Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wilderness redux

This is my sermon from three years ago. Since I wrote it, there have been more storms and floods and disasters and the current economic situation is beginning to feel like a wilderness. In any case, I think this is still relevant and not too terribly dated. Likely, some of it will show up in tomorrow's sermon.

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Generally speaking, I am not one who thinks in images; I am much more word oriented. But the word “wilderness” is a highly visual one for me. There is an icon of Jesus in the wilderness. It is a mostly yellow place with some green trees one of which looks a bit like a cat with its paws tucked under its chest. The devil has bird feet and pterodactyl wings and seems to be scurrying away from the Christ. At the bottom of the icon, angels on either side of a gloriously robed Christ offer him bread and wine.

Well, it’s a nice picture but it doesn’t strike me as all that realistic. I found a painting, though, that moves me deeply. Christ is seated on a rock in a place filled with rocks. He has on a simple robe and cloak – no purple or gold here – and his feet are dirty. His hands are clenched between his knees and he is looking toward the ground but his eyes are vacant, staring but seeing nothing. This Christ is empty, alone, waiting for someone to minister to him.

All of us grew up on the story of Noah and the ark. Illustrations of this story – before, during and after the flood – are usually relatively benign images except for German woodcuts of those caught in the floodwaters. Certainly the ones in our Bible storybooks are not at all threatening or scary. In today’s reading, the ark has reached its final resting place, the dove has given the sign that there is dry ground and God has set his bow – quite literally the weapon of a warrior – n the sky as a promise never to inundate the world again. And reading of the flood overwhelmed me with images from the last year – of Mississippi, Louisiana, New Orleans, Central America and the Philippines.

Flood and wilderness. Until now, I never stopped to think about what awaited Noah once the doors of the ark opened. Somehow, those Bible story pictures have shaped my knowledge far more than I realized.

Noah did not step out into a land covered with rich grass for pasture and trees filled with ripe fruit. Noah’s post-flood world looked just like a land of mudslides, houses torn from their foundations and crushed, bodies buried in mud or left in the attic where they died. Noah’s world was empty, desolate, waiting for someone to minister to it.

We don’t have to look far to find an image of what Noah’s wilderness looked like. We don’t even have to travel outside of East Tennessee, out of this part of God’s creation that is so beautiful with the mountains all around us; yet those mountains hide pockets of devastating poverty and land ravaged by overuse and mining.

There are times when we are like Christ, in our own wilderness, seemingly alone and empty.
There may be times when we are thrust into the wilderness of the destruction that Noah faced.
Most of the time, we are called to be the angels who minister to those in either wilderness.
We start that ministry with prayer. You can be sure that is the first thing Jesus did when he was driven into the wilderness. We pray for those who cannot pray for themselves for sometimes the wilderness is so barren or painful that prayer just can’t happen. We pray, too, that we will be shown how we should be ministering angels. We might need only make a call or give a hug. We might need to get in the car and head into the wilderness with the energy and tools needed to turn it back into a livable place.

But we do not pray “there but for the grace of God go I.” This is the prayer of the Pharisee
who says, “Father, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector.” Jesus teaches us to pray instead “your will be done” and “deliver us from evil.”

The picture of Jesus alone and unseeing is not the total picture. Jesus knows he is not alone. He may not know what the wilderness holds for him, but Jesus is confident that God is present with him, that God’s will will be made known and that he will be delivered from evil.

Noah opens the door of the ark on the worst flood devastation humankind has ever experienced. But God has just made a covenant with Noah and all living creatures and God does not walk away from a promise. God chose Noah to build the ark and to be the preserver of all living things including humanity. Now that the deed is done and the journey is over, God will continue to guide as Noah and his family turn devastation into a verdant, life-giving land once again.

When you find yourselves in a wilderness, even when you cannot pray, be assured that God is with you, that the Holy Spirit is leading you and sending angels to minister to you. They might not look like angels. You might think they are good friends or perhaps strangers but strangers and good friends do the work of angels and do it willingly.

Lord, make us angels to those in the wilderness who need us to minister to them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Running up to Ash Wednesday

I'm looking forward to Lent this year. I haven't got a particular discipline mapped out - that rarely works for me anyway - other than to spend more time kneeling. Most of my liturgical mentors favored standing over kneeling and I like to stand and pray, too. But I'm feeling a need to get on my knees this year. Perhaps by the end of Lent I will figure out why!

After several years of not having to see doctors for much more than annual checkups, I've spent the last two months visiting specialists and having elaborate, expensive tests. All of them turned out well - you might even say they were unnecessary - but I have been reminded more vividly than usual that I am mortal. It hasn't made me uncomfortable but I think that is part of wanting to return to my knees for prayer. A habit learned in childhood that brings comfort? A need to make an outward and visible sign of the inward knowledge that God is sovereign? Who knows.

If I am praying at home, being on my knees usually means having one or both dogs wanting my attention. Again, my animals are a connection for me to the Divine so being on my knees with them may be a good thing. I can't say that trying to exercise with dogs climbing over and onto me helps the exercise, though. ;-)

So I'll give it a try. Maybe I just need a change of perspective. Maybe the light is better down on my knees!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Transfiguration: a new way to hear it?

For the last several weeks,
we have been reading stories
of healing –
Peter’s mother-in-law,
everyone in town,
the leper.
If Epiphany were a few weeks longer,
we would also
read the story of the four men
who brought their paralyzed
friend to Jesus and lowered
him through the roof
so that Jesus might heal him.
Today, though,
we jump ahead several
chapters and read the story
of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
What if this, too,
is a healing story?
In the previous chapter of Mark,
which we will read later in the year,
Jesus feeds the 4,000
and then sails away.
The Pharisees demand a sign,
he refuses to give one
– sighing deeply in his spirit -
and again sets sail
for somewhere away
from the demands being made upon him.
As he and the disciples are in the boat,
he teaches them the odd lesson
about the yeast of Pharisees and Herod.
The poor disciples,
still stuck on the feeding event
and the fact that they have once again
come away with very little to eat,
decide Jesus is chastising
them because they don’t have enough bread.
And seeing that they still
don’t understand,
still haven’t realized who he is
and what he is about,
he reminds them of how each time
thousands were fed, there was lots left over.
When they arrive in Bethsaida,
some people beg Jesus to heal a blind
man and he does
but he cannot heal him with a simple touch.
He has to touch him twice.
And finally,
Jesus asks the disciples,
“who do you say that I am?”
and Peter blurts out the truth,
“you are the Messiah”
and then turns right
around and rebukes Jesus for daring
to speak of crucifixion and resurrection.
Is it any wonder
that Jesus is tired,
discouraged and low in spirit?
Is it any wonder
that the disciples,
who have lived with one notion of Messiah
all of their lives,
still don’t understand,
still can’t figure Jesus out?
And so Jesus does what he has done before.
He retreats to a quiet place
away from the demands of those who come after him.
But this
time he takes three of the disciples with him.
Peter and James and John
are invited to go up the mountain, too.
We cannot know
whether Jesus knew or suspected
what was going to happen
on that mountain.
Certainly, the disciples hadn’t a clue.
I think it is most likely
that Jesus needed time away,
time to be quiet and pray,
to renew his spirit
so that he could carry on,
so that he could face
what he knew was coming.
And God responds
with transfiguration.
God affirms and renews Jesus
for the journey ahead.
The disciples are terrified!
You see, they had no idea
that they also
needed time away,
needed renewal and fresh vision
in order to endure the journey ahead.
In other words,
the disciples needed to be healed.
In their fear,
Peter makes the clumsy request
to memorialize the event,
building booths for Moses, Jesus and Elijah
so that they and the disciples can remain
right there in that place and moment.
It’s not a bad
idea but it is one rooted
in old ideas,
old liturgical ways
and the Transfiguration cannot
be contained in the old.
It requires a new
a new heart
that is willing to live
in the mystery of transfigured healing.
And Jesus tells Peter, James and John not
to tell a soul
what they saw until after
he has risen from the dead.
For the very first time,
Jesus command for silence is obeyed.
The disciples have only begun
to heal their hardened hearts.
They have had a mere glimpse
of what the new way of being Messiah is.
There’s not a chance
they are going to tell anyone
because they are still trying
to believe they saw it themselves.
Do you blame them?
Would we have dared to speak of it?

It seems to me
that we have come to expect
that we will have mountaintop experiences
in our lives.
Perhaps you have been to a conference or class
that has left you renewed and excited.
Perhaps there is a song
or even a brief encounter with someone
that has lifted you up,
refreshed your faith.
Most of us immediately
want to share
that experience with others.
And when I have tried to do
that, those I talk to smile,
sometimes look vacant,
and say something innocuous like,
“that’s nice.”
If my idea of mountaintop events being healing ones
is even close to truth,
then we really have to hear
the rest of that story.
The last thing the disciples heard
on that mountaintop was,
“Listen to him.”
God did not demand that they speak
or share their experience with others.
God told them to listen.
I don’t know about you
but I find it hard to listen
if I am busy talking.
And then Jesus tells
them to be silent.
Listen and be quiet.
In order for healing to happen,
we have to listen
with all of our being.
And then we have to be quiet.
The healing of our spirit,
of our heart,
is not like trying to come up
with a new program concept.
We don’t need to bounce ideas
off of one another.
We need to listen
and sit in silence.
There will be a time to talk,
a time to share,
but it will be far more effective
if we have given God and ourselves
time to complete the healing.
Peter was on the right track
when he called Jesus Messiah
but his healing had only begun
with that revelation.
I’m sure no one was more stunned
than Peter when those words
came out of his mouth.
When Jesus then began to speak
of the upcoming events,
of crucifixion and resurrection,
Peter responds out of a heart
that has only begun to heal,
from an understanding this is still
Peter needed to listen
and be quiet.
We are entering the season we set aside
for those very tasks.
Lent is a time to examine our hearts,
confess our faults
and then listen
for the Lord to heal us.
It is a time to contemplate how
we have failed to be faithful
and contemplation is best done in silence.
All too often,
we hear stories like the Transfiguration
and get comfortable in the familiar,
assuming we know what it’s about,
that there is nothing new to be learned.
That was my first
and even my second reaction
upon realizing it was the gospel for today.
But an offhand comment
made by one of my sisters during a phone call
changed all that for me.
I have been guilty
of not listening to Jesus.
My hope for Lent and beyond
is that I will begin to listen with new ears
and then be silent for awhile so that I can really hear.
Alas, my job is not to stay silent
but my prayer is the ancient one:
May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart,
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord my strength and redeemer. Amen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Spending free time

Revgals asks: Tell us how you would spend: 1. a 15 minute break 2. an afternoon off 3. an unexpected free day 4. a week's vacation 5. a sabbatical

A fifteen minute break is probably the hardest. If I pick up a book, it will be an afternoon off. If I check my email, there's usually something work related. Even walking the dogs takes more than 15 minutes! And I'm trying to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible.
I'd spend 15 minutes sitting still, doing nothing more than being quiet. More than that would likely require 15 minutes of thought to decide what to do in the 15 minutes. :-)

I take afternoons off, though, and find that this is a good time to run short errands. If there aren't any, I like to plan dinner and maybe invite someone over to share it with me. Then, of course, there are always dogs who would like to go for a walk and a book beckoning me into the comfy chair in the living room.

Unexpected free days are rare indeed. Sleeping until 7 sounds like a good way to start one. Not getting dressed until almost noon sounds good, too. Then going where my heart leads or not going at all, eating whatever I want and loving being a slug feels like a good idea. Since today is my day off, this also sounds like my "plan" for today!

A week's vacation is easy. I'd head north to see my mom and a few sisters. Or I'd head south and see my kids. More likely the latter as I haven't seen the kids in quite a while and mom and the sibs wander through relatively often.

Now sabbatical planning is at the back of most of our minds almost all the time, I think. I know I should do some study but I'm more intrigued by the idea of doing a pulpit exchange or two. There is a small congregation in Orvieto, Italy that is currently without a priest. I wouldn't mind spending three months there. But that also sounds like work except the scenery is different. So I do think I would travel, spend some time on Iona and Lindisfarne and maybe see about taking a course at Oxford or St. John's College, Durham. I'd like to do more singing, too, especially the Hours. Of course, any sabbatical plans rely on financial considerations so my guess is that my plans will remain in the back of my mind a little longer than I had hoped.

I really don't have problems wondering what to do with time off. There is always a good book at hand, fiction as well as work-related. The dogs are always glad of my company whether we are playing, walking or just napping in the sun. And I have been known to spend an hour or two playing solitaire on the computer or doing crossword puzzles. The hard part of time off is not feeling like I should be doing something else, calling on parishioners or planning ahead.