Sunday, February 22, 2015

Collecting Rainbows

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

How many of you know the story of Noah?
We learn it in Sunday School and in song, but rarely hear it in worship, so let’s review.
Tell me what you remember.
God told Noah to build an ark.

Why did God have Noah build an ark?
There was a flood!

Do you know why there was a flood?
People were being bad?
It seemed like everyone on earth was evil. So bad that God couldn’t even find good buried deep in people’s hearts. And God couldn’t stand it any more, and decided to wipe out EVERYone and everything. Except Noah.  Somehow he managed to still put God first, so God decided to keep him.  

So Noah built the ark.  Do you remember what God told him to do with it?
Save the animals!

So Noah put all the animals in the ark, and his family, and plenty of food, and then it rained.  The water rose up higher than the highest mountains. It rained for forty days, then the flood lasted for months and months and months, a long lonely time, before it was safe for Noah and his family and the animals and their families to leave the ark.

Do you know what God did then?
Made a rainbow.

God talked to Noah and his family, and told them a promise, “I am never, ever, going to flood the whole world again. No matter what.  No matter how bad you human beings get. It’s a covenant with you and all the animals and birds and critters, too. A promise that I can’t break, even if you all screw up….again.
Look, you can even see the covenant. This rainbow is going to remind me never to wipe you all out again. ”

Did you notice just how that works in today’s scripture story? God points out the rainbow to Noah and his family as a symbol of this solemn promise, but not to remind them that God won’t do this again. It’s to remind God.

The rainbow is like a string tied around God’s finger.
(Or in the 21st century, the voice in your iPhone that reminds you of something you want to do).
It’s a reminder for God,  a visible symbol of God’s promise to us, that God will never give up on us again.

I wonder if Jesus remembered that, out in the wilderness.
I wonder if Jesus saw rainbows.

Mark tells us almost nothing about what happens.
He might almost have been writing for Twitter:
“Holy Spirit enters Jesus at baptism, 
drives him into wilderness for 40 days.
Tested by Satan. Wild beasts with him. Angels take care of him.”
140 characters is all it takes. 

Mark leaves a lot to our imaginations.
So Jesus might have seen rainbows, or some other reminders of God’s generosity, to sustain himself during a long, lonely time of testing; to sustain his trust in humanity and his divine commitment to us.

Forty days - a bit less than six weeks - isn’t that long in a human life-span, but it’s long enough to for us to need reminders of even the things that are most important to us.
Think about what it would be like in a marriage to go forty days without hearing, “I love you.” Or forty days without freedom, forty days without laughter, forty days without sun….

Christian tradition urges us to give something up for the forty days of Lent - not usually something as dramatic and essential as freedom or love - but something meaningful. 
We don’t do that because we want to be miserable (that really doesn’t make you holier - a lesson I learned when I gave up coffee - once!), but to remind ourselves of how we want to act toward God. 
To remind ourselves that no matter how easy it is to satisfy ourselves with sweets and habits and things, we won’t use those as a substitute for God.
It’s like tying a string around your finger.
Or looking at a rainbow in the sky.

Reminders like that are important. 
They give substance to our good intentions, create anchors for trust, and give us practice at being the people we want to be.  

It might be nice if making a promise was really all it took to keep it.
But in real life, and in faith, we need reminders, guideposts, and practice to keep our promises, to keep our relationships strong, to keep acting the way we want to act, keep believing in God and in ourselves.

Do you have any rainbows like that? 
Any things, or words, or actions that remind you of how you really want to relate to God, and others, and yourself?

I have a picture of the North Carolina mountains that I bought after a retreat there years ago. I keep it to remind myself that I want to be always as open in prayer as I was on that retreat.  And that my spirit will heal, no matter how wounded I get.

Do you, perhaps, wear a wedding ring? Like the rainbow, it’s a symbol of a covenant, a visible, physical reminder of your promise to trust and honor and love - no matter what.

Do you have a mantra, a phrase you say when you’re facing a challenge, or a slump? A reminder to yourself, and maybe to others, that you’re not willing to give up on yourself, no matter how much of a mess you’re in?

Do you have keepsakes? Gifts or objects that remind you of a relationship that matters, a way you want to be with others?  Or reminders of the beauty and grace that others have seen in you? Or reminders, like the original rainbow, that God is never, ever, giving up on you and us - no matter what?

If you don’t have those, it’s time to start.
It’s time to collect rainbows, this Lent.
Collect reminders that trigger generosity, trust, hope, and faith - in one another, in God, and in yourself.

Because we’re human, after all, and it’s easy to forget.
It’s easy to slip into indifference or dissatisfaction, cheerful ignorance or bored resignation,
to forget who we want to be
and how we want to be with God.

God chose the rainbow as a reminder of how God wants to be with us.
Because when God forgot that, the world drowned.
When we forget, the disasters are smaller, but just as real.

So this Lent, let’s collect rainbows.

Start here, with a rainbow you can tie around your finger, a symbol of God’s promise never to give up on us, and let that remind us of how and who we want to be, for ourselves, with one another, and with God.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Let it Go

2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9

You’ve got to let go.
Just let it go.

It’s the most popular advice set to music in this decade, as far as I can tell. Every three year old can sing it to you.

In the film that launched the inescapable song, “let it go” is a song of freedom from fear, from the tyranny of the “perfect” and the need to get everything right. It’s a song of living fully in spite of failure, hurt, and loneliness.
Letting it go doesn’t resolve the conflicts of the movie - an act of true love does that - but it’s a necessary and maybe revolutionary step for Elsa.

It’s advice that Idina Menzel should probably be singing to the main characters in a couple of today’s scripture stories.
Peter and Elisha both really need to learn to “let it go.”

Elisha’s been Elijah’s student for years now, and is probably Elijah’s heir as Israel’s greatest prophet.  But he’s not for a minute going to listen to his master’s instruction to stay home, mind the store, and get started on his own career. 
No, when Elijah sets out on his farewell tour, Elisha follows him to every stop. And at every stop the company of prophets makes a point of telling him that this is it; it’s time to let go.  
“You know he’s dying, right? It’s time for Elijah to go to God.”
“I know. Don’t talk about it!” says Elisha
He’s not even going to talk about letting go of Elijah.

So Elisha follows Elijah out across the Jordan River into the wilderness; begs for a guarantee that Elijah’s prophetic gifts will still be with him, and when Elijah is finally whisked to God in whirlwind and fire, strains his eyes to keep hanging on to that edge of glory.

Elisha has a powerful talent for holding on.
You can’t blame him, really.

Who among us is really eager to let a loved one go?  
To see the death of our most beloved, or the heroes we most admire?
And who among us is eager to snap the link that has guided us to God?

Elijah was all those things to Elisha, and more.
Elijah was the constant assurance that God chose Elisha, that God was taking care of us. Elijah was the inspiration, the excitement, the energy of God’s vision and plan.
And Elijah was the safety net, the trust that Elisha could come back home and get help if the prophet jobs were too big for him.
Elijah stood between Elisha and fear.
Really, who wants to let go of that, when you have it?
Not me.

But that’s what we’re supposed to do.

That’s the moral of Peter’s story, too. 

He’s up on a mountain, praying, with Jesus and James and John, and suddenly miracles happen.  Jesus shines blindingly bright, the two all-time greatest heroes of Israel are standing right there chatting with him, the glory and presence of God is unmistakable.  
It is that undeniably best brilliant moment that confirms that we got it right to be following this rabbi, that all the trouble so far has been worth it.
So Peter seizes that moment with both hands: “Let’s stay!  We’ll build houses!”
And with that, the moment ends.  The glory is swept away with a foggy, thunderous instruction from God to listen to Jesus, and the next thing Peter knows, he’s trudging down the mountain being told to keep his mouth shut.

It’s one of those truths we repeat in the church:
you might have a glorious experience of God - in fact, we’d like you to - but you can’t stay on the mountain top.
You’ve got to let it go.

Let go of that overwhelming confidence that God is in the house. Let go of that elation, that sense of presence, of awe, of connection. Let go of all that glorious assurance of God,
and go back to the messy uncertainty of the everyday world,
of trying to be faithful,
failing often,
and never sure that we’re getting it right.

It’s worth noting that the three disciples who get this moment of glory on the mountain top, this dazzling assurance that they’re getting it right, are the three disciples that most visibly mess up and fail in the rest of the story. Over and over again, they get Jesus’ mission and purpose all wrong, and Peter never seems to get his foot out of his mouth.

If that’s my alternative, I wouldn’t let go of the mountain-top glory, either.
But that’s what we’re supposed to do.
And we’re supposed to do it this week.
It’s something the church asks of us as we move from Epiphany to Lent.

We spend the weeks after Christmas focused on miracles and moments that reveal God with us - God powerful enough to heal all hurts, God exciting enough to change your life, God vivid enough to fill the earth with good news - God standing between us and fear, or failure.
And then we stop.  
We drop into Lent and have to get real about our limitations, our crippling wounds, our petty selfishnesses. We have to face our fear, and we have to fail.

Because if we never let go of our comfort with God, if we never let go of our divine safety net, we can’t be ready for Easter.
We have to let go, so that when Resurrection turns the world upside down, we’re free to fly with it, not stuck tight to just one way of being with God.

So we’ll party a bit today at Calvary, celebrating Mardi Gras - in it’s own way a great festival of letting go.
We don’t have to abandon the rules as thoroughly in the fellowship hall as one might do in the French Quarter, but the original form of Mardi Gras and “Carnival” - carne vale, farewell to meat - are a festival of fullness and abundance, meant to boost us into letting go:
Letting go of present glory, of success and assurance,
in order to embrace our limits, accept our past failure and our future fears,
so that we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s healing love.

That’s what Idina Menzel and my niece and nephews sing about, after all. Letting go of the way fear binds us.  Living fully - in the song as in our faith - embraces glory and failure and pain, and lets it go.

You can learn it from Disney or you can learn it from the Bible.
Either way, we’re supposed to do it - this week, or whenever God calls us - because that letting go is our first step toward healing love.

So today, let’s party.  Let’s live right out to the edge of glory,
and then let it go.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Where God Wants Us To Be

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

If they gave out awards for Bible stories the way they do for movies and TV, today’s gospel story would probably win Mark an Emmy for Best Director. The story of Jesus calling the fishermen to his cause is dramatic, fast-paced, well-structured and compelling.
As a faith story, too, it’s a winner. Good news is clearly proclaimed. And people respond immediately - dropping everything and changing their lives to follow God.
It’s exciting! Sometimes I think it would be fun if church were always like that. 
But it’s not. Life’s not like that.
Life’s more like Jonah.

In a scriptural library full of historical drama, pundit and panel commentary, a lot of documentary, some infomercials and a mini-series or two, Jonah is the only half-hour sitcom.
And it’s a doozy.

Jonah - like so many prophets - is called and given a task by God.
Get up. Go to Ninevah. Preach against them, because I have noticed their wickedness. 
This is classic prophet fare - go tell the evildoers they are in trouble.
So Jonah promptly gets up and goes.
Goes in exactly the opposite direction, as fast as he can hop on a boat.

You can’t blame him, really, if you know that Ninevah is the capital of the Assyrians, the folks whose mission in life seems to be to destroy God’s people and God’s country. Ninevah is across the river from present day Mosul, Iraq, and it was probably about as safe for Jonah to go there as it would be for you or me to run over to Mosul and announce to the Islamic State folks that God is mad at them. 
And if the Ninevites do repent, God will have to give up avenging God’s people and be nice to them.  This leaves Israel as the losers and the bad guys as the winners.
So Jonah knows that God’s plan here is a few cards short of a deck, and he skips town to give God time to think better of it.

No sooner is he underway than God sends a storm. 
The worst storm ever.
The sailors pray.  They toss all their valuable cargo overboard.  They seek divine guidance (any god’s guidance!) for the source of the storm.  Turns out it’s Jonah - who’s been sleeping through the whole thing. Woken up by the captain, he suggests to the sailors that they toss him overboard to appease God. They try instead to rescue him, fighting the storm to see him safe to land, but finally have to give up, and send him over the side.
In a drama, we’d cut to commercial at this tragic point. 
Instead we discover - as Jonah splashes down - that “the Lord appointed a large fish to swallow Jonah.”

It’s worth noting that despite Jonah’s clear lack of enthusiasm, the sailors pray to his God in the storm, and worship his God in the calm after. Prophetic success, in spite of all Jonah’s indifference and avoidance.

We return from commercial to find Jonah in the belly of the fish, strumming his banjo and singing to God in thanks for being saved from drowning. "Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land."
I do mean vomit.  The image of a great big fish ralphing out a prophet is an original part of this story.
I told you it was a sitcom.

And now we arrive at the point we heard this morning. God speaks to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh,  and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (God’s going to be a little more precise this time, ghostwriting Jonah’s speeches.  We all learn from experience.)

So Jonah goes. Goes into the city, but not to the center. And yells, “Forty days until Ninevah is destroyed!”
That’s it.  Not one word more. Shortest sermon or prophetic oracle on record.  And it gets the most overwhelming response.  

Ninevah repents.
Boy, do they ever repent.  
Every last one of them fasts and wears a hair shirt. And when the king gets involved, so do all the animals. Imagine a town full of penitent goats and pigeons.  Wearing hair shirts.
So God decides not to destroy them.
Once again, outstanding prophetic success from half-assed prophetic work.

Of course, Jonah has no real incentive to work at this.  He knows that if the Ninevites repent, God’s going to be nice to them, and that is going to be terrible for Israel, having their powerful and merciless enemy introduced as a new baby brother in God’s family…. Because you have to be nice to the baby, even when the baby clearly does not follow the rules.

You and I, much later, might be delighted to think of God’s mercy and forgiveness embracing the evil empire. But to get Jonah’s point of view, imagine how you’d feel if God announced that the Islamic State terrorists were your new best friend, perfectly suited to rule half the world and dictate American foreign policy.  Maybe domestic, too.
This is not change we can believe in.
And it makes Jonah furious.

There’s a final bizarre scene with an appearing and disappearing shade tree where God and Jonah argue about whether it matters that God’s ways are not our ways.

As the story ends, we’re meant to be left laughing at Jonah while the lesson sinks in: You can’t always guess what you want from God.
And God’s overwhelming successes can take root in our own sloppy indifference, and blossom while we try to avoid the icky changes they require.

Which makes it the perfect story for an annual meeting Sunday.

In less than an hour, while we enjoy a tasty potluck, we’ll take a look at the Ninevites that surround Calvary - a budget deficit, some leadership challenges, the plain fact that we just don't come to church as much as we used to, on average - and you’ll probably notice that those things could threaten some change at Calvary.

Not immediately.  Not profoundly. We’ll be here in fine form next week, and we have a lot to celebrate now. 
But that potential for unpleasant change is there, and I don’t want to embrace it any more than Jonah wanted to go to Ninevah.
If you feel the same way - if you want to bend all our efforts to bringing things back to the way they were, and better - that’s fantastic. Talk to our incoming Senior Warden; he’ll put you to work.
And that’s also why God gave us Jonah this morning.

Because at the end of the day, the story of this church is God’s, not ours, to shape. The unpleasant change that lurks over a horizon may also be God’s overwhelming triumph; our best efforts to get it right may be the laughably long way ’round to salvation, and no matter what, we end up where God calls us to be.

So today is a day to celebrate.
Because we’re here. And Jonah’s story assures us that being here (anywhere!) means that God is doubtless getting us where we need to go.  That storms and fish bellies and wild success are all equally valid steps on that way.

And while we may never win best drama, 
God works through laughter, too.
Human comedy is also divine.
And if God gets the last laugh, well, that’s a delight God wants to share with us, when we all end up where God wants us to be.