Thursday, February 23, 2006

TRANSFIGURATION: RCL Texts for Feb. 26, 2006

FIRST READING AND GOSPEL: 2Kings 2:1-12/Mark 9:2-9 - The Assumption of Elijah - at least that's what I call it. I was reading Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright's book on Jesus this week and in it Borg made reference to history remembered and history metaphorized. It was a distinction which resonated with me. If you've read much of this blog, you realize that history metaphorized (or more correctly personal story metaphorized) is my stock in trade.

so I'm assuming there is an actual historical, real and remembered moment underneath the Elijah Assumption story (which is why I call it the Assumption of Elijah). I also assume that figuring out the actual "facticity" of that moment is nigh unto impossible.

What we have is the history metaphorized and the question is why has the story of Elijah going off to heaven in a golden Chariot had such staying power within Judaism and what significance does it have for Christianity.

The same thing applies to the Transfiguration. Something happened, nobody made it up. But what really happened, the exact facts, "history remembered" is unavailable to us. There are all sorts of "reasonable" (or not) speculations, but no way of knowing for sure.

So why this story? Beyond what "really" happened, what do these stories tell us about God and what do they tell us about us and our life of faith?

Two things come to mind:

1) There are peak experiences in the spiritual life; they do happen, and here's the point, we can never predict, create nor repeat them. We don't know when they might happen, we can't do anything to make them happen, and we can't do everything the same as we did last time and make them happen again. they happen when God wants them to happen, they happen when God's grace descends on us as it wills. Our liturgical and homiletical contrivance may be able to simulate a similar experience, but such a thing will always be counterfeit to the real experience.

2) Spiritual highs come and go, but the real spiritual life is lived in the ordinary day-to-day round. In the first 8 chapters of Mark, Jesus goes off alone to pray 5 times. The first was the temptations in the wilderness, not exactly a "high". 4 other times in the first 8 chapters, Jesus goes off to pray, and each time nothing happens. Well sort of nothing. He gets interrupted a lot. "Hey Jesus people are looking for you." But in none of the "go off alone and pray" episodes did Jesus change form or hear heavenly voices. He just prayed and that's the point. The first 8 chapters of Mark, tell the story of Jesus going about his business of preaching and teaching and healing, with times of synagogue worship and private prayer. This was his life. Long periods of ordinariness with only an occasional moment of luminosity.

Dr. BS Brown was pastor of Lutheran Chapel in China Grove, NC from 1945 to 1960. I was pastor there from 1984-1985. I found one of his old, hand-written sermons in the archives. It was about his first car, which he got in 1920, while pastoring near Johnson City, TN. deep in the Smokey Mountains.

He talks about going on a trip to Knoxville. Often times he had to drive along in creek beds because there was no road, backing up hills because his Model-T had a gravity feed fuel system, etc. Occasionally, he would top a moutain at night and he could see the lights of Knoxville off in the distance, but most of the time was spent in the valleys in the darkness. Dr. Brown compared this to our lives of faith. We catch occasional glimpses of the Holy, but its mostly plodding through the dark and shadowed valleys.

The presence of God, is, I think, mostly a matter of perception, of awareness that God is indeed with us, not only in the moments of high feeling and intense spirit, but also through the yawning valleys of life. It is a matter of perceiving God's presence in the ordinary things we do, of looking for God's hand in the simplest of circumstances.



Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Epiphany 6: RCL Texts for February 12, 2006

FIRST READING - 2 Kings 5:1-14; "Father, if the prophet had commanded you do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'"

Most of the sermons I heard as a child at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church were less than memorable. No, let me rephrase that, they were all alike, so once you knew it, you couldn't forget it, even if you wanted to. As I wrote in a very angry autobiographical essay for a class at Duke, "no matter where the sermon started it took a detour through Hell and ended up at the foot of the cross."

But there was one Sermon, one Sunday, that has stayed with me for along time, proably 45+ years now. Charlie Simmons was the grandfather of my childhood friend Billy Simmons and Charlie was a Baptist preacher. He was preaching at Slate Mountain that day, though he was not the pastor. It must have been Homecoming. It was some special occasion, because the children sang a song, and we didn't normally have a children's choir.

After we sang, we all sat together on the front row. Mr. Charlie began to preach, maybe on this text. In the midst of his sermon, he walked out to the edge of the platform and held out a quarter to us, the children on the front row. He looked down at us with his kindly blue eyes underneath a shock of white hair, and invited any one of us who wanted the quarter to get up and get it. All we had to do, he said, was get up and come and get it. It was very tempting.
25 cents was a lot of money to a 7 year old back in 1963. I wanted the money, we all did. But, there had to be a catch. It couldn't be that easy. And our parents might get mad at us for being greedy. "it's okay" Mr. Charlie said, "nobody will get upset with you," he smiled, as if reading our minds.

But we couldn't do it. We sat there, hungrily desirous of that quarter, but unable to move, sitting forward, straining to get up, but feeling as though we were glued to that pew.

Mr. Charlie went on to talk about how God's grace in our lives is right there for us, but we would rather earn it. If God said swim the Atlantic and you'll go to heaven, we'd try it. If God said, Climb Mount Everest and you will receive perfect peace, we'd give it a shot, Mr. Charlie preached. But we think that God's offer of Grace in our lives is too easy, too simple, not important enough, he said. And so, like these children, we sit and yearn, and do nothing.

I've thought of that sermon often over the years. I have tried to make living in God's Grace much harder than it is, I think. I have studied and prayed and tried to be good. Because it couldn't be as simple as trusting that the God who made us, loves us, and wants us to be holy?
It couldn't be as simple as that, could it?

GOSPEL: Mark 1:40-45 "See that you say nothing to no one . . . . But he went out and began to proclaim it freely."

As a preacher and a pastor; I take great comfort in the fact that people didn't do what Jesus told them either; and that even when Jesus did his best to act like an old German Herr Pastor: he was ignored and disobeyed in the same way I am.

I grew up in a time and a place where a lot of people were fascinated by faith healing and faith healers. Oral Roberts and Katherine Kuhlman were the A list, the super stars (a joke from that time: did you hear that Oral Roberts put out a record album but nobody would buy it? The hole kept healing up!) but here were many other B, (and C) list healers making the circuit in their RV's Buses and Circus type preaching tents.

One of the things I noticed was that people used healings to validate their belief in God, or Jesus, or a particular preacher, or a denomination or sect. And a failed healing would lead them to a quick and serious loss of faith, sometimes just in a particular healer, but often in God Himself.

Also, people whose faith grew out of some ecstatic healing experience appeared to need more and more healings and miracles to sustain and validate their faith. It seemed to me to be both self-centered and shallow.

Which is perhaps why Jesus didn't want his ability to heal noised about so loudly. He was clear that people who came to faith quickly and excitedly often left it just as quickly and with just as much emotion. Jesus wanted to spread the Word about the Kingdom, not to become the latest circus sideshow to divert a poor and oppressed people from their pain.

Laying on of hands and prayers for healing are good things. Healing is a ministry the church should be actively doing. But the church must take a hint from Jesus, and do healing ministry out of compassion, not as a way to gain people's attention or loyalty.



Wednesday, February 01, 2006

EPIPHANY 5; RCL texts for Feb. 5, 2006

First Lesson: Isaiah 40:21-31; ". . .but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

Second Lesson I Corinthians 9:16-23; ". . .for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel."

Gospel Lesson: Mark 1:29-39: "And he (Jesus) went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons."

Coretta Scott King died yesterday. Saturday is the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Go buy today's (Feb. 1) USA Today. It carries a long story on Mrs. King in section A, and another long article on Bonhoeffer in Section D.

It seems to me this is a good Sunday for honoring people who spoke out in the name of Christ. To add to the martyr theme, in the ELCA we honor the Martyrs of Japan on this date. They were 26 missionaries and converts crucified in Japan in 1597.

The OT lesson points out how God undergirds the life of the faithful, in I Corinthians, Paul reminds us that these people agonized over their witness, final feeling compelled by the call of God and circumstance, and the Gospel lesson in particular reminds us that the Good News is inseperable from confronting and casting out "demons", like racism and fascism.

I am particularly impressed by the fact that both Mrs. King and Dr. Bonhoeffer had the option of staying out of the fray, but felt called to enter the battle of behalf of "their people".

Mrs. King was studying opera in Boston, she apparently could have had quite a nice career in NY or Boston, or the West Coast or possibly Europe. But she was from Alabama, and she went back to Alabama with her Preacher boy husband. After Dr. King was assassinated, who would have blamed her, as a relatively young woman of 40, if she had gone somewhere else to live and raise her children, had gotten on with her life. But she stayed in their little house in Vine City until 2005, she struggled to maintain her dignity and to support the Cause of Civil rights. Why? Because there were demons to be cast out, and she had had an obligation laid upon her. And, in the end, she did mount up as with eagles wings.

Dr. Bonhoeffer had a Doctorate at the age of 21, he had an international reputation. In 1939 he was in NY, with a cushy teaching position at Union Seminary. But his conscience would not let him stay. "If I am not there now, I will have no right to be a part of the rebuilding of the German people after this is over." A Pacifist, he made the very difficult and self contradictory decision to participate in an attempt to murder Hitler, to cast out the Demon. In the end, he too felt "an obligation is laid on me, " and the record of his days in prison leading up to his hanging show that he too renewed his strength, his quiet moral strength and confidence in God.

We must ask ourselves, What obligation is laid upon us, in America, in 2006?
What demons are we called to cast out? What fears keep us from acting and speaking in the name of the Gospel? Like Jesus, let us slip away into the lonely dark, quiet down and pray and seek God's will and way for all of us.