Friday, February 27, 2009

It's Lent-- Listen!

Scripture portions for the Last Sunday in Epiphany include II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9.

Last Sunday, Tamara Adkins told us a spine-tingling story about getting lost in a tough neighborhood in Nairobi, a nineteen-year-old missionary on her own who took the wrong bus and got off only to find herself terrified. It was then that a little boy took her by the hand and guided her to the church where she had intended to go, pulling her for what seemed like hours through crowds and away from bad characters. At the church door, Tamara’s colleagues swarmed around her—and when she turned to thank the little boy, he was no longer there. She couldn’t prove to them her story. She couldn’t prove her claim to have been rescued by that child. Her presence was the only proof she could offer.

Today, Peter and James and John get proof. Proof that just days before, Peter was right when he answered Jesus’s question, “But who do you say that I am?” by responding, “You are the Messiah.”

Peter, James, and John see proof that he is. This whole adventure on the mountaintop is for the benefit of these three disciples, the inner core of the gang that can’t shoot straight, the ringleaders of the dirty dozen whom Jesus is slowly transfiguring into his apostolic team.

Notice how St. Mark relishes that luminous theme of extravagant privilege lavished on these three Galileans. It’s in the language of his story: Jesus leads this little trio apart, by themselves; he is changed before them; there appear unto them Elijah and Moses; the numinous cloud overshadows them.

Right from the start, we have a religion of divine presence where two or three are gathered in his name, a religion that announces the status of “beloved” to each person, one by one. And when from a flock of a hundred one strays and gets lost, the Good Shepherd of this religion leaves the ninety-nine secure ones to sing hymns and drink coffee while he searches the hillsides and ravines for the missing one who’s out there terrified by the coyotes.

Peter, James, and John are privileged with proof. Now the question is, What will they make of it? Jesus burns with his native phosphorescence, God catches divine breath and wonders, “Will they get it?” And do they? We’ll see…

“Mĕtamǒrphǒthē,” to change one’s form. That’s what gets translated “transfigured”. Meta-morphed (isn’t it intriguing how much Greek we know?), transformed from normal human appearance to a glory that belongs to his final and ultimate exaltation to heaven. A fast-forward for these disciples, a stunning glimpse of the final state of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

In this story we hear the belief of the earliest Christians that they too—we, too—will be clothed like this when he comes again in glory. A lovely example is at II Corinthians 3:17. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

And suddenly they are not alone. Contemporary Jewish belief held that certain prominent Old Testament worthies would appear at the end of this world and play a part in the culmination of history. Moses and Elijah are seen on this mountaintop, talking with Jesus. Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the Prophets, testify to Jesus being the Christ who fulfills both, and so is God’s agent for meta-morphing the whole of creation to fulfill the mind of its maker.

Moses and Elijah represent also the wild and freeing love of God that shows itself in God pitching his tent with his people. All those forty years in the wilderness, Moses led the Hebrew people, guided by Yahweh their Savior God who signaled his appearance by day in a cloud and by night in a pillar of fire. Elijah, as we heard in our first reading, was like lightning in the hand of God out in the country between Bethel and Jericho. Both men on this mountain with Jesus signal that what is soon to happen in the passion and resurrection of the Christ outshines, out-thrills, out-tingles the spine by comparison to the mighty deeds of God in times past.

Picture yourself in the shabby sandals of Peter, James, and John, fishermen. What kind of a day are you having?

Peter, old Rocky, proposes a modest building project. Now, I’ve thought before this that these three disciples were trying to capture the glory of the moment, enshrining what had just blown them away. That is a human tendency, isn’t it? Every town square and city center worldwide contain shrines, religious, civic, patriotic, sometimes very much about the egos and legacies of the builders and patrons.

But I have fresh evidence that it pays to read the commentary. When I did this week, I was reminded that each year, our Jewish friends and neighbors observe the Feast of Sukkoth, also known as the Feast of Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles. One of three primary pilgrim festivals in the year, this one commemorates the foundational experience of ancient Israel: those forty years of wilderness wanderings when God pitched his tent with his people, when Moses set aside a sacred tent to house the ark of the covenant and to be a meeting-place with Yahweh. Jews build booths or huts to represent those temporary dwellings, and camp-out in them for the three days of Sukkoth, entertain in them, relive in them the wild freeing love of God.

Peter, James, and John offer to build three booths, three Sukkoth huts, their hands-on awkward but sincere attempt to say, “We get it! At least part of it…

Now see what happens next. A cloud overshadows them. Catch what this represents: A numinous cloud moving in over a mountaintop. Yes, the cloud cinches the story.

I believe we have to hear a mighty celestial cough, a clearing of the divine throat. “AHEM. Now hear this: You have my Son, the Beloved. Getting just part of this epiphany isn’t enough! Get it all: Listen to him! He is my dwelling place so that I may dwell in you…”

And suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

Only Jesus.

Set on the path of his most creative engagements with the sufferings of his people and his time, opening onto his own full and final offering of himself. And Peter, James, John, and the rest of their circle, ever-widening over the centuries to include you and me, must learn from him how to engage the sufferings of this present time in such a way that they shall not be worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

It sounds to me as if we’re being invited into Lent.

Don’t be in a rush to build Lenten disciplines. Prefer time with only Jesus. Listen to him, and put yourself and invest your time where you can do your best listening.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Changing the World

The propers for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany include Isaiah 40:21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; and Mark 1:29-39

Last Thursday, this campus community engaged itself in a question. More or less, it is this: What will it take of us to be a more truly inclusive community? Stefanie Solum was among those who helped shape Claiming Williams Day. Jim Kolesar convened a panel, Justin Adkins served on another, and I’ll bet yet more members of St. John’s played roles supporting this adventure of exploring privilege, responsibility, and respect at Williams. Their goal remains active: to engage this campus in ongoing dialogue about mindsets, habits, choices, and actions that can create or disrupt community.

“Y’all must’ve screwed up big,” drawled novelist Dorothy Allison, mincing no words as her personality filled the stage of the ’62 Center. She said she knew it, if a college was flying someone like her cross-country, and several other motivating speakers from around the land, something big must have gone wrong. She was inviting honesty, not breast-beating; and yes, there have been incidents when community was disrupted by a few immature voices intending to disrupt community. And there has been magnificent and mature response across the campus that is blossoming now in renewed commitment to see that all at Williams practice skills of self-knowledge and appreciation of others in their otherness. “Go deeper,” urged Dorothy Allison, “Deeper than claiming Williams: Claim yourself, and let the shame be on anyone who has a problem with you in your self-claiming.

She also made clear her belief that screwing-up may be the prerequisite for getting it right. Screwing-up can invite honesty and change.

Oh, she was good. She gave me a line that’s a real keeper: “When you are trying to change the world, you seek out others who are trying to change the world.” You might guess that this got me thinking about the Church.

Do you think of yourself as someone who is trying to change the world?

It is screwed-up in certain big ways, isn’t it, our world? And… oops…who has screwed it up? That prompts me to ask a related question.

Do you think of yourself as someone who is trying to change yourself?

I’m wondering if one or both of these driving forces may account for us being here today, whether this ragtag army of us is a result of Dorothy’s keeper: When you are trying to change the world (or yourself) you seek out others who are trying to change the world (or themselves).

I’m not claiming that we’re good at it. Either one. In fact, a parade ground drill might not impress the casual observer that we’re ideal candidates to change the world, or show all that much evidence that we’re excelling at conversion of life.

I’m not even claiming that we are the ones to change the world, or ourselves.

But when those two forces drive us to seek out others who are driving those same roads, look what happens. We receive a roadmap to somewhere else. We get invited to turn our attention two, three thousand years back in time so that what is old and wonderful may bless what is new and wondering. We get asked to use language not our own in order to know ourselves and appreciate one another. We get drawn into silence, our racing thoughts stilled, our agendas reduced, our doors and windows thrown open to a fresh breeze blowing through.

We hear the good news that God is at work changing the world. We learn to welcome the diagnosis that we are part of the problem and part of the remedy. And so we repent to allow God to deal with our part of the problem, and we commit to learn God’s terms of change, commit to offer the gifts and to learn the skills useful to God in changing the world. And we pray to gain the courage to pay the cost of discipleship. And so we allow God to change our lives.

We do that waiting upon God that allows us to renew our strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint.

We learn what Paul had to learn, that there are at least two pathways to faithfulness. One is to proclaim and live the Gospel when we want to (which carries its own reward), and the other is to proclaim and live the Gospel when that is not of our own will—and that is to be entrusted with a commission.

What is that commission? To answer that, it takes a Gospel. It takes a Gospel to raise a parish, and in this season it’s the Gospel of Mark, brimming over with stories of healing. There’s a partial answer: we’re entrusted with a commission to heal in the name of this Jesus of few words and vast respect.

There is where changing ourselves overlaps with changing the world: before we meet the call to heal, we are called to be healed.

You can see that twinning of divine purposes in other mandates of the Gospel. We are fed so that we may feed. We are taught that we may teach. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

For God so loves us that when the oxygen masks drop, we are instructed first to strap on our own before trying to help the person next to us. And God so loves us that in giving we shall receive.

That is the Church’s deep wisdom presented in Lent. Yes, as a famous church misprint once announced, “The Lentil season is soon upon us.”

It is a season when the oxygen masks drop from above. Our flight is in peril, there’s no denying it: the journey is riskier than we had hoped. While the pilot deals with the aircraft, our responsibility is to take responsibility first to keep our wits and consciousness about us, then to use those very powers to practice responsibility for those around us.

Right in keeping with this wisdom is the Church’s desire to retrace on each forehead the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, offering us perspective on life and death, reminding us of eternal life opened to us in baptism.

And recognizing the importance of each new day, Lenten handbooks of scripture, reflection, and prayer will be set out for you to browse and choose, just two Sundays from now.

Three Sundays out, we’ll have the privilege of learning from a seasoned teacher, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Mikelson, who on the five Sundays of March will soak us in the life and witness of 20th century heroes of faithfulness who paid the cost of discipleship, and will help us understand how forms of liberation theology rose around some of these bright witnesses.

And speaking of Sundays in Lent, will you consider arriving here five minutes earlier than you usually do, and use that time to consciously prepare for worship? We’re calling this an invitation to “add five”, and we’ll get more specific about mindful preparation.

March will also bring the opportunity to study with The Rev. Dr. Hannah Anderson, who will lead a course on ten Tuesday evenings, “Money: From Cultural Bondage to Spiritual Freedom”, a course to explore “the liberty of that abundant life” that we named in the collect we prayed, this morning. If that speaks to you, it’s time to enroll.

All that, and Holy Week, too! We take Lent seriously and joyfully here, and the only giving-up you’ve heard implied so far is to give your time to invest in your own growth as one whom God has commissioned to help change yourself, and the world.
And to give up any illusion that we can have the change we need without God, without at the root of it all a conversion of life, and without truly inclusive community surrounding and supporting us.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Old Blesses the New

This sermon considers the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, found in Luke 2:22-40.

The story of the Presentation is the final and fulfilling story of Christmas. The tree comes down today, its ornaments outshone by sheer revelation. The lights of Christmas are packed away into our hearts.

For Simeon, the birth of Jesus fulfils the ancient promise of a royal Messiah who will bring a certain power to earth, a power available to people on both sides of every division on earth, starting with the mother of all problems, the ancient hatred between Israel and her neighbor nations. You heard it here: “A light in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to us and to our enemies,” or words to that effect.

That power is the power to see and understand God’s love revealed in human form, in human affairs, wherever God’s love chooses to be, God’s love perfectly expressed in Jesus the Christ who sums up everything the old law of God required, and expresses everything the old prophets stood for.

This Jesus is new, so new. How new? He’s a baby forty days old, younger even than Mikayla and Isabella who were baptized here last Sunday.

And so this is a story about how in God’s great love always what is new and wonderful
needs what is old and wonderful, how what is fresh from the heart of God rises from what has been from the beginning in the heart of God,

The new kissing the old. How old? Simeon-old. And the new causes the old to dance, dance with joy and pure praise. And the old shows the new how to dance the dances of the elders, the gracious moves from of old.

This meeting in the Temple is no accident: God’s Holy Spirit guides them all to meet. God sets the stage and unites the old and the new. When they meet, old Simeon suddenly can see the future in the eyes of this baby, and what he sees looking out at him is the sheer dazzling love and wisdom of God wrapped up in human flesh.

Anna sees it too, and she joins Simeon as they, the old, bless Jesus, the new.

The old blessing the new, the new bringing joy to the old… something like that happened in our nation on January 20th , didn’t it?

Who were the old characters there? Aretha Franklin…Rev. Lowery… Wait, wasn’t Abraham Lincoln there? Well, his Bible…And weren’t there hundreds of black slaves there? Well, those stone steps of the Capitol that they laid in back-breaking labor…

And who were the new characters there? President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle, First children Sasha and Malia… And about two million of our closest friends, for whom attending an Inauguration was a brand new idea.

The old blessing the new, the new bringing joy to the old… something like that happens today in our church, as our Annual Meeting is held.

It will be the 115th time that members of St.John’s have gathered to review the life and work of this church. 115… that’s old!

And for some, it will be their first time attending such a meeting here. They are among the new, and God is blessing us with new people, new people of all ages, with widely differing backgrounds and talents to enrich our parish family and our outreach to the world.

We will be blessed, as the old and the new kiss each other, dance together, see in each other’s eyes the sheer dazzling love and wisdom of God.

In a very real way, the story of a parish family is all about how in God’s great love always what is new and wonderful needs what is old and wonderful, how what is fresh from the heart of God rises from what has been from the beginning in the heart of God,

And what rises is a power to see and understand God’s love revealed in human form, in human affairs, in our people, in the mission and fellowship of a church, this church, centered on God’s love perfectly expressed in Jesus the Christ who sums up everything old and wonderful, while being himself everything new and wonderous, at work in us to feed and love and serve the world in his name.