Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Perception Is Not Reality

Perception Is Not Reality
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2009
Transfiguration Sunday

Sometime in January Zoe cornered me about the fact that I would be missing her birthday this year. I knew it was coming, and I was prepared. “Zoe” I said, “Did you know that there is a rule that if a Daddy misses his daughter’s 5th birthday he has to take her to the circus?” This information was well received, and it got even better when I asked her if she wanted to “get fancy” for the event. When we parked the car and got out I was wearing a tux jacket and shirt complete with bow tie and top hat atop my blue jeans and sneakers. She was dressed to the nines with a princess dress, complete with sunglasses, a feather boa, and a satin and feather birthday hat. A little girl ahead of us did a double take, tugged her mother’s sleeve, and said, “Mom, I think they are IN the circus!” And for that very moment, we were.

People see what they are prepared to see, or so says Emerson. Through the wonder of the internet I saw a picture of a team assembling roughly 5,000 cupcakes to form a portraits of Lincoln and Obama for the presidential inauguration. From close up they were just cupcakes. From a distance they were a work of art. Perspective has a way of changing your perception at times. Regardless of perspective or perception, I don’t think I want to know how much money was spent on that. Money, now that’s an easy stone to throw. As members of the 25% of the world’s population who consume 75% of its resources while being anxious about the fact that those percentages will soon change with the development of new wealth in China and India, money is an easy stone to throw.

That’s the beauty of a rock. It offers certainty. Unfortunately it does not offer security. Only faith can do that. Times of uncertainty make us especially aware of the need for a solid perspective on things, a view that allows us to see all the angles. For all we have are our senses, and our ability to interpret the world is limited by our ability to perceive it.

The author of Mark’s Gospel knew that, having placed the story of the transfiguration where it is in the narrative. Our forbearers in the Reformed tradition knew this, placing our celebration of the transfiguration between Christmas and Easter such as they did. This story represents a turning point in the life and work of Jesus, and it is the same for us as we journey toward the cross and celebrate the resurrection. And Jesus knew all of this as well; taking only his closest disciples with him and telling them to tell no one until after his resurrection. He didn’t want the story to go around until after it could be interpreted by the reality of the resurrection.

At face value this story is simply one of the many miraculous events in the life of Jesus. It involves the return of two of the primary figures of leadership in the history of Israel, Moses and Elijah, the great Priest and Prophet, both having been taken up without tasting death. Jesus appears shining with a supernatural glow, and God’s voice declares Christ’s authority just as God did at his baptism.

You know I can’t help but wonder what the disciples must have been thinking, pushing Peter to represent them. “Go on…he just said the other day that you were the one he would use to establish the kingdom.” “Um, right…OK. Got it. Hey Jesus, this is great! We’ll get to work on the tents for you guys right away. Stripes… you guys like stripes? I’ve got a pile of fabric in Caperna….oh.”

Well, maybe not. But it’s fun to think about. The rest we know to be true, though many of us may have fond or confused memories of the story from childhood Sunday school. What matters is not the cosmic or the particular but rather that something deeper is going on here. This story is the “tipping point” in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and from this point on everything moves toward the cross. Moses is the great Priest and he represents the law as a mediator between Israel and God. Elijah is the great Prophet who represents truth telling in a way that corrects and moderates the actions of God’s people as a light to the nations. And Jesus is shown to be the King who fulfils God’s will. He is the summary of the law and the prophets in human form.

This experience as it is shared in Mark’s gospel is a set up for the summary of the law and the prophets that Jesus offers when questioned about the greatest commandment. For the post resurrection reader it is a way of moving us out of our comfort zones and into something truly mysterious. For the first thing Jesus encounters in the valley bellow is a boy the disciples cannot heal and his father who begs for mercy saying, “I believe, only help my unbelief!”

And that’s why we go to the mountain, isn’t it? That’s why we are here. We believe, only we need help with our unbelief. All of us have had mountaintop experiences, if not we long for them in some unspoken way. Studies show that most people have an initial encounter with God in a camp or conference setting. Although I have had many of those, few can compare to mission trip experiences. My recent trip to Guatemala with Faith In Practice was certainly one of those. You should know that members of our congregation represented you well, but they represented Jesus even better. Even Tom Inglesby, who summarized the guiding principles of our organization in a paraphrase of the summary of the law. He said, “All you have to do is seek the face of Christ in each person you meet, and then reflect the face of Christ back to them in your interactions and you’ll be fine.”

The greatest difference for me in this trip from others was the level of physical contact. I’ve built homes and churches and served in soup kitchens from rural Kentucky to Belize, but I have never seen the level of human contact offered by these doctors, nurses, and support staff. Of these experiences, one of the most difficult was in pediatrics. An 8 yr old boy lay flaccid on a cold cement floor in our makeshift clinic. He was smaller than my three-year-old son and suffered from brain damage and leg deformities. His mother carried him for days on her back to reach the American Doctors who could offer a cure or at least tell her how she could help him learn to walk. Through tears and prayer we told her there was no cure. And in my heart I asked how God, “How could you be so limited by disease and deformity?” In his mother’s eyes God answered me with the boundless love of a broken heart. That was the law of love without limitation.

Then there was Hugo, one of the Guatemalans on our team. He is a dentist and had been helped by a plastic surgeon from Faith In Practice on a previous year who helped him regain his sight. He showed me a picture, a line drawing of a sad old woman. He turned it upside down to reveal the optical illusion of the drawing as the picture became a smiling young woman. He said, “This is me before Faith In Practice, and this is me after.” When I asked him to share that with the group during a devotional he said, “The sad is face is a person without a spiritual life. The happy face is a person with a spiritual life.” Hugo knew that seeing things from God’s perspective is essential to a life that is truly living. That was the prophecy of hope.

Another day I had the chance to kick a soccer ball around with a kid who spoke only Spanish. The ball broke loose and went toward one of the soldiers Faith In Practice hired for security. Something you need to know is that the military is not seen as a friend to the people, and when Faith In Practice started hiring them for security it ruffled the feathers of their Guatemalan partners. But Faith In Practice said, “just give us a chance. We want to try something. So they hired these soldiers and gave them tasks beyond crowd control. They said, “Here, take Mama Rosa over to see the Dr. She has walked for days and needs some help.” And, “You two stay with Pedro so his mom can have some privacy with the Dr.” They taught the people that they could trust these armed men to care for them, and they are teaching these young men that they can care for their own people without loosing any authority. So, the soccer ball is heading toward this soldier and his face breaks open in a child like grin as he kicks it back to us. For a moment in the sun we are united as children of God, and the king of Creation orders our relationship across language, across class, and across power structures.

It was good to be on the mountain with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. It is good that this congregation supports ministries like Faith In Practice, and I encourage you to consider what you might do to alter your perspective in the coming days. For without God’s perspective we will surely never unclench our fists and drop the stones we have gathered. Without listening to Jesus we will never rightly interpret the world we perceive.

And how do we even know that we have done this. How do we know we are receiving our signal through the High Definition of Jesus? I can only tell you how I have seen it done. Kelly was a member of our team who spoke no Spanish, yet he stepped up to the challenge of organizing the lines for the pharmacy. As people came to our clinic they met with a group of interpreters and volunteers who directed them a number of different directions, but almost every single one of them came through the pharmacy. Kelly was our point man and he spoke no Spanish. He spoke smiles and nods. He sang an off key Ava Maria to every woman named Maria (and there were a lot of Maria’s), and he gestured with a coconut pretending to knock himself on the head when asking two women to stay clear of the safety area we roped off. Out of the limitations God gave him, Kelly exploded with creativity. This was not because of his giftedness, it was because he let love transform him into something more than what he was alone. That is the power of Christ made perfect in weakness. When we bring our limitations to God they are multiplied as loaves and fish for the needy. When we allow our vulnerable places to be touched for sake of someone else’s deepest needs, we are healed.
Mother Teresa is quoted as saying that she wanted to make herself into pencil for God’s hand. She wanted to decrease, so that God’s love might increase. She wanted to be silent, so that God would do the talking. May be so with me and also with thee, and to God be the glory both now and always, Amen.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What kind of miracle are you waiting for?

Tonight on the Colbert Report it was noted that presently, as in previous times of recession, their is a jump in church attendance, particularly in evangelical churches.  In his oft irreverent fashion he put on a prayer cap and giant foam prayer hands, and asked for things that like cars and money.  It was slightly reminiscent of the "Baby Jesus Prayer" in Taledaga nights, which is always good for a laugh if your spiritual skin is thick enough for it.  I'm willing to bet that God's is if yours is not.  Colbert also placed a baguette and a fish on a plate expecting them to multiply copulatively, a new take on the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (plus women and children) to be sure.  He did at least lower the plate behind the desk at that point to give them privacy.  At the end of the show it was revealed that they had turned into a plate piled high of breaded fish sticks.  "Fish sticks for everyone!" He cried as he flung them to the studio audience.

All of this reminded me of a conversation with one of our elders and his wife about a 3 & 4 yr old Sunday School class where they taught using goldfish snacks to recreate the Bible story of feeding the masses.  It was mentioned that the value of sharing was taught as well, and it reminded me of a sermon in which it was noted that there is no way 5k people would have wandered out to the plains without a scrap of food.  The elder noted having read a comentary along the same lines and being troubled with the need to demystify the reality of the miracles of Jesus.  I told him that I agree to some extent.  

Yes, we need to take it on faith that Jesus walked on water and had command over creation as he was and is God incarnate.  The question that I have is not so much about the reality of the miracle, it is about the reality of God's sovereignty and the messiness of faith.  Put more simply - If God was miraculous then, how is God miraculous now?  Does it truly matter if the miracle was the dissolving of the laws of physics or the dissolving of the human will?  And what is it we are expecting God to do in the here and now if the miracles are limited to physical acts of Jesus when he was with us in the flesh?  I can tell you how my elder friend would answer.  For he told me that he knows God has placed people in his life to turn him toward God's will, and he believes that it is his job to do the same.  For in the words of Teresa of Avila, 

"Christ has no body now but yours;
no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Your eyes are the eyes through which 
he looks compassionately on this world.
Christ has no body on earth now but yours."

Wow.  Not sure that I always remember to see with the compassion of Christ.  Suddenly I am reminded of a grotesque crucifix I saw in a hospital in Guatemala.  The disfigured and dismembered Jesus was no accident.  It was a statement about the level to which God identifies with the suffering of an oppressed people.
Crucifixes always remind me of a conversation with a friend who noted that I did not have a dead guy on my cross.  "Excuse me?" I replied indignantly. "My Christ is alive." was her only reply.  That's all good and well, but as we see in the example above (and as I said to my friend and fellow church officer) the reality of faith and of God's presence is messier than we want it to be.  We can't say what kind of Jesus we want like we are ordering a value meal (see the McJesus Skit) at the King's Crown (see also Fancy Nancy), because the miracle of Jesus is both cosmic and particular at the same time.  

Ann called me crying today.  She is 26 and on her own in a strange town with no family or friends.  Her tax refund debit card will not work before Wednesday and she needed help with a motel fee for two nights.  Or at least that was her story.  I know there were tons of questions I did not ask because I let a young woman's tears break my heart.  I don't know if she will use the gift of the next two nights as sanctuary or Sodum.  I do know that God suffers with her in her pain.  I do know that faith and God's activity in my life are just too messy and risky sometimes.  For if God will use a sinner like me to be God's hands and feet, God's very vision of compassion in this world, anything is possible and many more things than I can imagine are even probable.  

Thanks be to God for the mystery and the miracle of faith in Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Ps. Fish Sticks for everyone!!!!