Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beginners’ Luck

(A sermon based on Genesis 9:8-17 & Mark 1:9-15 for the First Sunday in Lent)

We have arrived once again at the First Sunday in Lent; we are at the beginning of our journey with Jesus toward the Cross and then to the Empty Tomb. We have an excellent opportunity to focus on the journey that our Savior made in his adult life as he embraced and pursued the call that had been placed on his life.

Given that our Lord told us that if we are to be his followers we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him, we also have an excellent opportunity to focus on the journey that we are making in our lives as we embrace and pursue the call that is on our life.

Let’s think of this opportunity as a pilgrimage through the world and as a journey into the unknown.

Imagine Noah and his family stumbling off the ark after all those months, trying to get their land legs back after so many days on the sea that used to be land. The animals lope and crawl and slither and stomp and stagger off with them. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and the streams are full. The day holds all the promise inherent in newness as well as all the threat inherent in recent catastrophe.

We know what it’s like.

You wake up on the morning after the day when your spouse found out about the affair. You wake up on the morning after the day when you buried your father. You wake up on the morning after the day that you were laid off from your job. You wake up on the morning after the day that the bank foreclosed on your house. You wake up on the morning after the day that your child was diagnosed with the dread disease. You wake up on the morning after you realize that the web of lies and frauds you have perpetuated on the job is about to trap you.

You thank God you’re alive. You wonder how you’re going to go on living.

To Noah God said, “Never again” and as proof God hung God’s unstrung bow of war in the sky, pointing away from the earth. “Never again will I destroy the earth by water,” God promised.

We know, as Noah must have known, two things simultaneously that are both true: (1) the threat of chaos never really goes away and (2) God’s grace, love, mercy, and promise always go with us.

The question is: in the light of which truth will we choose to live? Which truth will we judge to be the greater truth? Which truth will be the dominant truth in our Lenten journey toward the Cross? In which truth will we believe more?

Will we believe in the power of the threat of chaos or will we believe in the power of God to go with us and to deliver us from, in, and even through the chaos?

Let’s think of this opportunity as a journey into the wilderness.

Imagine Jesus coming up out of the baptismal waters, hearing the voice of his Father, and having the Spirit of God descend upon him. (What a Trinitarian moment!) It had to be a tremendously affirming and inspiring moment for Jesus.

Remember, though, that it is the “kick-off” of Jesus’s public ministry; it is the beginning of his journey toward the Cross. So where will the Spirit lead him? To preach to thousands? To heal hundreds? To receive acclaim and adulation?

No…the Spirit drives him into the wilderness where he will be for forty days, tested by Satan, surrounded by wild beasts, and ministered to by angels.

The experience was, in a very real way, a microcosm of Jesus’ life—always journeying through the wilderness, always following the Father’s will and the Spirit’s lead, always being tried and tested, and always knowing the nurture and love of God in his life.

Do we know what that’s like? You experience God in a powerful and wonderful way. You sense the affirmation that you are God’s beloved child. You sense the presence of the Spirit in your life. Being who you are—who we all are—you expect for the Spirit to lead you into great and glorious times, to one mountain-top experience after another, but instead the Spirit wants to drive you into the wilderness, where life is dry and barren and dangerous and tempting.

You don’t want to go. But what if you don’t go?

Evidently Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, needed the experience as preparation for what he would face in the rest of his life as he journeyed toward the Cross. Why would we think we don’t need the experience, too, as risky and dangerous as it might feel—and as it might in fact be?

Pastor Phyllis Kersten has posed the important questions in an interesting way.

Like the cell phone technician in the TV ad who keeps going into remote and secluded areas to test reception, God kept asking Jesus, "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me say that you are my beloved son now, when you see that this struggle with Satan isn't a one-time event, but of long duration? … Can you hear me in the angels I send to wait on you? Can you see and hear in them the assurance that I will sustain you?"

"Can you hear me now?" God also asks us. Can we hear that the one who was with Jesus is also with us for the long haul, even when we're in the wilderness? Can we recognize the "angels" God sends to "wait table" for us? Can we hear God's call to us to be the angels who accompany others in their lonely and desolate places, including illegal immigrants who are afraid they'll be arrested, children dying from famine in Africa or homeless families living in their cars in our towns?

(Phyllis Kersten, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, February 22, 2012, p. 20)

We have to journey into the wilderness to learn to hear God, to learn to rely on the comfort of God, and to learn to trust in the grace of God in all the seasons and in all the circumstances of life.

Let’s think of this opportunity as a journey in partnership with Jesus.

As we go into the world and into the wilderness, we do not journey alone. Jesus always goes with us. We are joined to him and he to us. Wherever we go, he is there. Whatever the test, he is there. Whatever the trial, he is there. Whatever the struggle, he is there. Whatever the deprivation, he is there.

As Noah began his post-flood pilgrimage in the world, he began not having or needing luck—luck had nothing to do with it—but having the presence, the grace, and the promises of God with him.

As Jesus began his post-baptism pilgrimage in the wilderness and in the world, he began not having or needing luck—luck had nothing to do with it—but having the presence, the grace, the promises, and the Spirit of God with him.

As we begin our Lenten journey, as we begin our journey toward the Cross, we go with…

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reflections on a Baptist Ash Wednesday Service

Here in the 53rd year of my life and in the 36th year of my ministry I participated in an act of worship in which I had never participated before—the imposition of ashes.

There were a handful of Catholic families in my hometown but I guess I never saw any of them on Ash Wednesday because it was during my freshman year at Mercer University that I first noticed the dark smudge on someone’s forehead. Luckily I did not know her well enough to suggest that she go wash her face; in a conversation with friends about it I was informed that the girl was Catholic and that she had been to her church’s Ash Wednesday service early that morning.

Given the tremendous progress that I had already made in developing my critical thinking skills during my few months in college I suspect my response was somewhere between “That’s strange” and “Huh” and “What’s for lunch?”

As the years have gone by—and my, how they have gone by—I have become more and more immersed, as have many Protestants, in the practice of observing the Christian Calendar and especially the “non-ordinary” times of the Advent-Epiphany cycle and the Lent-Pentecost cycle. I have found it and continue to find it to be a very helpful discipline in the ongoing effort to keep me aware—and to keep the flock of which I am the shepherd aware—of the “always” nature of our identity as Christians and of our following of Jesus Christ.

I had for a good many years led the Baptist churches I have served in an ashless Ash Wednesday service. We would focus on remembering our mortality and on confessing our sins through the usual Baptist means of song, sermon, and prayer—all following a fine fellowship supper, of course—but would stop short of actually using ashes.

Having become more and more convinced of the power of symbolism in our lives and of the power of physicality (we experience God spiritually but we are holistic beings in our spirituality and in our physicality so the only way we can experience God “spiritually” is “physically”) in our worship, I decided this year to go all the way and to offer the imposition of ashes to our people.

Thinking that some of our folks might be unfamiliar with or have reservations about the practice, we went to great pains to make it clear that participation was voluntary (as if anything in a Baptist church is not voluntary!). We arranged the service so that the worshipers could come forward to receive both the ashes and the Lord’s Supper or only the Supper. I stood at one station with the ashes while our Associate Minister Tom Braziel stood at the communion table to share the Bread and the Cup. We printed words of guidance in the Order of Worship and repeated them orally so that the process would be clear: if they wished to have the ashes imposed, they could come to me; if they came with their hand outstretched I would impose the ashes on their hand but otherwise I would impose them on their forehead. If they wished to bypass the imposition of ashes and go directly and only to the Communion table, that was fine.

I cannot say with certainty that of the 100 or so people in attendance they all received the ashes, but I can say with certainty that if participation was not 100% it was very close. I estimate that around 40% of the folks received the ashes on their foreheads and the rest on their hands.

It was not only the first time that I imposed ashes—it was also the first time that I received ashes.

As the people came, I marked them with the sign of the Cross and spoke the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked children and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked youth and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked young adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked middle-aged adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked senior adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people who think a lot like I do and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people who think differently than I do and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people with whom I have much in common and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people with whom I have less in common and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked my wife and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked myself and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

The experience struck me as an affirmation and an acknowledgement of our commonality: we are all dust, we are all temporary, we are all frail, we are all human, and we are all sinners.

But the thing that moved me the most—and this caught me off guard—was the simple act of touching them all…

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

(A sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

I’m told that, depending on the bone structure of the person, the cremation of a human body usually produces somewhere between three and nine pounds of ash. If you’re buried rather than cremated, it’ll take a good bit longer for you to get back to basics. Either way, though, your ashes are eventually going to join their cousins the ashes of the earth; your dust is going to rejoin its cousin the dust of the earth.

And so God said to the first man and by extension to all human beings, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), which admittedly has the spirit about it of “You work hard all your life and then you die” and so leaves you saying, “Surely there’s more to it all than that!”

Indeed there is.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it is important that we remember that we are mortal, that we are created, and that we are temporary. It is important that we maintain a sense of humility and even a sense of humor about ourselves. It is important to remember that as surely as we were born, we will die.

It is important to remember that, being made of stuff, we are prone to do stuff, and some of the stuff we do is not worth doing or is stuff we shouldn’t have done to begin with—we call some such stuff “silly” and we call other such stuff “sin.” Some of it we do because we are willful and some of it we do because we are prideful and some of it we do because we are weak, frail, and frightened. But we do it and in our honest moments we know we do it and we’re willing to confess that we do it.

Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement of our humanity, of our frailty, and of our impermanence. Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement and confession of our sins and about our repentance of them. Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement of the twin facts that we are dust and that to dust we shall return but that while we are in our present state as sentient dust we are responsible for what we do with and in our dustiness.

So here tonight at the beginning of Lent we face up to our humanity—“we are dust”—and to our mortality—“to dust we shall return.” But let’s also face up to our possibilities—while we are conscious, self-aware, spirit-fueled dust we can love God, we can love ourselves, and we can love others.

The prophet whose words are preserved in our Isaiah reading warns us that participating in acts of worship including fasting is not enough; God expects God’s people to care about justice and righteousness so that they feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

The Savior whose words are preserved in our Gospel reading tells us that when we pray or fast or give to help those in need we are not to do so in order to be seen by people but to do those good things in secret where only our heavenly Father will see them.

Granted that we struggle with such concepts and with our ability to meet such challenges, but still, let us acknowledge that those are, by the grace of God and with the help of God, our possibilities. We can, by the grace of God and with the help of God, love in the ways that God made us to love.

Guided by the thoughts of the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), let’s think of it this way: as we receive the ashes, let us do so with a prayer that we will move from loving God for our own sake to loving God for God’s sake to loving self for God’s sake to loving others for God’s sake.

As we grow in these earthy bodies to love God more and more only for the sake of loving God because God is, because God is love, and because God incites love, we will grow more and more to love ourselves out of God’s love and to love others out of God’s love.

And if we can truly grow in our ability to reach out in love to each other, it will give us another and most helpful way to think about the meaning of “ashes to ashes”…

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Light Therapy

(A sermon based on 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 & Mark 9:2-9 for Transfiguration Sunday 2012)

Many of us have had mountain-top experiences in which the glory of God shone so brightly that it overcame us—or we crave such an experience.

Our text shows us the quintessential mountain-top experience. Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus up a mountain where Jesus was transfigured—the Greek verb is the root of our word “metamorphosis,” so he was somehow transformed—and his clothes became dazzlingly white. There Elijah and Moses, two great figures who had been gone from the earth for centuries, appeared and conversed with Jesus.

While the remarkable event was still happening, Peter stammered out some words about building some booths for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, and, while Mark tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say, he seems to have had his wits about him enough to remember that his tradition taught that Elijah and Moses were associated with the inauguration of the coming kingdom of God (cf. Malachi 4:4-6) and that the kingdom would come during the Feast of Booths (cf. Zechariah 14:16ff).

Just then a voice from heaven spoke saying, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” and Elijah and Moses were gone.

To what were they—and we—supposed to listen? To answer that question we must take some context into consideration.

First, once before in Mark we hear a voice from heaven speak to Jesus. It’s at his baptism when the voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Between the hearing of the voice in that text and of the voice in today’s text, Mark has been painting a picture of who Jesus is and of the challenge the disciples faced in trying to understand who Jesus is.

Second, a crucial text in Mark’s presentation has closely preceded today’s text. There, Jesus asked his disciples who they said he was and Peter had affirmed, “You are the Messiah” (8:27-30). Then, Jesus began to explain to the disciples what kind of Messiah he was, namely, one that would undergo suffering, rejection, and death before he experienced resurrection, an explanation to which Peter objected which in turn led Jesus to refer to Peter as “Satan.” Then, Jesus expounded on his explanation of his messianic identity by describing its implications for his followers: they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the suffering, rejected, executed Messiah. It was only in losing their lives, Jesus said, that they would find them.

Then—and this is critical—Jesus said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).

So, when we take into account the passages leading up to Mark’s story of the Transfiguration, we’re led to this conclusion: the voice from heaven told the disciples (and us) to listen to what Jesus said about the kind of Messiah he was, namely, a self-emptying sacrificial one, and to what Jesus said about the kind of people they as his followers were (and we as his followers are) to be: people who give themselves up for the sake of God and for the sake of other people. [Cf. Craig A. Evans, The Lectionary Commentary, The Third Readings: The Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 243.]

The third context piece to which we need to pay attention is that which follows the Transfiguration scene: Jesus leads the three disciples down off the mountain and into the valley where they immediately begin to be confronted with great human need. And so it is with us; even when we do have mountain-top experiences in which we encounter the glory of God we must go in the strength of them to face the real problems of real people in the real world with our real discipleship and real grace and real love and real service.

There is a very real sense in which we can say that the life of Jesus moved from mystery to mystery and from glory to glory. It moved from the mystery and glory of his birth to the mystery and glory of his baptism to the mystery and glory of his transfiguration to the mystery and glory of his crucifixion to the mystery and glory of his resurrection to the mystery and glory of his ascension. In every case more of God’s light was shared that, light being light, also produced shadows; whether and why someone focuses on the light or on the shadow is another mystery.

There is a very real sense in which we can say that our lives move from mystery to mystery and glory to glory. They move from our birth to our salvation to our mountain-top experiences to our valleys to our death and then to our resurrection. But as long as we are here, we have to go back down into the valley where we live and serve and sacrifice and love. As Diane Ackerman said, "It began in mystery and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between" [Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 309].

The question for us is, what are we going to do in this savage and beautiful country? How are we going to live in this savage and beautiful life? How are we doing to relate to all those savage and beautiful people?

Put differently, what are we going to do with all the light that God in God’s grace gives us—“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” as Paul put it (2 Corinthians 4:6)—as we confront the darkness that threatens to overtake the lives of so many of the people around us—that can even threaten to overtake our lives?

It’s one thing to experience the glory, to experience the light; it’s quite another to have that glory and that light have such an effect on you that it shines on everybody that you meet, that is causes you to let that light shine in very practical, gracious, loving, and kind ways on the hurting people that you meet. It’s one thing to let the light shine; it’s another to hide it under a peach basket.

Yesterday (February 18) was the birthday of Wallace Stegner, who was born in Lake Mills, Iowa in 1909. Stegner wrote about the experiences of Western pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; his best known novel is The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). Because Stegner cared so much about the American West he not only experienced it and wrote about it; he also took action to try to preserve it, becoming involved in the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said,

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope (The Writer’s Almanac, viewed on February 18, 2012).

Lots of us look at the glory that emanates from the beautiful mountains, fields, lakes, streams, and oceans of our land—but how many of us take steps to go in the power of that glory to do something to preserve the hope that is imbedded in them?

Lots of us experience the glory that emanates from the Lord Jesus Christ—but how many of us take steps to go in the power of that glory to do something as we go, as we live in this savage and beautiful world and as we live in these savage and beautiful lives and as we encounter savage and beautiful people, to share that light—to let it reveal the hope that is imbedded by God in this life, in our lives, in their lives through Jesus Christ—in practical, meaningful, glorious—and, yes, mysterious—ways?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sitting in a Rocking Chair in a Moving Van on a Rainy Day

A few days ago my good wife Debra and I were helping our son Joshua and his fiancée Michelle load their possessions onto a rental truck so they could move them from Milledgeville, Georgia to Madison, Wisconsin.

We’ve not had a lot of rain in Georgia lately but naturally a downpour came up in the middle of our efforts. I was on the truck at the time so I lowered the rear door to keep the rain out and sat down in Michelle’s rocking chair where, as I listened to the rain pounding the truck, I rocked and reflected.

During those few minutes Joshua’s life flashed before my eyes.

I saw him being born from Debra via Caesarean section at Baptist East Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky on Tuesday, February 21, 1984.

I saw him taking his bottle as I rocked him in another rocking chair in our den on Saunders Avenue in Louisville.

I saw him staring intently at the pages of the books we read to him practically from the day he was born. “A BIG dog party.” “Aren’t they beauties? Aren’t they fine? Wish that one of those cars was mine!” “I think I can; I think I can.” “Are YOU my mother?”

I saw him when he took his first step in that same house and went ahead and walked all the way across the room while he was at it.

I saw him wearing his Houston Astros batting helmet everywhere he went in Adel and surrounding areas.

I saw him hugging his mother and patting her back.

I saw him in his yellow Kindergarten graduation gown.

I saw him running around the backyard in Nashville with his beloved dog Fritz, whom he picked out at the Humane Society.

I saw him playing Little League baseball.

I saw him earning his black belt in karate.

I saw him making his theatrical debut in “Grease.”

I saw him playing his guitar.

I saw him falling in love with writing.

I saw him graduating from Cook High School.

I saw him winning writing awards at LaGrange College.

I saw him graduating from LaGrange, his long hair flowing and one of his professors telling him, “I’ll look forward to that first book.”

I saw him handing out PBRs during Happy Hour at the Soul Bar in Augusta.

I saw him writing music reviews of bands of which I'd never heard for the Metro Spirit in Augusta and letters with perspectives of which I'd never thought to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle.

I saw him accepting a full assistantship in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Georgia College & State University.

I saw him working with AmeriCorps in the Salida, Colorado area for a summer, camping and laboring for days at a time then cleaning and resting up at a hostel.

I saw him bringing Michelle home with him with that look on his face that said “This just may be the one.”

I saw him leading in the reading of selections from their works by him and his fellow MFA graduates.

I saw him receiving his MFA in Creative Writing with a major in Poetry.

I saw him having one poem published, then another, then another, then another…

I saw him buying an engagement ring for Michelle.

And now, I thought as the rain lessened, as my vision drew to a close, and as I lifted the truck door, I see him moving a thousand miles away in pursuit of his dreams—in pursuit of his life—in pursuit of who he is—in pursuit of who he will be.

What I have seen is a marvel and a mystery to me.

What I will see is, too…