Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday 2009

In this, the church’s holy spring, we ask you, O God, to renew us. With a gentle breath, blow from our lives the dust of sin, and make us your people again. Lift us from guilt, and shame, and regret, to repair all we’ve broken, and give us the gift of repentance. With the lengthening days, stretch our hearts, too, to be ready for your risen life; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today we hear the prophet Joel calling us to return to the Lord, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Joel calls us to start over; as Advent is the beginning of the New Year, Ash Wednesday and Lent are the beginning of our new life. I think we have a deep desire to start over, to begin again, to turn to God and take a deep, refreshing breath of new life, and to say, here I am Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.

This is our opportunity. This is our call. We present ourselves to God, just as we are, confident in the promise of starting over. Blow the trumpet in Zion, return to the Lord, for God is gracious and merciful. I believe that we want to start over because we do want to be more faithful to the Gospel call to love as Christ loves. Today we hear the urgency of Joel’s trumpet blast and the proclamation of this annual fast. It is the invitation to turn our personal attention, and our common attention, to the deeper life into which we are called.

Ash Wednesday, and all of Lent are an opportunity. An opportunity to put all our attention toward the Gospel call to love as Christ loves. Ash Wednesday and Lent are an opportunity to examine ourselves and find where we miss the mark of that love. Ash Wednesday particularly is an opportunity to come to our senses, to be reminded of who and whose we are, to start over, to loosen our heart’s grip on the things that separate us from the love of God and our sisters and brothers. Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to do that which is described in our gospel reading, to give alms, to pray, and to fast. I encourage you today to commit yourself to these. We are participating in Faith Builds, a Habitat for Humanity project to ongoing house building by the faith community. You may take a Habitat House home with you today, and a calendar, and each day deposit into your house according to the thanksgiving on the calendar. We are working toward $600.00. I would also encourage you to take on a Lenten discipline like spending some moments each day in prayer and reflection, and I would encourage you to consider fasting from that which keeps you separate from God.

Today we are marked again with the cross of Christ. We were marked as Christ’s own forever with oil at baptism, today that same cross is traced with ashes. These ashes remind us of who we are, and whose we are. These ashes remind us that we came from dust and to dust we will return. These ashes remind us that God is God, and we are not.

You will notice that most everything has been removed from our sanctuary, you will notice some decoration that reminds us of our journey in the wilderness with Jesus, you will notice some things that point us in the direction of Easter and resurrection, but for now are merely portends. The absence of color and decoration is not nothing but rather something. It is like the field in the winter, it looks brown and lifeless, but we know that underground, decomposition is happening, bugs and worms are working the ground so that minerals are replaced, the soil is aerated. What looks lifeless on the surface becomes fertile and full of life.

The reality is that all organic matter like you and me returns to its source, remember that it is dust from which you came, and it is to dust that you shall return. This reality in and of itself is enough to humble each one of us, and yet we recognize this reality once a year, and spend 40 days in the wilderness. We enter Lent each year with the mark of the ashes on our foreheads, because the ashes remind me that God is God, and we am not. The ashes remind us that it is only in the seeming nothingness, the dirt, the mud, the messiness of this day, that God can mold us, that God can create in us something new. God calls us to this day, God calls us to repent and return, God calls us to examination and penitence. And the ashes of this day help us to remember who and whose we are. They help us to remember to turn away from our self-absorption and turn to God. We were marked with oil at our baptism as Christ’s own forever. The ashes of this day help us to remember who we are, chosen and marked by God’s love, delight of God’s life, and that God is right here in our midst to show us the way.

Amen.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Last Epiphany Yr B

This story of transfiguration is one of my favorite stories. Jesus brings Peter and James and John to the mountaintop. I imagine getting to the mountaintop was quite a hike, maybe not even accomplished all in one day. This was a place apart, wilderness, quiet. No cell phone service. I wonder if when they got there they rested, they pulled out their bread and meat that they had wrapped in cloth, they ate a meal together. And then Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, and there appeared with Jesus are Elijah and Moses, all talking together.

Now, Peter, James and John have heard their entire lives the stories of Moses and of Elijah. We just heard part of the story of Elijah from the book of Kings. Moses and Elijah are the prophets, the heroes, of their ancestors. Their stories live in the realm of legend, it’d be like coming face to face with Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, or Madeleine L’engle. Who wouldn’t wish for them to stay, to bask in the glory of their greatness, their wisdom?

This is truly a glimpse of glory. A mountaintop experience. Peter, James and John are witnesses and participants in this amazing time out of time. You may have had an experience that you may describe similarly, a particularly meaningful experience of worship, with music and people who helped you to transcend time. In fact, much of youth ministry is fashioned with this experience in mind. The point is to bring young people to a place where they may intensely experience God’s presence, that they may intensely experience the Holy Spirit. The youth weekends that I’ve been a part of, called Teens Encounter Christ are of this sort. The last youth talk of the weekend is always about life after this intensely spiritual experience. After spending every waking hour with your friends, after laying bear your heart, after possibly turning your life over to Christ, after dancing and shouting your love for Jesus, how do you return to the classroom on Monday, how do you to come down off the mountaintop and deal with life in your world of ordinariness. You may say as Peter says, let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. You may want as Peter wants to hold on to that experience, to be able to revisit it whenever you want, to come back to it whenever you need a shot in the arm, or even to escape to it when the world just seems to hard to handle. But the experience won’t be put into a box. And yet that doesn’t stop you from striving to replicate it, and measuring every subsequent religious experience by it. But that can’t be done, not only can’t it be done, it prevents us from experiencing God in the moment, God in the mundane, God in the ordinary, which is where each of us life most of the time.

The glory that is shone forth in this story of transfiguration is ultimate glory. It is wonderful, it is exquisite, and it is not where we live or where we are to stay. In the transfiguration we see that what we think about time and how God acts in time are different. Peter, James and John, and you and I as we look in, see time all at once, like God sees it. If we were to construct a time line, the story of Moses takes place somewhere around 1500 years before Christ, Elijah about 850 years before Christ. And yet, at this event they are all there together. God shows forth God’s glory, God shows that life with God is without limits. It is like the Eucharistic moment, it may be comfortable and calm, it may be nourishing and refreshing, it may be inspiring and illuminating. It is filled with the people we love and who love us. We really want to stay, but we can’t stay in it, and we can’t repeat the exact moment. But it will give us the ability to persevere, from it we are sent out into the world to do the work we are given to do. We are sent out into the world to live our lives and to bring peace and reconciliation and healing to a broken and fragmented world.

The glory that is shone forth in this story of transfiguration is a touchstone. We may return to it, but we can’t control it, and that can be rather disquieting, actually terrifying as reported in this story. We come to worship and sing God’s praises; we come to find stability in an unstable world. We come to hear the story of our faith that has not changed over time. And yet God’s word and our worship are not comfortable, they are not static. God’s word and our worship are growing and changing, becoming the creation that God has intended for it. The glory that is shone forth should cause us to be terrified, to go down the mountain and confront the comfortable and disrupt the status quo. The glory that is shone forth results in the casting out of demons, the reordering of social status and kinship, the arrest and torture of the one who bears the Good News, the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth with Jesus Christ God’s son.

The glory that is shone forth in this story of transfiguration promises to accompany us into our mundane lives. We carry that glory into our work and our school and our play. It becomes the spirit that inspires and creates us; it becomes the life that gives us life. It is that which is in the eyes and souls of those whose paths we cross, it is in the respect and dignity with which we treat everyone we meet.

The glory that is shone forth in this story of transfiguration pushes us out into the world so that we may get going with God’s mission in this world. God’s mission is not about preserving the status quo; God’s mission is not about sitting in these pews. God’s mission is not defending the tradition; God’s mission is not doing things the way they’ve always been done. God’s mission is not putting Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in a box. God’s mission is of healing and reconciliation. God’s mission is about putting fractured souls back together in this broken and fragmented world. God’s mission is about loving and serving your neighbor, especially when we don’t feel like it, especially when it is uncomfortable, even when it seems impossible and down right scary.

The glory that is shone forth in this story of transfiguration is like what a wise man once said, “stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing - because it's already blessed.” That wise man is Bono, of the band U2. Get up, out of your comfortable places, and get involved in what God is doing.

The Lord has shone forth his glory: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

6 Epiphany Yr B

I love a good story, I love to hear one, I love to tell one. As you all know, there are many different ways to tell a story. When we tell a story, often we tell it in a way that is congruent to the story itself. For example, if we were telling a scary story, we would use our hands, our voice and our face, to convey the scariness of our tale. If we were a movie producer, we would use sound effects and music to heighten the fear of our audience. If we were telling a happy, romantic tale, we might incorporate song and dance. We’d write lyrics and music that portray the joy and happiness of our story. If we were telling an epic tale of war and pestilence we would use lots of people riding big horses and carrying huge swords. If we were telling a story about the meaning and purpose of life, about the truth of God in our world, we would use symbol and metaphor. Good storytelling is as much symbol as it is words.

The story we heard from Kings this morning, and the accompanying story from Mark are stories of the last type. They are miracle stories whose characters are holy people. Their purpose is to show authority and power from God, who is the main character. As I was sorting through these stories this week I was imagining them on the big screen... Kings and servants, prophets, and a man with a horrible disease that is highly contagious. Hmmm, sounds just like the stuff of a crime scene investigation drama. Some of the characters seem like the super doctors that we see in the doctor dramas on television.

But the point of these stories is quite the opposite. In the story from Kings, Naaman reminds us quite Even the commander of the army finally says “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” But, it took him a while to get there. Naaman was a bit put off that the prophet Elisha did not himself come out to heal him. Naaman asks why Elisha did not put on a big show, make a big deal out of healing him of his leprosy. It seems to me, that Naaman might have agreed to go see Elisha as much for the production it would cause as for the healing.

You see, it wasn’t about the healing really, in this story about Naaman, or in the story in the gospel of Mark about the nameless leper. The stories are about God. The stories are about God’s power and authority; the stories are about God’s amazing and abundant love. The people who told these stories wanted their family and friends to know that God works in the world. That God is present with us, and that it is God and God alone who is worthy of our worship and praise.

See, we are so tempted to worship other things, idols we call them. There is no God in all the earth, except the God of Israel, the God of all creation, the God who parted the sea so that Moses could lead the people through, the God who promised Noah always to be there, the God who loves us so much as to give up all power to be in our world as one of us, to be human.

And yet we are so tempted to worship other gods. The greed and consumer god. The I deserve that kind of return on my money god. The 15 minutes of fame god. The I have to be the very best at something god. The bigger, faster, cable, HDTV, blackberry, cell phone god. The immediate information god. The our country is better than your country god.

I’m not saying these things are bad, I am saying that when these things demand all of our time and attention, they become idols, and we cannot worship God and idols too.

The good news in the Old Testament story happens in the washing in the Jordan River. This story prefigures the baptism by water in the New Testament stories. “Wash and be clean” was the command by the prophet Elisha. In the New Testament there are stories of baptism. The baptism of repentence by John in the Jordan. The baptism by water and the spirit by Jesus. That is why we are baptized with water. The drama of baptism is a powerful story. We use powerful symbols. Symbols that give us the opportunity to engage and participate in the story of God being in relationship with us, with humanity. Those symbols that convey such powerful meaning are water, and oil, fire and light, and people. We can’t forget the people, it is the people who pledge to raise us and teach us about being in relationship with God.

The leper in Mark’s story kneels before Jesus and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus does. A leper in Jesus’ community is an outcast, unclean and thrown away. By healing him Jesus restores him to the community, and he goes to the priest to make that restoration obvious and clear to everyone else. He must participate in the ritual of cleansing so that everyone can see that he is no longer unclean, no longer impure. It is a testimony to God’s power and authority, compassion and love.

Each one of us at our baptism is washed clean. And it’s not that we will never worship idols, our human nature is that way, we long for that which we cannot have, and we obsess about those things, in effect, we spend our lives being seduced by idols, worshiping idols, and resisting the worship of idols. We spend our lives doing battle with our demons. That is why baptism is so powerful. Baptism conveys God’s amazing grace and each time we encounter those powerful symbols we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. Each time we encounter water and oil and fire and light, and the people who tell us the stories, we remember that we belong to God. And that it is in God and God alone that we are made whole, washed clean and restored to right relationship with God and with one another. We don’t have to give in to the seduction of the money, or fame, or the speed or the power, because ultimately it is our relationship with God and with others that holds meaning and purpose for our lives.

It is God’s power of love in Jesus Christ that creates us and restores us. It is Jesus’ compassionate touch confired through you and this community of faith that can heal broken people in this fragmented world. Remember your baptism.

And now a good story.
A six-year old girl had been shopping with her mother. She was red-haired, freckle-faced, full of innocence. It was pouring rain outside. We waited for the rain to slow. Rainfall mesmerizes me. I got lost in the sound & sight of the Heavens washing away the world’s dirt. Memories of running, splashing carefree as a child came pouring in as a welcome reprieve from the worries of my day.

The little voice was so sweet as it broke the silence. ‘Mom, let’s run through the rain,’ she said. ‘No, honey. We’ll wait until it slows a bit.’ After a minute, the child repeated, ‘Mom, let’s run through the rain.’

‘We’ll get soaked,’ mom said. ‘No we won’t. That’s not what you said this morning.’ Perplexed, Mom said, ‘this morning? When did I say we could run through rain and not get wet?’ ‘Don’t you remember? When you were talking to daddy about his cancer, you said, ‘if God can get us through this, He can get us through anything!’

The entire crowd went silent. You couldn’t hear anything but the rain. Mom thought for a moment. This was a moment of affirmation in a young child’s life. A time when innocent trust can be nurtured so that it will bloom into faith.

‘Honey, you are right. Let’s run through the rain. If God lets us get wet, maybe we just need washing.’ Off they ran, We watched, smiled, & laughed through puddles with their shopping bags over their heads. They got soaked. We followed, screaming & laughing all the way to our cars. I ran. I got wet. I needed washing. (This is not my story, it has floated around emails for quite some time.)

The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

5 Epiphany Yr B

I’m going to tell a mother-in-law story. I did ask permission to tell this. My mother-in-law, Rick’s mom is an amazing woman. She has enough love in her heart for the whole world. She’s worked hard her entire adult life, often working overnights in restaurants as a waitress or a manager. She has been a caterer, and lately she bakes Christmas cookies and cakes for the people in her building. Food has not only been her bread and butter, but food is also the means by which she shows her love and finds her worth. And we love her dearly. We never expect her to prepare a meal for us, but, well you know, she does anyway. She makes garlic toast and roast beef hash, and a dish only a son could like, Cedric’s casserole. Butterfinger bars, pink squirrels, Russian teacakes…. You try to say, no, you know you really don’t have to, and it rings hollow, because really, she has to, it’s who she is. She is whole and complete; she is whom she truly was created to be when she is in her kitchen.

Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law. And the first thing she does is to get up and serve them. This is a story that has always made me mad. No rest, no recovery, no getting back at things slowly, the fever left her, and she began to serve them. And then I was reminded of my mother in law, and I remembered that what they share is that their wholeness, their health, their being fully who they are, is tied directly to their love of serving. When my mother in law is sick and cannot putz around her kitchen baking this and that, she is not herself. What Jesus did here was more than just healing her, if that isn’t enough, he put things right, he restored the order of things, he made whole what was broken, he brought her to herself, he gave her a new life. The radical nature of this story is not necessarily that Simon’s mother in law was healed, and not necessarily that she served, the radical nature of this story is Jesus’ capacity to restore her wholeness, to restore her value and worth, to give her new life.

That’s what casting out demons and healing is about with Jesus. It is not just removing disease, as if that isn’t enough, but these are stories about Jesus’ power to bring people into a new relationship, to bring people into right relationship with himself and with others. These are stories about making whole what is broken, these are stories about bringing healing into a fragmented world, these are stories about this absolutely new thing that God is up to.

The Good News is that in a broken and fragmented world, you can live a life that is whole. That is not to say that the life you live will be perfect, whole and perfect are nothing alike. Perfect is what we see set before us as a standard by those who can sell us something to make us perfect. Perfect is what we will be if we buy the right skin lotion, perfect is what we will be if we buy the right house, perfect is what we will be if we marry the right person, or play the right game or have the right bank account or life insurance or whatever. The harder we work for perfect, the more frustrated, depressed, angry, and resentful we become.

The Good News is that in a broken and fragmented world, you can live a life that is whole. When Rick and I were married, we were given the chalice that was used for Holy Communion that day. On our 10th anniversary, we brought the chalice to church with us to use at communion in celebration of our anniversary. As I was getting out of the car that day, I dropped the chalice. We picked up the pieces, and I set about putting the cup back together. It is whole, but surely not perfect. It is now filled with nearly 25 years of growth, of pain, of happiness, of heartache, of joy and of sorrow. We have lived together through pain and suffering, death and resurrection. We are not perfect, but in Jesus’ love we are whole.

It is this Good News that we must proclaim to the world. Perfect people have no time for church, broken and hurting people, you and I, come to be made whole, come to be restored to fullness of life, come to be made new in the waters of baptism, come to be nourished by the bread and wine of communion, come to see Jesus in one another, come to be made wholly who we are created to be.

Jesus is a good Jew, he goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, but then he goes and breaks the law by healing on the Sabbath. What Mark is trying to show us is that the proclamation of the Word of God is active and growing. Jesus knows that there is a danger in people knowing that he is the proclamation of the Word of God. Jesus knows that it is also dangerous for him to neglect his own relationship with the one who gives him life, so he goes to pray. Wholeness involves prayer, into our brokenness comes the Word, alive and active, quiet and contemplative.

Jesus was fully who he was created to be as he went about healing, casting out demons, turning over tables in the temple, eating with sinners, welcoming the children. It was all in a days work for him, albeit hard work. And he too needed to regain his balance, find his center, kneel before his creator, and pray.

I don’t think the 1st century world in which Jesus lived is much different than the world in which we live. People are broken, disheartened, there is greed and there is idolatry. Through Jesus God offers us healing and wholeness, through Jesus God offers us the opportunity to be ourselves. Putting ourselves, like Jesus did, in the posture of prayer brings us to a place where we can hear the call to be ourselves, to be whole. Prayer is a place we find our relationship with God, prayer is a place we find ourselves.

Come and be healed, come and be who you are called to be, come, and find yourself.
The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come let us adore him.