heights of the Chosen People. But they were there to draw attention to the one who was the Word of God, who was the Presence of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Then there was the voice. The only words spoken on that mountain top, well besides the rather unfortunate mumblings of a desperate disciple who just had to say something. And that something was about as appropriate as a giggle in a funeral, as a belch during a silent prayer. He was the guy shouting "you da man" when Tiger putts to win the championship. The one giving away plot details in the darkened movie theater. Even Mark tries to shush him up by saying "he didn’t know what to say."

No, not those words, but the other words. Or, to be more accurate, the Words. Similar to a previous utterance. A few chapters earlier there were the Words: "You are my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased." Now the Words say "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." The first Words are directed to the one being baptized, the one launching a ministry and a hope. These mountain top Words are to those who would seek to follow that one. To them, the terrified mumblers. And to us, the followers at a distance. "Listen to Him. To the Beloved Son." To the changed one, the revealed one. Pay attention.

Pay attention to what? To the change? To the glow, to the fireworks, to the power and the glory? Well, yes. And no.

In what context do we usually use the word metamorphosis? I remember science class and we were talking about butterflies. The process of changing from a rather ugly worm-like caterpillar into the fragile but breathtakingly beautiful butterfly is metamorphosis - change. Or maybe it was in earth science and we are talking about metamorphic rock. Melted by the heat of the earth’s core the rock flows from one form into another.

But here’s the question, which is the true form of the rock or the creature? Or is the before and the after both a part of the whole? Is it a matter of perspective and a matter of timing? Where you are and when you are allows you to see one truth as opposed to another.

What happened on that mountain was not so much a change into something different, but a revealing of the essence of the one who was changed. Jesus became who he was on that mountain, even though he was who he was as he climbed up and then down again. He is always who he is, he is always present in the fullness of his being. We can only see a part of him, the part we need at any given moment. We only experience a piece, a dimension of the reality that is the Christ. And we get used to that, it becomes familiar to us.

But every now and then we catch a glimpse of something larger, something deeper and more profound. Every now and then we hear a word that reverberates in our soul for weeks if not a lifetime. Every now and then a tear comes to our eye as we stand on the precipice of glory. Every now and then a lump comes to our throat as we encounter the depths of love and sacrifice. Every now and then we climb a mountain and see what it is that are following in what is most often the darkness of this life. Every now and then we move a little closer, grow and little taller, move a little closer and listen a little better.

Every now and then we are different. It was my birthday this week so I am different. But the difference that counts is not the numbers we assign to our lives, but the vision of glory that we catch again and again as we strive to listen to the Beloved.



I have been teaching in the Course of Study for a while now. Ten years or so? I don’t even remember when I started, to be honest. Anyway, the Course of Study is the process in our denomination whereby folks can become local pastors, and many of those I teach have been serving churches for a long time. So it becomes more of a sharing of knowledge and experience, asking them to think of things they might not have taken the time to think about before now.
I enjoy teaching, it is one of my favorite things to do within the wide range of responsibilities as pastor. I even stepped aside from the local church for a time to go and study and then teach full time. It was a great experience, one that I wanted to maintain when returning to a full time pastorate. And that is why I am off teaching this weekend.

One of the most exciting elements of teaching is that you find such interesting people. As I mentioned, in the Course of Study there is a fascinating range of experience in these folks who are answering the call to ministry. Some of them have had full careers in some other field and are now trying to integrate that knowledge into work in the church. Some of the connections are pretty amazing.

But it is not just here that I have found fascinating people. Whenever we engage in learning together we discover how creative God really is. Whether I am teaching young people in confirmation, for example, or older adults in bible study or families or singles, new Christians or long time saints of the church, I am constantly amazed at the giftedness of God’s people.
All of this comes to mind in part because I am heading off to meet a new class of fellow learners, but also because of our subject for this weekend’s worship. In our series titled "Who Really Cares? Faith out of Touch" we have come to "Healing Lepers" as the subject for our consideration. On the one hand, I don’t know how much of a problem leprosy is in Fort Wayne Indiana these days. To be honest, I haven’t encountered anyone struggling with that particular skin disease in my hospital visitation lately. So, why the big deal about healing lepers? Couldn’t we talk about healing in general? Certainly that is still relevant in this modern era. Even if leprosy is not a modern threat.

Well, let’s take a look at the passage for this week before we answer that. And then ask ourselves are there lepers still today?

Mark 1:40 - 45 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.

"If you choose.." Does that strike you as an odd way to ask that question? It does evidence a considerable faith. The leper knows that Jesus has the power. Not everyone who approached him was quite so confident. But the leper moves the question away from the ability and places it in the area of choice. If you choose, he says, you can make me clean.
The second part of the opening statement (notice it isn’t a question at all!) is also interesting. The leper doesn’t say that you have the power to make me well, he says you can make me clean. Which again is a shift from the normal patterns of healing that the gospels record. What the leper wants, at least according to the words he uses, is not so much a physical healing but a spiritual acceptance.

"Leprosy" represented a host of skin ailments, some of which were serious and others weren’t. But all of them were visible, which is what made them so terrifying to the ancient world. A leper was require by law to separate him/herself from society. He was to not have any communication with any clean person. He was to wear clothes that would draw attention to his affliction, so that no one would accidently find themselves in the company of a leper and thereby become ritually unclean themselves. A leper had to announce, some say by ringing a bell, others claim they merely had to shout "unclean, unclean" whenever they passed by in the street. The law said that if even their shadow crossed the shadow of another person that person would become unclean and therefore not fit for worship or social engagements - until they were pronounced clean by a priest.

What the leper wanted was for Jesus to use his authority (remember the issue in the previous verses was Jesus’ surprising authority) to declare him clean so that everyone else would quit treating him as a non-person. What Jesus did was heal him and then send him to the priest for the official pronouncement. But he didn’t go. He didn’t need their announcement, he didn’t need the strictures of the law that had imprisoned him in his illness. Once he was made clean, he ran and told everyone he knew and some he didn’t know what Jesus had done for him. He began to live clean even before the law pronounced him clean.

When I was teaching in Edinburgh, I had students from all over the world. One student was from India and he was interested in what he called "Dalit theology." Dalit meant the people in Hindi. It was the term that some of them were using to replace the former word that designated the lowest caste of people in India - Untouchable. The Untouchables had been declared clean - or in that culture, declared a true caste, real people. But while the official policy was that no one was untouchable, the practice was that these folks because of their occupation, family background or economic status were still treated as untouchable. They were ignored by the "higher" classes, no one would make eye contact with them in the streets, and if, heaven forbid, a daughter wanted to marry one there would be resistance to ultimate levels - some even considered a dead child to be preferable than one attached to an untouchable - or a Dalit.

The point here is that while legally there was no longer a designation called untouchable, by choice there still was. By choice a group of people had been designated unclean, by choice a lifestyle was declared unworthy, by choice people were marginalized by their "betters." If you choose... Who have you chosen to designate as unclean? Who have you chosen to ignore, or to be afraid of, or to turn away from? The leper’s point was that just as there is a choice to shuffle to the edges, there is also a choice to bring to the center. We could choose to treat even those unlike us, even those with whom we disagree, even those we have shunned in our hearts if not in our living, we could choose to treat them as worthy of attention, of service, of love.

If you choose...


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Demon of Thursday

I never knew there was a demon of Thursday. But there it was on a list I found on a demonology website. There was also a demon assigned to Friday. But the other days of the week didn’t have one. Most people think Monday is the day of the week that is most demonic, probably. But then I take Mondays off, so I like Monday.

"I Don’t like Mondays" is the title of a song by the Boomtown Rats and Bob Geldolf, before he was a Sir. Geldolf got the idea for the song from a news report that came across the teletype while he and his band were being interviewed at Georgia State University. Thirty years ago there was a elementary school shooting in San Diego, California. Two adults were killed and 8 children and one police officer were wounded. Needless to say it shocked the nation. Remember this was before Columbine and Virginia Tech. The shooter was a high school student named Brenda Ann Spencer who lived across the street from the school. And the only explanation she ever gave for committing this act was "I don’t like Mondays."

We ascribe the title demonic to an incomprehensible evil. Sometimes it is used as a way to avoid responsibility, which is why many of us are reluctant to use a word like demon when speaking of human actions. But it also reminds us that there are "powers and principalities" that are beyond our understanding. It reminds us that there is evil in the world greater than the total of the evil that resides in human hearts.

Our response to such a realization is either to live in fear and suspicion of everyone and everything, or to stand against such evil with the power of our Savior wrapped up in the community of faith. One of the questions in the baptism ritual asks parents and sponsors, as well as the candidates for baptism when they are able to answer for themselves, "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" It is a part of the nature of our faith that we stand against the demonic both in our society and in ourselves.

I don’t intend to focus all our energy on one issue, but there are indications that the vote to allow a casino in downtown Fort Wayne may happen sooner rather than later. I was at a meeting this week with clergy and laity from our United Methodist Churches mobilizing to address this issue. The research into the effect of increasing gambling as a means for economic renewal is overwhelming. I invite you to check out the website for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling ( for some of that information. There is also another informational meeting being scheduled for later this month and as soon as I have final information about that I will let you know.

It may seem to some that there are more serious issues to face. And it may seem to others that in difficult financial times we need to try all sorts of options to rescue our local economy. It also could be said that it is precisely in desperate times that we need to be even more vigilant against evil and injustice. When you give into despair, all kinds of choices seem less unthinkable. That is when the demonic can begin to seem sensible. When the nonsense becomes sensible then you have given in to evil. Brenda Ann thought it sensible to counter her dislike of Mondays by causing suffering for so many others. And 20 years later Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their school to express the pain of rejection with an act of nonsensical violence. And then a year and half ago, Seung-Hui Cho let his fellow Virigina Tech students and faculty know that he was caught by something he couldn’t keep in any more. What other description do we have for actions such as these but demonic? In their broken thinking, these actions made sense to them. Who of us is immune from irrationality? Extremes such as these appal us, and they should, but what might we justify in a desperate moment?

Which just might be why there is a demon of Thursday. That is when we get caught unaware. On just an ordinary day. On any day we too might fall. But by the grace of God any day, whether it is Thursday, or Monday, any day can be an opportunity to make a stand and cast out the demonic.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Something's Fishy

In one of those odd coincidences I went to Muncie today to speak to a District UMW meeting. OK, odd maybe, but where is the coincidence, you are asking. The coincidence is that this weekend is also UMW Sunday. Funny thing, don’t you think? Two independent events coalesce like that out of the blue. Eerie. Two disparate worlds align in orbit for once in a lifetime observation. Wow.

OK, maybe not such a bit big deal in the end. But it is at least interesting. Like it was planned or something. Spooky. We like to find those little connections, don’t we. We pay attention to the fact that sometimes things work out in ways we didn’t foresee, and yet it just seems right. "I was just thinking of you," we say to the person who calls us out of the blue. We take a different route to work and bump into a friend we hadn’t seen for years. We go shopping for one thing and come home with something different. (Act of God, honey, honest. I don’t know how those cookies got in the bag!) OK, maybe that’s something different all together.

But you know what I mean. Connections. Coincidences. Things come together, words bring results we didn’t expect. Hearts are opened, lives are changed, and we never saw it coming. Something fishy, we say. Maybe we enjoy it, maybe we are unnerved by it, but it happens. Who knows how it happens, but it happens. And we are surprised.

Unless, of course, we work for the source of constant surprises. Like Jonah. Gotta feel for the guy. He got set up. He got thrown into the deep end, into the lion’s den (I know that was Daniel, go with me here). He was reluctant at best, and yet was probably the single most successful prophet in the Old Testament. Our reading for this week comes from the middle of the story, but it is the climactic point - at least from a preacher’s point of view. Take a look:

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. ... When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

A second time, did you hear that? The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time... because the first time didn’t go so well. The first time the Word came Jonah went ... the other way. God’s Word said go, Jonah’s feet said no. And for his troubles he got a sea cruise berthed in an inside cabin with no view and a pervasive smell, and don’t get me started on the plumbing! But that was then, this is now. The Word of Lord came to Jonah a second time. And this time he decided he’d better go the direction the Word pointed.

The problem was it pointed toward Nineveh. Yikes. If there was ever a town you didn’t want to go to it was Nineveh. If there was ever a place full of the wrong sort of folk, it was Nineveh. You know how in some cities there’s a side of town you’re told you ought to avoid? Well, that’s the good side of Nineveh. No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go. They didn’t like him and he didn’t like them and they were both happy keeping things that way. Except... the Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

God has a thing for lost causes. And it was a cause God was trying to enlist Jonah in. So he went. Dragging his feel all the way. Into a city three days walk across, he walked one day, so a third of the way in. He plants his feet on a busy street corner and mutters his eight word sermon while picking fish bones out of his beard. Check that off the list, Jonah thinks to himself and turns to make his way back out of town. Ready to duck the rotting vegetables and pointed sticks he hunches down, and then realizes that the city is eerily silent. His eight word sermon froze them in their tracks. They were staring at him with that deer in the headlight, hand caught in the cookie jar kind of glaze. And one by one, they turned. First they turned in and didn’t like what they saw. So, next they turned out and began grasping at straws. They put on sackcloth as a sign of how bad they felt. They poured ashes on their heads. Whole families, whole neighborhoods turned. That’s what repent means, you know, they turned. They were heading in one direction and then because a word, well eight words, they turned a whole new direction.

That’s the fishy bit, at least as far as I’m concerned. How could that possibly be? How could a few words turn a life around? It is almost too incredible to be believed. Why, if we were to accept the possibility of such a thing, then we would find no situation beyond our ability to affect, we would find no life beyond the possibility of redemption, we would find no excuse to wash our hands of anyone at any time. Because we just might have the word that would cause their lives to turn around. No, it can’t really be possible in the real world. The real world is hard and cruel and there are good guys and bad guys and we know who is who. Or is it whom? We live a world different from Nineveh, at least the Nineveh that Jonah found, or helped to create. No our world is a world of hard work, back breaking labor to get anywhere. The kind of world guys like Simon and Andrew, James and John lived in. Men who knew their trade, who knew what mattered, who kept their noses to the grindstone. Right? Well...

Mark 1:14-20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

In the Wednesday Bible Study, someone said, they must have known him before. Or maybe they heard about him. It just seems incredible that with a word - follow me - that they would follow him. It seems like there must have been more than that. More to it than we see. It seems too fishy. Too unbelievable.

There is power in words. God’s word certainly, but even in our words. Knowing this, we now have the responsibility to use them, to turn lives around. Our own certainly, but others as well. We have an obligation and a joy, we have been given a gift that we can’t horde, that we can’t keep secret. It is a part of the gift itself that we share it. It is woven into the fabric of love that it is shared, multiplied infinitely until all know what we know, all know who we know. Even those we don’t think are worthy of it.

That was Jonah’s problem. That’s why the word had to come a second time. We discover in the final chapter that Jonah’s reluctance came from the fact that he was afraid that God would love the Ninevites as much as God loved him. That God would forgive the citizens of Nineveh like he had been forgiven. And that burned him up. God’s grace was fishy to Jonah. It was too incredible, too encompassing, to accepting. After all, Jonah was caught up in that net of God’s love, who knows who else might be included.

I’ll make you fish for people, says Jesus. But before they could fish they had to be caught. Which means we are all fishers and fish at the same time. Hmmm. Something’s fishy.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wake Up Call

I slept in today. A rare thing. Not because I don’t want to, but because there is always something for me to get up and do. I am not a morning person. I have trouble falling asleep at night, I’m often up into the small hours of the morning. So, getting up isn’t something that I really want to do. But I do it. When I have to. And I have to most of the time, it seems. I do it. I don’t look forward to it. But I do it.

And don’t ask me to have a kind word for the wake up call that comes before I’m ready. But then by definition a wake up call can’t come when you are ready. If you were ready you would be awake, wouldn’t you? Then you wouldn’t need a wake up call, right?

I don’t know. I know that for some folks a wake up call is a good thing. It causes them to rethink things that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It sometimes causes us to change behaviors, or attitudes. So, it can be a good thing, even if it is painful when it comes. Our first scripture lesson seems to be all about a wake up call. Take a look:

1 Samuel 3:1-10 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Once again the lectionary stops before we find out what is really going on. So, we only have half a story here. A great half, to be sure. Lots of lessons tucked away in this half a story. The most stark is signaled by the very first verse: "The word of the Lord was rare in those days..." Why is that? Did God not have anything to say? Or did the people forget how to listen? Was the weight of the world simply too much to bear and no one was lifting their eyes to heaven? Was the darkness so deep that no one remembered the light? We don’t know. All we know is that the word of the Lord was rare in those days.

Yet God spoke. That’s our first wake up call, I suppose. In a time when the Word of the Lord was rare, God spoke. Maybe that helps explain the situation a little bit. Not that we need to find who’s to blame, not that we need to know who is at fault, but God still spoke when visions were not widespread. How easy it is to give up on God. To decide that we are on our own and God has abandoned us, because we don’t have a clear vision, the Word is rare in our days. We feel cut off, we feel alone, as though no one understands what we are going through, as though no one cares that we are struggling, we are hurting. So, we develop that layer of cynicism, a sarcastic streak that keeps the world at arms length to protect ourselves. And we hear even less of a word of hope because that is what we have come to expect.

That’s the attitude that seems to be reflected in one of Jesus’ disciples. Well, before he became a disciple anyway. The Gospel reading for this week comes from John, the end of the first chapter and the calling of Nathaniel. Nathaniel only appears here in the Gospel of John. Some scholars think that the Bartholomew mentioned in the other three gospels is Nathaniel. William Barclay even argues that Bartholomew is a last name, translated as "son of Tholmai." So, his name might have been Nathaniel Bartholomew. Hmm. I don’t know. Others argue that Nathaniel wasn’t even a real person, but rather a representative of a human trait of pride and prejudice and the need to listen for the call. I don’t know about that either, but it is obvious that there is something of significance going on here.

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" The word of the Lord was rare in those days. We don’t know why Nathaniel said what he said. Maybe he just wanted to be left alone, didn’t want to be bothered by Philip and his new best friend. Maybe he really thought anyone from a hick town like Nazareth wouldn’t have anything of significance to say to him. Maybe he had given up the search that Philip was still on, decided he didn’t need a Messiah after all. Was doing all right on his own.

But was he? Are we doing all right on our own? Most of the time we think so. Most of the time we are content with the world as it is, with our lot in it. Most of the time we are grateful that things aren’t any worse than they are. And the Word of the Lord is rare most days.
Every now and then we ache to hear that Word. When we let down our guard, in our heart we long to know and to be known. We want so much more of life than we settle for most of the time. We want our relationships to be deep and satisfying, want those we love to trust in that love, we want to live the fullness of that love. We want someone to know us, all of our weaknesses and strengths, all our beauty and ugliness; to know us and love us still.

Almost sounds like fantasy, doesn’t it? Such knowledge, such love is not possible in this world, a world where the Word of the Lord is rare. So, we bury such thoughts, such quiet desperation behind the facade of being all right, of not needing anyone or anything. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Or anywhere for that matter?

Well, yes, it can. Out of Nazareth can come the one who knows and who loves still. Out of the darkness of the night can come the voice that calls us by name. Out of your church filled with hypocrites and sinners can come a sense of family and community that remakes us. Out of your house can come a trust and openness that gives us that sense of home we were created for. From surprising people can come unconditional love that builds us up and makes us whole.

We all need a wake up call from time to time, to keep from sleeping through our own lives. It is a call to hope. Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taking the Plunge

They were there again. I mentioned them last year about this time. (You do remember what I write a whole year later, don’t you?) Those polar bear guys and gals. They were there. Even here in Fort Wayne apparently. They ran down on New Year’s Day to leap into the St. Mary’s River. Brrr. Of course the pictures of those having to dodge ice flows were more dramatic, but still... I imagine the St. Mary’s River was cold enough for their purposes. Whatever they are.
That’s what fascinates me, I guess. Those purposes. I’m sure they have them. Even if they are of the mountain climbing variety – "Because it’s there!" Some argue the health benefits of a bracing dip in the water. In Finland, apparently, they heat up in the sauna and then run and roll in the snow or plunge in icy waters and it is supposed to be good for something. Heart? Circulation? Mental stability? No, that doesn’t seem right. Maybe some medical personnel can weigh in on that one.

But why New Year’s Day? What is the significance there? Maybe it is getting it over with. Maybe if you start out the day by jumping in a frozen lake or river you figure your year has got to be uphill from there. You survive that you can survive anything.

That makes some sense, in a weird sort of way. Maybe it is a new start. Maybe they figure the heart stops with the shock of the cold water, and so it is kind of like being reborn. I’ve got to admit, there is theological precedent for that mind set. OK, it isn’t the coldness, necessarily, but water is a symbol of rebirth for us Christians. A symbol of birth, actually. The Great Thanksgiving prayer used for Advent talks about how God sent Jesus "nurtured in the waters of the womb," a reminder of the humanity of Christ.

Water figures in both passages for this Sunday. It is the second Sunday of Epiphany and therefore the baptism of the Lord. But the Old Testament passage also mentions water. Perhaps you’ve heard it before:

Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

When time began, God was. When Creation came to be, God was the cause. The water here is the incubator, the womb of God out of which Creation is birthed. "The wind of God swept over the face of the waters," says the NRSV; "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters," says the NIV. Eugene Peterson’s The Message says "God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss." I like that. Brooded. Like a hen tending the eggs before they hatch, like a mother waiting for the time to give birth. God tends the creation, God calls it forth.

But wait, it is the Spirit that is the creative force of God, or the Word? The Spirit brooded, the Word was spoken and there was. The Prologue to the Gospel of John tells us the Word was that force: John 1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. It was the Word that brought forth light, and then it was the Word that pronounced it good.

We sometimes forget that part of the story. We wrestle over creation, we argue about theories, but we sometimes forget the goodness that is a part of all that God has created. Or maybe we forget what "good" means.

God saw that it was good. But the light was not yet complete. The sun hadn’t been made yet, in the story. The moon and the "lesser lights" of the stars were still on the drawing board. But it was good. Goodness must mean something other than finished. It must mean something other than perfect as we define that term. Perhaps it means born of God.

Our second text for this weekend is the story of Jesus baptism from Mark. Ah, yes, this is the year of Mark. So, catch your breath now because once Mark gets going there’s no stopping until Holy Week anyway! Mark’s gospel is a fast gallop through the story of Jesus, and we are often left panting on the roadside wondering what is going on here. Even this story, the baptism of Jesus, seems more concerned with meeting a flight schedule somewhere than with telling the story. Take a look:

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Whew. Nothing about John’s preaching that we get from Matthew and Luke. Nothing about the conversation between Jesus and John that appears in the Gospel of John. Just in and out, get it done. No actual description of the baptism at all. Did you notice that? He came to be baptized, then as he was coming up out of that water he saw what he saw. It is like we skipped over the event itself. And given how much we argue about the methodology of baptism, you would think there would be some more detail here. It is almost as if the real importance is what happens afterwards.

Do you remember your baptism? Some do, those who were baptized as youth or adults. Many don’t, because it happened before their rememberers kicked in. Yet, even those of us who remember our baptism only because someone told us about it much later, we can still remember what happened afterwards. Because now is afterwards. The life we live as baptized followers of Jesus is that afterwards. The new creation that we choose to make of ourselves every single day of our lives is that afterwards.

The new creation that we are and are becoming is a curious mixture of Word and Spirit. There are Words pronounced over us at our baptism and there is Spirit conferred from the community of faith. And we are remade. A new creation, a fresh start.

Whether we see it descending upon us like a dove or not, that Spirit is a constant companion throughout our lives. It is what inspires us to love and to serve and learn and to grow. It is what equips us to be a part of the body of Christ in unique and powerful ways.

And whether we hear it or not, the word that is spoken over us is a word of affirmation. God sees the light placed within us and pronounces it good. The voice proclaims "you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased." Not done, not complete, not perfect, but good. In God’s eyes, good. With the winds of the Spirit at our back, we are good. Now that is a New Year’s plunge worth taking again.