Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Proclaiming, witnessing, repenting . . .

     As many have noticed, and as I have pointed out this liturgical year, Mark seems to be uninterested with some of the details which were captured by Luke and Matthew in their respective versions. Another great example of that simple truth can be found in this week’s readings. What are your favorite parts of Jesus’ baptism? John arguing that he should not baptize Jesus? The voice speaking to the crowd? The throng of people there to hear John and see Jesus’ baptism? The temptations by Satan that immediately followed? Notice, Mark relates none of those stories. Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus hears God’s voice. Then Jesus is driven into the wilderness where Satan tempts Him, He is with the wild animals, and the angels minister to Him. That’s it. Mark skips all of that and goes right to John’s imprisonment.
     Once John is imprisoned, Mark tells us, Jesus goes to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news!” Jesus’ proclamation is unique. Even John, for all of his noteworthiness and his faithfulness, only preaches. Jesus proclaims the good news of God and the nearness of His kingdom. John is teaching people that God is once again on the move and getting ready to act.  Jesus heralds that God has acted, that, to use words out of order in the Gospel narrative, it is finished.  Such should have been the desire of every single human being, to see God act, but especially those living in Israel at this time. They had seen their share of bad kings and tyrants. Now Rome had conquered them. Into that scene Jesus proclaims with certainty that God is coming to rule again. Yet how many choose to ignore the message? How many choose to ignore the Son of God?
     I will confess, as I have had to deal with people outside our congregation this past week, our Lord’s message seems easy to ignore. If God is King, why am I still suffering from the effects of this or that? If I am truly forgiven by God, why do these things happen to me? If the Church really is His bride, why don’t more people belong? Those kinds of questions, brothers and sisters, speak to the hurt that both we in the church often experience and those who are seeking to discover whether God exists and whether He could love them want answered but are sometimes unable or unwilling to give voice. It is those questions within us, however, which I believe can serve as the best witness to our faith and to the healing that Jesus offers. Why would I say that?
     Experience seems to teach us otherwise, and our brain often latches on to that teaching. We have been talking the past few weeks how our testimony to those around us about the healing that God has worked in our own lives is the most effective tool for sharing the Gospel with others. Books and books, articles and articles, and programs and programs have been written about how to go about the process of bringing people to Christ. While those efforts are noble, and some great tips are included from time to time, they fall short. What typically attracts people to God are the people already attracted. There’s a reason that so many of us around here work hard for a living, have a pretty good prayer life, enjoy serving food to others, are able to speak into failing marriages or blended families, and the like. It’s our story; it's all our stories. It is who we are. And we can tell others with authority how God has worked in our life and healed us. They see the joy and hope within us. Many want it.
     And, truth be told, we expect people to want it. Who would not want to be healed, we say to ourselves? But look at what Mark describes today. Jesus goes into Galilee proclaiming the time has come. Something important is happening, and Jesus calls attention to it. You and I, with the benefit of history, can look back on the events that we will remember in Holy Week and celebrate on Easter Sunday with the understanding of what Jesus meant. God acted, once and for all, for the salvation of human history. That Jesus was raised from the dead proved He was who He said He was and is. That is our first proclamation. God has won the battle!  God sits enthroned over everything.
     Next, Jesus tells the people that the Kingdom has come near! Part of the reason that I share so many stories about those conversations that take place during the week is because they fit into the readings so frequently. The other, though, far more important reason is that many of those stories give evidence to the truth of that first statement that God has acted once and for all! You and I can share stories about how a community around us has responded to a battered woman in its midst and embraced supporting a ministry which tries to help other women in the wider community experiencing the same terrible abuse. We can share stories about homeless people hugging us in public and proclaiming to those in the audience that “these people are truly Christians. They make homelessness seem pretty good.” We can share stories of God’s amazing healings, both in the hospital and in ourselves. And we can do so, knowing those doubts and questions and hurts and pains.
     Of course, for all our work, for all our efforts, the hearer must respond. Our Lord gave everyone the choice to accept or reject His offering. You and I need to remember that they are given a choice. Their rejection of God is not usually our fault, particularly if our stories are shared winsomely with those who ask us about the hope within us. How many heard the words unfiltered from our Lord’s mouth in Mark's accoun today, yet chose to reject Him? You should never expect to have greater success than He did. Two short verses. An amazing teaching about evangelism. Maybe Mark was not so much concerned about the details of what had already happened in history as much as he was concerned with preparing those in his flock to reach out into the wider world? Maybe, as we progress through Lent this season, we should endeavor to relate to others remembering Mark’s teaching. God has won! I can show in my life and in the lives of others! Repent, and join us! Simple words, but none more powerful nor life-giving.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Brave Confession Part 1

My Brave Confession Part 1: One central Iowa woman describes her sex trafficking experience.

Part two of Britney's story.

If you live in Iowa, please be aware that not a single member of our Iowa delegation to Congress felt the need to sponsor the William Wilberforce Trafficked Victims Protection Re-authorization Act when it came up for renewal this past September. As those men (sorry, we have no ladies in our delegation) campaign for your vote, you might want to ask them why. More disappointing is the fact that neither Senator Grassley nor Senator Harkin have chosen to make this a priority for Congress. I guess our legislators are too busy "scoring points" in an election year to worry about saving the lives of those citizens they claim to represent!

My Brave Confession Part 1

My Brave Confession Part 1: One central Iowa woman describes her sex trafficking experience.

For all those in Iowa who do not believe slavery is present in Iowa or that it cannot affect ordinary American citizens!

Thank you for sharing, Britney!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Message . . .

     Psalm 51, although not one of our assigned readings on Ash Wednesday, nevertheless will figure prominently into our service. Immediately after the imposition of ashes, we will read Psalm 51 together. Psalm 51, as you may or may not be aware, is the fourth of seven penitential psalms in the book. Like the other six penitential psalms, the focus of the psalm is confession and repentance, particularly from personal sin. Those of you familiar with the Old Testament may have heard of King David. Those of you who have taken the time to familiarize yourself with this ancestor of Jesus, may have been surprised by what the Bible records about David. Although David had a heart like God’s own heart and although David was an obedient servant of God, he was not without his faults. One of the enduring descriptions in the Bible about David is his sin with Bathsheba and his attempt to cover it up by conspiring with his generals to have Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. The man who had been called in from the flocks as a ruddy face youth and raised up as king to lead God’s people, not only slept with the wife of a trusted lieutenant and got her pregnant. After failing to convince Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife, thereby covering up the fact that someone not her husband had slept with Bathsheba and caused her to get pregnant, David ordered that Uriah be abandoned in battle and killed. In that way, David could marry Bathsheba and cover up the shame of his and her sin.  Adultery, deceit, and murder -- they sure do not sound like the qualities of a good king.

     Why do I remind us of this story today? Those who know the story will remember that Nathan the prophet comes to David. He tells David a story about a poor man whose sheep is taken from him. When David swears that he will exact vengeance on the stronger man who stole from the weaker, Nathan proclaims that David is the villain. God knows David’s sin. God knows what David and Bathsheba did, how David tried to cover it up, and how David ultimately murdered a faithful man to hide his transgressions. This psalm of David grows out of his recognition that he has sinned greatly and that he needs God’s help to overcome the sadness, the guilt, and the shame of his sin. For us, the psalm also serves as a reminder about the nature of repentance. Keep in mind we are talking this Ash Wednesday about repentance and not just remorse. Remorse is that feeling of “Rats! I got caught.” Repentance is something else entirely. Let us look at how David describes it.

     David begins his psalm by asking God to forgive him, to blot out his transgressions, and to wash away the filth accumulated with the sin. While the Hebrew words for "wash" and "cleanse" and "blot" may remind us of temple rituals, David seems to be far more concerned with his relationship to God and God’s people, those whom he has been selected to lead and pastor, than anything having to do with temple worship. And, unless we miss it, David is asking for forgiveness of God for a variety of willful disobedience. There is, in David’s plea, an acknowledgement that he has committed a number of sins. And while he fails to follow God’s instructions and law, God never fails because of His enduring covenant love for all of His people.

     David moves on to express the sorrow that he feels regarding his sins and to claim that he wants to walk with God free of sin in the future. Notice that this is not a simple acknowledgement of the fact that he has sinned. It is an understanding and sorrow that he has jeopardized his relationship with God. David knows he deserves death. He knows that he deserves to be abandoned by God. Those of us with a misplaced understanding of sin might be annoyed that David proclaims that he has sinned only against God. After all, Uriah seems to have taken the brunt of the consequences of his behavior. Even Bathsheba, to the extent that her husband has been killed and to the extent that she has been betrayed by one of those in authority who should never have placed her in a position of sinning against God or breaking her marriage vows, is a victim in this scene. Right? Yet David’s focus is solely upon his sin against Yahweh. If, as Scripture asserts, you and I are created in His image, then every sin we commit against another human being ultimately is a sin against God. When we act in a way to mar their image or separate them from the love of their Father in heaven, you and I are truly sinning against God. When we put others down, when we ridicule them, cause them to stumble in their faith, or enslave them, you and I are doing that to God every bit as much as we are to the person with whom or against whom we are sinning. And David knows that God will not be mocked.

     David then begs God for cleansing. But notice his desires. Cleans me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Those of us familiar with the torah will recognize hyssop. When a faithful Jew came into contact with a dead body (death), they were required to be washed with hyssop in order to be made ritually clean and able to attend worship with God’s people.  A person who came into contact with a dead body and was not washed with hyssop was unclean and unable to worship with God's people.  David knows he has courted death. David knows that he deserves death for these terrible sins against God. And so he begs God to purify him. But he does not stop there. David knows incredible sadness and guilt and shame because of his sin. His words teach us that he no longer has any joy in his heart in light of his sin. The guilt and shame of the sin has taken away his joy; the weight of his atrocities has crushed him. And so he asks God to give him joy, joy which can come only through God’s redeeming grace.

     David continues in his song by asking God to restore him. David realizes that in order for him to be properly restored to God and to those people whom God has given him to lead, he will need to be changed. His heart, his mind, and his will will need to be refocused upon those things which God loves and which God desires. It is a transformation which can only be accomplished through God’s grace and not David’s effort.

     Notice, too, David’s real fear. There is in David’s urgent plea an understanding of what happens when one is abandoned by God. Those of us living today in the shadow of the cross make take cheap grace for granted. We may, as Paul warns against, take it for granted that sin can abound so that even more grace may abound as well. David understands firsthand the consequences of the withdrawal of God’s grace, the withdrawal of His favor. Remember the history of Israel. David was not Israel’s first king. Saul was. Eventually, however, Saul became consumed with doing things his way, with doing things as he saw fit, rather than in accordance with God’s will. Eventually, Scripture relates, God withdrew His Spirit from Saul and allowed Saul to stew in his own juices. In the end, the kingdom was taken from Saul and given to David. And David does not want to find himself in the same, cut off position as Saul.

     Notice, too, David’s continued vow. If God will forgive him and restore him and create in him this clean heart, he will lead the people in God’s ways. David realizes, as should we, that repentance and restoration are not private acts. They are, instead, to be public events. The shame which should separate us from others, David understands, must needs be replaced by a humility which allows us to share with others the saving work that God has done in our lives. We cannot accomplish that humility on our own. God must create a right heart within us. David is correct when he asserts that God takes no delight in burnt offerings or any sacrifice. God simply demands of His people that their inner hearts reflect their outward acts. And David wants that pure heart or willing spirit of which he has asked God to be enduring.

     Only after pleading for God to blot out his sin and to restore a right heart in him does David turn to the entirety of God’s people. While commentators may argue that these last verses were added to give hope to an exilic community, place yourself in David’s shoes for just a moment. You are charged with leading God’s people faithfully. You are commanded by God to meditate on His word day and night and to teach the people faithfully about God. The only person in the whole kingdom with any authority over you is the prophet. When the prophet speaks, the king is commanded to listen because the prophet speaks with the authority of God. You, by your actions and desires and sin, have started the people down a dangerous path. If you were a king with God’s own heart, would you not want to see your people restored to the correct path? You have promised the Lord, if He forgives and restores you, that you will proclaim His deliverance in your life. Why? Because if He can deliver you from so terrible a series of sins, what can He not restore and redeem in the lives of your faithful subjects. Imagine the possibilities. If the Lord forgives the king and the king leads the people faithfully how Zion’s fortunes will truly be, and how God will have been glorified!

     Brothers and sisters, what sin are you retaining against yourself? What sin in your life causes you the most shame, the most guilt? What guilt is it that you carry in the darkness, scared to death that it might one day see the light of day?  This day, brothers and sisters, is a day to give that sin over to God. This day, brothers and sisters, is a day when we remind ourselves and all those who see us with those ashes on our heads that all our sins, all our pain, all our sadness, all our shame have been crucified with Christ. All we, and anyone for that matter must needs do, is repent before God. And while we deserved death and ashes for our sins, God, in His inestimable mercy has offered forgiveness, and restoration, and joy through the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord. Why not this day, give all those that you have retained as unforgiveable to Him, to Him, and let His restorative grace go to work in your life? I cannot promise you that there will be no further consequences. I cannot even promise you that there will not be some pain (even crushed bones that are healed sometimes feel the weather). I can promise you, however, that all those who with heartfelt repentance confess their sins will find in their Father in heaven, a merciful Lord, a willing Savior. Better still, I can promise you the joy of the redeemed. If He can take a man like David and restore him, what can’t He accomplish when your heart loves Him as well? Let us pray . . .

Suffering that leads to glory . . .

     Continuing Mark’s rapid-fire accounts of Jesus’ ministry, we find ourselves in yet another amazing scene this week. To be sure, we have skipped 8 chapters ahead, so the miracle of the Transfiguration is technically out of sequence as we read the book this year. It is, however, the absolutely correct time for us to read the story as we proceed through the liturgical seasons. In many ways, the Transfiguration serves as a “Cliff Notes” or “Spoiler Alert” for what is about to occur in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry.

     As we have noticed in the Gospel of Mark so far, time has very little meeting. Mark seems far more concerned with getting the reader to the events of Holy Week and Easter than he does in sharing details like Luke or Matthew. Much of his timing centers around words like “immediately” or “and then.” This miracle is unique in that there is a time specified. Six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, the events of the transfiguration occur. Why?

     We might be tempted to watch the scene play out in our minds. Mark’s description is amazingly visual. Jesus and three Apostles head up the high mountain. In front of those Apostles, Jesus was Transfigured. Mark recounts that His clothes were made a dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.” As Jesus’ clothes are made white, Moses and Elijah appear. And the same Peter who testified that Jesus was the Christ only six days earlier, asks Jesus for permission to make three tents. Mark tells us that Peter’s offer comes out of fear and out of not knowing what else to say. Then the cloud overshadows them, and the voice thunders from that cloud. What has been entirely visual up until this point becomes an audible teaching. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!” Just as quickly as it all started, it is over. Just like that, Jesus and the Apostles are alone. And our Lord commands them to keep silent about the events on the mountain until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

     The message of the Transfiguration is important in a post Christian world. Far too often the message that the unchurched or even the churched hear on the radio or see on the television is the promise of fortune and wealth and health and absolute bliss for those who choose to follow our Lord Christ. To be sure, we are promised that one day will experience the fulfillment of all of God’s blessings. There will be a time in the future when crying and sighing and suffering are no longer present. For the Apostles and for us, the Transfiguration serves as a reminder that there is much work to be done and much suffering to be experienced before that time. Before the events of Holy Week and the Crucifixion, the Apostles and us get a quick glimpse into the future. Is Jesus truly the messiah? To be sure. Is He truly the Son of God? Absolutely. But greatness is defined by God through faithfulness and obedience to Him even in the face of terrible suffering.

     Like us, the Apostles will make mistakes in the verses and chapters that lie ahead. Far too often they will want to skip to the end time blessing and wield the same power over demons, to sit at His right hand and His left, and simply to be rewarded for choosing to follow Him. They will look at His life and His ministry through worldly terms rather than His terms. The Transfiguration reminds them and us that all the suffering they and we are about to experience will be redeemed, that every cross born in His name and to His glory will result in that same glorification, . . .  in the end. For now, it is our job to head back down the mountain and serve the needy in His name, cast out demons in His name, and die to our selves, that one day we might be inheritors of God’s blessings and raised to the blessed life promised in the Transfiguration, the Sacrament, and the Resurrection!


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Onward Christian Soldiers . . .

     We are gathered here this morning to mourn the death of a beloved parishioner, mother, wife, grandma, friend, and any other wonderful descriptions that we bestow upon Lilyan, but we are also gathered as a reminder that her story is not a tragic ending.

     Some of you may have heard the story of her passing. Like many of you outside this congregation, we were surprised with the fact that she passed, and passed so quickly. For the past several weeks, Lil seemed to be recovering nicely. Once the doctors and nurses got her meds figured out, she was ever quick to point out how quickly she was recovering from her fall last month. I know I had sort of breathed a sigh of relief with respect to Lil’s recovery. Things seemed much bleaker to me a few weeks ago. She was in more pain, and the drugs were causing as many problems as they were helping. Grant and I had even spent the better part of an hour or more on Monday talking, among other things, how she was doing and her hopes for the future. So, to find myself at that hated four-way stop sign with a call from Michelle to get there quick was a shock.

    Those of you who know the story know that much of the family made it to her bedside. All were there within a few minutes of her passing. From a clerical perspective, it was the best of deaths that we can hope for. Lilyan had left nothing unsaid. The family had gathered with her the day before, and she had been able to tell each one of them how much she loved them, how proud she was of each of them, and how lucky she felt to have them in her life. Even her last words were of her family. As she was slipping from consciousness, she told Michelle and Ron to tell everyone she loved them. I arrived to find Lil breathing shallowly. I tried to put off Last Rites until the entire family gathered, but the nurse was adamant that we could not wait. By the way we were arranged around her, my hand was over her mouth and nose. I could feel her shallow breaths on the underside of my forearm until I said the words -- Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God. I continued with the Rite until the end, but the last breath I felt was at the beginning of those words. The nurse confirmed for all of us present that she had, indeed, passed.

     Those of you who are not Christian, and maybe some of you who are, might think that this is an ending you can only hope for in your lives. Some of us might even think of this death as romantic. After all, she was surrounded by her husband, her daughters, and a granddaughter, all of whom loved her dearly. By all accounts, there had been little left unsaid between her and all those whom she loved so dearly. At the time of death, the priest had shown up to pronounce the blessing, and she passed gently from this life. What could be better?

     Tomorrow, we will read St. Paul’s reminder in 2 Corinthians that we have been blinded by the god of this world. For those of us who knew and loved Lil, no truer words could be spoken. To her family, I will once again remind them that people do not mean to be cruel when they try and comfort you. When people whom you have known all your life come up to you and say things like “it’s for the best, she was hurting and not herself” or “God needed another angel so he took your wife/ your mom/ your grandma/ your friend,” or “caring for her must have been so hard, I bet you are relieved of that burden” they usually do not mean to be cruel. For some, they have no idea what to say; so rather than sitting in an uncomfortable silence, they say words to fill the void. For others, of course, St. Paul’s warning is on point -- they have been blinded by the god of this world and believe that such an ending is good or romantic or in some way to be admired. For their unkind words, I am very sorry. When people say such things they forget that to you, Lilyan, was special, unique, irreplaceable. To you, she was not a burden. She was a beloved wife, a fabulous mother who had the most unique lullabys, a grandma who allowed you to play hooky without your parents knowing, and adult who would sneak you into horrible films. Her passing will leave a void in your lives. It will be a pain that will be muted over time through God’s grace, but it will spring upon you at odd times with those thoughts of “I wish Lilyan/mom/grandma was here to help me.” Make no mistake, she wished that she was going to be there for all that you have to face. Yes, she was not as spry as she used to be. Yes, she had to take it easy. But taking it easy does not mean that she longed for death. And make no mistake, our Lord mourns with you. Just as He mourned at the passing of Lazarus, He joins us this day as we mourn the passing of lady so intertwined in all our lives. He did not want us to feel this pain. He did not want us to experience death.

     It has been asked both by parishioners and family members whether Lilyan was truly ready to go. To those with that question in their hearts today, I will admit that Lil and I seldom got to talk alone. One of the characteristics of the family is that everyone tried to help out as much as they could. So, more often than not, any time I visited Lilyan, others were present. Sometimes, though, I would catch her alone or just with Ron. During the course of those visits, she would tell me her goals. Chief among them was seeing Nancy, Sean, and Kaleigh through their recent trials. She wanted desperately to make it to fifty years with Ron because, you know, 49 years was just a bit incomplete. She was excited to see what Cathy was doing and still shook her head that Grant somehow caught her. She had all kinds of goals she wanted to see fulfilled, most of them focused on you sitting here. But she was also cognizant of the fact that there was little she could do to fight God. I guess when He says it’s your time, there’s not a lot you can do about it, can you? We would laugh at that. I had shared my call story and how I had fought God tooth and nail. Lil would chuckle at her tale about her battles with my predecessor at St. Alban’s, Kathleen. One of my earliest serious conversations with Lilyan was over our Prayer List. She had taken it upon herself to convince Kathleen that it was too long. I am cutting a lot out but Lilyan ended the tale with and you know, I won the argument, but Kathleen ignored that fact and kept everyone who came to her or parishioners in need of prayers on our list. Now that I am a bit older, I sometimes think she might have been right to ignore me. But I still won those arguments! We would laugh at how silly we could be sometimes, but how loving a Father He must be to still love us and be willing to take us in. Make no mistake. Lilyan did not want to die. She had things she wanted to do, goals she wanted to reach. Make no mistake, however, she did not fear death either. Death, to her, was something to be faced when the time came, but it was not to be feared because she loved God and she knew He had promised to raise her.

     Those of you who are familiar with Episcopal or Anglican funerals might have been a bit surprised by our first Psalm. Those of you who attend other churches might have actually pulled out a BCP and wondered why on earth Sean was reading from a Psalm not on the list. It is my habit to let the family choose the readings. I prefer that the deceased person have selected the readings and hymns before they pass, but that does not always happen. Sometimes the family is forced to plan the service themselves. I want the words that they choose to reflect the life of the one who has passed. As a congregation and pastor who believes that what God has revealed in the Bible His truth, we think the whole book is important, so, in truth, any reading can speak to us. There is a bit of history about that Psalm, however, a bit of history that I will share. When Ron and Michelle came over to plan the service, they chose one of the suggested Psalms. As we were talking, however, I suggested that they use the entire Psalm rather than the portions mentioned. Specifically, I and then they hoped it could serve as a provocative reading for her grandson. As I arrived at Runge Thursday evening, a number of the family grabbed me and asked me if I had spoken to Sean about the Psalm. After making the rounds, I headed into the adjacent room where his uncle was trying hard to cheat him at checkers. Sean asked if we had to use the Psalm that Ron and Michelle had chosen. When I asked why, he remarked that it really didn’t say anything. It was kind of empty. Having been warned, I asked what he had in mind. Sean asked if we could substitute the Psalm we read today for the one that had been chosen. I asked what he liked about this Psalm. Needless to say, I was willing to substitute, as was Ron, Michelle and the rest of the family. And I was left to marvel at the grace of God.

     You see, while we are gathered here this day noting the passing of Lil, a great deal of the rest of the world is focused on the untimely passing of more famous people. Today, while we celebrate a seemingly anonymous matriarch in Davenport, Iowa, much of the entertainment world is mourning the passing of a famous singer, and much of the athletic world is celebrating the passing of a Hall of Fame catcher. And God’s word in Psalm 49 reminds us both how the god of this world has blinded many of those around us and how He has peeled the scales from our eyes and revealed to us the only characteristic by which He measures us.

     The Psalm points out that the world is often satisfied to judge a life based on one of two things: wealth accumulated or acclaimed reputation. One just has to turn on the television now to see the truth of that statement. Fame and fortune are more prized than anything else by many in this world. The number of people who try to make the cast of the latest reality show, and the antics to which they will go to get their fifteen minutes of fame or a padded bank account, can leave us speechless. Yet, like watching an oncoming car wreck or train derailment, how many of us turn away? Are we envious of their audacity? Do we think that fortune and glory are the keys to happiness? Whatever the reason that so many are attracted to the cult-worship of the rich and famous, our attention, according to the psalmist, is misplaced. Like beasts in the fields they perish. And once they die, what of their fortune? What of their fame? Can they take it with them? Will it protect them from their grave? Of course, not. Those trappings of life are short-lived. Like their fathers who descended to the grave, they will never see the light. In fifty years, will anyone other than hardcore baseball fans ever remember there was a baseball team in Montreal, let alone a Hall of Fame catcher? In fifty years, will anyone still listen to the music of Whitney Houston? Or will people be more concerned with the latest incarnation of Madonna, er Lady Gaga, or whatever her name will be?

     There is another measure, the psalmist points out. While those who esteem wealth and fame will find themselves trusting in those things that are fleeting, those things which are subject to decay, there is another possible focus. We can choose to trust in God. Those who trust in fame and fortune eventually find themselves in situations which they cannot redeem. What profit is there that we should gain the world, and lose our soul? How many times do the tabloids and gossip mills revel in the failures of the rich and famous? Even now the tabloids are headlining how we saw her death coming. Like so many who came before her and sought to heal the pain herself, Ms. Houston turned to drugs. And because they are transient, because they are perishable, eventually they failed her. Similarly, as an elite professional athlete, Mr. Carter was forced to spend a great deal of time training his body. His ability to catch and to hit a baseball and throw out a baserunner is what earned him acclaim in this world. Yet, in the end, it was his body that failed him when it succumbed to the cancer.

     Make no mistake, I do not know Ms. Houston’s or Mr. Carter’s faith. I cannot speak to what they believed. I can speak, however, to Lilyan’s faith with some authority. Lilyan learned over the years that there were many things which she could not do for herself. She was fortunate, she said, to have a husband like Ron in her life. Ron was very handy. Those things which she could not do, Ron often could. And yet, for all his love for her and for all his talent, there were still things he could not do. That, for her, was where faithfulness was required. While Ron was a great handyman/repairman, God was her redeemer! Those things for which she could do for herself, God did for her. And so, ultimately, her faith was placed in her Lord.

     Chiefly, of course, that idea of redemption played out in the events of Holy Week and Easter. Those of us on the outside looking in may have been surprised by Lilyan’s death. Yes, she was tired the last few years of her life, but her mind was there. Her humor was still there. Her determination was still there. But Lilyan had come to the realization that at some point, her body would fail her. Doctors had warned her that her heart function was not good. As you might expect, Lilyan showed a wide range of emotions when confronted with the likely outcome. Sometimes she was determined to fight it to her last breath. At other times she had words with God in anger. At still other times she wanted to throw in the towel out of frustration.  I can imagine, in the privacy of her home, she may have experienced fear or even fatalism.  Always, however, she trusted that the same God who had raised Jesus Christ to life would, in the end, redeem her life and even her own death. That was His solemn vow to her. And she believed in Him. She trusted, like the psalmist, that God would redeem her life even from the grave and take her surely to Himself. She was not a beast in the field, but rather a daughter loved and known by her Savior!

     Lilyan Curtis was a lady who had figured out what was to be more highly valued by servants of God. Long ago, Lilyan recognized that neither fame nor wealth would save her, only her faith in Christ. So when I tell you this day, brothers and sisters, that this service is not only a time for mourning but also a time for celebrating, I do so with her voice. The same lady whom you loved, with whom you worked, who beat you at cards, who sang drinking songs as lullabies, who watched those animated movies with you when no one else would, who hugged you when you hurt, who loved you no matter what you did, who made an impression enough in your life that you would attend this day to be here with all of her loved ones, would tell you that this is not a day for focusing on her death. She would remind each one of us that there is no reason to mourn. Her Lord, who was risen from the dead nearly 2000 years ago extended the promise of a resurrected life to her. Because of her enduring faith, she is no longer here but, rather, with our Lord! She has moved on to receive that imperishable body and to take her place at that feast where there is no mourning, no sighing, but only eternal joy.

    Best of all, she would remind each on of us present that there is a place there for us, too. All that our Lord requires is that we accept His invitation, and invitation paid for and bought by His beloved Son. More importantly, she would remind us all that it is our job to carry that Gospel narrative into our places of work, into our families, into our card games where people are misled and dying with no hope, into those places where people trust in decaying and temporal things. And it as a job which continues this day and every day, no matter the circumstances of our lives. At the end of this service, we will sing one of her favorite hymns. She only had two, and both, I think captured much of her enduring faith: Amazing Grace and Onward Christian Soldiers. You might think the latter out of place with the first, but Lil would be the first to remind us that it is the job of His soldiers, His faithful witnesses, to carry the stories of His grace into the world, no matter the circumstances, no matter the world’s desire to ignore our message of hope, no matter the cost to ourselves. You see, like Lil, we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot ever fail!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Who fails my "ick test"?

     Mark doesn’t waste any time, does he?—I heard that statement expressed several times this past week. People were noticing that we were still in the first chapter of his gospel, and He was already casting out demons and healing diseases. We are not the first group of Christians to notice that Mark’s Gospel is more like a Passion Narrative with a prologue than a "normal account" of His ministry, whatever that means. In the last three weeks alone, we have heard the story of the demon being exorcised in the synagogue, the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed, and now the story of the leper being healed. And still, we are in the beginning of the book! Mark writes like he did not have a lot of time or like he did not have much paper. Of course, when we consider that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted only about three years, maybe the disciple learned something from his Master – time is of the essence.

     Two weeks ago, we learned that Jesus had authority in the spiritual world. Last week, we learned that Jesus could heal the effects of either spiritual attacks or God’s punishment. This week, the focus of Mark shifts just a bit. As with fevers, leprosy was considered in the Ancient Near East to be a divine punishment. In the Jewish culture, in particular, it was thought to be a sign of judgment upon a notorious sinner. To be fair, Leviticus spends more than a dozen verses teaching priests the symptoms of leprosy, so it is only natural that the Jews felt it had a special place in God’s arsenal of judgments. And just so we are aware, leprosy in the ANE was not only what you and I know to be Hansen’s disease. There were a number of rashes, discolorations, and other skin ailments which could be called leprosy.

     The reason that leprosy was more feared than fevers was the result of the disease. You might think that the outlook for those with Hansen’s disease would have been terrible, at least from a health standpoint. Even today, all we can do is arrest the effects of the disease. We, with all our expertise and knowledge, cannot cure it. Without medications, sufferers will often experience infections, gangrene, and loss of limbs after some period of time. As bad as that sounds, there was a worse punishment for lepers. They were considered in the culture in which Jesus ministered to be unclean. To associate with one meant that one became ritually unclean as well. If one socialized with a leper, one had to be purified before one could return to the synagogue. In a very real way, lepers were treated like living corpses. Imagine their lives. Imagine the isolation, the distance (both physical and emotional), the hurt, and the pain. Imagine if you did not have Hansen’s disease, yet you were still force to live apart. Now you know the leper’s hurt and pain. You have a terrible disease and must live apart from us because God is mad at you and is punishing you, at least that is what you have been taught.

     Mark wastes no time telling the story. The leper comes to Jesus begging. “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Has he heard how Jesus cast out the demon? Has he heard how Jesus cured the fever? Was it another miracle that inspired him? We are not told. What we are told, however, is that Jesus was moved with pity and stretched out His hand to touch the man. Imagine the shock and horror of all those watching this exchange. The Teacher has just defiled himself! Imagine the shock of the leper. People have gone out of their way since the diagnosis to avoid him, and now Jesus was intentionally touching him. A healthy, clean person was reaching out to him. And not just any person, but a rabbi and a prophet! He of all people would know what He was bringing upon Himself. And Jesus says the kind words, “I do choose,” and He commands the leper to be clean. Immediately, Mark relates, the disease left the man, and he was made clean.

     Mark then gives us the stern warning that Jesus gave to the man. First, he tells the man to say nothing. Talk about countercultural! You and I are familiar with televangelists who, usually for a price, can offer you a fix for your ills. If you are not cured when he or she prays, the fault lies with your faith, not them. The ANE had similar charlatans in those days. Men would promote their ability to heal so as to gain notoriety and to increase their purse. Jesus, however, tells the man to say nothing. Simply go to the priest, let him see and judge, and offer the appropriate sacrifice as a testimony to them. Jesus wants no acclaim. He does not seek to promote Himself the way most PR people would teach us to promote ourselves. He understands that miracles, while powerful, do not always produce enduring faith. We have seen this attitude first hand in our experiences. Think of the miracles at Genesis, which, for a few months, produced a great deal of chatter and excitement, but ended with doctors and nurses assuming that the indications or tests were wrong, therefore the result was not as stunning. Jesus is calling for an enduring faith. And Jesus is living under the torah which His Father bestowed upon Israel.  He understands better than everyone that bad things can happen to God's people and that God will ultimately redeem them, if they have faith!

     Ominously, we are told that the man’s healing is a judgment upon others. The priests, in particular, named the man a leper and unclean. If the healed man follows Jesus' instructions and seeks readmission into the synagogue and among God's people, he priests will be the ones who name him clean and who restore him to the community of God’s people, once the thank offering has been made. Will they recognize that if only God can send the disease of leprosy that the One who cleanses others of it must also be from God? Those of us who have cheated and read ahead know the answer to that question. This cleansing will be among those reasons why Jesus is so harsh in His judgment about the priests.

     Of course, we know the man was unable to keep silent. Can you blame him? Against all hope and expectation, he has been cleansed of a disease, touched by the prophet, and restored to community. His response is that joyful response we should all have when we come to the realization of what Christ has done for each one of us. And this man’s proclamation of what Jesus has done is so well done that Jesus is forced to stay out in the country because of the flood of people who flock to Him.

     It is fortunate, if not downright providential, that our Healing Service includes these readings. In a few moments, we will gather around the altar rail. I will anoint and lay hands on those seeking healing in their lives. Make no mistake, what we seek is healing, not cures. Some may come forward with the guilt and shame of sin asking simply that God take it away and clothe them in His righteousness. Others may come forward with aches and pains and diseases and asked that they be removed as well. But always, always, we come to the rail praying for the healing that only Jesus can offer. Only He died for us. Only He was raised for us. Only He can give us lasting hope and true healing.

     As a result of that healing He works in us, however, you and I become uniquely qualified and obligated to carry that message into the world around us. In a real way, you and I are called to a joyful proclamation not unlike the leper’s in this week’s story. And you and I are commanded, not asked, commanded to take that offer of healing and restoration to those in our midst who are most cut off, who feel most unloved, who live with the worst pain, confident in His ability to redeem all things.

     Who in your life is like the leper? Who is it in your life that fails the “ick test.” Who is it, if you had your druthers, would stay “out there” and not be invited “in here.” Brothers and sisters those are the very people you and I need to be reaching. Those are the very people we need to be touching and helping and reminded that they are, too, just like us, loved of God. Maybe it is the AIDS victim in your life, maybe it the person whom you serve at Community Meal, maybe it a stinky drunk or druggie. You see, once we were just as unclean in His eyes, but now we are made clean through His sacrifice. Like the joyful leper today, we should be proclaiming the healing that He gives, that people will continue to come to Him from every quarter.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Radio Row and Spirit warfare . . .

     I often tell clergy from other denominations that one of the advantages of using a lectionary is the simple fact that the readings force us to move along or to consider those elements of God’s teachings which we might otherwise prefer to avoid. Again, I was blessed this week to know where to go for my sermon, but like many of you, I was uncomfortable as to how to approach the topic without seeming to be freakish—well, more so than usual! I am speaking, of course, of the idea of demons and the spiritual warfare in general. I will say that the topic is clearly of some importance given where I was forced to minister this week and some of our conversations. Some parishioners approached me independently of each other this week to ask me about Mark’s account of Jesus’ exorcism in the synagogue. As I was reflecting on those conversations trying to make sense of the week and discern how best to approach the topic, I chuckled at the beginnings of all those conversations. Only one person had the courage to ask “Do you believe there really are demons?” Everyone else got there; it just took some time.

     Clearly, demons are real. Let me say it again just to make sure you really did hear it the first time, yes, I think demons are real. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus banished demons and that the disciples did also (and failed at least once). I know much of supernatural lore of spiritual warfare is based more upon Milton than upon the Bible, but Paul especially counsels us to be aware of the spiritual battle going on around us. I do not think that God is capricious or in the business to trick us, so I believe that the accounts of the demonic are real.

     I know that most of us, as 21st century Americans, would much prefer to believe such tales as fancies. I have heard repeatedly that what were called “possessions” in the Bible were really epileptic seizures, behavior disorders, schizophrenia, and other such quantifiable and diagnosed diseases, as if the people in antiquity were total idiots. Make no mistake, people in the ANE were no more gullible, no more stupid than you or me. True, we are able better to understand the nature of bacteria and viruses. Doctors can distinguish between a migraine headache which is terribly uncomfortable from a headache associated with meningitis, which can be bacterially or virus caused and, so, have a different chance of survival. The ANE lacked much of that particular distinction. To them, it really did not matter if one had pneumonia, bronchitis, allergies, or whatever so much as the fact that one could not breathe correctly. Certain symptoms required certain cures, most of which were learned through trial and error. So, when we read in Scripture that Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many diseases” we should probably not be so quick to dismiss the claims as superstitious nonsense. Angels we can accept; demons are a bit tougher to swallow. Why?

     No matter the why, Mark in the last two weeks has related two specific exorcisms and some generic ones. If the first specific exorcism is the man in the synagogue last week, what is the second? Take a look a Peter’s mother-in-law. When the pericope begins, we are told that she had a fever. You and I are probably a little too detached from Jewish history and culture and a little too familiar with medical knowledge to understand the spiritual significance of a fever. To us, a fever is a sign of an infection. To those of Jesus’ time, a fever was a separate disease. In the Jewish culture, the fever had a theological significance because of the torah . Both Leviticus 26:16 and Deuteronomy 28:22 were interpreted by many rabbis to mean that God was punishing a sinner, a person who violated the torah. Such an interpretation will probably not surprise those of us familiar with the book of Job. Job’s “friends” are certain that he has sinned against God terribly because of all the calamities that have beset him. Similarly, a fever was viewed by many in Jesus’ time as “proof” of one’s crimes against God. The fever was sent by God to punish or chastise the wrongdoer. Many rabbis even taught that only God could cure a fever. Since it was sent by Him, only He could halt its effects, particularly the effects of higher fevers.

     Now, perhaps, the second specific exorcism is obvious to you. Think of what is going on now in our reading. She has a fever which, to the disciples, requires that they tell the Master. Mark records that Jesus took her by the hand, upon hearing of her condition, and lifted her up. Our translators, by virtue of their decision, lessen the impact of what the disciples saw. Apheken means released or abandoned more than left. It conveys a sense of possession or ownership, in this case supernatural or divine, that has been forsaken. In the two other fevers discussed in the NT, the same turn of phrase is used, signifying to those reading and hearing the story, what was really happening. Whether her fever was God’s punishment or some sort of demonic attack, Jesus had the power and authority to heal! If it was divine punishment, this miracle testified to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, as who else could stop His punishment but God? If it were demonic, still He had power to bring healing to victims (never mind the significance of a woman set free immediately after a man has been freed).

     Keep in mind, too, how Mark describes exorcisms. Those with diseases are healed; those with sin are forgiven; demons, we are told, simply release or go away from the victim after being commanded by Jesus to come out. These are important, significant distinctions. When Mark speaks in terms of possession, he speaks in term of unclean spirits, those forces, beings, however we want to describe them, which attempt to thwart the Lord’s will in the behavior. Put another way, it is the spirit that is inimical to the Holy Spirit in this chapter, which took control of Jesus right after His baptism and works to the glory of God. By contrast, these unclean spirits work to alienate human beings both from God and others. Eventually, in Mark’s Gospel, they will even seem to get the upper hand in the spiritual battle when Jesus is put to death.

     So what? That explains then, what about now? How should God’s teaching about demons impact us now? I know we are all more comfortable speaking in terms of addictions and psychoses and disorders. But are we really bringing all the healing power of Christ to bear when we allow modern science and medicine to supplant what God has revealed to be true? To be sure, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Screwtape Letters, we are as equally ineffective when we think the devil and his minions are everywhere as when we think they do not exist at all. But scripture reminds us over and over again that there are forces arrayed against God, which work hard to see Him defeated and you and I separated from Him. Of course, Scripture also reminds us that the chief weapon of those who fight against God is death. In the end, it was the weapon that those spiritual and physical forces brought to bear on Jesus. Christ’s death and resurrection remind us, naturally, that even that weapon is insufficient to keep us from our Lord. Better still, as children of the living God, inheritors of the firstborn share, you and I have no reason to fear those unclean spirits or anything else we cannot explain! Jesus promised us all that we would do greater works because He would intercede on our behalf with the Father who would send His Spirit upon each of us. You and I and every one of our brothers and sisters have reason to believe that there are forces and spirits working against God, but we have an even better reason to believe we have nothing to fear thanks to that empty tomb!

     As I was reflecting on a way to give us an example this week, a number of conversations popped into mind after I listened to a couple of sports talk interviews this week.  A number of people had asked me over the last couple months what I thought about the whole Tim Tebow phenomena.  Now, as a Steeler fan, I have to admit he is not my favorite person right now.  But two interviews have helped me to accept the defeat from a couple weeks ago with a bit of grace.  In the first one I heard, Von Miller, the starting linebacker for the Broncos, was being grilled by an interviewer.  This interviewer was wanting the dirt.  "Tim Tebow must be a horrible teammate being so 'holier-than-thou', right?"  "You can't be yourself around him, can you, because he's so righteous, right?"  On and on the interviewer baited Von Miller.  His attempt was an effort to cause a rift in the team and expose just how much the team despised Tebow.  After a couple deft answers, Von Miller asked the interviewer to quit.  "All those comments about Tim are the press' creation.  He's not at all like that.  He is a great teammate.  Nobody works harder, nobody works longer, nobody cares more about success for the Broncos than Tim Tebow."

     Unfortunately, the interviewer was not done baiting Von.  Once again he picked on the whole "in your face" Christian description to elicit a response from the LB.  Von Miller gave perhaps the best answer any Christian man could hope to be said of him.  "When I was little, I used to get dragged to church.  I heard all kinds of expressions.  Have you ever heard the expression 'Iron sharpens iron?'  I had, but I never understood it until I met Tim Tebow.  I like to think being around him makes me a better man.  I like to think that he rubs off on all of us because he is a man at peace with himself and world around him.  You guys in the media get on him about being 'all religious.'  We don't describe him like that.  He's one of us.  He's in the pits with us slugging it out each week.  I hope, one day, people will think of me like they think of Timmy.  I hope my sons grow up to be like him.  I hope my daughters would marry a man like him.  That is what I think of Tim.  That is what makes him special!"

     I have to admit, I was whooping in the car.  I don't know much about Tim Tebow other than what the press relates.  I know from playing football that there is enough not happening in the Bronco locker room not to believe the press' commentary and descriptions.  We're he a bad teammate, the veterans would be throwing him under the bus.  Now, however, a rookie LB was telling a radio DJ to get off his teammate's back.  Better still, he hoped that Timmy was rubbing off on him.

     A few days later, however, I got to hear the same member of the press interview Tebow.  The interviewer was polite but skeptical.  He was asking Tebow about fans running over Joe Montana to meet him and questioning how well he fit into a team.  Finally, the interviewer went too far and begrudgingly stated that Tim must really be enjoying all the attention.  "To tell you the truth, it really worries me."  The interviewer was surprised.  "I have been blessed with some skills and the opportunity to play a game for a living.  It just so happens that I have a platform that many lack.  People ask me what I think about stuff.  I answer.  And they complain that I am forcing my views on them, like I am the one that stuck a microphone in their face.  It's clear than many in the world don't like the answers that I give.  What worries me now is that I will get too full of myself, to full of pride, and trip up in a way that hurts the witness I want to make.  I know if I accept one of the offers of these girls, party a little too hard with drugs or alcohol, or anything else that someone else can do in private, my actions will be publicized.  and then everyone will think I am a hypocrite and the truth of the Gospel will be compromised.  It is a tough pill to swallow.  Hopefully, it and my prayer life and God's grace will keep me on the right path.  You'd think people would at least let me live my life rather than root against me and look for me to fail.  But nothing is the way the Lord intended."

     Think of what Tebow admitted on the radio.  We live in a country that supposedly wants everyone to seek happiness.  He has found it in his faith.  Yet now people are doing their best to help him stumble.  Women line up to be the first ex-Mrs. Tebow or just the first woman with whom he has sex.  Nobody is praising him for waiting.  Teammates describe a great teammate and a better man; yet interviewers are always criticizing his faith and trying hard to sow dissension because of that faith.  Why?  Why do we want people to fail?  Why do we celebrate when "good guys" or "good girls" stumble?  Could it be because we have been deluded?  Can it be that we have forgotten our inheritance?  Can it be that we have forgotten the words of our Declaration of Independence?  Are we not in the middle of a war in which the distinctions between the good and the bad are blurred, and failure is cheered.  Are we that messed up?  Do we really like the Ben Rothlisbergers and Michael Vicks better than the Tim Tebow and Kurt Warners of the world? Are we more excited to see the latter fail than the former repent?  Are we more willing to give the former a second chance than to cheer on the latter?

     Are demons real? Yes. I believe they are. Too many times we are told that Jesus encountered them simply to dismiss them. And, given how many of us accept angels and their actions, does it seem any less probable that there would be beings fighting just as hard against God? Better still, while we have a particular understanding of demons and exorcisms as a church (that being they must be discerned in community and exorcised by bishops), we are not powerless before them if we encounter them alone. Christ’s death and resurrection signified the beginning of the end of their power. As His rightful heirs, we have nothing to fear when confronted by them. Yes, they might make life hard for us. Yes, they might even kill us. Yet even they must bow to the power of His blood and the authority of His commands. Perhaps, just perhaps, the world would be better served were we to quit pretending as if they cannot exist and name them for what they are. Perhaps, just perhaps, our naming and praying and asking Him to banish them would usher His kingdom that much further into the world, reducing the power and effectiveness of those, including Satan, who fight against Him. Perhaps, just perhaps, our willingness to accept His teaching and His authority would bring that much more healing into the world, healing which testifies to the world His glory and His grace and His power to heal all who are brought to Him!