Sunday, February 11, 2018

Disappointed

Mark 9:2-9


Have you ever been disappointed in Jesus? disappointed in God?
I have.

Times when I lost, or got turned down for, an opportunity or a job that I really thought God was leading me toward. When the underdog, faithful athlete or team is overwhelmed by the cheaters or the arrogant dynasty. When my candidate – obviously on the side of right, or at least better for the world than the other one – doesn’t get elected, the courts make the “wrong” decision, or the bill that makes the world better doesn’t pass. When doing the right thing – in compassion, in retirement planning, in workplace ethics or relationships – backfires and dumps me or you in conflict or crisis.

And maybe it all works out in the long run – the very long run – but still, I can feel my disappointment.
So can Peter.

Peter is painfully disappointed in Jesus, right now. Just six days ago, Peter’s deep, hope that the Messiah, God’s anointed, had finally come was spoken out loud, and affirmed by Jesus.
Yes! This is it. This is what we’ve been dreaming and waiting for.
And then – in the next breath – it’s denied. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah. But he’s talking about failure. About dying. About shameful crucifixion instead of about making God’s constant promises about freedom and abundance and a world you can actually trust come true. It’s a bitter disappointment, and Peter probably still doesn’t know how to take it.

And now Jesus invites him, and James and John, up the mountain for a little retreat day, and the two greatest heroes of the faith just appear. Clearly, unmistakably: Moses the founder of the faith and Elijah the greatest of prophets are so close he could actually touch them. Jesus is blindingly, unnaturally, bright, bleached, and dazzling. And God’s voice – unmistakably, powerfully – God’s voice announces that this Jesus is closer to God than anyone ever before, full of glory, worthy of trust.

All of God’s glory is right there. Face-to-face with Peter, all around Peter. Confused, impulsive, error-prone, oh-so-human Peter, is now standing in the full glory of the presence of God – which, by the way, is supposed to kill you if you encounter it un-purified – and living to tell about it.

Peter is learning, again, that Jesus is not going to save the world the way Peter knew he was supposed to. Instead – though Peter may not realize it yet – Jesus has already saved Peter (and James, and John, not to mention you and me), already transformed and transfigured Peter so that he can stand in the full glory of the presence of God and not be destroyed by his flaws and faults and errors.

It’s still a disappointment, maybe. It’s a power and a gift Peter wasn’t looking for, and it disrupts his hopes and plans just as much as this news about crucifixion for the Messiah does.

Because – for better or worse – it seems God’s promises to transform the world don’t necessarily mean that God is going to do it all by Godself; so that the Savior comes, or the moment is right, we will wake up one morning to a world that’s right at last.
We probably won’t ever get a messiah – political, emotional, or divine – who does make it right from the top down.

That probably won’t stop me from hoping or wishing. But God has a track record of doing salvation the way I wasn’t planning. God has a history of transforming us – flawed, ordinary, confused human beings – with the power and the gift we weren’t looking for, so that we can be part of making God’s vision and promises real.

Now, you might look around at other human beings you know – at home, at work, in the next lane on the highway, or in DC or Trenton – and expect that humans are going to screw up whatever God leaves in human hands. 

It would be so much simpler for God to send one good savior – a good politician, a religious figure, maybe Oprah. One messiah seems so much more trustworthy; so much stronger and simpler, than the whole messy mass of our humanity.

But every time we fall into the temptation of trusting that there is someone else God will send to make it better, we are bound to be disappointed. Even in Jesus.

Not because God doesn’t want to save us, not because Jesus doesn’t keep God’s promises – but because while we were waiting, Jesus has already transformed and transfigured us to stand in the presence of God with all our flaws and frailties that should by rights have destroyed us, and still – like Moses, like Elijah, like Peter eventually – carry that overwhelming grace and glory out into the ordinary world. To be building blocks of the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven.

It’s a big job, yes.
I can’t solve poverty by myself, or division and racism and economic inequality. I’d like to pray or vote that done by God or some charismatic leader who can fix it all. Of course, when I try that, I’m usually disappointed – in other people, in myself, and, in spite of myself, in God.

But down in Camden, Project Interaction is making the abundance of the Kingdom of God real one breakfast at a time, built on the actions of ordinary, fragile, perfectly normal human beings from this congregation, among others.
You’ll get to hear more about that next Sunday, as our Lenten series on Loving Our Neighbor begins. And you can hear more, again, each Sunday during Lent, about the organizations Trinity supports, and the ordinary people that make the abundance, justice, compassion, and healing of the kingdom of God real in small and transformative ways in our neighborhood and region.

I can’t solve the long-term, pervasive, dismissal of women’s pain and the objectification of women’s bodies that has created a culture which accepts sexual assault and harassment as normal, accidental, and “natural.”  And I'm aware, sadly, of my own temptation to play down a violation rather than to challenge that culture with my words and actions.

But over in a Michigan courtroom a couple weeks ago, there was a parade of ordinary women and girls and their parents who let their own flaws and faults and limits show as they told their stories of assault and pain and silencing, and in that speaking, shed light and grace and the opportunity for healing into a history of errors and evil.  And grace and glory grew brighter and stronger in our everyday world where we need it most.

You and I aren’t superheroes or saviors. We can’t, ourselves, solve the many complex pains and challenges that face the world. We aren’t the ones who can make the world right overnight.
But we can’t wait for those people, either. We’re bound to be disappointed if we do.

And we might just be more like Peter than we know: transformed and transfigured without expecting or asking for it, into carriers of God’s grace and glory. 
Just as we have been called, as Peter was called, to bear the cross, we have also been called to bear the glory. To be the transfigured Body of Christ: not one person to fix the whole world, but many workers.

We might not get invited up a mountain with Moses and Elijah this week, but we can, we should, in the coming weeks of Lent, go to these Sunday conversations, read the news, pay attention to the people around us, and examine our own lives, looking for the bright, unexpected clues that God has transfigured us into people who can experience the full glory of God in our ordinary, flawed and fragile human state, and carry that grace out, a little bit at a time, into actions that transform the world.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

True Call

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

When you were called by God, what did you do?

Did you respond like Ninevah – an instant change of heart, and turn toward God?
Did you respond like the fishermen on the shores of Galilee, immediately dropping what you were doing to obey the call?
Or did you respond like Jonah?

Jonah, who quite clearly heard the voice of God telling him to get up and go to Ninevah, to preach against them, because God has noticed their wickedness.

This might actually be a great idea. Ninevah is the capital of Assyria, the nation whose mission in life is to destroy God’s people Israel. It’s a good thing that God has seen their wickedness and wants to put them on notice.
But… it’s hardly safe for Jonah to go into the middle of that, and, of course, if the Ninevites actually listen to him, and repent… well, then, God’s going to have to forgive them. God’s going to have to quit avenging Israel against Ninevah and start being nice to this great big strong nation. Israel might even lose its exclusivity with God.

This part – the part where God stops avenging Jonah’s injuries and forgives the bad guys – doesn’t sound so good to Jonah.

So Jonah gets up and goes in exactly the opposite direction. He hops a boat to Tarshish. He’s going to stay far, far out of the way until God thinks better of calling him to Project Save Ninevah.

But there’s a storm at sea. It turns out God isn’t letting Jonah get away. Jonah would rather choose drowning than cooperation, still, but when he gets himself thrown overboard, God “appointed a large fish to swallow Jonah” and, essentially, put him in time out.

After three days in the fish, Jonah prays for deliverance from this miracle, gets spit out onto dry land, and right away, God calls him to go to Ninevah to preach.

And now (pretty much out of options) Jonah finally obeys God’s call. Sort of. Dragging his feet the whole way. This is where we picked up the story this morning. Jonah goes barely far enough into the city to count, preaches one very short warning – and suddenly all Ninevah hears, and repents, and offers themselves to God. And God forgives. It’s a miracle!!

A miracle Jonah hates. He sulks his way out of the city, complaining to God that he knew this terrible repentance and reconciliation thing would happen, and now God has to be nice to the bad guys. God tries more miracles, and logic, and empathy, all in the effort to get Jonah to see that it’s worth loving and reconciling a great city like Ninevah, but the story ends without Jonah ever admitting there was anything good about this call from God.

It’s more than a little tragic that Jonah hates and resists his call so much. The story, as told in the Bible, plays out a lot like a sitcom, but Jonah himself is miserable the whole time he’s avoiding the call, and the whole time he’s obeying it.

And for a long time, I thought that’s how it was supposed to be when God calls. Maybe because it’s traditional in scripture for prophets and heroines to object that they aren’t good enough, or qualified enough, for the roles God calls them to, I thought you could tell the call of God in your life because it would be something you would never ever want to do for yourself:  go live the primitive life as a missionary, nurse the dying in Calcutta, risk getting shot as a modern day prophet – or even be a monk or a priest.  I thought “call” must be what you wouldn’t do if you had a choice.

It was obvious to me then, that if I felt like I wanted to be a priest, or a teacher, or a physicist, the call of God could only be to being a nun, or a Congressperson, or an emergency room nurse – all of which are essential jobs that nonetheless fill me with dread.
But I was wrong.
Just like Jonah was wrong.

Sometime in my twenties, I heard a friend mention Fredrich Buechner, and his idea that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
At the same time, I stumbled into a community of people who were, more or less, living out that idea: people who were meeting deep needs in the world: food for hungry bodies, gentleness and healing in illness and pain, and creating beauty, meaning and inspiration in the dry lands of ordinary life.

They were meeting the world’s deep hungers by doing what they loved best to do – not just as artists or doctors or teachers, but as accountants and hospital techs and public servants. They were having a wonderful time – not easy, but joyful – doing things the world really needed. Deepening their own joy, and sharing God’s joy.

And then it’s easy for me to imagine why and how those fishermen of Galilee responded to Jesus’ call so immediately. They responded to joy, or perhaps love. Something about his invitation triggered delight, or adventure, or hope – or some long, half-understood desire to catch, to gather people. I suspect, very strongly, that Andrew and Simon, James and John, looked at Jesus and saw their own joy – or even better, saw Jesus’ joy in them, in the ordinary fishing skills they’d already cultivated, or in their unexplored hopes and dreams. And they dropped their nets, and followed him.

I suspect that the sudden response and repentance of Ninevah was a response to love, to God’s love, no matter how badly Jonah preached it. And I suspect that the fundamental problem of Jonah was that he forgot about joy. That he doesn’t notice that right through the story, God is inviting him to share God’s joy: God’s joy in the people of Ninevah, the wonder and delight of sudden reconciliation; God’s joy in fish, whales, or sea monsters, God’s joy in Jonah himself.

Jonah lets his fear or anxiety get between him and that joy.  His fear of losing his specialness – if too many other people, strangers, repent and come closer to God. Or his fear of change – that if Ninevah can be saved, all the rules and right ways have gone wrong.

For years, my fear of being wrong kept me from seeing the joy God was inviting me to share in my call to be a priest. That’s still the fear most likely to keep me from finding the joy in God’s calls which continue to come, great and small, but anxiety about embarrassment, about not having enough time, about losing what I have, still keep me, sometimes, from noticing God’s joy, or my own. 

Sometimes I’m still Jonah.
But sometimes, now, I get to be the fishermen - we get to be the fishermen - dropping tasks and fears alike to be caught up in God’s joy.

We all have different fears that get in the way, different joys we’re called to, but the sharing of joy and love are always at the center of God’s true call, no matter how or when it comes.

When you were called by God – and you were, I promise you – what did you do?  What joy did you share?
And what next joy, what unknown love, is God calling you to now?

How will you respond today?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Spirit Filled

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?
Well, did you? When you were baptized, did you receive the Holy Spirit? Do you know?

Some of us may not be sure. 
Christian teaching about the gift of the Holy Spirit – when it comes and what it means – has changed and varied over the centuries and over our lifetimes. If you grew up in the Episcopal Church – or a few other churches – you might have been told that you get the Holy Spirit at Confirmation. And then more recently you might have been told that the church has been changing our mind about that. That’s the way I learned it.

Other traditions see the Holy Spirit as completely independent of sacraments or the church’s schedule – either it’s what empowers faith for everyone in the first place, or a special gift that only some receive, with spectacular or special symptoms – visions, miraculous healing, and speaking in tongues. Other traditions barely talk about the Spirit.

So there’s probably a variety of experience in this room – just like there’s a variety of experience in the earliest days of the church. Like when Paul gets to Ephesus, and meets some disciples – some followers of Jesus – and finds there’s something a little different about them than the ones he knew in Corinth or Jerusalem or Phiippi. So he asks them: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” And they promptly reply, “What Holy Spirit??”

In it’s original context this is mostly a story about how sometimes the Christian message spread incompletely, and about how Paul brings these eager, faithful people into a more complete faith. But it’s also a story about baptism, and how Jesus, in baptism, gives us all the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We heard the story of Jesus’ own baptism today. Jesus receives the baptism of John, a full-immersion dunking in the Jordan river that symbolizes the repentance of God’s people, a cleansing from sin. (Though Mark is, by the way, pretty careful not to imply that Jesus himself had any sins to repent and be cleansed of!).

That baptism of John that Jesus experienced is the same baptism that the people Paul meets in Ephesus had experienced. Water that cleanses them, that marks their change of heart, and washes away the old stains of sin. But when Jesus is baptized, something different happens – something more. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens rip open – the everyday separation between God and humanity is torn – and Jesus sees the Spirit descend, hears God say, “You are my Son. Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

And from then on, baptism is changed. It still symbolizes repentance and cleansing. But in the name of Jesus, in the way of Jesus, baptism means that we, too, receive the Holy Spirit, we too, are called out by God, proclaimed as God’s own beloved, well-pleasing, children.

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers? 
Yes. 
Because Jesus did, yes, you did, whether you know it or not. 
But how do you know?

I mean, I definitely did not see any doves when I was baptized. The sky and the church roof stayed closed and ordinary that day; I didn’t hear voices from heaven. I didn’t start speaking in tongues, proclaiming God’s will and word that day, the way the disciples at Ephesus did with Paul. I still don’t see visions, hear heavenly voices, or speak in tongues – unless the ability to order beer in Spanish counts.

I don’t think most of us see visions, hear voices, and speak powerful prophecy at baptism, or most days of our lives. But whatever you experienced at your baptism, whatever you were taught, the witness of scripture insists that when we are baptized into Jesus, we – you and I – are filled with the Holy Spirit, and receive that as a gift.

Paul knows this, and keeps reminding his friends and fellow Christians that there are all sorts of ways to see that we are living with the gift of the Spirit – not just speaking in tongues, but the ability to translate and understand these words of God; not just prophecy, but service, generosity, teaching, everyday healing, mercy, and leadership.

The tradition of the gifts of the Spirit that Paul knew, that Paul looked for in the disciples in Ephesus, starts with the words of Isaiah telling us how we’ll recognize the Messiah:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2)

And when we baptize someone in the Episcopal Church today, we recognize and pray for those same gifts, in different language:
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit, we pray. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. (Book of Common Prayer, page 308)

Have you ever felt yourself full of joy and wonder at the world that God has created? Ever needed the courage and strength to persist, and found it?
Ever felt full of generosity, compassion, or encouragement, and found a way to act on that, or nudge others along?
Ever felt inspired, even a little, to love God;
ever needed to hear God’s guidance on your next steps and somehow found your way forward?

If you said yes to any one of those things, then you know – you’ve lived the proof – that you’ve received the Holy Spirit, whether or not you ever see doves, hear a heavenly voice, or hear yourself speak in tongues.

You received the Holy Spirit, in baptism, and like Jesus, that’s how we know ourselves to be children of God. And that’s why God calls us to baptism in the first place. We’re called to baptism to become the people of the Spirit, the hands and feet and hearts and heads filled with the Spirit’s gifts in this world and for the world.

You see, if you or I only come to baptism for repentance and cleansing, for an admission ticket to church or to an eventual heaven, we may get that,
but we’re only halfway there.

We are baptized with the Holy Spirit – you and I – not so much for forgiveness as empowerment. We are baptized for action. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit not so that we can enter heaven someday, but so that we begin to make heaven real here and now.

Receiving the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, like Jesus, the leaders and engineers and builders of heaven. We receive the Spirit so we can be the people who by generosity, mercy, leadership, courage, strength, wonder, and faith, make God’s kingdom real on earth, here and now.

So if Paul – or any other preacher – ever asks you, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” you should all be saying yes.
You did. We did.
We received the Holy Spirit, and it’s time to make sure we know it and live it. Because God’s gift of the Spirit to us is, in fact, God’s plan for the world.

You are God’s child, beloved, Spirit-filled, empowered for action, here and now.

Let us make God well-pleased.