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...