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Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Mountaintop Experience

Mark 9: 2-9
There are days - more days than I care to count, in fact, when I have to admit that I dwell in a state of confusion. I read recently that “confusion” is something like the 51st state, after Alaska and Hawaii, of course, and, truth be told, I suspect it is a heavily-populated state, where I have plenty of company.

Now, confusion of the kind in which I dwell has no relationship to intelligence. I know that, because I recently took one of those internet tests meant to reveal how well you would fare on a test given today to typical 5th graders. You know the ones I mean? I am proud to say that I passed with flying colors. To be honest, I had been a little concerned about that, but apparently, in the realm of fifth graders, I’m like a genius, or something.

No, the kind of confusion that I’m talking about has no connection to intelligence. Instead, it is the result of confronting the unexpected, the mysterious – or that with which one has little or no experience.

I suppose you could say it is because of my own familiarity with that state of confusion, that I feel particularly compassionate toward Peter. Perhaps I identify – a little too closely for comfort – with the disciple who is perpetually demonstrating his own state of confusion.

In the gospel of Mark, poor, confused Peter really doesn’t come off very well at times. It might be said that this disciple of Jesus is not the “sharpest crayon in the box.” But then again, in Mark’s telling of the gospel, none of the disciples come off as being very astute.
For example, although they had witnessed Jesus healing many people and driving away legions of demons, they often lacked understanding of the point and the power of Jesus’ teaching, they misunderstood the meaning of his words, and they tragically failed Jesus at times.  They frustrated even Jesus, who at one point, asked them, “are you so dull?”

Even after Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, the disciples despaired, uncertain what to do when just four thousand needed to be fed. Then right after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, he rebuked him when Jesus made his first passion prediction in the verses just before these we read today. Dull. Confused. Foolish.

The events in today’s gospel happen some six days after Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he would suffer, die, and rise again. Then, he takes Peter, James and John along with him, for their own mountaintop experience. There, Jesus will reveal his divinity to them in ways that can leave no doubt as to his identity.

And there, atop that mountain, God’s glory is manifest before these startled disciples. Jesus is transfigured before them.

The transfiguration the disciples witnessed wasn’t some cheap parlor trick; Jesus didn’t just stand there with his face glowing and his clothes lit up. There was no magic mirror, no hidden battery-pack.

Unlike anything we can imagine, in this transfiguration, the entire bodily essence of Jesus is transformed. It is changed not only in appearance but in substance. It has taken on an unearthly appearance, radiance and form.

Jesus stood, transfigured, before these disciples with clothes brilliant, radiant, dazzling white, and they understood: this is clearly the face of the divine upon which they gaze. It can be no other.

And suddenly, their entire world view is shaken. It is as if everything they have ever known or assumed about God is mixed up, confused, confounded, as God reveals Godself –to them! - in Jesus.

Then, as if this isn’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear before them, too.

Peter, James and John aren’t just confused. No one has ever looked upon the divine and lived, and yet Jesus, clearly divine, has just been transfigured before them, within their full sight; these humble fishermen and disciples have looked with their own eyes upon a dazzling scene wholly outside of the realm of their experience, totally mysterious; this is a scene which they cannot fully comprehend, cannot fully explain,
How would you react to such a sight, to such an experience?

I know that when I am befuddled, confused, or shocked, I usually do one of two things. Either I clam up, totally speechless and paralyzed, or I ramble. I talk too much, and adrenaline keeps me acting, doing, moving, even if just in circles, because I can’t be still.

And so, I recognize myself in Peter’s reaction: “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here,” he begins.

“Rabbi, let’s stop what we’re doing and build three dwellings,” he rambles.

Rabbi, let’s keep busy, let’s not think too hard on this unbelievable, confusing, wonderful thing.

Rabbi, let’s just freeze this moment in time.

Rabbi, let’s just do something, anything, until this world stops spinning so dizzyingly out of control.

Now, a cloud overshadows them as a cloud had once overshadowed that mountain which Moses had ascended. A voice declares, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him!” And just as suddenly as it began, it is over.
The mountaintop experience is done. They are alone again, just Peter, James and John with their beloved Jesus, returned again to his former state.  In the blink of an eye, the glorious moment is gone, the brilliance is gone, the Lord stands before them as before, and the disciples trudge back down to the valley with Jesus as he orders them not to tell anyone about the experience. Talk about a state of confusion!
These disciples are puzzled by the whole experience, and by Jesus’ bidding to keep it to themselves. But they are also transformed by it because no one can encounter the presence of God and remain unchanged. Peter, James and John have witnessed something confounding, something they cannot fully appreciate or comprehend, but something they will never, ever forget.
We may not all get to have a mountaintop experience like Peter, James and John did, but we do have experiences in which God is revealed to us: perhaps through the unexpected generosity of another person, or by miraculous moments in our days. Perhaps it is when we are the recipients of forgiveness or we see God’s face in the face of a child, the words of a friend, or the eyes of a stranger. God reveals Godself in myriad ways, and invites us into relationship with him through the manifestation of his love, Jesus Christ, this one of whom God declares, 
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” We’ve heard those words before. Not long ago, at the beginning of Epiphany, we heard these words. At the start of this season of Epiphany at Jesus’ baptism, remember that the heavens were torn open and a dove descended on our Lord and we heard these very words addressed to him,
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
On this Transfiguration Sunday, this story leads us to the threshold of Lent, as we encounter these words again, and are reminded that God never stops revealing Godself to us. Jesus Christ, the light and life of all the world, is the embodiment of the mercy, grace, and love of God.
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
The bright light of the Transfiguration serves as a light that shines ahead into Lent. This transforming light helps us to keep that season in perspective, with our eyes looking ahead to the cross, yet never without hope and confidence.

This light speaks a promise that God is here. Through Jesus, the revelation of the divine, the mysterious God is yet knowable. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through his life, his ministry, and all the way to the cross, the God who is revealed to us is a God seeks relationship – with us. Often confused, sometimes dull, and frequently foolish, us.

God knows that we need to experience the light of the Transfiguration here and now, as we search for the transcendent. God knows that we yearn to touch and be touched by the holy, the something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder.

God knows, we seek the answers to our confusion. We seek the reassurance that the divine understands our fears and will calm them. We seek living waters that will quench our thirst for the confounding points of life and what relationship to the divine might be like.

Isn’t that what Peter longs for? Isn’t that what he, in his confused state, tries to cling to? And wouldn’t we want to capture the feeling of that mountaintop experience if we were in Peter’s shoes?

I think that much of the search for meaning which we experience in the world around us is indicative of the deep human need for transformation, conversion, and even, metamorphosis. We seek answers to so many questions – deep, existential questions and the revelation of Jesus in the midst of our own questions can be downright confusing. Mysterious. Unexpected.

“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

As we embark on the Lenten season here at Grace, we will begin to ponder how God’s revelation in Jesus transforms hearts. Through devotions and prayer, we will examine how it is that God can and does “Create in Me a New Heart.” We will seek to understand how God’s love is made manifest and comes to us anew in and through the cross. We will contemplate how the Messiah, the Son of God, meets us and indeed creates in us new hearts, new possibilities and new understanding to God’s love which is at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

Confusing and mysterious, yet very real and essential to our lives, let us consider, these next forty days, how God is creating in each of us a new heart.

The equivalent of a mountaintop experience? Perhaps not. However, in the deep, quiet moments of contemplation and prayer, may the Spirit of God speak to us in ways that profoundly reveal the true nature of God’s inexhaustible love and grace for each of us, and for the world, as carried out through Jesus Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Let it be so.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Search Is On

Mark 1:29-39
          “Everyone is searching for you.”
And he answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 

          I was taken by those words from our gospel text today. “Everyone is searching for you.” Read another way, “They are seeking you.”
          What are you seeking today?
          What are the nebulous “they” searching for?
          The truth is that today, perhaps more than ever before, people are seeking, are searching – for something. Often that “something” is ill-defined and not even understood by the seeker. But still, there is “something”……

          Part of the human condition is that we are immersed in a lifelong search for that elusive “something” we might call it unconditional love and understanding, acceptance, mercy, or forgiveness when we fail; we seek belonging, and finally, peace and well-being.

                   We seek healing and we seek meaning in life. The simple truth is that even when we think that on our own we have found these things, we also find that they can be quickly stripped away, in the blink of an eye, with one illness or accident or other calamity, leaving us once again seeking healing for what ails us, or for a life that is fuller, more meaningful, essential.

          “They are seeking you.”

          Meet Patricia; I met her while I was serving as chaplain intern in a large hospital the summer between my first and second years of seminary. She was a patient admitted to one of the hospital units I covered.

          Patricia was the wife of a Baptist minister and she served alongside her husband in all manner of ministry in their church. She led women’s groups, organized activities and functions of the church, she taught bible studies, and provided moral and spiritual support to the members of the congregation. She arranged for meals and even child care for members who were ill, recovering from surgeries or injuries, or in other kinds of practical need.

          Patricia prided herself on being the perfect homemaker, perfect pastor’s wife, perfect ministry partner, perfect sister and daughter, perfect friend. She lived to serve Jesus, to support her church and her loved ones in every way possible.

          Patricia was a very busy, very engaged and engaging person, seemingly living a life full of meaning and potential. I loved my visits with Patricia. She was kind and vivacious, upbeat and full of a faith she was more than willing to share and talk about – a rare thing these days. She really seemed to have it “going on.”

          I would often plan my visits with her so that they would come just before a break or at the end of my shift so that I could spend a little extra time with her.  We would sit and talk at length about all kinds of things; we had some great conversations.

           But as one week turned into two and then became three, with each passing day, Patricia was a little less upbeat, a bit less positive. Before long, she became withdrawn and one afternoon, I found her in tears she quickly tried to conceal.

          I found that aside from the normal concerns anyone would have about her medical condition, what wore at Patricia most, what, in short order had robbed her of her joy and optimism and shaken her confidence and her sense of hope, was the impact her illness would have on her ability to be all that she needed to be for her family and her community.

          Already, the isolation of illness was wearing on her. People often tend to shrink away from pain, illness, from what they do not understand – something Patricia was already experiencing. And Patricia knew that she would be unable, at least for a while, to serve the church and its members in the ways she always had.

          Unable to care for others as she was accustomed to, and physically separated from her community, Patricia felt alone, discouraged, and disillusioned as she began to question her identity and her worth, and ultimately, why this was happening to her at all.

          Here was this woman of faith, this woman who knew Jesus, and suddenly, it was as if this illness had loosed her mooring. Where was God in all of this she wondered?

          Patricia began searching for answers to a question that plagues many of us in times like these. “Why?” “Why me?” “Why this?” “Why now?”

They said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

In many ways, Patricia’s example illustrates for us the “dynamic of difference” that often occur when, due to illness, injury, disability or any other kind of affliction, one becomes isolated from community and disengaged from society. While this kind of removal from social structures still happens to many of us today, in the first century Palestine it was an especially burdensome and disabling function of illness. We can safely assume that Simon’s mother-in-law, whom we meet in the gospel text this morning had experienced this kind of isolation.

 In addition to the potentially grave, possibly fatal outcome of any fever or similar condition in Jesus’ time, illness bore a heavy social cost, as the afflicted one would be unable to carry on his or her normal everyday duties.

 This would mean the inability to earn a living perhaps, or contribute to the well-being of the household. It also meant you would be unable to take your proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of the household, town, or village, and would be kept in likely isolation from the same.

For Simon Peter's mother-in-law, for example, it was her role and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world.
 Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Here was a woman in need of healing, something to restore her to life as she knew it. Then, Jesus entered in. With the touch of his hand, Jesus restored not only her physical health, but also and perhaps even more importantly, he restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value when he freed her from that fever. Healing is as much about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role, as it is about the as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed. 
If you have ever been laid low for weeks at a time by the flu, shingles, or by surgery or other illness, you may identify with the disorientation and depression of being outside of community or work, or whatever the “norm” for you might be. You might know what Patricia or Simon Peter’s mother-in-law experienced; the isolation; the dehumanizing element that often accompanies illness and disease and the resulting rounds of treatment; the loss of trust and confidence in the fidelity of your own body.
          Sadly, there are many in our community and in our world who suffer afflictions not as easily identified and far more isolating and dehumanizing than those I just mentioned. Addiction, mental illness, longstanding or even permanent physical disability or disfigurement all create walls of separation and insecurity. Shame brought on by social circumstances, sin and failure similarly strip us from the life of community and belonging.
          Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom of mercy, love, healing and salvation is welcome balm for all who seek, search, and long for what they cannot attain for themselves.
          “Everyone is searching for you.”
          If you know or can identify with any of these, then perhaps you can also identify with, and can understand not only the search, but also the joy of simply being returned as a participant in the "ordinary" processes of community and societal structures.
          Jesus' ministry involves the restoration of those cut off from community to a full role in the community. Jesus’ ministry involves the promise and proclamation of more. Jesus’ proclamation includes the good news that God’s power to overcome the powers of the earth, is indicative of his power to bring healing and wholeness to all who suffer under the power of any of the forces that diminish human life.
          Right out of the box, the gospel of Mark identifies Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is a gospel that urgently wants to share this good news. It is as if the gospel writer takes his cue from the prophet Isaiah, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
          We have seen Jesus drive out the evil spirits from a possessed man, teach with new authority and conviction and call into discipleship those who would follow him. We have seen, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry how God, through Jesus, restores the afflicted, and gives strength to the weary. Jesus gives not only new meaning but new life to those who follow him.
          “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
          We  confess a God who loved us even when we were dead in sin, even when we are afflicted by disease, even when we are possessed by unclean spirits, think unclean thoughts, and demonstrate unclean actions. We proclaim the good news of a God who heals and sets free those oppressed by any of the powers of earth which threaten to overcome us. Neither sin, nor addiction, joblessness, homelessness, alien status, illness, isolation, depression, nor doubt or hopelessness, nor divorce, nor any other manner of affliction have power to keep us from the love of God.
          This, my friends, is good news that we can share.  And the best news of all is that our search is over. The good news is that the one whom we seek has already “found” us. God has searched us out, God has “found” us, and God has sent the Holy One, Jesus Christ, to bring us the healing we so desperately need. In Christ, God heals and sets free all those oppressed, restoring us for valuable service and mission in his name.
          Thanks be to God!



Monday, February 2, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

Mark 1:21-28
          Today, as we think about this story of demon-possession and exorcism which makes up the story in our gospel text, let us remember what Jesus has already told us, earlier in this gospel – that the reign of God has come: the kingdom of God has broken into the world and God, through Jesus, has defeated the power of evil and death.
          Most of us base our understanding of demon possession and exorcism on popular books and movies like the classic, “The Exorcist” and its sequels, or the more recent “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. And I’ll bet that, while a lot of us have seen one or more of those movies, many of us have avoided them like the plague. They scare us, and some of us find everyday life scary enough, thank you very much.
          Whether you’ve watched those movies or read the books or not, however, you’ve probably heard some of the details, about things like spinning heads and other-worldly voices coming forth from little girls, and of course the whole green-pea-soup-spewing-forth incident.
          Perhaps you, like I, picture the driving out of evil spirits as events surrounded by unearthly winds swirling around inside closed-up rooms, and other unnatural events. But for most of us, I suspect the whole topic of demon-possession just seems fantastical, and fictional, and wholly unbelievable. And so, we find this gospel especially perplexing.
          Listen to this as a first person account about that day, courtesy of Paul S. Berge. Imagine it coming from a friend:
          “Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn't sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people "gather together." What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.
          Shabbat worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now don't get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine.
          Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer "immediately" entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new "authority" (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word "authority" about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to "exorcize" demonic spirits.
          I am still in shock as to what happened next. "Immediately" a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name:
          "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?”
          But then, “the scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: "I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
          With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, the identity of the Holy One of God. He addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, "Be silent, and come out of him."
          What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and he appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.
          Needless to say we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another,
          "What is this? A new teaching -- with authority he exorcizes a demon possessed person!" We saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath this is what took place on this Sabbath day.
          I can't explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue "immediately" spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
          From the beginning of the gospel of Mark, we have been hearing that the reign of God has come, and not just come, but has been inaugurated, and broken forth into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
          We have heard witness of the boundary-breaking Son of God, the one for whom the heavens ripped open, the one who has broken the hold of those powers that would wish to separate us from God and claim us.
          This text today reminds us Jesus has entered the fray with purpose, and with power; in a word, with authority. And we are reminded that the kingdom of God has come. God’s reign has begun. Jesus has come to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, and in this Gospel lesson he demonstrates how that Kingdom opposes and conquers the forces of evil. In Jesus Christ, God has come to break the hold of possession by any force which robs the children of God of all that God intends for them – for us.
Each day, when we read the newspaper, watch the news, listen to the stories that surround us, we can easily believe that our world is inhabited by evil. In the midst of rocket launches aimed at innocent civilians in Syria and Libya, massacres and the kidnappings in Nigeria, missile attacks in Ukraine, massive drug-cartels terrorizing citizens in Mexico, not only might we come to understand anew that evil is at work in the world, but we might feel hopeless that it might ever be overcome. Yet the Word of God reminds us, the reign of God has come. And through Jesus and the cross, God overcomes the power of evil to destroy. 
Closer to home, riots and protests in the wake of racially motivated violence, crime in our communities and the scourge of poverty and homelessness in our cities and towns bring us the realization that evil is not just a far-away problem but is universal - and is reflects inherently sinful world, in which none of us is truly guilt-free.  
The truth is that possession is not as foreign an event as we would like to think. If I am honest, it is something of which I have intimate, first-hand experience. Because, you see, I’ve experienced possession when I have reacted in anger and lashed out, hurting someone, saying things I later regret; I’ve experienced possession whenever I’ve been driven by envy or greed or used resources in ways that deny others a future.
I’ve experienced possession when I’ve made promises I have no intention and little chance of keeping, because I wanted to look good, or desired praise, or glory, or wanted to gain an edge over someone else. I’ve experienced possession when I’ve looked the other way while someone has suffered discrimination and worse, because of their race, age, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I’ve experienced possession when I have confessed my faith in God yet made choices that are ungodly. When I’ve gossiped, been impatient, or behaved in ways that have torn down rather than built up another person. Still, our gospel promises that the reign of God has come, and God will overcome even the sin of my own possession, through the love of Jesus Christ.
I wonder where you might feel possessed by something that is clearly not the spirit of God blessing you to be a blessing to others. When might you have behaved in an ungodly way? When have your words of faith not matched your walk? The words of our gospel are for you even when you despair that the evil that possesses you seems too strong to deny.
Here we are, not yet out of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is challenging us to see ourselves in this story. We remember that recent gospel, in which Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God has come – and then commanded us to repent, and believe in the good news.
The good news is that despite all the powers that would distract us, despite the reality that evil does sometimes possess our hearts and minds, and despite all the world events that confuse and confound us, God speaks the Divine Word into the chaos of the world, changing hearts and building community; The good news is that God has not left us to our own devices, but is still acting in this world.
The good news is that despite ourselves, and the many ways we are inconsistent in word and action, it is God’s Word that has ultimate authority in our lives and in this world. The good news is that through the Spirit, God’s Word can and does still drive the unclean spirit away each time we remember our Baptism, each time we confess and receive the forgiveness of our sins; each time we come before the Lord’s table and receive the bread and the wine – the body, broken for us, the blood outpoured.
The good news for us today is that Jesus is at work, day by day, cleansing us, forgiving us, showing us God’s mercy and grace and filling us with a new spirit through the power of God’s love, which has authority to rule our lives this day and every day. Thanks be to God!