Saturday, January 28, 2012

Turning our lives in the same direction as God's life

Epiphany 3 B    January 22, 2012
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

The juicy parts in the story of Jonah come before, and then after, what we read today. Here’s the story, in brief:

Jonah is a prophet, sent by God, to call the people of Ninevah to repent. Jonah knows that these Ninevites are world-class sinners. He has done the feasibility study on the potential of their ever doing the right thing, and he knows for sure that they do not have, as consultants say, the capacity for much repentance. They are party-hearty sinners, and set in their ways. Jonah told God all this, and said, forget it; let’s shake the dust from our feet and move on. God said, Do it, and Jonah said, No, I’m not, and went off to cruise the Mediterranean. The ship got in trouble; the crew knew that it was Jonah’s fault, and so they threw him overboard, where God conveniently arranged for a private retreat space, otherwise known as the belly of the whale, for Jonah to think again about his assignment. The whale spits Jonah out onto the beach, where, “the word of God came to Jonah a second time.” He goes to Ninevah, the people are converted to God’s agenda, and, amazingly, God changes his mind. God decides NOT to punish the Ninevites for all their world-class sins. God sees that they have turned from their evil ways, and God realizes, hey, this is what I really wanted all along. God is pleased.

Jonah, as you might recall, is not. Jonah thinks these sinners ought to be punished anyway. He goes off to sulk that his powerful prophecy about Ninevah being overthrown was nullified. He and God have another conversation, and God, as you can imagine, because this is the Bible, has the upper hand. The people of Ninevah turn toward God and thrive, and Jonah is mad, because he is deprived of the opportunity of saying, “Nyeh, nyeh, I told you so.”

So who is this story of Jonah and the people of Ninevah about, anyway? Jonah? The Ninevites? No. It is about God. God who got mad that people were not living the good lives God wanted them to live, and then God, who changed his mind. The people of Ninevah, sinners that they were, got God to change God’s mind about the future, from wrath, punishment, desperation and misery, to … grace.

St. Paul, in this little snippet from his first letter to the Corinthians, talks about what happens when wild and crazy sinners, like the people of Corinth, like the people of Ninevah, get what God is saying – what happens when their hearts are converted to God’s way of living. Things that used to matter a lot to them – all that wild, sinful life -- does not matter anymore – for the world, in that present form, is just passing away.

Conversion is like that. You might have thought that you could change nothing about your life, or you would die – and then God gets ahold of you. You begin to read the story of your life through God’s eyes, and then, without even knowing it, a lot of stuff you thought was do or die, life or death, just passes away. A lot of other things become a lot more important.

Ok, now. So reflecting on that Reader’s Digest version of the story of Jonah that I just gave you, think about this gospel story about the call of the disciples, these fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus. What is this story about? Whose story is this?

A conventional reading, with all the “should” and “oughts” attached to it, is that this story is about the disciples, and us – about making the choice to follow Jesus, about what we are giving up, about how hard the life is, about how Jesus comes to us everyday, asking to give up everything we hold near and dear. And well, yes, later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does say, “Take up your cross,” and Jesus does say there is a cost to that discipleship.

But actually, when we read this story, I think it is distracting to read this story as being only about the disciples, or only about us. I love what the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls “the miracle on the beach,” calling this a miracle story about the power of God to create risk-taking, committed disciples out of what was just a bunch of fishermen. That this is a story not about what good, or bad, characters those fishermen were, but about the power of God, Taylor says,

… to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not [about] God, and smack them upside the head with glory.[i]

Reading this story as God’s story gives it a completely different point of view – one that does not reduce the fishermen to insignificant puppets, does not take away their “fisherman-ness,” but gives them a chance at something new, something creative and exciting. Reading this story as one about the power of God to convert even the most mundane and workaday heart shows us how God gives ALL of us the chance to play a role in God’s story of the creation of a transformed, abundant and blessed world.

Like the fishermen, like Jonah, like the Ninevites, like the Corinthians, we don’t have to earn our place in the kingdom of heaven.., God just invites us to come along. We’re already in. Maybe, like the people of Ninevah, we can surprise God with just how ready we are to take up that call. All we have to do now is to begin to see this story the way God sees it.

Conversion, they say, is turning our lives in the same direction as God’s life. In our workaday world, we might be doing the same things we have always done – we might still be fishermen, for example, but as Jesus says, we are going to fish for so, so much more.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Home by Another Way, quoted in Kate Matthew Huey,

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Listen: What do we want the future of St. David’s Church, indeed the future of any church, to be like?

Epiphany 2-B   January 15, 2012
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51 

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

Prayer, you know, is not about reading of a list of concerns. Prayer is about, for once in our lives, sitting down and shutting up. God knows, all too well, what trouble we are in, and does not need to be reminded. God does, however, need our attention, if this relationship between us and God is going to get anywhere.

Reflecting on today’s lesson from the first book of Samuel, I was very intrigued with what a seminary professor wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Hearing God’s voice was critical for the prophetic witness of Dr. King. In January 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, he received a threatening phone call late at night. He couldn’t sleep. He went to his kitchen and took his “problem to God.” He was at a breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up. He spoke to God and says that he experienced the Divine and “could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’” His fears and uncertainty ceased because God spoke and gave him “inner calm.” God provided the interior resources for him to do his social justice work. He needed God to speak first. Then he could act. He listened prayerfully then proclaimed prophetically.[i]

This professor went on to say that prayer was “the Power behind [King’s] words and work.”

It’s not a coincidence that King regularly took a “Day of Silence” to pray, plan, and listen. Listening was his lifeline. It was a critical part of his prophetic witness. In fact, it was the beginning of it, as was the case with Samuel. King took time to listen in order to do God’s work of love, mercy, and justice in the world.[ii]

King is far from the only political figure, caught in the cross-fires of justice-work and public scrutiny, who would find regular silent retreats absolutely necessary to continuing the work they heard God calling them to do. Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, and the nation’s first woman cabinet secretary, went each month to an Episcopal convent in Maryland, often talking with no one during her 24-hour visit there.

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

King and Perkins, and no doubt other public servants, find the resources to do extraordinary things not as volunteers, giving a little bit extra to get the job done, but as servants. They are doing not only what God has called them to do, but doing all of it out of the resources that God alone can give. There may indeed be atheists in foxholes, where things could look bleak and hopeless. But there are no volunteers for the work of mission, no volunteers to do the hard work, the detail work, the often mind-numbing day-to-day work of bringing about justice and mercy in this world. No one would volunteer to do the kind of work King did; only a servant who sat down one night, terrified and bone-tired and silent, and in the silence found that God indeed would provide the resources to do all the work that God wanted to be done.

All our lessons today have to do with identity: our identity in the light of who God is calling us to be. 

Despite aged Eli’s just wanting to go back to sleep, young Samuel knows that it is God’s insistent voice that is waking him in the night. Psalm 139 is a psalm of creation – our creation – extolling “God’s ongoing work in bringing us to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us and loving us all the while.”[iii] 

Nathanael, interested in Jesus but not yet impressed enough to become a disciple, is stunned at how perceptive Jesus is. “Where did you get to know me?” he asks. “Indeed, how did Jesus get to know him, and us?”[iv]

Surely, like Nathanael, it is easier to think of ourselves as volunteers for God, and not full-fledged servants who get woken up at night and can’t find a fig tree big enough to hide behind. Surely, like Samuel, we are too young or inexperienced. Surely we lack the skills or abilities God needs for some part of that mission. Surely we don’t have enough money or enough time, we don’t have the courage of Martin Luther King or the perseverance of Frances Perkins. There is nowhere we can go to sit in silence, even if we thought God did have something to say to us, no opportunity on our horizon for us to be big or important or to make a difference.

Oh, really?

There is a story of a young, eager rabbi, one who wanted to make his mark on the world. After diligent study and tireless preparation, this young Rabbi Zusya still felt a failure, discouraged and downhearted about all he had not been able to accomplish. Finding this young pupil down in the dumps, an older rabbi said, “Zusya, when you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren't you Moses?’ No, God will say, ‘Why weren't you Zusya?’ So why don't you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?”[v]

We are getting ready for our Annual Meeting, a terrific time to take stock – of the year, or years, past, and of the future in which we will spend the rest of our lives. The reports we will be reading at that meeting will show us that we have accomplished some remarkable things, but that very real challenges lie ahead. At such a moment in the 50-year-young history of this parish are we not like that young rabbi Zusya, worrying about what we have not done and what we fear cannot do?

What do we want the future of St. David’s Church, indeed the future of any church, to be like?

Would you volunteer for such a future?

Or in the silence of the night, or of a crystal-clear dawn, or a snowy afternoon, do you hear God calling you -- and us -- to something bigger, more courageous and more exciting?

Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Caught in the sacred geography

Epiphany 1 B    January 8, 2012
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

I have really had enough of all these primaries – or to be more precise, I have really had enough of the ceaseless “news” coverage of all these primaries. Republican or Democrat (and this thought is not original to me), they duke it out in the least representative parts of our nation: Iowa and New Hampshire, places where the unemployment rate (quite low) and the demographics (quite homogenized) make them decidedly different from the rest of the country, where the rest of us live in economic uncertainty and rich, if sometimes contentious, diversity.

The concerns these politicians play out in these small states are, however, the concerns of the center, of the political and economic elite of our society. It’s a proxy dance for who will stay in power, and at the end of it all, will those who will have to live with the consequences of all these positions and policies and politics and punditry, have much of a say in how it shakes out?

If we were telling this story in first century Palestine, say, this story the presidential primaries would be a story about Jerusalem, here, the place where the power brokers reside. In first century Jerusalem, we find the Temple, the center of Jewish religion, of the elite, the place paid for by the taxes all Jews, rich and poor, have to pay. Jerusalem is also the political center, where the leaders of the occupying Roman empire and military reside, where they hold court, where they plant their foot to dominate this part of the known world. Jerusalem, in Judea, where all the fashionable, important, educated and powerful people live.

Jesus, you will note from today’s gospel, comes not from Jerusalem, but from Nazareth in Galilee, up here, far from the centers of power and authority, Galilee where people work hard and barely make a living, a place of small towns and fishing villages, alongside routes and roadways that bring people from across the world on their way to more important places.

In the Gospel of Mark, from which we will take most of our Gospel readings this year, geography matters. Where you are in a story tells you a lot about what is going on. John is from the wilderness, Jesus is from Galilee, and it is people from Judea and Jerusalem who are coming to see THEM. John is preaching something that they just cannot hear in Jerusalem.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus in a way slightly different from what we read in Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke are more concerned with telling their story so the educated elite can take it in. Both tell the story of this revolutionary Good News, but you can detect how Matthew stresses continuity with Jewish tradition, how Luke strives to make it clear to the Greek-speaking, and spiritually attuned elite, that this Jesus will not undermine but make their lives better.

But Mark makes no apologies. He doesn’t care to tell us where Jesus was born, or what his family thought of his birth, or who even bothered to notice that he was born. John comes from the wilderness, with all the markings of most ferocious and uncompromising of Hebrew prophets. John is an outsider to the power elite, and those elites have not yet seemed to notice how many people are attracted to John’s message: repent, and your sins will be forgiven. Repent, turn around, get back on that path where God led you from the wilderness to the Promised Land, where God led you when you were distracted and unhappy, and brought you into a promise of right living and abundance and a zone of connection with God. John is not preaching anything new, but it is gold to those people from Judea, fed up, perhaps, with the demands of the elite, bored, perhaps, with the superficiality of a religious culture that bends to the demands of a foreign occupying army, worried, perhaps, that that army will someday turn on them no matter how much they bend and accommodate. Using these old words of repentance, these familiar cadences of the prophets, John is giving the people something real and authentic, from the earth on his sandals to the water dripping off his hands. The elites back in Jerusalem are concerned with their politics and manners and positions and power; the people are flocking to the edge of Galilee because John is offering them the chance at something real.

In these few words, these scant verses, Mark makes it clear where Jesus stands: with John. Jesus joins John not only in his critique of the powerful – the ones who need to repent but do not know it – but Jesus also joins John in his solidarity with the ordinary people who are longing for a better way of life, and who hear hopeful words that it could happen from this strange and unsettling outsider. Jesus did not pull John aside and say, hey, let’s go and do this in downtown Jerusalem where some really important people will see us and we’ll make a big splash. Jesus, from an ordinary town in a not-so-important place, comes with ordinary people to find the waters of life at this place on the edge of the wilderness.

Reading the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is very appealing, because I think we, too, live our lives in this sacred geography between the Jerusalem of the powerful elite and the Galilee of the struggling ordinary. It’s not so long ago and far away; there are many places in North American, even in Onondaga County, that can be described that way.

That’s where we are, we 21st century Christians, caught in this sacred geography, knowing that the Good News comes from the margins, and that the water of life flows in the wilderness, yet living lives that are perhaps a little too distracted, a little too comfortable, a little too worried, to venture over there. Yet to that un-comfort zone is exactly where we are called, by John, who leads the way, by Jesus, who plunges in, and by God, who assures us that when we follow on that path, we, too, will be God’s beloved, with whom he will be infinitely well pleased.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

... but does a human form display

Christmas I     January 1, 2012
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Ps. 147
Galatians 3:23-25,4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Bethlehem has come to us. God in his Son is born into our lives. John's prologue to his Gospel is true: the light shines in the darkness, and though the world cannot understand it, neither can the world put it out. Poet William Blake put it succinctly:

God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night;
But does a Human Form display
To those who dwell in realms of Day.

All of us come to Christmas with the same hopes and fears: we share with the prophet Isaiah the hope for the restoration of the righteousness of the Lord and the vindication of God's justice. We share with St. Paul the hope that now that Christ has come we might be freed from slavery to the law and live in freedom as the children and heirs of God. Our Christmas liturgies focus on God's entrance into history as one of us: the infant Jesus is the new Adam, and Bethlehem the site of the new creation story. Christmas, the story of Jesus' birth, is a story about us and how we come to know God.

The great secret and glory of God is the redeeming power of love given to us in the life of this person whose birth we celebrate. Jesus, son of Mary, who never traveled more than 50 miles from his birthplace, who never wrote a book, who never left any permanent memorial of his life, who was executed by civil authorities for reasons which have embarrassed humanity ever since, who was rejected by his own people: this is the babe in the manger. Following the death of this man, many strange things happened, the most familiar being that after his public execution he rose from the dead and was seen and continued to teach and be with his friends.

If this were all there was to the Christ story, we could easily drop it there, but equally mysterious was the eventual appearance of a growing number of people who called themselves followers of this man, Jesus.
Tales of strange events taking place began to travel on the grapevine: tales of robbers becoming law-abiding citizens, dishonest merchants become concerned for the welfare of others; tales of masters treating their slaves as brothers and sisters; of fanatics and bigots like Saul of Tarsus who changed their lives and began to preach an unheard-of message of love not law as the standard of conduct. The Good News spread across the Mediterranean. It filtered into the ranks of Caesar's subjects and into his own household. Wherever it went a new kind of person appeared, one who completely confused the pagans. These were people who spread joy, for whom life was exciting, who faced the future with anticipation and hope, who took care of each other and the poor and lonely around them.

When Christ enters a life, that life is changed. A new person is born. That is the Good News, and that is what we celebrate right now: not just the birth of a baby, but the Advent of Christ into the world, into the lives of men and women, boys and girls.

God comes in a form we understand. If we live in gloom or trouble, God first appears to us as light. But if we already have had a glimpse of that light, God comes to us as one of us, embodying our hopes for righteousness and justice, love and freedom, giving us something tangible to hold on to and model our lives upon until the day of the Lord comes.