Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why are you afraid? Mark 4:35-41

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But 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?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I can hear the disciples thinking, “Well hello. Giant storm. We could die. And how exactly were we supposed to know you could make it stop?” Really, what had Jesus done so far that would make the disciples think he could stop a storm?

According to Mark, up to this time, Jesus had shown himself to be an exceptionally talented healer and preacher. After his baptism and temptation he began to select his disciples, and those men had seen him cast out an unclean demon, heal Peter’s mother-in-law and lots of other sick and demon infested people at Peter’s house, cleanse a leper, heal a paralytic, heal a man’s withered hand. So many were coming to him with unclean spirits that he finally gave the Twelve authority to cast out demons. After establishing his bona fides with all this healing, he began to preach God’s healing forgiveness, telling many parables. He was undoubtedly a great preacher and a powerful healer.
In the history of Israel there had been many healers, many who had the God given power to cast out demons and lay healing hands on the sick. But this - power over the wind and the sea – this was way beyond the expectations of even those who followed him most closely. Moses and Elijah could do these things, but the disciples really didn’t know yet just who they were dealing with.

So when Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid?” the Disciples really had no reason to understand why he was asking this. And they were, I think, justified in their fear of the storm. Many of them were fishermen, and knew what the Sea of Galilee was capable of. These were brave men, accustomed to risking their lives as part of their daily work. I suspect the fishermen among them felt a bit superior to the landsmen – the ones who never risked themselves to the storms on the sea, but rather crawled around the edges where it was “safe.” Their fear in the storm was justified and really to be expected. Has anyone here ever been on a fishing boat on a really big body of water? Or been on a deep sea fishing trip and had the weather turn suddenly? Then you’ll know what I mean.

Friday night we went to see the new Star Trek movie. It is supposed to be the story of how James Kirk, Spock, Bones and all the other characters we know so well from the original TV series started out serving on the Enterprise. It’s an exciting movie, and as I watched I began to see some parallels between a well known Star Fleet Academy training exercise and this storm on the sea of Galilee.

In this training exercise, a civilian freighter named the Kobayashi Maru, is badly damaged and has sent out a Mayday. Unfortunately it is sitting in the middle of the Neutral Zone (No Mans Land) and any ship attempting to rescue it will immediately be surrounded by many enemy vessels with significantly greater firepower than the rescuer. To pass the test, the captain must get past the enemy without damage to his/her own vessel and complete the rescue. It was designed to be un-winnable. Its purpose was to cause the cadets to "experience fear in the face of certain death", and to learn to remain in control of themselves and their ship despite that fear.

No one had ever passed this test until Cadet James T. Kirk. He took the test three times, failing as he was intended to by the inflexible rules governing the encounter until he finally changed the rules. He reprogrammed the computer. Simply put, he cheated. Mind you, Kirk agreed that learning to continue despite one’s fear was an admirable and necessary lesson. He simply didn’t believe that there was such a thing as a no-win scenario. So the third time he took the test he sat in the captain’s chair calmly eating an apple while all around him the crew was watching as the danger continued to increase. They knew how the test had to turn out and couldn’t understand his disregard of the danger. But he knew the rules were different this time and was simply waiting for the right time to make his move. When that time came he calmly gave his commands.

Jesus calmly slept in the fishing boat while his disciples became more and more convinced this storm would be the end of them. When the moment was right he awoke and commanded the storm to be still. He was able ask his disciples, "Why are you afraid?" because he knew that the storm was no danger. The rules had changed. Indeed, the usual rules didn't even apply to him. With Jesus in the boat there was no danger.

With Jesus in the boat/our lives we don't have to let fear paralyze us because we know that the rules we are used to don't bind God. Whatever happens, we know we will be ok. As long as we have faith, we can get through whatever danger or turmoil or fears we have in our lives. 

There may be those who think that if God will take care of everything as long as we have faith, then we don’t have to do anything to help ourselves. We can just wait until God rescues us, calms the storm, changes the rules for us. After all, the rules don’t really apply to God, do they?

I should point out here that believing “as long as we have faith, whatever happens we will be ok”, is not exactly the same thing as believing that “if we wait, God will step in and make everything turn out the way we want it to be.” Returning to Star Trek imagery for a moment, at one point in the movie Kirk is marooned on an ice planet. His escape pod tells him there is a Federation outpost some 14 kilometers away but that it is dangerous to walk there and he should stay in the escape waiting to be rescued. Those who know the Star Trek stores will be aware that James Kirk is not very good at waiting to be rescued. He got out of the escape pod, climbed up out of the big hole in the ice it had created, and headed across the ice and snow in the right direction. On the way he was chased by a big animal which was then eaten by another big animal, and was finally saved by a much older Spock who had just returned to his past through a black hole. Kirk and Older Spock made their way safely to the outpost, Kirk returned to the Enterprise and the universe was saved – naturally. It would not have turned out that way, however, if Kirk had simply waited in his escape pod. He wouldn’t have had to face all the danger and fear and difficulty if he’d just waited in his nice safe escape pod for rescue to come, but the outcome would have been very different.

Being a Christian is not about staying safe. It’s not about simply showing up once a week to worship and sing pray and donate money to important causes and have some fellowship time. Being a Christian is much more than being able to recite a list of things we believe about God. Being a Christian is a way of life. It’s a decision made daily to do the right things. To follow Jesus instructions to help the helpless, comfort the comfortless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner. To step forward on the side of God’s justice and mercy so that the last may be first, even in the face of danger. It’s a decision to do what is right, even if that means we might face ridicule or outright persecution. Being a Christian is a refusal to stay in that nice safe escape pod and walk across snow and ice, through wild animals if need be, so that we can do what is necessary to save the universe.

I know. It sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it? June’s over there asking herself, “How am I going to save the universe? I have trouble just getting around the house.” We save the universe by doing what the Lord requires of us, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. We don’t go all James Kirk on the world, running roughshod over rules, regulations and people. We act in love. And sometimes acting in love will send us out to participate in demonstrations or to do ministry in gang territories. It will send some of us out to do dangerous things. But mostly it will be in doing things we can do – writing notes, supporting just causes, speaking out against injustice among our friends, teaching our children how to be loving and caring global citizens. God’s love will also send us on interior journeys, seeking out the places in our hearts and souls that are not so loving – pride, greed, ego, fear, anger, hatred and a whole array of other defects in our characters – and rooting them out so God’s love has a bigger place to grow. And that might be the most frightening place of all that God’s love can send us. But if we have faith that whatever happens, we will be ok if we are with Jesus, why then would we be afraid?

When we go from this place today, Let us go out to live as Christians, to live in Christ Jesus, to live without fear, for we know that we belong to God.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

One person can change a congregation

As a Disciple minister I was taught to baptize by immersion, in keeping with the Biblical tradition. Typically the candidates for baptism are in junior high or high school and have been part of the congregation since they were born. My biggest "problem" had been in dealing with candidates taller than me in a very shallow baptistry.

Every now and then, however, a situation comes up that requires something different. This particular event was brought to mind recently when @beachtweet asked if we had ever considered the elderly as a mission field. (And BTW @beachtweet, if you are reading this, the lady in the photo was 77 at the time, not 72 as I told you previously.)

Jo had been unchurched for over 40 years when she started attending Sunday worship. But she was looking for something - she'd been attending Unity church, reading the Daily Word and having theological discussions with a nephew who was an ordained minister when she came to an Alternative Christmas event at our church one Sunday. After that first visit she kept coming back because, she said "I was so impressed with how much good the church does for other people. Then the warmth and love from all the people there. . " After a while she asked about joining the church and when I learned she had never been baptized we began meeting to prepare her for this great event which would take place on Easter Sunday.

I knew right away that there would be some physical issues I hadn't had to deal with before. Jo was 77, legally blind and wheelchair bound. To get be baptized by immersion she would have to maneuver through a narrow hallway to change into a robe, go up a steep flight of stairs to get to the baptistry, down three steps into the water - then reverse the process, change out of wet clothes . . . . clearly that wasn't going to work. Equally clearly I could not say 'Oh sorry. If you can't get into the water I can't welcome you into the body of Christ." Love was going to have to trump tradition. Luckily some UMC and UCC friends were able to help me plan a baptism by sprinkling that could take place in the center of the congregation.

Jo wasn't part of our life together for very long - she passed the following August. But she will always be in our hearts and memories. Because Jo's attendance and baptism led to changes in the way we do church here. Jo wouldn't sit in the back where there is room provided for wheelchairs. She sat in her wheelchair in the center aisle about midway down on the "gospel side" of the santuary. And y'know, other wheelchair bound folks followed her example and started parking their chairs where ever they were most comfortable in worship. (We just ask that they leave room for the deacons to get past them during communion and offering time.) Thanks to Jo we realize much more clearly that compliance with ADA isn't enough. Just as I had learned that love was more important than tradition, our congregation learned that although supplying a place where wheelchairs fit is all we need to do be obey the law of the land, it isn't obedient to the Law of God - to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Thanks, @beachtweet, for bringing this to mind so clearly this week.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Here Am I.

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I;

This is Trinity Sunday, when in many churches around the world preachers are doing their best to define and discuss the Holy Trinity. It’s an intimidating task, and every year when it comes around I flash back to a day in my first student minister position. I was working in a retirement community and spent a good deal of time ministering to the staff. One day one of the housekeepers asked me to join her on coffee break, and then asked if I could please explain exactly how God could be three different people at the same time before she had to go back to work. Well, I knew there was no way in the world I could do this – theologians have been writing books on the subject since about the year 400 and they haven’t been able to make it clear yet. We’re not even really supposed to understand it. As Thomas Acquinas said “We know that God is, not what God is.” Her coffee break lasted just about the same amount of time that a sermon does, and I am no better able to explain this great mystery in 15 minutes now than I was then.
One thing I think I understand about the different persons of God is that we hear God in different ways. God chooses different means to break into our lives, to get our attention, and the way we hear it has something to do with the way each of us understands God.

Look at Isaiah, for example. His focus in life was God, creator and sustainer, law giver and judge, Lord and bridegroom of Israel. So when he heard God speak, he heard from the Lord of the Universe, mighty Yahweh on the throne of heaven, surrounded by the heavenly host.

Isaiah wasn’t always a prophet. He was a priest in Jerusalem. His job was to make sure worship went the way it was supposed to, to preside over the various rituals in the temple, to make sacrifices in the proper way, to make sure the offerings were distributed among the poor fairly – in a lot of ways his job was pretty much like my job.

His job was also to take care that only the worthy came close to God – to protect the Holy of the Holies from anyone who wasn’t supposed to be in there. Only the priests were allowed behind the curtain to the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and then only after rigorous cleansing rituals to make sure they were acceptable. It wasn’t that they believed God lived in the temple, exactly, any more than we believe that God lives in this building. The Holy of the Holies within the temple was more like the place God rested his feet while sitting on the heavenly throne – but even getting near the place where God’s feet touched the earth was too wonderful and holy for ordinary people. Isaiah no doubt expected that his life would keep on going the way it had been, and then, he had this vision. He found himself in the presence of God. He was in God’s actual presence within the temple, surrounded by wonderful beings and heavenly music and the most marvelous incense. And of course he panicked. “I’m not worthy. What am I doing here?” No doubt he thought he was going to die immediately, for scripture told him no one can see the glory of God and live. Even Moses only got a glimpse of the back of God, and that while he was hiding behind a rock. And Isaiah certainly wasn’t Moses. He was just a priest and he knew that he was no better than the people he served. He knew that no matter how many cleansing rituals he went through, the bottom line was that he was just as impure as any other person. But a seraph brought a live coal from the altar, which cleansed his lips and his soul, so that he could not just hear God’s word, but so he would be able to speak it to others. And when God said “Who will go to our people?” Isaiah said “I’m here. I’ll go.”

I wonder if Isaiah would be so anxious to volunteer if he realized just how hard it was going to be to get anyone to listen to him, if he realized how much pain this new job was going to bring into his life. Because what happened here is that Isaiah’s job changed. Isaiah was now a prophet. From now on, instead of making sure everything kept going the nice comfortable way it had been going, he was supposed to bring people to change. He was supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He was supposed to shake people out of complacency and teach them how to change their world, to shape it according to God’s will rather than according to their own desires. He was supposed to bring God’s word to the people and bring the needs of the people to God. He was to be the conduit between God and Israel. From now on he would fight against the status quo instead of working to maintain it.

I don’t know what Isaiah normally felt walking into the temple before this momentous. Did he see it as “the office” or was it always a special place? I don’t know if he found leading the worship services exhilarating or whether it was just a job. Or whether his response was like mine – varied according to a whole host of causes. Sometimes when I come in on Sunday morning I am just so focused on making sure the sound system is turned on, and checking to see that everything is where it’s supposed to be, and discovering broken things that it just doesn’t feel very worshipful in here. And sometimes, when I wander over in the middle of the week for no particular reason it is as if God is here waiting for me. Sometimes when I pray I’m just kind of going through the motions and sometimes it is an overwhelming experience. Very often during worship I feel like a stage manager, trying to make sure things happen in a timely manner, in the proper order and in such a way that the congregation feels like they have been in worship. And sometimes the prayers and hymns and readings get to me the way I would hope they get to everyone else. And you know that sometimes the sermons take on a life of their own, when the Spirit decides to say what I don’t know how to.

On this occasion, however, Isaiah knew he was in the presence of God. He felt the power, heard the voices, smelled the smoke – all of it was overpowering. He was overwhelmed with awe, realizing that he was in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He was filled with humility. He was no longer the high-ranking priest of the Temple. In God’s presence he was just a man with all the same failings other people had. And he became willing to offer himself in service, to carry God’s word to God’s children, to do whatever God asked him to do and go where ever God asked him to go. It wouldn’t be for quite some time that God would say to Isaiah ‘Behold, I am about to do a new thing.” But clearly, God was doing a new thing in Isaiah’s life on this day, because from this day forward Isaiah will be an entirely different person.

The thing about God is that we never really know what to expect. God has a way of breaking through, of coming into our lives in amazing ways, unexpected ways. We find ourselves going about our lives in the same old way, expecting to find God in the same old places and suddenly it’s not like that at all. Suddenly God’s presence is real and different and frightening, and we find ourselves compelled to change in ways we would never have considered before. We find ourselves doing things we never would have considered.

God has a way of changing the things that make us most comfortable, and then waiting to see how long it takes us to move on with a new thing. Isaiah was comfortable as a priest. He knew what to do next, he knew all the rituals and the methods of sacrifice and to divide up the lambs and such between the temple and the poor. He figured he’d spend his life doing the same old, same old, just like his father and his father before him.

Yesterday I got a phone call from someone who said, “God’s not there! What do I do?” Just the day before she had told me that God was like a big pillow that she hugged close to herself at night to keep her safe and comfortable. But yesterday when she reached for that pillow it wasn’t there. I know that God didn’t go away, but I think maybe God is letting her know that it’s time for her to give up that safe, comfortable pillow and let God lead her into a new way of being. For many, church is that comfortable pillow. We’re used to things going in a particular way on Sunday mornings. We’re used to the bills getting paid and the office being open and repairs getting done. And when that changes, or looks like it might change, it gets scary. One local congregation had a meeting this week to talk about what to do now that they had lost a substantial portion of their income. Some panicked and said, “God’s not there. Our pillow has disappeared.” And others said “Have faith. God will do a new thing in us. We just don’t know what it is yet.”

We really don’t know what God will ask of us next. We can be fairly certain it will be outside our comfort zone. Isaiah didn’t expect to find himself in God’s actual presence. And he didn’t expect to hear God ask, “Who shall we send?” But when he heard that, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t dither or worry or start looking for that comfortable pillow. He said “Here am I. I will go.”

When we find ourselves in God’s presence may we respond in the same way that Isaiah did. May we approach with awe, with fear and trembling and love and trust. May we stand before God with humility, knowing that we are no better or worse than anyone else in God’s eyes. And may we offer ourselves to serve God’s people in what ever way God asks. And most of all, let us keep in mind God’s words to us through Isaiah – the priest turned prophet – “Behold, I will do a new thing in you.”

I will do a new thing in you, I will do a new thing in you,
Whatever you ask for, whatever you pray for,
Nothing will be denied,
Says the Lord.