Sunday, February 24, 2013

Who's On Trial?

Who’s On Trial?
Second in a Lenten series from Luke
Luke 22:39-46                                         
February 24, 2013           
© 2013 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Why are you sleeping?
Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.
Twice he tells them to pray. And both times he gives them the content of their prayer, that they “not come into the time of trial.” What did Jesus mean by that? In just a very few verses, Jesus would be appearing at a trial. Is that what he meant? They should pray so they would be spared from his trial? Or was it more than that? The verses prior to our own lesson were filled with Jesus’ words about his own trials, and specifically, Peter’s coming trial and betrayal. So what is he saying? That we can escape our trials? Or that we can live through them and on out to the other side?
What is the effect of prayer? The circumstances of Jesus’ own prayer reveal that though he prayed God might remove this cup – the coming agony of his passion – from him, that is not what happened. Additionally, though he urged the disciples to pray to escape trial, they fell asleep instead – sleeping “because of grief.” We all know about that kind of sleep, depressed, despondent, the divorce becomes fonal tomorrow, my-world-is-about-to-end sleep. Some might then conclude that this provides evidence that intercessory prayer – prayer which intercedes on behalf of ourselves or others – is not effective. Then Jesus followed his requests to God with. “yet not my will but yours be done.”
How long, do you suppose, was the silent pause he made between the two phrases, between asking God to remove his cup of suffering, and relinquishing control to God’s will in the matter? I don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else, but I’d guess it was a very long time.
Have you ever had your heart’s desire on your lips and in your mind, wearing your hopes like clothing, finding reason to return to them again and again, making them the subject of your prayers as well as your daily conversation? And have you ever discovered that in response there is sometimes only silence? I remember when it became clear my mother’s cancer was going to take her life. I prayed that this cup would be taken from her, from me. Silence. I waited. I slept because of grief. My mother died.
How long is the space between the time you discover your unmet hopes and the time when you find you have said in your life “yet not my will but yours be done”? I’d guess if it was something really important to you, it might have been a long, long time. It was for me. In fact, at this very moment, you may still be waiting for a response to some precious prayer, long on your heart. It’s not easy, is it, this waiting for an answer that does not come?
It isn’t the receiving or not receiving a positive response to our prayers that matters, not so much as the need finally to hand the outcomes of all our unmet desires to God, to seek his will in all things. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. I know this and so do you. Want to know how difficult? Just consider this scene where Jesus awaited God’s response. Jesus. Son of man. The Messiah. The anointed one of God, waiting for an answer that does not come. This is the Jesus whom we worship, left on hold.
Have you ever known someone who had a spirituality that was marked by a sense of handing over, a sense that the will of God was uppermost in their meditations and in their lives? I have heard of such people, saints, an occasional spiritually advanced person, but I’ve never been one of them.
When Jesus told his disciples that they were in the kind of night, the kind of dangerous circumstances where one would be inclined to sell his own clothes to buy a sword, he meant that they were in a desperate situation and they should make no mistake about it. He had told them at his last supper with them that he was going to be arrested and killed, and now they were moving out into the dangerous night. He was right. It is the sort of terrifying circumstance in life where one would sell anything, set aside any of life’s other priorities in order to have this one thing.
I remember the scene from the film Titanic, when the rich antagonist offered one of the ship’s officers a fistful of money to let him have a seat on the lifeboat. The officer looked at him incredulously. What good would money be to him, who would, in the space of a few hours, be dead? What could he buy with it that would be of value to him? The wealthy man thought he was offering what was precious, but its value was only proximate. First one must have an assurance of a continuation of life. Money only has value when it represents something that can be added to life. But that was a night when one would have sold his own clothes to have the one thing that might save him. What good are clothes when in a short time you will be at the bottom of the ocean or stretched out, naked, on a cross? “[The disciples were] prepared to meet the incoming danger by becoming dangerous. This, of course, is not the way of Jesus. In the battles facing the twelve, swords will be useless: a sword would not help Judas, a sword would not help Simon, a sword would not help frightened, fleeing disciples. But they thought so. So do we, truth be told.” If we think our own resources will see us through our greatest catastrophe, Jesus knows we are mistaken.[1] That is the sort of circumstance in which the disciples and Jesus found themselves, up against the wall, with only the protection of prayer to clothe them. And God appeared to be away from his desk, their calls were going unanswered.
Which is, of course, an answer of sorts. Sometimes the answer that silence provides is hard, but it is still an answer. It may not be the answer we want, but it will become the answer to the ultimate prayer, the one that relinquishes control, relinquishes the idea that we can have things the way we wanted them, that we can sell our clothes and buy our salvation.
A line in the Holy Week hymn titled “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” suggests that we not turn away from Jesus’ own griefs, but that we “learn from Jesus Christ to pray.” What do you think we we are supposed to learn about prayer?
One thing we learn is that Luke presents us with a picture of Jesus as one who prayed throughout his life. He did not just pray at this, his hour of critical need, but throughout his life and ministry. Prayer was his pattern. Luke records Jesus’ determination to pray at his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, before he chose his disciples, before Peter made his confession of Jesus’ Messiahship, at the Transfiguration on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, before he taught the disciples about prayer, here, before facing his arrest and execution, as he was dying, and, finally, in Luke 24, when he was risen from death, he prayed with two of his disciples who had walked with him to Emmaus, and they recognized him as he prayed.[2]
Other things we learn about prayer from Jesus: He was not bashful about saying what he wanted and waiting for an answer. He knew he might not receive what he had asked for. And he determined above all to align himself with what God is doing in the world, even when the entire picture and reason for this was out of his own view.
Of all the prayers we may find in the Bible, this prayer from Jesus reminds us that prayer in crisis means the most when it is preceded by a lifetime of prayer discipline. Jesus could handle the silence that confronted him because he had been in prayer so often before. One friend of mine wrote once, “Prayer is an exercise of faith, in the fullest sense of the phrase. Prayer requires a good bit of conditioning, and there are no shortcuts to fitness. This is hard news, of a hard work, especially for lumpy people like me. Some of us are simply too lazy to work that hard. And when the crisis comes, we’re too flabby to respond. We wear out quickly.”[3] This is what led to the disciples grief-filled slumber.
Jesus could pray to his Father in his hour of greatest anguish because his life had been characterized by prayer. Some fail to pray through resignation. “When my time comes it comes,” we say, or “Whatever God has in mind is what I’m going to get, why bother praying?” But apparently the struggle we undergo in prayer has great value, no matter the outcome. Jesus told his heavenly Father what he wanted, in hopes that his request would intersect with the Father’s intentions. Some cynics say that prayer is like throwing an anchor onto a rock, and then imagining that by pulling on our prayer like a rope we are pulling the rock to us, when we are really pulling ourselves to the rock. But that is only a caricature. Here, Jesus was deliberately trying to pull himself to the rock, he wasn’t fooling himself. It takes a lifetime of prayer to know that as one of the chief goals of prayer.
Several years ago, professor Carol Zaleski reflected on the peculiar practice of prayer in a short article.[4] I really appreciated what she wrote:
 “Recently we learned about a young girl in our area who has been diagnosed with a virulent cancer. Doctors say her odds of survival are at best 20 per cent. She has just begun chemotherapy and her immune system is so ravaged that the most innocuous virus could kill her. This little girl is being prayed for around the clock by friends and strangers – and now, I hope, by readers of this column. Her disease will be fought with every weapon in the medical arsenal devised by God-given human ingenuity. At the same time, her family will storm the gates of heaven with prayer, commend this girl to her Creator, her guardian angel and the saints, and call in all reinforcements, for resignation is not a Christian virtue.
 “It would be different if we were adherents of a Star Wars religion, latter-day Stoics who believe that the universe is ruled by an impersonal Force; then our task would be to adjust ourselves to its ordinances without complaint. We would follow the counsel of Marcus Aurelius – the philosopher-emperor [whose reputation experienced] a small revival with his appearance in the film Gladiator and the recycling of his Meditations into a neo-Buddhist self-help manual – to...reflect that ‘all things are little, changeable, perishable.’
 “If we think that suffering is a result of misinterpretation, that individuals are sparks cast off by the infinite spirit and destined to return to the mother flame, we do well to practice composure. It is, however, a characteristic peculiarity of Christianity (as of Judaism) to fancy that God wants us to complain and commands us to intercede. Moreover, the creed tells us that we belong, by calling, to the communion of saints both living and dead for whom intercessory prayer is the natural medium of communication.”
The best way to understand prayer is to start. To pull ourselves toward the Rock. And to keep on. And on and on and on.

[1] Luke:Interpretation Commentary Series, Fred Craddock, John Knox Press, 1990, p.260.
[2] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; 9:28-29; 11:1-2; 18:1; 22:39-46; 23:34, 46; 24:30-31.
[3] Bill Carter, in an unpublished paper presented to the Homiletical Feast in Tampa, Florida, January, 2001.
[4] in Christian Century, “Storming Heaven,” February 17-24, 2001, p. 24.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

To Bathe in the Sheep Gate Pool

 To Bathe in the Sheep Gate Pool
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
                  First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
                  Ash Wednesday: 2-13-2013
John 5:1-9 (NRSV)
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.

Everyone who reads the papers knows what an “unprovoked attack” is. Among the anxieties of modern life there is the fear that we may be walking alone one night, or resting quietly in our own home, and suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger attacks us with malevolent intentions. Scoundrels have always been able to use the element of surprise to accomplish evil ends.
But what about an act of “unprovoked grace”? I recall a blossoming of bumper stickers years ago calling for a bit of unprovoked graciousness through “random acts of kindness.” Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of a randomly kind act, say when struggling to manage two large full grocery bags and a stranger stepped forward and opened the door for you.
When we are on the receiving end an act of unprovoked graciousness, we won’t have expected it, that’s the delight of it, isn’t it?
It was so for the man who lounged for 38 years by the pool called “Beth-zatha” or “Bethesda.” For 38 years, he had in mind one goal only: to get to the pool any time the waters were stirred and receive the healing that everyone said would be available only momentarily for the lucky few who could jump in time. That pool must have been something like those call-in contests on the radio: “We will offer this prize for the correct answer from caller number 10!” Caller number 9 and caller number 11 are no closer to winning than caller number 243. It isn’t fair necessarily, just a random chance in a dialing sequence. Today could be your lucky day, but very likely it won’t be. The air stirs, the aroma of fresh water invades the stagnant atmosphere around the cisterns of the Bethesda pool, and everyone realizes it all at the very same instant. There is a rush like nobody’s business until that all-too-brief moment has passed. A missed opportunity means more endless waiting until a magic moment occurs again.
38 years. Perhaps in that first year the man remained beside the pool with nerves on edge, waiting, waiting, waiting until, WHAM! the instant arrived when healing was only a fleeting few ticks of the clock away. But others were faster. Then, that opportunity having been missed, there remained only more waiting on edge. But for 38 years? By the time 38 years of waiting go by, we have spent so much time biding our time that waiting itself has become our whole life’s work. Day after dreary day, his focus had become waiting. Hour by hour he waited. Days stretched into weeks and months, until he could hardly remember a time of his life not characterized by endless waiting.
Then, one day, a voice startled him from his usual stupor into an unaccustomed state of alertness. He looked up. He was blinded by the sun silhouetting the stranger’s face. “Do you want to be healed?” the stranger asked. What a cruel, silly question! Hadn’t he devoted almost his entire life to waiting for an opportunity to be healed? So his answer sounded ambivalent, explaining that he had no one to help him. He had almost forgotten the whole reason behind lying beside the pool. It had been so long since he had really thought of the effect of the healing waters that he had come to think only of getting in them.
We have all known the secret pleasure that can characterize a temporary illness, which requires that we stay home, leaving the real tasks of life unfinished, unattended for a while, giving us the luxury of temporary unaccountability. For the man by the pool, means had become ends. Getting into the water had become the whole life’s goal. Getting a handout from passersby had changed places with the original target of actually becoming mobile enough to work. What healing meant, what work is, these had been forgotten, maybe somewhere around the 24th year of his endless waiting.
Do you want to be healed? What a question! But after 38 years … interim answers, lesser answers offer themselves when our lives involve waiting. “Perhaps he has never been well. Perhaps he doesn’t know what it is to be well.”[1] Abraham waited all his life for a son. Job waited endlessly for an interim answer to his questions about suffering.
It has occurred to me that a lot of us throw away a pretty good portion of our lives believing that waiting for real life is our task, when the fact is that real life is only what we have right now. Life today is not a practice for some future time of real living. Sometimes chronically ill patients have reported that one of the key adjustments to life with their disease was to discover who they were called to be now that disease is a given in their life. The person they had been is gone. A new goal and task to life need to be discovered, or else the remainder of life could seem only that: a remainder, a time of endless waiting.
Congregations can do this too. Members of churches may sit year after year waiting for the church to turn into the church they really wanted it to be, withholding themselves from real work on behalf of the church until that far-off time when their vision of what the church should have been will be realized.
Me? Healed? The man beside the Bethesda pool said, “No, I want to get into the water, but no one will help me.” We may respond, saying, “I haven’t had anyone provide a church for me the way I have really needed a church to be. I know what I’m looking for in a church, and I’ll just wait to be healed until that comes along, thanks.”
Jesus bent over, got close enough to the man’s face that he could smell what he had had for breakfast, looked right into his eyes and said “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” Nothing further about pools of water and a thousand other excuses. Just, “Get up and walk.” Unprovoked grace! And the man did. And so may we.

[1] “Hazards of Healing,” by Margaret Guenther in Christian Century, May 10, 1995, p. 507.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Veiled Attempts

Veiled Attempts

Sunday, February 10, 2013
Exodus 34:29-35           

Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone
because he had been talking with God.

“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone.” I like this line, I don’t fully know why. Someone walks into my office and says, “God has been speaking to me,” and sometimes, fearful, I think to myself, “What does that have to do with me?” and like the Israelites I am afraid to come near them ... They may have been in touch with something big, something dangerous.
But then, I think how often in the study at the church or at home, alone with the Bible and a few trusted commentaries that surround me on my desktop like old friends – and maybe a paper prepared by one of my preaching friends from our annual meetings in January on sermon texts – I make a study of these passages I preach on every Sunday.
Over my career in ministry, in my sermon preparation times, as I have considered the implications of a scripture reading, I frequently remark to myself how often I find some nugget, some insight, some arresting observation among all the words written in commentaries by men and women wiser than I, that makes me stop in my tracks — things, as they used to say, that make you go “hmmm.” It might be a single word, repeated in an unusual way, or an alternate translation that suddenly makes it seem as though someone turned the light on in the room.
A couple of days go by, and then I get to the day for writing the sermon, and often all the shine seems to have gone from my nifty insights, I can’t seem to find the same gear I had when I was meeting with my fellow scholars. The light switch is overhead, just out of reach. My face was maybe shining in scripture study days or weeks or months ago, but by some Thursdays, I’m behind the old veil again. The world has undone my proximity to the voice of God one more time, and I have to work at finding my way there once again, to the place where the veil can be removed and I can sense the nearness of God that makes my face begin to glow like moving just a little too close to the campfire.
Maybe you have been there too. I suspect some of you have. I hope many of you have. Maybe you have found times in your life when the puzzle pieces snapped together for an instant, when the sense of something very important to you suddenly became evident in a way it never had before. Still, the lifting of the veil, the shining of the face lasts but a short time, and all too soon, back behind the veil we go, back to the mundane, insightless lives we know all too well. Why must it always be so?
I recall that Phillips Brooks[1] once said, “Humility doesn’t come from counting up our sins, it comes from standing our tallest and measuring ourselves against that which God intends for us.” But we can so easily lose sight of our tallest selves, and especially the selves God has in mind for us to be.
I think this story about Moses running up and down the mountain of meeting represents something like that in the life of Israel. They were beginning to be made to see not only that God was willing to save them from the slavery of Egypt, but that God was willing to believe in them, was willing to stay beside them even when the great danger had passed, even when – and this always comes as a great shock to people who beat themselves up at avery available opportunity – even when they knew they had failed God, had let God down. Even then, God believed in them, which in some ways is harder to take than if God had simply thrown up his hands and walked away. God wanted more from them, found more potential in them than they knew they had, and caused them to begin to stand their tallest and measure themselves against that which God intended for them.
How can it be otherwise for us, who follow the Savior?
I remember the very first wedding we celebrated in the spanking new sanctuary of the church I once served in Port Arthur, Texas. One of the distinguishing features of that sanctuary was that up at the peak of the roof, clerestory windows ran the entire length of the room, made up of stained glass panes of various colors. Our first wedding was at 11:00 A.M. on a Saturday, a couple of weeks after the sanctuary had been dedicated, and I will never forget that as the bride made her way toward the chancel, the colors from those clerestory windows were displayed along the entire length of the center aisle. No one had anticipated the effect. Her white dress changed colors with every step, transfigured: one moment it was white, the next moment green, the next it was so red it appeared to be on fire, then yellow, purple, and so on. By the time she reached the front of the sanctuary, we were all absolutely transfixed. I could hardly bring myself to speak the words to begin the service. It was as if the architect and the sun had conspired to provide us with a truly heavenly light show.
One great claim of the Christian faith is that while we may be in the dark about many things, on the ultimate issues of human life there is light. Paul once said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”[2] Some things, many things, we don’t know. We really don’t know the complete answer to all questions that begin with “why.” The answers we do have shine in the face of Moses, in the face of Christ, on our own faces, and can change us more fully, more gracefully than that wedding dress ever changed that bride or any of us.
What happened on that holy mountain when Moses came back to deliver the tablets to the children of Israel? When they say that his face had a certain glow about it, what does it mean? Was it like the glow your hands feel when they have been warmed by a fire? How do we describe such things? One preacher says there is no describing them, that if you are going to talk about a bear, the best thing to do is bring in a bear. But how can we bring in the shining face of Moses?
It is as hard to describe what happened on that mountain top as it is to give an accurate description of what goes on in our dreams.
The question for us is not so much whether we have ever experienced a transfiguration the likes of the one that came over Moses, but whether we may ever have been an agent to help God bring one to pass. In southeast Texas, where I once served, there is a special school – the Hughen School – for very sick children, most of whom have few or no motor skills. One very sick boy lived at that school, dying by degrees. Tragic as that could be, that is not the reason for telling this story. Children get grievously ill every day. It is one of the unhappy yet constant facts of human life on earth. But this little boy had the good fortune to be living in the same community with some faithful believers who took the story of God’s own shining in the world to be their story. God’s glory lived in them to the degree that they carried it with them where they went. A group of these people joined together to go to that child every day and read to him. Knowing that he was slowly dying, unable to move or read for himself, it was the only activity that comforted him.
The social workers were amazed. Just being read to by three ladies, taking turns, one every day, transformed him from a depressed and despondent child into a responsive person whose spark of life, though soon to leave him, grew brighter, not dimmer. The boy died eventually, as we all must die. But his life had been forever transfigured by the ministry of caring Christian people. Their lives had been changed as well. I can assure you, with my own eyes I saw them glowing.
When do we find that the veil of the mundane lives we live has been lifted? Paul worried that people might miss the fact that Christ has lifted the veil from our eyes. He said, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord ... are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”[3] All of us. Transformed.
William Willimon, a Methodist bishop and former chaplain at Duke University, once wrote,
“A few weeks ago I had a bad day, the culmination of a bad week. The congregation didn’t like my sermon, didn’t care for my pastoral care. The Institute on Religion and Democracy sent another batch of spiteful e-mails. The electrical relay to the organ gave out. I was depressed.
Then, preparing for a sermon, reading a text I had worked on many times before – Galatians 2 – I noticed something. A little Greek word, eis. Paul says ‘a person is righteous not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.’ But eis can be either translated ‘in’ or ‘of.’ Is it the faith ‘in’ Jesus Christ – Jesus is the object of our faith? Or can it also be the faith ‘of’ Jesus Christ – we are to have the same faith, that same suffering, obedient unto death, boldly trusting faith?”
Bishop Willimon went on, “Suddenly the latter possibility glowed before me, lit up my imagination, transfigured my previous understandings of faith. Our being right with God is not so much our belief in Christ as it is our believing like Christ. What matters is Jesus, moving toward the world as he moved, living and believing as Jesus, ‘Jesus only.’
I wanted to preserve that moment of exegetical insight forever. But I couldn’t. I had to go back down and be a pastor, answer the mail, visit the sick and construct a sermon. Still, my face shone because, like Moses, I had been talking with God. The rest of that day some people needed sunglasses just to look at me.”[4]
There are those days when I know just how he feels. I pray that you do too.
Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] An American clergyman and author, briefly served as Bishop of Massachusetts in the Episcopal Church during the early 1890s. In the Episcopal liturgical calendar he is remembered on January 23. He is known for being the lyricist of "O Little Town of Bethlehem".
[2] I Corinthians 13:12
[3] II Corinthians 3:18
[4] “Come On Down” by William Willimon Christian Century,  February 10, 2004, p. 19.