Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Missing the Point


Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2-12

Hope United Methodist Church

Did you ever not “get it?” You're in a room full of people and someone tells a joke: everyone laughs but you. Not because you don't think the joke is funny, but because you just don't get it. Or maybe you listened to one of my wonderful sermons and went home wondering what I was talking about. What was the point? There are a lot of things I don't get the point of: football, rock music, Why Paris Hilton is a celebrity,quantum physics, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. But then I don't think I'm alone. We've all missed the point at least once in our lives. In fact, somewhere in the boxes of books I have amassed is one titled: Adventures in Missing the Point. Missing the point is part and parcel of our humanness, and in this morning's gospel lesson Peter misses the point.

It was just six days after Peter had rebuked Jesus for announcing that he would be killed by the chief priests and rulers and rise 3 days later that the Lord took Peter, James and John to the mountaintop with him. There, after a time of prayer and meditation Jesus' appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus.

And just then, good ole point-missing Peter blurted out: “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mark tells us “He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified.” And who can blame them. If suddenly I began to shimmer and glisten you would probably trample each other trying to get out of here. Even after they were all enveloped in a cloud and heard the divine voice say: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” they still weren't sure what it all meant: and I'm not sure we do, either.

To understand the Transfiguration, we need to understand that Mark saw the coming Kingdom of God not as some future apocalyptic event that will bring about the end of the world, but as a continuous process through which God's will is realized in the world. It includes the establishment of righteousness, the destruction of evil and the punishment of Israel's corrupt leadership. The transfiguration casts Jesus in the line of Moses, the lawgiver and Elisha, the greatest of the prophets, and again, as at his baptism, identifies him as he Son of God. For Peter, seeing Jesus radiant, like Moses when he came down from Sinai, proves his earlier proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah—even though he has yet to understand what this proclamation means.

For us, two thousand years later, the story is more quaint than scary. But like Peter, even though we may know and believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, we aren't sure what that means. The dictionary defines a messiah as: “anointed,” “someone who is anticipated as, regarded as, or who professes to be a savior, a liberator. The anticipated savior of the Jews. In which case the transfiguration serves as and identifier. Without the transfiguration, Jesus becomes just one more wandering rabbi, indistinguishable from the rest; and we are like the salesman who
knocked on the farmhouse door. When the wife came to the door, he asked, "Is your husband home, Ma'am?"
She said, "Sure is. He's out with the cows."
The salesman responded, "I've got something to show him. Will I have any problem finding him?"
"Shouldn't have any problems," she said. "He's the one with the beard and mustache."  

But more than an identifier, the transfiguration also begins the end of Jesus' teaching and healing ministry and the start of the trail to the cross. Jesus is truly a marked man, and the mark he bears will lead him to the cross.

The transfiguration is, of course,about more than identifying Jesus as the Messiah. It is, for Peter, John, and James a transforming experience. Never again will they view Jesus the same. They see from a different perspective the Jesus who turns his face to Jerusalem: who continues to speak of his forthcoming death, who shares his last meal with his friends in an upper room, who goes to the cross and rises three days later.

Just as the transfiguration transformed the three disciples, we, too, have transforming experiences of the risen Christ. We, too, have those times in our lives when we realize that we are loved and wanted beyond our comprehension. We, too, have those times when God's grace pours over us like the water from a shower head. Nine years ago, when I came to Yoncalla to be introduced to the SPRCs of the two churches, one of the Yoncalla folks asked me to tell her about my “conversion experience;” about my new birth. Now I know there are many who can tell you the month, day, date, and time of their conversion, but there are many of us with a different experience. So I told the SPRC that was impossible: I grew up knowing Jesus and cannot remember a time when he wasn't a part of me. That being said, there have been times when I have felt closer to God than I usually do. 

There was Easter Sunday, 1965. I was an 18 year old airman walking a lonely post, protecting Nebraska from the communist hordes. I was working the midnight to 8 AM shift, and the commies had not planned an attack for that night. Bored stiff I found myself walking along singing hymns, trying to remember all the details of the Easter story and praying. Then, just as the sun came over the eastern horizon I looked up. Running north to south there was a long narrow cloud turned blood red by the rays of the rising sun. Running through the cloud from east to west and forming a cross was the pure white fantail of a jet. As I looked I felt the presence of the holy in a way I never had before. I knew I was not alone, that I was loved and wanted; that my wilderness time was over.

We were fighting the Tillamook Blimp Hanger fire. The fire was still inside the hanger when I was told to take a hydrant across the street and about 40 away. I turned on the hydrant and discovered it was dry—not drop of water #1 came through he hose. Just then my truck returned: “Jump on the back, we gotta get out of here!” I started to disconnect my hose when they said don't bother, 'It's been cut.” I jumped on the back of the truck and we raced off. I looked back to see a red hot chunk of metal about as long a car that had been a roof patch bounce off the hydrant where I had been standing. That was another moment that changed my life and demonstrated just how closely Jesus walks with me.

Have you had your transfiguring-transforming moment? Have you felt the closeness of Christ living in and through you? Or are you waiting? Maybe you're still out in the wilderness, maybe your just investigating this Christian faith? Maybe you're not sure what a transforming moment looks like. That's OK? Come. Come to the one who was transfigured. Come the one who transforms. Come to the one who empowers and heals. Come, as we stand and sing #258, O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair. Come, the one who is the Son of God is waiting.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Approaching God


2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-44

February 12, 2012

Hope United Methodist Church

Both of this morning's stories begin with the weak approaching the strong Naaman of Aram enjoyed great power and all it's accoutrements He was a powerful general; in America he would have received a ticker tape parade down 5th Avenue. He was on a first name basis with the King and all the lord high officials and mucky mucks of his nation. And yet, it was a lowly slave girl who, at great personal risk, approached her mistress with the outrageous suggestion that a Syrian prophet might be able to cure his leprosy.

As befits one of great power, Naaman went to the King of Aram and asked permission to go see the prophet. The king of Aram gave him a letter of introduction and sent him off not to the Syrian countryside, but to Jerusalem, to see the king of Israel. Powerful people deal with other powerful people, not with the commoners. He presented the letter from the king of Aram, a letter that demanded, not requested that he cure Naaman's leprosy.

The leper who approached Jesus was at the bottom of his society—indeed, he wasn't even accepted as a member of society. As a result of his disease he was unclean, outcast, a non-person. And yet, violating the rules that required him to avoid “clean” people, he came right up to Jesus and knelt in front of him, pleading for mercy. "If you want to," he said, "you can make me clean." The man with nothing to loose recognizes in his brokenness and need that Jesus is the embodiment of God's coming kingdom.

Elisha, hearing of Naaman's arrival, sent a message to the king: “Quit worrying. Send Naaman to me, I'll take care of it.” (2Ki 5:9) So Naaman went with his horses and chariot and the accoutrements of his position. He stopped in front of Elisha's house, and, as befit a man of his status, waited for Elisha to come to him. But Elisha never showed. Instead, he sent out his servant who instructed Naaman to bathe in the Jordan river. And how does Naaman respond? He throws a temper tantrum. Like a two year old who didn't get his way, Naaman stomps away; angry that he wasn't treated with the deference due a person of his standing, and unhealed.

Jesus looks at the leper before him and saw not a diseased outcast who had come close enough to put his own cleanliness is at risk, but simply another human being in pain. Our lesson this morning says Jesus looked at the leper with compassion. The word used in Mark's text is better translated “anger” or “rage.” Rage not at the leper for violating all the rules, but rage at what the disease had done to him. Rage at how he had been isolated and abandoned by society. Rage at the disease that ate away not only at his body, but at his soul, his humanity, his very being. And in touching him Jesus not only healed the disease, but restored humanity. In touching the leper, Jesus dealt not only with the leprosy, but with the more debilitating condition of loneliness. Jesus restored the man not only to health, but to the community.

For Naaman, powerful, respected and still unhealed, it is, again, one of the weak who come to his aid. Seeing his master's anger, one of his servants points out: (2Ki 5:13) "Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. So why don't you do what he said? Go wash and be cured." It was only when Naaman looked beyond the kingdoms of this world to the topsy-turvy kingdom of God that turns earthly things on end, that he was able to follow Elisha's command and gain healing.

Like Naaman, too often we expect God to do what we want, when we want and how we want, and when God's response doesn't meet our preconceived notions, we set it aside. We expect God to ask the difficult of us, and we are ready to respond. Climb a mountain? Swim a wild, raging river? Go to Africa? Land at shell-pocked airports? Face Malaria, Aids, and drunken border guards who want my boots? I'm ready! Who needs to pack? Let's go! But when the task is simple we revolt. What? Bathe in the Jordan river? Come forward for prayers of healing? Lead a Bible Study? Invite my neighbor to church? No way!

There is, of course, one simple command we are very good at following. It's the command Jesus gave the leper: “Don't tell anyone about this.” Like the healed Naaman who boldly declared: “Now I know there is no god but the God of Israel, the Christ-healed leper couldn't restrain himself, and told everyone he saw what had happened. In fact, his healing became so well known that Jesus could no longer enter the towns without being mobbed. So, in a way that precurses the cross, where he took on all the sins of the world, Jesus took on this man's isolation.

How are you responding to God's call? Are you waiting for God to call you to what you want to be called to? Or are you open to what God wants to call you to? God's call isn't always what we want to do, but, with God's help it is always what we can do. The question is not are we able? The question is, are we willing? “If you choose,” says the leper, “You can make me clean.” And, reaching out to touch him, and us, Jesus says: “I so choose.”

Do you choose? Do you choose healing and community over illness and isolation? Do you serve service and giving over power and receiving? Do you choose a life in Christ over a life in the world? Do you choose wholeness over being only partially alive? The choice is yours. AMEN.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Investing in Now.


Jeremiah 29:1-7

Feb. 5, 2012

Hope UMC

For the last 81/2 years or so I have spent at least a part of most Sunday mornings in this place, and a part of most of those mornings with most of you. I am glad for that. I enjoy being here, hearing and participating in that old old story in a familiar time and place and surrounded by folks I know and love and who know and (I think) love me. Together we say “Yes.” “Yes, this is true.” “Yes, this I believe.” “Yes, I'm going to try to embody this in my own life.” Together we say to one another “In the name of Christ, you are forgiven.” And together we go out into the world to lead our own, separate, but joined, lives. It''s a familiar routine made all the more comfortable by its familiarity.

But what happens when the familiar is no more? What happens when the rug of familiarity is jerked out from under us? What happens when we find ourselves strangers in a strange land?

We too often view the writings of the Old Testament prophets as if they were some kind of divinely inspired fortune-tellers gazing into a crystal ball and revealing either the coming exile or the coming messiah. We don't see them as writing to folks in the here and now. But that's just what Jeremiah is doing in this mornings lesson. The Babylonians have come down from the north and conquered Judah. In 587 BC they hauled the religious, political, and economic leaders of Judah back to Babylon. In spite of the way we often think, not everyone was deported—only the leaders; only those who could effectively foster a rebellion. They hauled these folks off together with their families intact. They were taken away from their temple, their friends, their homes, the graves of their ancestors, everything that was familiar and comfortable to them. Now they found themselves in a strange land, where people spoke a strange language, ate strange foods, and practiced strange customs.

Imagine how they must have felt. Psalm 137 captures their dismay. (Psa 137:1) “Beside the rivers of Babylon we thought about Jerusalem, and we sat down and cried.

(Psa 137:3) Our enemies had brought us here as their prisoners, and now they wanted us to sing and entertain them. They insulted us and shouted, "Sing about Zion!"

(Psa 137:4) Here in a foreign land, how can we sing about the LORD?” We can almost hear them saying to one another: “Who ever heard of singing prisoners?” “Why should we build anything? This isn't our home/” “Why marry, why have children in this foreign place? Why plant, or build, or make anything? Why help the people who are our enemies?” In the musical Godspell, one of the song includes the lyrics: “On the willows there, we hung up our lives.”

It was a sad and depressing time for the transplanted Israelites. Of course they hoped their captivity would be short-lived, and I'm sure there were plenty of self-appointed prophets willing to tell the people what they wanted to hear—there always are: especially in an election year.

Jeremiah was not among such prognosticators. Rather than tell them what they wanted to hear, he didn't pull any punches. “You're gonna be here for the long haul—70 years. So this is what God says,” he wrote from Jerusalem where he had been left behind. "Build houses and make yourselves at home. "Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. 6"Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you'll thrive in that country and not waste away. 7"Make yourselves at home there and work for the country's welfare.” And perhaps the craziest command of all: "Pray for Babylon's well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

Seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon. Work, build, become part of the nation. Invest in a place you will never posses. 8-9 “Yes. Believe it or not, this is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel's God: "Don't let all those so-called preachers and know-it-alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don't pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They're a bunch of liars preaching lies—and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me."

Invest in now. That's what Jeremiah says. Even if now is not the now you want it to be, invest in it anyway—build what you will never posses, give of your time, your talent, your abilities even though you'll never completely own the place. This strategy of investing in the now is as valid and important today as it was 2600 years ago.

There are some here today who have an idea of what it must have been like for the Israelites. This is not the church they grew up in. this is not the place they were married, the place they buried their loved ones, the place where their faith was formed. It may be familiar, but it isn't home. Jeremiah says to them: “build, work, invest, and pray for this community.”

There are some here who say: “I'm tired. I've done my share. 20 years I taught Sunday School! Eight years I led Vacation Bible School! I ran 27 rummage sales and only the Lord knows how many chicken dinners I cooked. “I've done my share. Jeremiah responds. “Build, work, invest, and pray for this community.

There are some who wonder what this congregation will be like come July. What will the new pastor be like? Will she want to change things? Will he each like pastor Dann? Will they want to live in the parsonage? Will they have children? Will they be active in the community? Jeremiah says: “Build, work, invest, and pray for this community.

No matter how much we may think differently, this is not our church. We do not own it. We can never own it. The church belongs to God and to God alone. Remember that. And remember, even when you are feeling like this is home, it isn't. You and I are simply enjoying a gift from the giver of all good things. All the things we think make us happy aren't really it at all. The beauty of the sanctuary? It's not God. It's good, and it is beautiful, but it's not God. The friendly familiar faces—a reflection of God, the image of God, but not God. Those decisions of which you took ownership? They are God's decisions. So if you feel your life changing, if you are feeling a new peace in your soul, if you find your faith suddenly more relevant, it isn't the sanctuary, it isn't the preacher, it isn't the music. It's the work of God through His Holy Spirit, finding you, reaching out to you, touching you, and restoring you. And that same touching, restoring, giving God has prepared this feast for us. A simple meal, and yet a banquet that defies description. The table is set. Come, share, give thanks and rejoice! AMEN.