Friday, February 27, 2015

Tempting Assumptions

Scripture for the First Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 9:8-17; I Peter 3:18-22: Mark 1:9-15

A funny thing happened on the way to a cup of coffee I was to have had with someone last week. Actually, it wasn’t all that funny to either of us, except by hindsight.

Tunnel City at 10:00, we agreed. Since I was about to ask a lot of this person, I made it a point to be early so as to meet her at the door when she arrived. I wanted to pay for this cup of coffee before I made my pitch. Little did I know that she had arrived even earlier, and was busily blogging in the back room.

10:10 and I figured, well, winter delays us all. 10:15, okay, maybe I wrote down the wrong time, or maybe she did. A fellow I’m friendly with came over for a chat, so by 10:25 I’m concluding that this rendezvous isn’t happening.

If you know me, you won’t be surprised to hear that I lacked access to the Internet (that’s one of my new year resolutions to tackle), and I didn’t have my coffee mate’s cell phone number with me—so, once back at my office, I headed for the keyboard, only to find the plaintive message, “It’s 10:37, and you haven’t come. We’ll have to try again.”

Had I looked into that back room? Well, I thought I had. I’d certainly scanned the rest of the place. But I picture her now just inside that rear doorway and tucked off to the left, where the muses were dancing all around her laptop.

Our assumptions can become obstacles. I had assumed I was the first kid on the block, and I was not. My would-be coffee partner may have made an assumption or two (like that I am more observant than I actually am).

HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED TO US? I asked, in my email to her. The answer, I suppose, is that we are both human, subject to faulty assumptions, likely to get absorbed in our own thoughts, and apt to draw false conclusions.

Which takes us to the desert beyond the Jordan, where the Spirit of God has driven Jesus to face temptations. When Luke tells this story, it’s all fleshed out with specific temptations to turn stones to bread, to turn his spiritual power into domination, and even to defy the law of gravity in a daredevil sort of way. Mark, by contrast, offers no such detail and leaves it for us to imagine what shapes temptation takes. As for me, I’ll take that as an opportunity to imagine the temptation to make wrong assumptions, to be self-absorbed, and to draw wrong conclusions. That should be challenge enough for Lenten spring training in preparation for new life at Easter.

In fact, those temptations might be right up the alley of what Jesus dealt with in his temptations. It’s in the language of assumptions, self-absorption, and wrong conclusions that the apostle Paul described our Lord’s liberation from such temptations. In his Letter to the Philippians he calls the Church to embrace the task of faith formation:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

There in a nutshell is the point and purpose of Lent, to allow Jesus’s liberation from false assumptions, self-absorption, and wrong conclusions to shape our faith and practice.

Whenever I pray for people, I pray that they will see and make their very best choices and avoid their worst choices. That is my prayer for myself daily, as well. That day at Tunnel City, I could have used more of that kind of praying. Still, what actually happened is a gift in that it trains me to test the assumptions I’m making, to step beyond my own thoughts and pay attention 360 degrees around (or as close as I can get), and to weigh that moment when I’m about to act on a conclusion that could miss the mark, misread reality, and fail to connect with the precious present.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What Is Expected of Disciples?

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes II Kings 2:1-12; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

The prophet Elijah figures prominently in today’s readings. He’s represented in one of our stained glass windows, but I can’t justify asking you “Which one?” because you’d need binoculars to find him, up in one of the petals of the great rose window.

But his protégé Elisha makes a showing in the medallion of the lancet window nearest the font. Those five windows feature women and children of the Bible, a memorial tribute honoring Alice Schermerhorn Carter, remembered for her devotion to the wellbeing of women and children here in the North County between 1900 and her death in the late 1920’s.

In that last window of the set, the younger prophet stands with a woman and her son. Their story prefigures the resurrection of Jesus, for Elisha has raised this young man from his death bed. Here is one way Elisha is remembered to have used the power he gains today from his mentor Elijah.

Elijah had a reputation for appearing and disappearing in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. This is not lost on Elisha, who anticipates the requirement that if he is to inherit his mentor’s spirit, he must see the very moment of his death. And Elisha desires more than his master’s spirit: He wants a double share of it. All the more urgent, that he keep his eye on the prize.

It’s not hard to imagine his annoyance as members of the national prophets’ union, local Bethel chapter, swarm around him, buzzing like bees with the news that charismatic Elijah is about to be recalled to heaven. “Yes, I know; keep silent,” replies Elisha, swatting away at these distractions.

It’s surprising to me that Elijah is right there as all those local prophets chirp and chatter about his death. Elisha dares not look away for a moment, with old Elijah capable of disappearing as skillfully as Harry Potter under his invisibility cloak. When Elijah says to his disciple, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho,” it’s as if Elisha hears his master’s motor revving up for take-off, and he answers back, “Fat chance, Father Elijah: I’m stuck on you like glue.”

You must have noticed that today’s reading resembles an echo chamber. With barely time for a breath, we hear a second time the swarming of the local prophets, and the wily master’s second attempt to shake free from young Elisha. One of the first things we learn about ancient Hebrew thinking is that if something is worth saying once, it’s worth saying twice.

And then they’re at the Jordan River. It will be here, centuries later, that Jesus of Nazareth will have poured out on him both muddy water bonding him in solidarity with us, and the divine Spirit that will empower his every move.

And now, the language is meant to remind us of Moses leading the displaced Hebrew slaves out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. As fast as the eye can see, Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it tight, and wales it against the water of the Jordan, clearing the way for them to cross.

When they reach the other shore, the master asks what parting gift or favor he may present to his protégé. That’s when Elisha reaches for the moon. “A double share, please, of all that makes you you.”

And that is the moment when what Elisha instinctively knew is confirmed. “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As if to say, To comprehend what God is doing in me, you must see my final moments. You must pay attention to me.

And what a stunning scene, in those moments of Elijah’s transition. A chariot of fire, horses of fire, and a whirlwind bearing Elijah to heaven! Put on your 3-D glasses and picture that on the big screen.

It is more than Elisha can bear. Overwhelmed by grief, and is it also guilt?, he tears his tunic in two. I ask about guilt because that rending of garments was a classic sign of remorse and repentance in the ancient world, and it may suggest that now that Elisha has met his goal and gotten what he wanted, he recognizes his loss, he counts the cost of losing his mentor, he realizes that he will be just as tested, just as exposed to risk and danger as was his teacher.

He tears in two his old cloak as he sheds the skin of a student and assumes the mantle of a teacher. He is bumped up a generation.

And he tears it to make way for wearing his master’s mantle. But before he puts it on, he does what he has been taught: He rolls it tight and wallops the Jordan, just to see. And indeed, the waters part for him.

Goodness, what a long preamble to making us ready to ask two questions. First, why this story on this day? Second, how does this story of prophetic succession help us appreciate Mark’s story of the Transfiguration? And yes, let’s work on a third question: So what?

This story comes to us today courtesy of a season called Lent, the Church’s season of transitioning from winter to spring (all in favor say aye), the Church’s season for making the case that to comprehend what God is doing in Jesus Christ, we must see his final days. For us to comprehend what God is doing in us, we must keep our eyes on Jesus. We must pay attention.

And like Elisha, we enter this season wanting something. And if a share of that something is good, let’s make it a double share; and so we tend to expect more of ourselves, and more of God, in what we call the holiest season. The time is ripe: Enough of this icy mantle of winter! Rend it in two and bring on the season of growth and new life to take the place of earth’s long frigid sleep in barren death.

And with Elisha’s recognition of his own grief, his own guilt, the tone is set for Ash Wednesday, the Church’s way to make a right beginning of Lent. It is the one remaining time in the Christian year when Episcopalians still kneel to pray.

To our second question, how one reading speaks to another, clearly there is overlap in the cast of characters, for Jesus is seen talking with Elijah and Moses. As each of them parts the deep waters that could have been an obstacle to God’s people but instead became a pathway, so Jesus strikes death with the rolled-up mantle of his own flesh and becomes the way, the truth, the life.

And taken together, these two readings show what is expected of disciples. The very presence of Elijah, the fleet fellow here one moment, gone the next, reminds us how focused Elisha had to be to get what he wanted, not for a moment taking his eyes off the prize. By sharp contrast, and in a Monty Python kind of way, Jesus’s proteges (Peter, James, and John), are remembered to have had a tendency to fall asleep on those mountaintop retreats Jesus took them on.

I know, Mark doesn’t say they slept, this time; but if they did, picture them wakening with a jolt, sensing this aurora borealis experience they’ve almost missed, blinking away sleep, blurting out, “Rabbi, isn’t this wonderful that we’re here? Let’s make three shrines, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah…” Whereupon they are overshadowed by the Shekinah, the divine presence in the cloud, and from the cloud a voice: “Hush. Be still. This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Lent invites us to practice mindfulness, to focus on what matters most and let go of what matters least. Lent urges us to be alert to recognizing our best choices and avoiding our worst.

What Elisha wanted of Elijah was that same spirit that made his master who he was. Elisha’s persevering attentiveness to the teacher is the quality of discipleship that Mark teaches in his story, in that voice from heaven that requires the church to give first place to listening, listening to the Beloved.

How will you do that, this Lent?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lift Up Your Eyes and See

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 40: 21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Isn’t it both humbling and thrilling to come across words from 25 centuries or more ago that remind us so eloquently why we put our boots on and trudged into this place today?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Hear the prophet Isaiah urging us to treasure the Spirit of God that dwells in every heart, however veiled, however hidden or buried.

“It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

In some of our moments, we believe we are rulers of the earth. Much of our lives gets spent acting as if we were governors of our own little provinces where we are in charge and do things our own way. But we know better. Isaiah insists that we do: “Have you not known? Has it not been told you from the beginning?...

Yes, we are grasshoppers: easily crushed in the survival of the fittest. We busy ourselves with daily tasks so familiar that we imagine we are rulers of our little patch of earth. Well, we are; and we are not. Whatever strength we have runs out, and even princes are brought to nothing.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created the stars of heaven, so fully knowing the mystery of their making as to be able to call each one by name, each essential to the whole?” Stand in awe, and let the everlasting One give you power not to dominate and control but to serve and love. Bring to be hallowed and renewed both your strength and your weakness. Lift up your eyes on high and see.”

Yes, we grasshoppers can go transcendent by lifting up our eyes to the majestic hills that surround us, recognizing nature as the grandest cathedral; and we seek transcendence in sanctuaries like this one, where we experience what religion writer Phyllis Tickle calls a location in physical space, but also a location in emotional and psychic space anchoring the individual, recalling memories, respecting stories, moving body and soul into a constructed womb made holy by the devotion and faith and prayers of hundreds and thousands of other believers, both those around us now and those who have gone before us. Holy space sometimes affirms when nothing else will.

This lifting-up-on-high-to-see reveals the nature of God. Isaiah’s rhapsody resembles a creed: “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, who does not faint or grow weary, whose understanding is unsearchable, who gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

And, as that essential little creed is meant to do, there is revealed what God wants of us: that we too should empower the faint, and strengthen the powerless.

And that takes us to the Gospel. God sits above the circle of the earth, but in Jesus Christ God’s sleeves get rolled up for some serious renewal of the exhausted and empowerment of the marginalized.

The stage was set for this last Sunday, when Jesus’s sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum was transformed into the act of his healing a man in acute distress. This is how Mark the Gospel writer opens his book: Jesus is baptized, Jesus is driven by God’s Spirit to forty days of solitude and fasting in the desert, then Jesus comes to Galilee announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

And from there on, Jesus and his team are on-call, delivering comprehensive health care. Because recovery begins at home, they go to the bedside of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and relieve her of her fever. Outside, word travels and before long they’re handing out numbers at the door, bringing to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. “And the whole city was gathered around that door.”

There is never a time in the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that he isn’t out on the front line meeting the most basic of human needs. He is in the street, in the market, at the village well, wherever the people are who need him most. We speak of his Passion and refer to the events of Holy Week when he is betrayed, condemned to death, humiliated, and executed. But his Passion begins so much earlier, certainly with that first healing in the synagogue at Capernaum.

Our ancient creeds speak of his passion in the final days. What I like about the Iona creed we’re using today is how it speaks of his entire Passion, how it calls us to commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the wealth, the commonwealth of God’s goodness… and so be the church.

To draw on St. Paul’s letter that we heard earlier, we are entrusted with a commission. Christian commitment to God in Jesus Christ calls us to entrust ourselves to the One we have come to believe has power for the faint, strength for the powerless, renewal for the exhausted. And the other dimension of this great transformation of faith is that we are entrusted by God with the mission of Jesus’s Passion, his entire Passion, and entrusted to us is the power to do it.

So it’s no wonder, is it, that St. John’s is being asked to do more and more in the wider community? And it’s not just us: all congregations are finding themselves needed in fresh—and in very old—ways.

From here on, if this sermon sounds like a recruiting session, that’s because it is.

Advocating to meet the needs of Berkshire County residents for food and transportation, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing had its formal birthing two Sundays ago, when two hundred congregants from more than a dozen sponsoring churches and synagogues (we are among them), and representatives of several religious communities such as our Diocese, and Catholic Charities, and Sisters of St. Joseph, and regional bodies of Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Presbyterians, assembled for a public launching. Most of our state legislators were present, and said that they look forward to a creative (and sometimes challenging) relationship with Berkshire Interfaith Organizing.

We are seeking a parishioner to represent St. John’s on the governing board.

Let’s stay with the subject of food. Two quite different needs have recently come our way. One is to occasionally provide food for Cathedral in the Night. That’s a weekly open-air (even in winter) weekly worship event Sundays at 2:00 p.m. on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Parish on North Street. Homeless people, people on the margins, skateboarders, and members of downtown Pittsfield’s congregations that are taking the lead (St. Stephen’s, prominently) in taking church outside their walls, on average 25-30 people participate in what is still in its first season. Churches prepare sandwiches to be eaten on the spot, and food to take home. We’re being asked to take our part preparing and serving food.

Here in this place, inside these walls, a new weekly service of Compline, the church’s ancient custom of bedtime prayers, will be offered at 9:15 p.m., starting this Thursday, February 12th. Our hope is to offer students an attractive form of alternative worship, an alternative to Sunday morning, an alternative to a long service (this one will be twenty minutes), and an alternative to sacramental worship. Let me quickly add: this service is for everyone still awake and functioning at that hour, not just students. You know we don’t gather students without feeding them, so we need to know who feels drawn to help us offer simple snacks on Thursday evenings, snacks that will be enjoyed by some who linger and, for those who can’t, snacks-to-go. This may not be feeding the hungry in the same urgent way as Cathedral in the Night or the Berkshire Food Project or our monthly meals to seniors, but it will be feeding the hungry. And, we hope, a fresh kind of outreach.

It’s food security and transportation that we’re addressing, and again two very different needs for transportation are at our door. One is more exactly at the door of the Friendship Center Food Pantry in North Adams, where each Wednesday some fifteen food recipients need rides home and help with their bags. Most of these rides will be within a mile or two of North Adams center. Food pantry hours are 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. That translates into three two hour shifts when volunteer drivers and companions will be needed. St. John’s is rising to the challenge of taking one Wednesday a month to provide six volunteers, three drivers and with each a companion to help with bags and conversation.

It’s not transporting people that brings about our second need. It’s transporting to the landfill every other week or so the recyclables that St. John’s generates, the paper, the containers, and the various bits and bobs that we gather at our several recycling stations throughout our buildings. Such a simple way to care for the earth.

Let’s get practical in closing. For more information about Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, or about Cathedral in the Night, speak to Margot Sanger. To learn more about food at Compline, see Bob Hansler. See me or Claudia Ellet about Friendship Center Food Pantry rides. And go to Madeline Burdick about helping with recycling.

There’s a sweet moment in the Gospel today when Jesus approaches Peter’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up,” says Mark. Two thousand years later, he is yet proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom coming near, by approaching us, lifting our sights to consider what we can do, trusting us to take in hand fresh opportunities to bring his church outside its walls into his world.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Have You to Do with Us?

Scripture for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany includes Deuteronomy 18:15-20; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

There’s a preachable question. To be honest, I don’t find much in today’s readings that is preachable… at least by me. I failed to hear the muses singing over these passages.

Just this record of a stark encounter: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

No irrelevant detail, that tag “of Nazareth”. Two Sundays ago, we heard Nathanael have a harrumph moment when he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Like several other disciples in the circle Jesus would recruit, Nathanael came from the waterfront city of Bethsaida, and apparently he’d been raised to look down on those dirt farmers from Galilee, where Nazareth was just an insignificant village with not much going for it.

The fellow who poses our question today, however, is nameless. We guess he’s not to be remembered as an apostolic recruit. He might not have passed a CORI check. He may have been a street person living on the margin of town life in Capernaum. I picture him slipping in after the processional hymn, largely unnoticed until he blurts out his fear.

“Have you come to destroy us?”

“Oh, no! It’s crazy Ezekiel! Who let him in?” That’s one way to hear this story. No one’s surprised that old Zeke has been set off by a change in the force field of that little country church. Bring in a visiting preacher, and anything can happen. The vibes are different from their usual sabbath-day fare—and wouldn’t it be Zeke who’d be sensitive to that? Poor devil…

Or can we imagine a different way to hear this story? Could that fellow who cries out be the pastor of the congregation? Is it the rector who’s blown a fuse? Has he simply had it with all this emergent change rocking his boat, and is he the one who picks up in this Jesus fellow an implicit threat to the status quo and blurts out, “Have you come to destroy us?”

Perhaps that strikes you as an odd reading of the story—but let’s leave room for surprise. And however we hear this story, we watch as Jesus of Nazareth embraces the confrontation. I imagine him cut off mid-sentence in his sermon, but instead of being flustered by this interruption (as we mortal preachers might), instead of helplessly looking around the room hoping that someone will silence this man, Jesus now makes this man’s healing become the lesson he teaches. And it is a lesson in freedom from bondage.

However you understand the man with the outburst, Jesus silences his anxiety. That appears to be the first step in his recovery. Perhaps it’s not until we’re willing to practice silence in his presence that we receive the freedom Jesus gives. Until we let go of the tyranny of words, that domination we’re under from the morning news right through our working hours, that inundation of our senses brokered by an increasing array of electronic devices that have us more and more on the alert. Until we embrace silence and learn to pray without words, we are not receptive candidates for the freedom he gives.

“Be silent, and come out of him!” What we need to come out of us is our fear. Today’s
other lessons reinforce this message. The people of Israel are shown desiring as a successor to Moses a prophet who will protect them from ever having to encounter God. They have had such harrowing experiences as refugees from bondage in Egypt that what they have come to want most is safety, a smooth ride, no surprises—and from such desire comes a religion of fear, a religion that enshrines a frightening God.

Jesus has come to free people from bondage—all people, all bondage. In his First Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul coaches Christians how to help in the movement to liberate people raised in a culture that practiced the worship of idols. Maybe this is where we return to the question, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Have you come to destroy our favorite idols? What human society has no idols? It’s the universally besetting original sin, worshiping as if it were God something less than God.

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets express their outrage at Israelites yielding to the temptation to dance around the fertility poles of Canaanite religion; yet other passages suggest that it was common for a family to have its own household god, perhaps a shrine to ward off evil and misfortune. By the time we turn to the Christian scriptures, we’re in an imperial culture held together by an imperial cult, the emperor expecting to be worshiped as if a god.

We may practice more subtle idolatry. The American Dream. The Golden Years. Rugged Individualism. Personal liberty. Good things taken to excess become idols. Excessive and unquestioning loyalty, even and especially in the practice of religion, also in the exercise of politics. Believers may enshrine traditions, certain translations and interpretations of holy scripture—and of a nation’s constitution.

But it’s around food that Paul offers his coaching. There must have been a cozy bond between the butcher shops and the shrines where the best cuts were offered to gain the favor of the gods. And then the meat was put in the market for re-sale, and sometimes claimed by civic authorities to grill and serve at festivals where all ate for free.

Who could turn that down? Yet Paul urges that very self-discipline, if the tender consciences of recent converts to Christ were troubled by believers’ failing to draw the line separating the Kingdom of God from the ways of the world. “Rather than fail at caring for the weaker members of Christ’s Body, I’ll become a vegetarian!”, Paul announces.

His purpose is to teach and model strength that is God’s strength. Though it may appear to be weakness, true strength, God’s strength, serves and builds up others, rather than dominating and controlling.

Now, there’s a theme for Superbowl Sunday. Professor Matthew Skinner, who teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, writes on the Huffington Post Blog, and gets us thinking about football.

“Americans enjoy (the sport),” he says, “because, to a degree, football reflects the values of strength, courage, strategy, self-discipline, teamwork, and celebrity that American culture holds dear. It’s also refreshing to watch someone else get crushed by a 260-pound linebacker after you’ve had a lousy week at work.

“The problem develops when we let football (or other sports, or the military, or corporations, or other forces) define strength in terms of dominance…

”The Superbowl might prompt us to consider the hazards of an ethos in which rewards go to those who say, ‘We take what we want,’ and follow through on it.”

Skinner sees the Superbowl and the Bible sharing the ability to make us ask, What’s the proper use of strength? For many Americans, football defines power and manliness. For Christians and Jews, the Bible’s authors present a God who “uses power, subverts power, becomes subject to the power of others, and shares power.”

Our culture, he notes, celebrates both selfless heroism and arrogant domination that abuses the dignity of others.

“It’s something to think about,” says Skinner, “before the fighter jets fly over the stadium, the commercials for Bud Light and “American Sniper” roll, the guy at the bar makes another tasteless joke about underinflated footballs, and Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz take the halftime stage.”

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

For starters, he gets us thinking.

(Matthew Skinner’s post “The Super Bowl and the Church in a Culture of Dominance (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)” was posted on January 26, 2015 on The Huffington Post Religion page.)