Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Finding the 'Magic Wand'...

Over this past month I have been fairly immersed in my work with Episcopal Appalachian Ministries. I have been filled with both excitement about the work being done to minister to the people of our region while at the same time, like many of you might be feeling, have a feeling of being overwhelmed by the shear enormity of the issues we face in our country and throughout the world. As I mentioned in one of my sermons this past month, we live in scary times. The economic crisis, the wars in the Middle East, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the coal mining explosion in West Virginia, the rising rate of unemployment… the list goes on and on. I wish so much we could find the one “magic wand” that would fix it all, but there just isn’t one we seem to see… at least not one we seem to be accessing. But despite the gloom and doom that seems to be all around us, there is some hope out there for the whole big picture.
I had the pleasure of attending an Episcopal Conference on Domestic Poverty in Newark, NJ about a month ago. At this conference, there were folks representing the whole gambit social, economic, healthcare and welfare groups within the Episcopal Church; in addition to experts from governmental and academic circles. I am still muddling through all the information that I received there… it is hopeful and at the same time overwhelming. Despite this, I left the conference with a renewed sense of energy about how we, as the Body of Christ, can begin to address the multiple issues that haunt us in this world. Although, as I mentioned, there is no one “magic wand” or solution, however there are many solutions just as there are many parts to the body… it is all connected. The one thing I heard, above all the many issues that were discussed, is that there is a resolve within our Church for us to work collaboratively to address the many complicated issues that we are all called to address by virtue of our Baptismal covenant. The truth is, we and “the issues” are all connected.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, was the keynote speaker at the conference. In her talk, she pointed out how so much of the problem with domestic poverty is interconnected with how we view each other and the earth we live in. She said, “We’re here to do justice, and love mercy. We’re here to walk humbly with God and bring good news to the poor. That good news of justice and mercy looks like the ancient visions of the commonweal of God where everyone has enough to eat, no one goes thirsty or homeless, all have access to meaningful employment and health care, the wealthy and powerful do not exploit the weak, and no one studies war any more. It includes the work of building community and caring for the earth, both of which are essential to the health of a spiritually rooted person, in right relationship with God and neighbor.”
I think for most of us, we tend to have this flaw of wanting to point the finger and blame many of the hardships of life on something or someone besides ourselves. It is very easy to fall into the trap of pointing our finger at “the liberals” or “the conservatives”. We blame BP, the Taliban, coal companies, lack of education or anything else we can point to for the plight of the world. But the hard truth is that we are all broken and flawed; we are all sinners. We put our own needs before others. We consume more than we need and we hold onto our “stuff” as if it were going to somehow save us.
As Christians, we know better… Jesus was very clear about that. We have all heard it before… “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
I wish I could offer THE “magic wand” for the plight of our current world and country situation… all of the issues are very complicated. Like you, I still have to drive to work… this computer that I am typing on is most likely using electricity generated from coal burning generators. The oil spill crisis in the Gulf and the recent coal mine explosion in West Virginia just last month are all connected to our need to consume cheap energy. I, like you, would much rather I buy gas for $2.30 a gallon than $2.75 a gallon… I would much rather my electric bill be under $150 a month… it IS complicated…
I think that if there is a “magic wand” it has to be rooted in a change of heart for us all. It would be a spiritual change. It would look something like the Kingdom of God… or rather, would BE the Kingdom of God… Rather than be preoccupied with what we spend for energy or trying to hold onto and protect our “stuff” we would be preoccupied with loving our neighbors and protecting the neighborhood, “this fragile earth, our island home” (BCP 370).
You see, poverty at home and abroad, the environment, corporate greed, terrorism and energy consumption and all that other stuff that scares us, it is all connected. It is about the relationships we have with each other in this world. For there to be change we will all have to be willing to truly live into our Baptismal covenant and truly “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as yourself”. It means we each have to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”(BCP 305). This my friends is the way of Christ… it is the way of God… it is the Kingdom of Heaven…

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Do you want to be made well?

One of the curious things about us as human beings is that we will tend to do the
same thing over and over again expecting to get a different result. To give you an example of this, remember the last time you were on your computer and had a slow internet connection? Do you remember pointing your mouse to click on something or hitting the delete button and nothing happened? How many times did you hit delete or click?.... that is my point exactly!

The alternative Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday of Easter (John 5:1-9) sort of reminded me of that… Let me tell you why… In this narrative, Jesus was in Jerusalem one of the few times he visited Jerusalem before his crucifixion. He is walking near the pool of Bethzatha. In more ancient translations of this scripture there is added a verse that gives a further explanation of why the people that were ill were waiting there. According to legend, the waters were stirred up during certain seasons because the Lord would send angels to stir the waters. It was believed that when person entered the waters at these times, they would be healed from whatever ailment they might have.

We know that the man in this Gospel reading had been sick for a long time, 38years. It says that Jesus knew he had been there a long time; we really don’t know how long; it could have been all day or it could have been weeks, months or years. But what is readily apparent is that he had made several attempts to get to the pool and it had not worked. It is easy to surmise that this man has been desperately trying to get into the pool and that had been his total focus for the amount of time he had been there. Then Jesus comes along and says, “Do you want to be made well?”… it is almost like a wake-up call… You can almost imagine the man saying to himself, “oh yeah, that is why I am here!” It is as if the whole purpose of his being at the pool had been somehow lost. He was so focused on doing something the same way over and over again, getting into the pool, that he seemingly forgot why he wanted to get into the pool in the first place. What he really wanted was to be made well… getting into the pool was just a means to an end. He had totally forgotten why we was going through the motions… Kind of like we all do sometimes… When Jesus brought his focus back to the place it needed to be, that is when things began to change.

It is very easy for us to lose our focus at times; especially during this day and time. We live in some scary times. In the last year and a half we have lived through the most severe economic crisis since the great depression. People have lost retirement funds and unemployment is on the rise. The loss of jobs means a life of uncertainty; no income, no health insurance and a future that is unknown. Foreclosures have become the norm in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, homelessness and hunger are even more common.

Our nation is at war in a number of places, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. The loss of life and the physical and psychological damage to our service men and women is affecting whole families and communities. Their sacrifice seems as if it is barely scratching the surface in relieving our sense of feeling more secure or a sense of peace about the future. The wars, the economic instability, the oil spills, and threats of suicide bombers makes it a scary time indeed. We all know these things all too well.

The sad thing is that much of the destruction occurring in the world is being done in the name of religion. Those who blow themselves up on airplanes or in the markets do it in the name of religion or a religious vision, as do those who seek vengeance for their actions. There are those who claim a gospel of prosperity and blame the jobless and poor for their own plight also have a religious vision, as do those who would deny food and healthcare to those that do not have them…
Those of us who call ourselves Christians also have a religious vision. Has your religion ever gotten in the way of you offering love and grace to those that are wounded or marginalized? If you are like me, you bet it has!

The problem is that we can get so wrapped up in our high ideals and religious convictions that we will mow down anyone who stands in our way. We lose our focus and tend to forget why we have committed ourselves to following Christ.
Our religion as Christians, our Gospel, if we are genuinely true to it, is a message of hope. It is easy to lose sight of that in these scary times.

The writer of Revelation knew that as well. Throughout the session of Easter for this Church year, we have had readings from the book of Revelation. Revelation is one of those books in the Bible that we rarely use in our lectionary. Revelation is also is the one book that most of us that preach avoid like the plague because it is so strange and weird with its images. Most of the book is a strange mix of supernatural images, fierce beasts, symbols and battles. We read about horsemen, dragons, sea monsters, earth creatures, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them and much, much more! It is enough to give you nightmares for weeks. Despite this, Revelation has had profound impact on Western culture. It is one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible with depictions in architecture, paintings, tapestries, stained-glass and altar pieces. Even some of the great classic authors of history and modern times have drawn from Revelation. Dante, T.S. Elliot, William Blake, Ray Bradbury and more have been inspired by its images. Even in music, Revelation has influenced some of the greats such as Handel in his Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Revelation was written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. John wrote his letter while in exile on the island of Patmos, to Christians in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey which was still part of the Roman Empire. Most Romans of that time, saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because they refused to worship the Emperor. They were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because of what they believed and followed. Many Christians gave into the culture of the time in order to avoid the ostracism and economic deprivation. It was a scary time to be a Christian. Because of this (as it is today) many had forgotten why they followed Christ.

Despite what we tend to hear most about Revelation, the letter of Revelation was not sent to predict the end of time but to divulge the truth about the challenges the churches faced in their time. John wanted to give them hope and help them to endure and encourage them to resist complacency and then give into the religion and social practices of the empire around them. We have that same struggle today. It is very easy to give into the fear and uncertainty that we find ourselves living in during our own times. It is easy to point to the “beasts” of our own time, from Sadam Husain, Osama Bin Laden, to Goldman Sachs, as being the culprits for our current hard times.

In the book of Revelation, Babylon serves as the primary metaphor for the Roman Empire complete with its oppression, violence and injustice. Biblical scholar Dr. Gail O’Day says, “ … the goal of Revelation is to invite the Churches (of that day) to move out of Babylon and into the grace of the city of God”. And what a city it is! The New Jerusalem; the city that comes down from heaven. There is no need for a temple because God’s presence is in everything. The gates of the city are always open and the gifts creation are available to everyone. The Tree of Life is planted on both sides of the river and available to all, regardless of which side of the river (or the train tracks) you live on. “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.” It is a beautiful city indeed. It is the Kingdom of God. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Those of us that choose to be part of that kingdom and live in that city that comes down from heaven, need to keep our focus.
If ever there was a time when the hope of the resurrection needs to be shared, now is that time. The beautiful city of God is not just about our pie in the sky hope of going to heaven when we die; although I certainly don’t discount that. The vision of the beautiful city that we all long for in the future is here now. God is present and moved into our own city; our own neighborhood.

The fear, anxiety and hopelessness of the man by the pool waiting for an angel to fly by is no different than our own fear, hopelessness and anxiety. Life has a lot of uncertainties and things for as to be afraid of. The Holy City, the New Jerusalem is here now, all around us. We can choose to live inside or outside its walls. We can choose to stay on our mats and keep doing things the same way we have been. We can choose to glorify all the wrong stuff; war, humiliating our adversaries; shaming the immigrant, ignoring and neglecting those that live in poverty; consuming goods that possess us rather than us possessing them; going through the motions of our religion without creating the spiritual discipline that helps us truly listen to Christ and follow in his footsteps. We truly do need to ask ourselves, “do we want to be made well?” We can keep clicking on the same things over and over again expecting something different. Or we can take up our mats and walk into the city of God. Inside these walls we come to know the grace and love that transforms lives. In this kingdom, good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death – both are here and now as well as in eternity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bigfoot and Jesus...

One does not have to change too many channels on TV, these days, to find some sort of program about the supernatural. This, in and of itself, tells me that we have a fascination with these sorts of things. Even our movies, from “Ghost Busters” to “Avatar” appeal to our attraction to other worldly things. I have to admit, I am sort of drawn to these things myself.
Since I was a child, I have had this fascination and fantasy of going to the Northwest and look for Sasquatch or Big Foot. Just ask my family, anytime a program comes on about Big Foot, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

I am going to go out on a limb here; when you think about the Gospel reading for this past Sunday (John 20:19-31), Jesus appearing to the disciples is not really that much different than a Big Foot story. After all, the only evidence we have of Big Foot are eye witness accounts, some questionable film footage and some plaster casts of foot prints that any creative person could recreate without too much problem.

Jesus’ resurrection is only an eye witness account. We have more evidence for Big Foot than Jesus coming to life again! When it comes to my own life experiences with death and dying, I have learned with fairly strong certainty that dead things just don’t come back to life. Having been a person who spent the early part of my career as a funeral director, this conclusion is even more firmly planted in my head. Like most of us, it is very easy for me to identify with Thomas; I want the proof, show me the hard facts, the numbers… Thomas is not really any different than the rest of us.

John in writing his Gospel, knew that the resurrection was going to be a very hard thing to sell, even in his day. The Gospel of John, as we know now, was written nearly a full century after the event of the resurrection. The stories of Jesus and his life were at best second or third hand at this point. John was writing to people that were born after the resurrection and had never seen or heard Jesus in the flesh. There might have been a few eye witnesses around, but those folks would have been way on up in years. John’s problem was in the continuing problem of the Church to give witness to the resurrection at a time when Jesus was no longer around to be seen or touched. Then as now, it was very easy to doubt the truth of the story; hence, John’s use of the story of Thomas.

By detailing Thomas’ reluctance to believe, John takes the words right out of our mouths and puts them into to Thomas’ instead. John does this so that we have the clear opportunity to ask ourselves howwe come to believe; or not believe for that matter. Thomas was a bit different than the other disciples which might be an explanation as to why he was not there in the room with the other disciples the first time Jesus appears. After all it was Thomas, back when Jesus was trying to return to Bethany to see Lazarus (which was deep in enemy territory for Jesus) and despite the other disciples’ discouragement, who said, “Let us also go, so that we might die with him”. At the table of the Last Supper, when Jesus told his disciples to not be afraid because they knew the way to where he was going, it was Thomas who said, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Thomas was bit of a maverick. He was not a blind follower. He was a brave literal-minded kind of guy who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only if he knew for sure it was the right thing to do. Maybe you know some folks like that yourself. Those people that are full of integrity who refuse to go along with the crowd just because it is popular. Thomas was just this kind of guy. It would have been very easy for him to have succumbed to the peer pressure and just believe, because they all said they had seen Jesus. He could have said, “okay, I believe you, what next?” But Thomas did not. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Thomas is simply a stand-in for all the rest of us who want to see it for ourselves before we are convinced that any of it is true.

On top of the absurdity of a dead man coming back to life, it would have been risky and still is for us today to believe in something as outlandish as the resurrection. It would have been very risky indeed for the disciples to have bought into a resurrected Messiah immediately following his implication by the Jewish leaders and execution by Rome. The Gospel reading records that the disciples had gathered together. They had gathered in secret, huddled together behind closed doors. They were afraid that the fate that had overtaken Jesus might just come upon them. In the eyes of their governing authorities they would been categorized as rabble rousers and troublemakers. They would have been perceived as Jesus had been perceived, as an up-setter of the status quo. After all, those that rock the boat take the risk of being tossed overboard! They were genuinely afraid.

They had been told and been witnesses of their Master’s execution and now this strange tale of being seen alive by his closest female friend. Well, it would not be unreasonable to blow this tall tale off and simply assume that Mary was a bit hysterical from her grief. But they too were grieving left crushed, defeated, afraid and alone. The dream was dead. For all practical purposes, this should be the end of the story. Jesus was crushed by the people that saw him as a threat. One more innocent victim of the prosecuting authorities. Now that the trouble had been dealt with perhaps stability might return to the community, a community still under the domination of the powers that be, but a community relieved of their nuisance. The powers that be closed the book on Jesus; done deal. The disciples also thought it was the end of the story.

Then, in a very strange and supernatural turn of events, here is Jesus alive and well, all of the sudden in their midst, just like old times. And his first word to them, which will be repeated, is “peace.” But why “peace?” If you had seen God’s chosen murdered and then come back to life what would you be expecting; especially if you had deserted him, denied him, betrayed him? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to expect a vengeful God giving the disciples what they deserve for going AWOL and not being loyal to their leader. Humanity had effectively decided against God in rejecting his agent. Surely, God must be angry. Jesus’ announcement of peace removes that fear. Jesus announcement of peace says God is not like that. Unlike the political and military machines whose peace must be ever gained by continually beating down and overtaking their foes, Jesus word of peace puts an end to old way of doing things.
Even with Thomas, Jesus understands his doubt and does not dismiss him from the circle of friends even though Thomas did not trust what his cohorts had told him. Jesus did not admonish or scold Thomas for his disbelief. Instead Jesus comes back and repeats the whole scene for the benefit of Thomas. It is transformative, it demonstrates that neither he nor his Father participate in retaliation or revenge. It is more than a greeting, “Peace be with you”, it is the offering of a whole new existence and a whole new way to perceive God.

The announcement of the Risen Lord is the foundation of all Christian faith and theology. It is the very basis of our existence as followers of Christ. Truly the experience of encountering Jesus in that closed room transformed lives. It turned a bunch of rag tag followers who were terrified and running scared into a Church that survives to this day. It turned those followers from cowards into leaders that stood by their conviction that Jesus was alive. As we see in our reading from Acts for this past Sunday (Acts 5:27-32), the disciples’ resolve and conviction about Jesus had changed so drastically that they were willing to defy a straight order by the Jewish Council to stop saying Jesus was alive; the very people they had been running from that night in the closed room.

Believing in the resurrection is something we all must wrestle with. We are outside the circle of this story by thousands of years. As if to speak over Thomas’ shoulder to the rest of us, we hear Jesus say ,“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen but have come to believe.” Those who were witnesses to the resurrection knew they had encountered something extraordinary had happened in their lifetimes. The stories they have left us with in the scriptures, beg us still to take their word for what they are sure they saw.

I cannot offer any sort of empirical evidence of Jesus being raised from the dead; there is none. But what I can do is point you in a direction in which we can encounter the risen Lord; an encounter just as valid as the disciples’ encounter that evening in the closed room. The good news is that we don’t have to go far to see and experience that.

There is the story that aired this past week on NBC about Marcia Merrick who for the past 40 years has gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to make 400 sack lunches and then take them into the streets of Kansas City, MO to give to the homeless people living there. She not only hands out the sack lunches, but she spends timing talking these people without homes and giving a long awaited hug or kind word. I don’t know if Marcia is a Christian or not, the story did not say; but surely Christ is risen in this woman…

There is also the ongoing story of my friend Harry Chase who lives in Knoxville and drives every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to Jellico, in Campbell Co. TN to work as a volunteer in the Maplewood School for preschool kids who are born into families where the cycle of poverty seems to never end and domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism is the norm. You don’t have to talk to Harry long to realize his compassion for these kids and their families. He is making a difference one child and family at a time; surely Christ is risen in this man…
Then there is the story of us here today. We come week after week toreceive renewal, affirmation and hope in the risen Lord. For us we can hear the words of Jesus echoed week after week, “Peace bewith you” and “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe”. There is this encounter with the risen Lord every time we come to this table together.
We receive Christ together as one living body. “By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…” we receive the living Christ. There nothing we have to do to receive this gift, except to hold out our hands and receive the body and blood of Christ. And despite all of our doubts and desire to have proof, we are still part of this living body and blood of Christ. We encounter the risen Lord through each other. Through us, Jesus truly lives… Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sacred Places...

I remember when I use to drive to and from work when I had an office in Johnson City, how there were some days when the vista in front of me was truly breathtaking and awe inspiring. But on most days, I would drive to and from work and not really take notice of the mountains or the scenery. And sometimes, on very rare occasions, I would feel something a little deeper; a spiritual connection, if you will, when I did take notice of the beauty in front of me. I do live in a truly beautiful part of the country. I would like think that most people like to see these mountains as special places – places where we go to seek renewal through visits, vacations or summer homes. There is a hint of sacredness about being in the mountains. When you visit some of the local sights close to where I live, like Roan Mountain, Mt. Mitchell or Clingman’s Dome you just somehow feel closer to heaven. Whenever I have hiked along some of these high ridges of the Black Mountains or Smokey Mountains, there has nearly always been this sense of awe and a feeling of being in the presence of God; a sense of being in the presence of something greater than myself.
The geographical region of the country in which I live, called Appalachia, stretches from Northern Alabama and Mississippi all the way to Southern New York State. Geographically, these mountains are considered the oldest in the world. There is a culture and heritage present in Appalachia that is very rich. Many of us place a high value on the arts and crafts of the mountain people; the quilts, the bluegrass music, the dance forms, and the literature from Appalachia that enrich our American experience. But despite the rich culture, arts, music, natural beauty and abundance of natural resources, the Appalachian region remains as one of the most poverty stricken regions of our country. There are many contradictions in how we view these beautiful mountains and the people who live there. We allow the natural beauty of the mountains to be destroyed by such practices as mountaintop removal mining and the clear cutting of forests. The stereotype of the “Appalachian Hillbilly” is still present. Even in my own community, you do not have to go far to find people who speak with a distinctive Southern Appalachian accent and somehow come across as lacking any sort of formal education. Most folks have tendency to devalue people like these by making them the butt of a thousand jokes about laziness, ignorance, and incest. And, as we well know, Jesus calls us to respond in a much different way.
The culture and people of Appalachia are unique and our ability to minister to the needs of these, our neighbors, has to be much more hands-on. The good news is that there are numerous ministries and programs reaching out to the folks of Appalachia. One of which is Episcopal Appalachian Ministries. Episcopal Appalachian Ministries, or EAM, is an organization within the Episcopal Church that is a coalition of dioceses that serve the Appalachian region. EAM’s mission is to support those doing ministry in Appalachia, both urban and rural, through a broad program of education, advocacy and mission. It serves as a clearinghouse for those seeking mission opportunities in the region. EAM is funded by the National Episcopal Church, but also by the member dioceses and individual donations. The ministries supported by EAM are grassroots and hands-on.
The lectionary readings for the Last Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 14, 2010) takes us into the mountains to some sacred places where we encounter some very mysterious and “other worldly’ events. The Old Testament Lesson (Exodus 34:29-35) is the story of Moses, after receiving the Ten Commandments, coming down from the mountain with the skin of his face shining because he has been in the presence of God. There was no question that Moses had been changed by his mountain top experience.
In the Gospel reading for the Last Sunday of Epiphany (Luke 9: 28-36), we see an event that very much parallels the Moses’ story on Mount Sinai. Jesus too, is on a mountain top and has a change of appearance in front of his disciples. We call this the Transfiguration, although the reading from Luke does not use the word “transfigured”. But we do see that word used in the other two synoptic Gospels; Matthew and Mark both say, Jesus was “transfigured”. When I think about the meaning of the word transfigured, my mind immediately has thoughts of some sort of science fiction movie where seemingly ordinary people morph into some sort of space alien. But, I doubt seriously that is what happened here…
Another way to think about the word “transfiguration” is in terms of the word “transformation”. It is interesting to note that transfiguration and transformation come from the same Middle English root meaning “to change shape.” Transformation, however, from a linguistic approach, can mean “the process by which deep structures are converted into surface structures.” And if we really think about it, that does fit. The depth of who Jesus is, is brought to the surface during the Transfiguration – his face, appearance, and clothes are transformed. Jesus’ face shines, and in Luke’s words, “They saw his glory.” Jesus is transfigured, that is, transformed showing the truth of who he is with a heavenly voice underscoring the visible evidence that Jesus is God’s son and that we are to listen to him.
The transfiguration of Jesus is perhaps the ultimate mountaintop experience. Here on the top of a mountain, Peter, James, and John are left with no doubt as to Jesus’ divinity. I think that this might just be the big take home point about the transfiguration story. We are to be left with no doubt about who Jesus is and the fact that he was both human and divine. But another part of the story that I think is just as noteworthy is that this story takes place on a mountain top and in a way that hints of what it is like to truly encounter God.
In the verses immediately preceding the Transfiguration story of Luke, Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me…” Immediately following this invitation by Jesus to become active participants in his ministry, we have the account of the transfiguration, with God telling the disciples to “listen to him!” We heard these same words from God following Jesus’ Baptism, “listen to him”! Through our own Baptismal Covenant we not only accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we also say that we will “listen to him.” We say that we will seek and serve Christ in ALL persons and strive for justice and peace among all people.
We are all called to seek out the transfigured Christ in the world; we are all called to visit the sacred places. But we are also called to “listen” and to respond with a servant’s heart and in humility. We are called to listen when those living in our midst who are suffering, when they are in need, when they are disenfranchised and subject to injustices. We are called to listen not only as individuals but also as a community, as part of the body of Christ. As a community, we respond by entering into relationships with those that are different than ourselves; those folks that speak with a distinct drawl or don’t have a place to call home; those people that under normal circumstances we would have no relationship. By doing this, we are entering a sacred place; we are standing on Holy Ground.
In a few more days we will enter into Lent and a season of penitence and self-reflection. On Ash Wednesday we will place ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. There is no distinction here… we are all dust. In the eyes of God we are all equal. We are all part of the Body of Christ regardless of how we speak, where we live or how we dress. God calls us into to respond with love and humility.
Soon the cold of winter will pass, and we will be able to return to those sacred places, both on the mountain tops and in the hollers of these beautiful Appalachian Mountains. And as we return to these sacred places, we might just experience a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Let us continue to revel in the presence of the Transfigured Christ in those sacred places … And more importantly, as we enter into the session of Lent and our thoughts turn inward, pay attention to how we are called to respond to those around us. By responding out of love and compassion to these very people, right here in Appalachia, we might just witness a Transfiguration… the appearance of those faces might just change... and their clothes become dazzling white.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Man, you got to get in there with 'em

Most of us have family stories that are either handed down to us or are stories that we have lived through. If your family is like mine, those stories tend to get embellished as time goes on and the facts around the story tend to get blurred. Some stories tend to be more significant than others. Some are just funny events or funny things that happen. Others might be stories that convey some sort of tragedy or loss. And every once in a while you get one that is full of meaning. It might not be apparent at the time the story was happening, but in retrospect, it turns out to be significant.
I have a story about my grandfather that is kind of worth sharing. My version of the story I am sure is tainted with embellishments. But, as an old Native American chief once said, “I don’t know if this story happened or not, but I know that it is the truth”.
My grandfather was a Baptist minister and the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, TN during the 1950’s. He had gotten a call from his friend who was the Rector of the local Episcopal Parish requesting the use of First Baptist Church’s baptistery for a Baptism. You see, the Rector of the Episcopal Church was faced with a somewhat unusual request to perform a Baptism by full immersion. So the two colleagues got their calendars together and decided on a date for this to occur. The date coincided with a Sunday in which the Baptist Church was having their Baptisms. So the arrangement was that the Episcopal Rector would make use of the baptistery later that Sunday afternoon, so that the baptistery would not have to be emptied and refilled with water. So at the appointed time that Sunday afternoon, my grandfather in his wisdom, said, “ I should head down to the Church just to make sure that my friend from the Episcopal Church has all that he needs and has not run into any problems”. So when my grandfather arrived at the Church, he was a little shocked to find his friend, the Rector, standing on the back pew of the choir loft, reaching over the glass wall of the baptistery attempting to Baptize this person by full immersion. The problem was, for those of you not as familiar with the procedure in the Baptist tradition, is that the Baptizer usually gets in the water with the folks being Baptized. Also, it is the normal operating procedure that the Baptizer wear some sort of rubber chest waders in order to save having to get their clothes soaked with the process. Well my grandfather had neglected to tell the good Rector this detail, and naturally the good Rector did not see the point in getting himself soaked in the process of the Baptism. After all, he had already been Baptized himself, and his Baptism “took” the first time! Well, my grandfather was pretty a gassed by this sight of his friend attempting to do a full immersion Baptism without getting in the water. My grandfather then, without thinking about how he might interrupt the dignity of the service and the Baptism, blurted out and said, “No man! You gotta get in there with um...”
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday (Luke 3:15-16;21-22) is one of the four Gospel narratives of Jesus’ baptism. All four of the Gospels contain an account of Jesus’ Baptism, so needless to say, this is pretty important stuff! None of the narratives tell us how Jesus was Baptized or anything about John’s technique. So, the point of argument about whether we should Baptize by immersion or not is probably a moot point. Nevertheless, one thing we do know is that Baptism is universal and practiced by all Christian denominations in its various forms and fashion. And despite the differences in theology and doctrine, we all can agree that our lives in Christ begin with Baptism.
Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan marks the beginning of his ministry on earth. This is paradoxical for us too as followers of Christ. For you see, Baptism is the point at which we begin our ministry in the world as well. Baptism is a sacrament. Baptism is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. It is a gift from God. Baptism is the sacrament by which we become part of the Body of Christ; we become inheritors of the kingdom of God. It is truly a gift. However, here is the caveat... We are required to do something with that gift. We are to follow Jesus’ example.
For those of us in the Episcopal Church, every time we have a Baptism or Confirmation we affirm or reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant (BCP p. 304) We enter into a covenant when we are Baptized. These words are also echoed for us too each time we say one of the Creeds during our regular worship or prayers.
This business of following Christ can be challenging to say the least. In our Baptismal Covenant, it asks us if we are willing to “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Then in the very next question, it asks if we are willing to, “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”. And here in lies somewhat of a dilemma. By affirming these two things as followers of Christ, it almost certainly takes us right out of our comfort zones.
I think most of us are pretty to willing to do these two things, resist evil and proclaim the Gospel. But at the same time, if you are like me, you have this sinking feeling that this is something that will be difficult to do. After all, it sounds messy and one could really be seen as some sort of “jack-leg” preacher if you got out there and started renouncing Satan and proclaiming the Gospel. I think most of us would want to keep our hands clean and sit back and enjoy all the grace and love that God’s gives to us. But following Christ and living into our Baptismal vows also requires us to act. Not act for the sake of somehow earning what God gives us. Afterall, that debt was paid on the Cross. But act because it is what God beckons to do. It requires us to go into the world. It requires us to take the risk of exposing ourselves to sinners.
Let’s jump back for a moment to the Baptism narrative. John the Baptist is out on the edge of town drawing crowds like crazy. But the crowd that John is drawing are not the best of characters. There is the savory lot of tax collectors and Roman soldiers that have gathered. For all practical purposes the place was teeming with sinners. A whole group of flawed and guilty human beings holding out all hope, that somehow, this loud and boisterous character named John the Baptist could give them some relief from the misery they were feeling in their lives. They were hoping that somehow, John could help them clean themselves up and turn their lives around. If this had been in our day and time, the list of folks gathered there would most likely read like the arrest blotter in the local newspaper. These would be people who had been arrested for bad checks, driving drunk, petty larceny, prostitution, assault and domestic violence. Needless to say, for most of us, these would be exactly the folks we would NOT want to associate with and we certainly would not want to be seen hanging out with them. But Jesus, in his typical fashion, does something radical. He gets in line with these folks to be Baptized. You see, Jesus was just not really well known at this point. The crowds of folks were not following him around as they would later. As I mentioned before, this story is at the beginning point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus simply took his place in line and waited his turn. It was not until later, when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him that people realized who He really was. And even after it was made known who Jesus really was, He continued to walk and live among the sinners. That is really the bottom line of Jesus’ ministry. He came into the world to save sinners. Sinners just like you and I. We might not be some of the notorious sinners hinted to in the Gospel reading, but sinners nonetheless.
I truly believe that when we are Baptized, like with Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on us like a dove and we are somehow transformed by that. And like it was with Jesus, our Baptism marks the beginning of our ministry on earth. Our Baptism also involves a covenant. The only way for us to truly KNOW Christ is to follow him through service to others. The Baptismal Covenant is how you DO Baptism. Baptism is a gift. In order to accept this gift and follow Christ it requires sacrifice. It means that we too must give ourselves. We too have to “take up the Cross”. Just like Jesus did at his Baptism, we have to be willing to get in line with a bunch of sinners. We have to risk getting out of our comfort zone and be willing to get our hands dirty. We have to risk associating with people that are hungry for the Good News of God in Christ. We have to respect the dignity of every human being. We have to be willing to associate with the homeless, the folks haunted by addiction, the criminals, the cheaters, the liars, the dirty, the sick, the neglected and all those other unsavory characters out there. So, like my grandfather said, “Man, you gotta get in there with um”...