Tuesday, February 27, 2018
If you were not able to join us Sunday, because I was a bit overwhelmed by the work that went into Saturday's workshop, we heard from Rev. Cathy Hamrick. Cathy is a local semi-retired, part-time chaplain and friend of mine; we will certainly be hearing from her again. Although we do not have a manuscript of Cathy's sermon, her Scripture text was from Mark 8:27-38.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
First Sunday of Lent
One of the other things from the survey—one of those things that take some people out of the worship experience—is exceedingly long prayers. You may be surprised to find out that I actually agree with that. Of course, not everyone can just come up to me and say, “Brian, do you know how long that prayer was? It was about eight minutes long, I was timing it.” I am not fragile. When someone says that to me (and thank God, someone actually said that to me), my response is, “Really, you timed a prayer? Yeah, you’re right: anything over three minutes does seem excessive. I can easily fix that.”
But surveys get that job done too, especially anonymous ones. I don’t want to do things that take people out of the worship experience, no one does; so if I can make adjustments without lessening the worship experience for someone else, of course I will. Besides, I don’t like excessively long prayers any more than you. I’ve got pastor friends; we are a wordy bunch. Telling me, “Hey, that prayer was really long,” isn’t offensive; it’s helpful. I don’t want to be that pastor.
But then again, I don’t want to say too little either. Take the sermon, for example: for some (and remember, the surveys were anonymous so I don’t know who you are), but some would rather I not write out my sermon ahead of time. I get that: you don’t want a robot-pastor; you want someone who believes in and is transformed by God’s Word. But I’ve actually tried showing up with just Scripture and some notes. For a message longer than a brief homily, it’s a train wreck. I go off on tangents. I miss vital points to the Scripture texts. My stories don’t seem to have endings. When I don’t write it out, I don’t say enough.
It is a bit like our Scripture lesson this morning. I like the Gospel of Mark because it isn’t too wordy; you can get through the Gospel of Mark maybe in one sitting. But doesn’t it seem this morning that Mark isn’t quite wordy enough? Doesn’t it seem that there are things here that we should be hearing more about?
I can certainly make a point, in a prayer and in a sermon, without saying more than needs to be said (and I honestly appreciate the encouragement to do so); but there are also times when it is spiritually good for us to take as long as it takes. We live in a society where we can have anything we want whenever we want: we can even pick and choose the items we consume or don’t, based on whatever criteria we choose; but it is not so with faith. With faith, rather than expecting God to meet our specific needs and wants, we need to have the patience to listen for what God wants for us.
There are ways that we can keep our conversations brief, right? Like asking “right?” If you agree, I can skip the explaining part.
Like the phrase, “Yada, yada, yada.” You’ve heard that before, right? I used to think that I knew where that phrase came from, but it turns out that no one does. I had thought before this week that it had Hebrew roots because it sounds like the Hebrew verb “yadah,” but I was way off and I don’t know where I got that idea. But it’s okay because no one else really knows where the word came from either: I’ve seen theories this week linking it to old English, to Scottish, and even to Norwegian. So, long story short, we don’t know where it came from; all we know is how the phrase was popularized in the 90’s.
The Seinfeld episode titled “The Yada, Yada” has some morally sketchy parts to it, so I won’t delve too deeply into the plot points. Except to say that the humor of the episode involved what can happen when we shorten our stories with the phrase “yada, yada, yada.”
Ideally, it’s meant to skip us along to the interesting parts of the story and “yada, yada” past the less important parts. “I was super stressed out about the workshop next weekend and how I was going to put everything together and get a sermon done; yada, yada, yada, I got a guest preacher for next Sunday.” You get the point. But the Seinfeld episode was more about those times when we “yada, yada” past the important stuff; that we assume people know things they don’t know. For example, there is a wedding scene toward the end of the episode and George comes in without his date (the date that we found out earlier was a habitual shoplifter). They ask him where she is and he says, “She was getting shoes for the wedding, yada, yada, yada, I'll see her in 6 to 8 months." You get the point, but it seems he yadad past the interesting part of that story. Sometimes we yada, yada past the good stuff, past the seemingly most important stuff.
Our Scripture lesson today is seven verses long. In those seven verses, Mark tells us about the baptism of Jesus, his forty days of temptation in the wilderness, John’s arrest and the beginning of his ministry. That beginning, but the way, has some heavy theological concepts: the nearness of God’s kingdom; repentance and belief; and what Jesus means by “Good news.” All of this, in seven verses.
As we begin this Lenten season, I’m struck by the thought: did Mark just “yada, yada” past forty days? “And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Forty days later, yada, yada, yada, and the angels waited on him.” We know from other Gospel accounts that there was a lot that went on in that wilderness for those forty days. Mark zips past it in two verses.
Throughout Lent, I’m trying to center my attention on Jesus. Lately, I’ve been focused inwardly on who we are as a church and I’ve been encouraging you to listen for God’s guidance in this as well. So it occurred to me, as we journey through this season leading us toward Easter, it might be a good reminder to look outside myself for a while; to keep our eyes focused, not just on ourselves, but on Jesus. So, personally through my own Lenten practices and professionally through my preaching and teaching, my goal is to keep our focus on the life, and words, and work of Jesus.
So it may seem strange that I picked a passage that seems to “yada, yada” right past so much of that life, those words, and that work. Well, there is a method to it. I picked this passage to remind us all that forty days is not so long. Now, if you’re one to take on a fast for Lent then forty days seems like forever; at least at first. But I think you’ll find, by the end of those forty days, you’ll wonder where they went. The glory and joy of Easter morning will be here soon enough and my hope for us is that we not just let this season yada, yada by.
I encourage you this season to make the most of it: get to know Jesus on a deeper level. Study his life as it’s told in Scripture; maybe in other Gospels that don’t yada, yada as much as Mark. Seek to better-know Jesus in his Baptism as you reflect on the meaning of your own. Seek to better-know Jesus in his fasting and temptations, perhaps as you take on a fast and reflect on what tempts you. Seek to better-know Jesus as the Good News of God as you reflect on how God is calling you to be Good news to the world. Seek to better-know the kingdom Jesus proclaimed as you look for it all around you. Seek to better-know his call to repent and believe as you seek repentance and deeper belief.
Easter will be here sooner than you think. May we make the most of this season and may we know our Savior’s presence as we do.
Monday, February 12, 2018
Transfiguration of the Lord
I am terrified of mountain lions; the thought of being eaten by something is just the worst. But I like walking, and sometimes I find myself out walking before the sun is even up. So of course, every twig snap or rustling bush I hear is terrifying to me.
Around here, that may not be the most irrational of fears. I confess this fear to you because that’s what we’re doing today, we’re confession our deepest fears, and I went first. Who’s next? Just kidding. No one likes to admit their fears. Admitting to one another the things that scare us is scary in itself. We won’t be sharing our fears with one another this morning, but I think we can at least agree that we all have them: things like public speaking, or spiders, or change. Fear is unpleasant, but fear is normal; fear, to a point, is good for us; and as we’ll explore this morning, fear at times can be useful to teach us.
We read today that the transfiguration of Jesus was terrifying to the disciples. In the Gospel of Mark, there are only three times when they are this kind of terrified: when they see Jesus walking on water; here at the Transfiguration; and when they find the Tomb empty on Easter Morning. Each time, the kind of fear that Mark describes is not the kind of fear one might heroically overcome (like walking in the dark in mountain lion country). No, this is the kind of sheer terror that might, if unchecked, make you do something you’re not going to be proud of like running away, or acting out, or even getting frozen in place.
It strikes me that, every time the disciples were so terrified, it was because they had been exposed to the glory of God in Jesus. It also strikes me that terrifying us might not be what the revelation of God’s glory is supposed to do. The evidence of God’s presence and power ought to be a joyful thing, right? But then again—and I’m just throwing this out there—maybe God does scare us on purpose sometimes. Sure, it is not the will of God that we live in fear; but you have to admit, fear can motivate us to get moving sometimes.
I think that a good place to start with this well-worn Transfiguration story is to ask this question: what do we actually believe about the Transfiguration? Now, I ask this not to cast any sort of doubt on the historical accuracy of the Transfiguration; quite the opposite. There are good reasons to believe that this fantastic story actually happened, and that it happened in the way Mark describes.
Although account of the Transfiguration in the Gospel of John is only alluded to, the other Gospels tell it in exactly the same way. With small variations, it is told with almost identical details and it is always told in exactly the same context. That’s surprisingly rare in the Gospels: even when the they tell the same stories, often these stories are told with different details, in different contexts, and have a different point, depending on who is telling it. But not the Transfiguration; here the Gospel writers are almost-literally on same page. It is as if—as Jesus commanded—they kept this story a secret until after the Resurrection; then, I imagine, these three told it all over the place!
I mean, can you imagine seeing something spectacular like that and then have to keep quiet about it? If nothing else, I’d want to talk about the many question I have about it. What were Moses and Elijah doing there? How did they even get there? What made Jesus’ appearance change? Did we really hear the voice of God? I think that keeping all of that stuff bottled up would just make a person crazy.
That aside, we remember that it’s in the context and wonder of the Empty Tomb that this story was told to the other followers of Jesus; and most importantly, it was told by those three eye-witnesses to the event. Now, you can read “poetic license” into other parts of Scripture if you want to, but I wouldn’t doubt the Transfiguration if I were you.
So I’ll ask my question again: what do we believe about the Transfiguration? Well, we believe it happened and it happened in the way that Mark describes it. And we also believe that it was meant to be told in the context of the Resurrection; in the context of the new and terrifying thing that God was doing through the Risen Messiah. These fearful, bewildered followers of Jesus, were meant to hear a story about a time that these three were once fearful and bewildered. We hear a story of when we were once terrified, when we are again afraid, to remind us that, by the power of God, it might just turn out okay once more.
It’s a bit like what I hope our annual reports will do for future generations of this church. An annual report is a snapshot of who we are as a church; a kind of family portrait that we take every year as the children of God. I think, as you read through the reports, you’ll agree that we take a good picture. We are a handsome bunch. We have every reason to hear the Voice of our Savior telling us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But as you read these reports, you may also get the sense that things are not all rainbows and unicorns, if you know what I mean. You may hear in these reports, the feeling that we are not thriving like we should. In spite of all the good we do in Christ’s name in this world, we are not growing.
I refuse to believe that the Spirit of God planted this church in this community, only to sputter out 120 years later. No, we are meant to thrive and our community is meant to hear and celebrate with us the Good News of our Risen Savior. Who we are today is not who God intends us to be. So our reports might also reflect an uneasy feeling at this point in our history; one might even call it “fearful;” fearful for an uncertain future. But maybe what we ought to be afraid of is that God might just do something about it; that the glory of God might just be revealed in this.
Now, I mentioned that this story was meant to be kept secret until after the Resurrection, but I haven’t yet explained the context of the story itself. In every telling of this story, it always begins the same way: they say, “About a week later, they go up the mountain.” That thing that happened, about a week earlier, was that the followers of Jesus recognized him as the Messiah. Jesus then goes on to explain that their understanding of “Messiah” is wrong: that what Messiah really means involves suffering and dying, but ultimately rising again. They of course, don’t understand what he’s talking about. And then about a week later, the Transfiguration happens. This is important. It’s important because this story is all about how they have misunderstood who Jesus was and what he was talking about. This is important because we might still.
No doubt, at our upcoming Church-Wide Workshop, we will talk a bit about our core values; values like being a welcoming and open congregation. Historically, this church has prided itself in being open to anyone. There is no doctrine you have to agree to before you join; you only need to affirm that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior. What you mean by that is for you to work out every day. But having said that, what we understand about Jesus is no light thing. What we believe about Jesus doesn’t change him at all, but it changes how we serve him in the world.
About a week before, the disciples affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, but they don’t really know what that means. Can you imagine if the disciples never learned what “Jesus as the Messiah” meant? Can you imagine if they forged ahead and began a church that thought Jesus the Messiah was a conquering hero and a political leader? You don’t have to imagine it; it happened anyway and it still happens today. The larger church still has a hard time getting its head around what Jesus meant by “Messiah.” Perhaps that’s why we don’t always embody his self-giving love. Perhaps that’s why we try to rule the world instead of trying to bring the Gospel to it. Perhaps we need God to put terror in our hearts once more.
If you look closely, the disciples actually get frightened twice in this story. Each illustrates what terror might do in our lives. The first time is the obvious: they see the glory of God literally shining in Jesus and they literally get scared silly. I can just imagine the three disciples talking about this after the Resurrection: John says to Peter, “Hey Pete, remember how you wanted to build cabins.” Then they all laughed. In his terror, Peter not only says something he would later not be proud of, but it’s rooted in something else we do when we’re afraid: he wanted to stay put. Sometimes when we’re afraid, that fear freezes us into not wanting to do anything at all. We’re not meant to live like that; not as people and not as a church.
Fortunately, God scares them again. No sooner has Peter asked his silly question does a cloud descend upon them like it did on Moses. The Voice of God answers Peter’s question: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Perhaps we could read the word “finally” into that as well. Listen to him, finally, when he talks about himself. Listen to him, finally, when he says being the Messiah means giving his life for the sake of the world. Listen to him, finally, because there is work to be done.
Mark doesn’t tell us that the Voice of God scared them, but of course it did. This time their fear does the other thing that fear will do: the next thing we know is, they are all alone with Jesus and coming back down the mountain. This time, the fear moves them into action. The fear God sets on us, even on the verge of God’s new and terrifying thing, is not meant to freeze us up or make us act out. The terrifying Voice of God is meant to get us moving again.This story, meant to be told in the light of the Resurrection, is meant to scare us, in a good way. This story is meant to remind us of what our Savior’s glory really means: to listen and hear him when he says that it’s not about shinning white clothes, but about self-giving love. May we hear the terrifying Voice of God, just enough to move us into action; to move us toward whatever our Savior has for us next.
Monday, February 5, 2018
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
[The choir has just sung “How Long Has It Been?” as an anthem.]
I really needed that song this week, in a weird sort of way. Yes, I especially needed its message about our need to spend time with our Savior, but it helped me in another way as well.
You see, on Wednesday, my wife was playing the song “Killing Me Softly with His Song” around the house. You may remember it; it was a number one hit for Roberta Flack back in 1973. I suspect that the song’s popularity was why I was taught it in school when I was in the fourth grade. Yes, you heard me right: a music teacher thought it would be a good idea to teach fourth graders to sing “Killing Me Softly” as a choir. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what that song is about, which is strange because I distinctly remember her trying to explain it to us. One thing I know for certain is that a fourth grader should not know that song.
Sherry knows that story, so I’m not sure if she was she was trying to be funny or not. (If you’re familiar with my wife’s sense of humor, you know it’s hard to tell sometimes.) At any rate, for a good portion of Wednesday, I had that traumatizing song rattling around in my head against my will. That is, until choir practice.
Literally, thank God for choir practice! Thank God for, not only helping me rid my brain of a song I didn’t want there, but for replacing it with a song I desperately needed in there. For that matter, thank God for a place—this place—that we can gather together and fill one another’s hearts and minds with better things. Thank God for this place and God’s Spirit in it to set our minds on things that are true: namely, that our God is bigger than all our problems and that our God cares about those problems and has a plan for our Salvation. Thank God that we have this time in God’s word to remember, that no matter how long it’s been, you can call Jesus your friend and know that he cares for you.
Becky asked me on Wednesday, when we figured out that we would be singing that anthem, if it fit in with the message. Becky and I like to look for the ways that God uses her process and my process to come together and say the same thing. It’s a bit like what I was talking about last week: how one of the ways I hear God’s Prophetic Voice, is when I notice that God is saying the same thing through different people in different situations. It’s one of the things I’ll be looking for in the surveys I hope you’ll be turning in today. When we hear God speaking the same thing through different voices, it’s wise to pay attention.
By the way, I’m still not sure if the message of the anthem and the message of the Scripture lesson overlap. But I do notice one obvious thing they have in common: they both ask great questions. The anthem asks, “How long has it been since you talked with the Lord?” A great question: a great reminder that we are so much better off when we take deliberate time to be in the presence of our Savior in prayer. But then, our Scripture lesson asks an equally good but very different question: Isaiah says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
I had a colleague, back when I was involved in junior high youth ministry, who would sometimes ask a kid, “What, are you new?” It was his playful way of getting a student’s attention when they were getting out of line; as if they were unfamiliar with our group’s rules; as if they were new to the group. That almost sounds like the tone Isaiah is taking today, doesn’t it? “Have you not known? Have you not heard? How could you not know about the God who made and maintains the universe? How could you not know about the God who raises you up as on wings like eagles? What, are you new?”
Of course, it isn’t that we haven’t heard it before; we know. Isaiah isn’t saying anything to anyone who hasn’t heard these things before; but he is talking to people who are having a difficult time remembering it; as sometimes we all do.
At this point in their history, the Israelites were in exile: literally in Babylon and, in some ways, spiritually too. Psalm 137 captures their mood: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered [Jerusalem].” They were a defeated and displaced people. They had been driven out of their land of promise and could see no hope that they would ever return. It isn’t as though they didn’t know of the God of the Universe; it isn’t as thought they had never heard of the God who loved and cared for them; but we lose sight of those things when everything is going wrong.
We’ve all been there. I’ve been there this week. The theme of this message took an unexpected turn this week. Good things happened this week—don’t get me wrong—but as it went on, it just started unraveling more and more. It could have been a lot worse, but I am well aware of the irony: I proclaim to you today, a message about not losing sight of the God we serve with a knot in my neck that won’t go away (and it’s been there for a while), because that’s where I store my stress.
This week chewed me up and spit me out. It was the kind of week where, after a while, I start to wonder if maybe I did something to upset God. I don’t really believe that that is where bad weeks come from, but that thought does tend to pop into my mind. After all, that is kind of the point of why the Israelites were in exile: they had disobeyed and betrayed God so much that God sent them to a “time out” in Babylon for about 70 years.
But does God sometimes show us things through the situations in our lives? I believe we are coming to the end of our series on prophecy; an important conversation to have because, as many of us believe, God is doing something important among us. So we’ve talked about the importance of listening for God’s Voice. We’ve talked about the ways we listen for that Voice in prayer, in Scripture, and through one another. So I would say, we have reason to believe that God can and does speak to us in all kinds of ways; even the situations of our lives. The accident we narrowly avoid; the rock-bottom that turns our behaviors around; and even a horrible week can be used by God to help us hear the things we need to hear. Now, this kind of discernment is tricky because not all situations are heavenly signs—sometimes a rainbow is just refracting light—but if we’re listening, there might just be something to it. It gets even trickier because, when those situations get stressful and difficult, that is often when we get panicked and stop listening.
So if God had something to tell me through a rough week, what might it be? Well, several things, actually; but one thing stands out as important for us this morning. There was one big thing that made this week a little bit better: several people asked me the same question; in different places at different times, as though spurred on by the same Spirit. Several people, noticing that I was in over my head and asked if they could help. Frankly, the most helpful part was just being asked. The asking reminded me that I’m not alone in this; a thing I might otherwise have forgotten. And sure, you could have quoted Isaiah 40 to me and, in an intellectual way, I would have believed it to be true; I would have even appreciated the encouraging sentiment. It’s always nice to hear that God is in control of the universe and that God cares even for me; but it was nice to have that embodied for me too. The kindness I was shown this week told a Truth that went beyond words.
So I suppose there are two points to take away from our message today, depending on where you are coming from, and I think they are both found at this Table. If you are struggling this day, if the situations of your life are more than you can bear: here we remember that the God of the Universe loved you so much, that in Jesus, he gave his life that you might have eternal life. And if today you are doing just fine: here we remember that by our Savior’s work, we are sent to be the very Body of Christ to this world.We speak of prophecy as telling the Truth God sends us to tell. And certainly, that Truth is proclaimed through our words; but sometimes it comes through clearer in our actions. What we say and even what we do are a proclamation of our Savior’s work wherever we go. As we are sent by him into this world, may we share his power and strength to those who need it most. As we are lifted by his Spirit, may we be used by him to lift those around us as with wings like eagles. And may they know, may they hear of God’s power and love through our words and through our actions.