Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spirit Driven

Spirit Driven

Communion Meditation

Mark 1: 9-15

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

1st Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012

As we begin our Lenten journey this week, Mark’s gospel starts us off with the beginnings of the ministry of Jesus.

It is true that Mark is the shortest of the gospels, shortest by far. And it is also true that the other gospels contain many details of Jesus’ life and ministry that Mark does not. As Fred Craddock, teacher of preaching to at least three generations of preachers now, once reflected[1], it is difficult to listen to one gospel passage when the other gospels are in the room talking about the same subject, and often with more detail – and for that reason, in ways that are more familiar. Mark, writing with such brevity that we could miss the importance of his words if we weren’t paying attention, relates three major events:

· Jesus’ baptism,

· Jesus’ temptation in the desert,

· Jesus’ first preaching of the good news in Galilee.

The sequence of these three things is significant, not simply because it seems to be the familiar order of things to us, but because - as the subject of a new exodus - Jesus retraces the journey of Israel:

· His baptism is reminiscent of Israel’s walk through the Red Sea, escaping from slavery among the Egyptians by means of water;

· His 40 days of struggle in the desert recall Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness;

· The good news he proclaims reminds us of God’s fulfilled promise when Israel entered the promised land.

And though his account is supremely brief, sometimes Mark surprises by what he does write. For instance, in the very brief words about his baptism we hear that “as he was coming up out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him,” calling to mind, for the discerning among us, the words of the prophet Isaiah, a favorite of the gospel writers, where Isaiah prays earnestly for God’s holy intervention:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence —

2 as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil —

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence! NRSV

This is exactly what happened to Jesus that day at the Jordan river. As he was coming up from the water, Mark says, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart...” That tearing of the heavens is described using exactly the same word Mark uses at the end of his gospel when Jesus uttered his loud cry from the cross and the curtain of the Temple was also torn in two.

Here also in our gospel passage for today, we have something unique in Mark’s account of the temptation of Christ that intrigues me every time I run across it. While Matthew records “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit,” and Luke writes, “Jesus was led by the Spirit,” in Mark, immediately upon receiving loving words from the heavenly voice, the gospel portrays the action of the Spirit in a much sterner and forceful way: “And the Spirit immediately drove[2] him out into the wilderness.”

That particular turn of phrase strikes me with the difference between going along willingly and being dragged kicking and screaming. In fact, the verb that Mark uses of the Spirit driving Jesus to the wilderness is the same one used to describe driving the money changers from the Temple toward the end of the gospel, and the driving out of demons by Jesus in four other places in the gospel (1:34, 39; 3:15; 6:13).

So why does Jesus go? Because Jesus goes where the news has all been bad to proclaim the news that is good. Mark says “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Mark is again thinking of Isaiah as he proclaims the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah who wrote[3], in a passage that is often read during Advent’s expectation of the coming of the Messiah:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom...

like the crocus...

... They shall see the glory of the LORD,

the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

No lion shall be there,

nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,

but the redeemed shall walk there. NRSV

In an account of Jesus’ ministry in which only Satan, wild beasts and ministering angels are with him, by reading and listening for understanding, we discover that we, too, are present there in the desert. We know what it is to be dealing with wild beasts out there in the wilderness of our lives. Rising crime rates, desperate striving to make ends meet in a fast-fading economy, grappling with family problems, addictions, the beasts greet us at every turn, and there we are in the wilderness wrestling with them. Then, over the horizon, we see a distant figure coming closer and closer. It is the baptized One, Jesus of Nazareth, driven to our encounters with our own wild beasts by the very Spirit of God: coming to us, to you and me. Being baptized and having the presence and power of the Holy Spirit granted to us is no insulation against real struggles with the forces of evil. Rather, the presence of the risen Christ promises us we are not alone in our struggles. “He was tempted, as we are, yet without sin,” says the author of Hebrews (4:15). His temptation was as real as ours, and just as deceptive. As Professor Fred Craddock once said, “No self-respecting Satan would approach a person with offers of personal, social and professional ruin. That is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation.”[4]

No, here, today we have in this sacrament Jesus laid before us, and in the stories about him, a promise of real help, a real messiah. In the end, baptized and tested, Jesus turns to the world – to us – and says, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.

[2] ekballei

[3] Isaiah 35:1-9 selected verses.

[4] “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Up: Looking Out

Looking Up: Looking Out

copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Mark 9:2-9 – Transfiguration Sunday: February 19, 2012

This passage serves as a gift to the church as we prepare to enter into the season of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday this coming week. At the outset, it is important to realize that this fantastic vision of the transfigured Jesus In Mark’s gospel follows upon the hard prediction Jesus made concerning his own death:

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”[1]

Any of us who have walked through the Lenten season in the church over the years knows that even in the often pale observances in the Protestant traditions, it is not a festive time, but rather a reflective one, somber even. It is a season having to do with the darker issues of human life: betrayal, death, a tomb, fear, goodbyes around the table at a final supper. This is not a season for “Be-happy-attitudes” sermons. It is a season for delving into the fears which are so powerful as to all but disable us in our walk of faith.

So today, on the final Sunday before we enter into the somber season of Lent on Ash Wednesday this week, comes this glorious passage recounting the transfiguring experience the disciples had with Jesus on the mountain. It is a preview of the resurrection to come at the end of our Lenten journey, a gracious glimpse into the final destination of this Lenten way, and in this way it is a gift to the church and to us.

I have to tell you, though, preachers find this passage daunting. We are rational creatures, standing in a rational tradition of exposition, accustomed to rendering living experience into words on a page, one thought following logically upon another, reasoned out in order. And here we have something that defies – or at least stands outside – the capacities of reason.

Not long ago I found myself seated on an airplane next to a man who had obviously glanced over my shoulder as I read my book. The book was clearly something religious in nature, so when I spilled a little of my coffee on my tray table during a moment of turbulence, he took that as the opportune moment to pop the inevitable question for ministers riding on airplanes: “Are you a pastor?” In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was what I took to be some sort of statistician with his own business. He had helped develop an internet web site with a unique purpose. It is a site where people can make contributions to good causes that have captured their attention, where all the money they give will go to the cause they indicate, but where the receiving organization will not know the source. So funds can be given freely, yet no cascade of mailed appeals will follow in the return mail, your address will not be sold to other charitable organizations. At the least, it sounded intriguing to me. Then my new friend went on to tell me that as a secondary purpose, he hoped to use the responses of the people making these contributions through his web site to mathematically prove or disprove the Christian concept of grace. He waited for my response. The only thing I could think to say was, “I predict ambiguous results.” It has not been my experience that grace lends itself to the sorts of controls necessary to be proven or disproven. Like our story of the transfiguration, grace stands outside the capacities of reason.

How can we talk about such things as the transfiguration of Jesus? Our much-valued capacity for reason fails us in light of this report of an unearthly, glowing brilliance, of a visitation from figures long-dead, like some story out of Charles Dickens, of a voice speaking from the clouds. When Peter struggled for an appropriate word to blurt out, it didn’t even merit a response from Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t talk about it, in fact, Mark says he ordered the disciples not to talk about it until after Easter; and since they hadn’t the faintest idea then what Easter was or what it would mean, they pretty much, as Mark says, “kept the matter to themselves.” Wouldn’t you? Jesus didn’t talk about it, the disciples were forbidden to talk about it. And here we are today, challenged to talk about it.

So what are we supposed to do with it? Just let it stand there, maybe, that’s one option. It does speak for itself, really, doesn’t it? All the elements of the story speak volumes without any elaboration from us:

· Moses, who stands there as the living embodiment of the law of Israel, the bringer of commandments from Sinai.

· Elijah, the quintessential prophet of Israel, who, as a solitary voice, once confronted a tyrannical monarch and his false prophets.

· In their company stands Jesus, in garments that glowed so brightly it was – to put it bluntly – unearthly: Jesus, in his person, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

· And in case anyone missed the point, there was the voice from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Clearly, they were in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God.

Coming, as it does, on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, this passage brings into sharp focus a holy moment, made more holy by the very recognition that it shall not last: “Just when we are safest,” poet Robert Browning once wrote, “there is a sunset touch.”[2]

John Killinger, teacher of a generation of preachers, once reflected upon a transfiguring moment in his own life. “... it hit me one day as I was sitting in the chancel of a church, waiting to deliver the guest sermon. A beautiful woman was playing a violin solo. Her lovely hands worked continuously at the strings and the bow, evoking the most soulful music I thought I had ever heard. There was a rose pinned in her exquisitely coiffed hair. I was transported. Then a dark thought crossed my mind, as if it had been a cloud passing between me and the sun. In a few years the woman would become old. The rose in her hair would die. Her soft hands would be gnarled and wrinkled by age. She would stop playing the instrument. She would be confined to a bed or a wheelchair. Then she, too, would die.”[3]

Morbid-sounding isn’t it, this line of thinking? But we all must surely know the moments in our own lives when for an instant the curtain is drawn back and we see the future, come to know what tomorrow holds. It is always transforming to stand, even for just that flash of a second, in the presence of the future.

I used to run for exercise until a torn bit of cartilage in my knee put me out of the running business. But back in those days, I recall that my little daughters used to like to race their dad. It was fun, and of course, I could beat them running backwards or sideways. But I would always keep the race close to prolong the fun. You know what happened. The day dawned – I don’t even recall precisely when it might have been, but the exact date doesn’t matter – the time came when not only could I no longer play this game, but I could not outrun them if I went at it with all my strength. And in my more honest reflections, I realize this is a trend that will not stop. It is a transfiguring thought to acknowledge the passing of time in such a way, to glimpse a future in which we are no longer the strong ones, the competent ones, the robust and healthy ones, but where we become the dependent ones, the weaker ones.

On the high mountain, apart from the present world that crowded in around them, those three disciples, Peter, James and John, knew something of the future, that death would not be the end, no matter how final it seemed. They glimpsed the future of a world in which Jesus is Lord. But they were only granted this vision after first learning that the Messiah must “suffer many things, and be rejected...and be killed.”

I don’t know if you ever talk to people who tell you they have visions, I suspect not many of you do, though I’m willing to be surprised. In our culture we have grown distrustful of otherwise ordinary people who make visionary claims. But pastors get to hear this from time to time, and while I retain as healthy a skepticism as anyone else, I no longer dismiss these reports out of hand. People see things, they recognize things, things come to them in ways neither they nor we would expect, and they sometimes call them visions. That’s OK with me. The key, I believe, is whether their visions are disabling or enabling.

Peter and James and John had their high-mountain vision, they caught that brief glimpse of what the future was to hold, what one preacher called a cracked door “between this world and some other, brighter place...”[4] but then they knew the future had not yet come. They had to descend the mountain, and along the way Jesus told them to keep this little episode to themselves – who could understand it anyway? They could barely figure out what had happened themselves. Down they went, back to a world not-yet redeemed, where that suffering which Jesus predicted for himself – and for them – was still to come. Yet they knew in a way they had not known before that it was not suffering which would have the final word, but glory. The dazzling glory of the Son, the Beloved, the One to whom – if voices from clouds are to be believed – we would do well to listen.

copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Choose Fast

Choose Fast

Isaiah 58:1-14 copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Mark 1:29-39 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 5, 2012

Is not this the fast that I choose...

In Isaiah’s prophecy,[1] we peek in on a time in Israel’s history when the people have been busy at worship, honoring God by fasting. Isaiah tells Israel, in so many words, don’t bother. God will not take notice of your liturgical self-flagellation. While it may have appeared to the people that the worship God wanted was characterized by long faces and self-denial, Isaiah laid it out plainly for them. In fact, prophets and preachers have been laying it out for God’s people ever since, often in words mimicking Isaiah’s. The worship God desires is to “loose the bonds of injustice... to let the oppressed go free... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house...”

Our religious practice is not an either/or game, playing ethics off against worship, as if religious people had to choose one or the other. The work of our faith is directly connected to our worship, and our worship to our work. We sometimes call the order of service a “liturgy,” a word derived from Greek, and the literal translation of that word is “work of the people.”[2] The liturgy is the ethically driven, worshiping work we do before God. The test for our Sunday task of worship comes in the tasks we take up on Monday through Saturday. The motivation behind our ethical behavior during the week is directly connected to what we have prayed, heard, and sung on Sunday in our worship. Worship is the work we do for God. Loving, feeding the poor, working against injustice, is the praise we sing to God. As Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”[3]

When someone comes out of church saying, “Frankly, that last hymn (or prayer or sermon or scripture passage) didn’t do a thing for me,” who cares, really? Not to be too blunt about it, but we are not singing the hymns for me, or you, or for each other, but for God. This part of the work of our worship is difficult for modern, consumer-minded people to comprehend fully, accustomed as we are to having the marketplace cater to our every whim, to the degree that we are commonly bedazzled by about 200 different kinds of shampoo or corn chips or peanut butter in the supermarket, and a baffling array of everything else that we buy. But in church, as one place in our culture’s overwhelming self-infatuation, the business is not about us, not about how we look when we are praying, or fasting, or singing, or preaching. It’s not about who does it best, or worst, about who looks best or worst, about the one we judge to be the most or least sincere. It is – and this bears repeating because it is such a difficult concept for all of us – it is about God. It is not about us.

Remember that great old Quaker hymn:

My life flows on in endless song

above earth’s lamentations;

I hear the real though far off hymn

that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

while to that rock I’m clinging;

while love is Lord o’er heaven and earth

how can I keep from singing?

Well, I sit up here Sunday after Sunday and I can tell you, no offense, but for some, keeping from singing appears to be no struggle at all! And I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard stories from adults about grade school teachers telling them as children not to sing because they sang so badly. Who are these cruel teachers, and why have they not been sent to remedial school teacher classes? Frankly, it’s hard to believe very many such teachers exist. Why would anyone think it perfectly reasonable to have to learn to spell or read, but believe that when it comes to singing, that’s just something we should be able to do with no prior experience or instruction, something we should have in hand as soon as we pop out of the womb? If someone really doesn’t want to sing, I can understand that I suppose, but at least it’s good to open the hymnal and read the beautiful poetry of the hymns that someone has written about God, and offer that silent reflection on God as part of our offering of worship. The beauty of singing is not measured by tunefulness or perfect pitch, but strictly on the measure of participation. The more who join in, the more beautiful God finds it to be. With God, it’s all about participation.

One of the drawbacks of being a leader in worship – in the choir, or at the organ, or at the lectern or pulpit, or ushering – is that we sometimes feel as if we cannot worship because we are too busy working. I know that much of my time in worship is spent trying to stay on top of what is coming next, to help things run smoothly, to check the bulletin, to look for the slow response that might cause an awkward silence, ‘til sometimes, by the end of the hour, I feel as if I have not worshiped at all, just spent an hour in a heightened state of nervous anxiety. So I have come to seek a peaceful place in my own spirit during worship, especially when I am not doing anything in particular, during an offertory or a beautiful prelude, joining in the morning prayers. And the truth is, we probably print our Sunday bulletins to help alleviate anxiety for worshipers, the “What’s next?” worry that most of us carry through so much of our lives, and bring right on in here to the sanctuary.

All the more important, then, that we receive frequent reminders that worship isn’t about our tastes or preferences, but is a service offered to God. Why else call it a “service” of worship? Worship is the work, the service we render to the God who has given so much to us. Sometimes we serve God by giving money for God’s work, by working on behalf of the homeless and helpless, by standing up for justice. On Sunday, we serve through giving ourselves to God in worship, by attempting to listen quietly to a word from God in scripture, preaching, prayer, and song. In song, especially, I think. The Bible is clear that God loves the singing of the people.

So what is it that makes for worship that is acceptable to God? According to Isaiah, God downgraded fasting and self-denial as particularly important for worship, especially if it was done more for show than for any other reason. But Isaiah did reflect for us on the idea that a fast more acceptable to God is one that denies self and takes up the cause of justice, the cause of the poor, the hungry, the homeless.

Jesus’ ministry, highlighted in our reading in Mark’s gospel, reflected this more acceptable fast as he conscientiously set self-concern aside and ministered to the sick, the helpless, the hopeless.

Here is a key thought in Isaiah’s prophecy: he calls for a proper worship that shares bread with the hungry, lets the oppressed go free, brings the homeless into your house, that clothes the naked. And this is perhaps the key to this whole thought: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly!” Isaiah knows, as anyone who has ever been involved in mission comes to know, that it is not the healing of poor inner city kids or housing poor families in Kenya, or helping hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast that’s at issue here, it’s our healing. People who involve themselves in these things find that the way to get our lives together is to do something for somebody else. “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn.” The fast we need to choose, but which is so difficult for us, is to stop acting as though the world exists for us and our needs and our tastes and our desires, and answer God’s call to be the light of the world, breaking forth in self-giving love and compassion.

Contemporary wisdom takes the opposite tack. A few months ago I was in a bookstore where I spotted rack after rack of books, CDs, and DVDs about self-help. Isaiah might suggest that we, save our money. He says, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places... you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

Do you know the Irish singer, Bono? Chances are, if you are my age or older, you may not. He is a popular singer and sometime guitar player who became famous with the rock band U2. He remains a bit of a pop cultural icon, which made his appearance to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago unusual, to say the least. But the reason for bringing up his name today has nothing to do with his pop culture status. It has to do with Isaiah’s call to take up a fast of service to others as the fast, the worship most desired by God.

Here are a few lines from his speech:[4]

“If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I... but maybe it’s odder for me than for you. You see, I avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle line... I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays... and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God...

...God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill. I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff. Maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.”

Bono quoted today’s passage from Isaiah, and then said,

“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it; I have a family, please look after them; I have this crazy idea... And this wise man said: ‘Stop.’

He said, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing — because it’s already blessed.’ Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing. And that is what he’s calling us to do.”

Delighting in God, in God’s Sabbath, is more than taking a walk or sitting alone quietly, though these can help. It is, at its heart, living lives scripted by something other than our own self-interest. It is, in the end, giving our lives so that others may live.

[1] I am grateful to William Willimon for his Duke University Chapel sermon “When In Our Music God Is Glorified,” providing key insights on the Isaiah text for this sermon.

[2] λτουργία, Leitourgia, from λαός / Laos, Laity, "the people" and the root ργο / ergo, “do/work.”

[3] Colossians 3:17.

[4] Thanks to Sojourners online, sojo mail 2-3-06,