Friday, January 31, 2014

Trust Walk

Have you ever been on a trust walk? You either have a line of blindfolded people being led by one person who can see really well, or you have people in pairs taking turns as blindfolded or leading. This is an activity that is most suited for a camp. For the young, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you do not know what could happen. For the old, the idea of a trust walk is scary because you know exactly what could happen, and it usually involves a trip to the emergency room!

Although it is usually designed to be a safe experience – affirming one’s ability to trust – mistakes can happen, even at a camp with trained facilitators. Like the year I saw a leader (no it wasn’t me) lead a line of blindfolded kids under a sign that had a bee’s nest inside the post. We got lucky on that one. No one was allergic and the stings were minimal. What we learned was that it is possible to trust, even when trusting gets you hurt. It is possible to forgive, even when someone else’s choice might cause you to suffer.

Of course, these are easy things to say about a bee sting and an adrenaline fed rush of panic. It gets harder when the stakes are higher like when she says, “I love you. I’m just not in love with you.” Like they are when doctors use words like “inoperable”. Like they are when the jobs just aren’t available and the bills keep coming in. Like they are when you lose what you love. Like they are when someone you love gets hurt. Yes, it is harder to trust when the only outcome you can see looks nothing like anything you can imagine wanting it to be.

I guess that makes me think about poor old Zebulon. I’ve always wondered how that went. Was fishing that bad? Was he that terrible to live with? Was he really OK with both of his sons just wandering off with this stranger from Capernaum? We don’t know. The text doesn’t say. It just says that Jesus calls them and they go. 

It’s interesting to me that the story moves from a certain place (Jesus made Capernaum his home) to no certain place (Jesus went throughout Galilee). So much of what we do in the church is about securing, maintaining, and protecting this place in which we come together, and yet everything that Jesus did involved uprooting, moving, and challenging the status quo. Of course, it is hardly fair to expect our actions to parallel those of an itinerate Jewish Rabi.

The question is not whether or not we are able to follow in the same way as the first disciples. The question is “How do we follow as disciples of Jesus here and now, today?” Asking that question leads me to the brink of looking for a simple solution or a step by step process. Somehow, I think discipleship is messier than that.
The author of Mathew’s Gospel knew that. He knew that there is scandal and incredulity in the gospel. Things in the Jesus story just do not happen the way we want them to. Matthew was writing to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile God-fearers – or so we believe. Just as Luke knew that it mattered to highlight Bethlehem as a contrast with seats of power, Mathew knew how important it was to connect Jesus with the ancient scandal of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Do you know their story? They were two of the original twelve tribes. During the conquest of Canna they chose to intermarry with foreigners and were never considered pure. In the time of Judges they would not fight the Philistines unless Debra, the Prophet and Judge, went with them, and their victory was never counted as their own. During the Babylonian conquest they were some of the first to be enslaved. The land marked with the shame of Zebulun and Naphtali was not a place to expect blessing to come from.

So in walks Jesus from a place representing people who get what comes to them for not trusting God. And he is telling people to repent – to stop denying God and to deny themselves instead – because the Kingdom of heaven has come near!

Then he comes to Peter and Andrew, and they drop their nets and follow him to “fish for people.” So it seems we do have some things that we can do to follow Jesus as disciples today. The first is to expect him to come out of places of pain and suffering and ask us – no, he will demand of us – that we consider the part that we play in the suffering of this world. He calls us to repent – not just to say that we are sorry, but to truly make a change of heart that truly results in a different way of living.

Many of us get to certain points in our lives where we just don’t want to make any more changes. The reality is that change is upon us, and the issue is not whether we will change but how. And for that the Gospel asks us to consider what nets we need to let go of. What good and purposeful tasks of maintenance and basic survival are getting in the way of living, proclaiming, and connecting with God through our relationships with others? What are the nets we must drop in order to go fishing?
This congregation has been wrestling with questions like these for over a year now. Many of us were involved in small group studies under the New Beginnings program, and we came to a decision to redefine our mission – even though a lot of us did not fully understand what that meant. As we have struggled with this question in church councils and parking lot conversations, it has become apparent that we are essentially saying that we need to be “Reformed and Always Reforming”. 

These are words easily said, but they carry with them the weight of making changes in our character that are very real and very significant. Redefining our mission has been described as making a course correction – changes that are as small as a few degrees that will eventually move us in an entirely new direction. That does not mean that we are going to stop being and doing who and what we are. It means that we have to bring the best of who we are as followers of Jesus into a new future that we have no way of seeing.

Unless forced by some disastrous event, cultural change can take 4-7 years or more. Actually, it can still take years even when it is forced by some disastrous event. Our church council – the Session – witnessed this yesterday at Northwood United Methodist Church where we held our annual retreat. About 5 years ago their sanctuary and education space burned to the ground. The pain of rebuilding was too difficult for some of their membership, and yet they stand today as a congregation that is more unified than ever through a particular experience of death and resurrection. 

As I looked at the cross made from timbers salvaged from the old building, I was reminded of a symposium on art and faith featuring Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, photographer and widow of Arthur Ashe – the pioneer of African American tennis players who died tragically after receiving AIDS through a medical procedure. In reflecting on their struggles, she said, “It is remarkable how an image [this was before digital photography of course] that is absolutely dependent on light must be created in an environment of complete darkness – and so it was on Calvary in the cross of Jesus.”

So, I want to assure you that all of the work we have done in darkened rooms toward a New Beginning is not in vain, and also tell you that it has only just begun. Of course, ideally, we will always be evaluating how we can follow Jesus more closely. We will always be redefining our mission. If we ever stop, or if we ever decide that we know exactly how to do church and be the Body of Christ, then we will probably find that we are actually back in the boat with Ol’ Zeb.

As we grow in faithfulness, and as God adds to our numbers, let us remember Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Paul goes on to talk about divisions in the church based on allegiances. I love his disclaimer on baptisms. It seems to me that the point he is making is that our “church family” relationships are only blessed if they move us into greater unity. And the point of unity is not simply to bring others in, but to be sent out – to proclaim the Gospel!

As our Session wrestled this weekend with the idea of getting any number of Presbyterians to agree on any form of change, we seemed to agree that the issue is not simply “Who do we reach out to and how?” or even “What do we do to engage the community?” The issue at hand is the opportunity to internalize the Gospel more fully – to engage the community of our own souls – so that who we are and what we do flows through our sanctuary doors and out into the world like life giving waters.
In the mean time, let us always pursue greater unity so that people who never even thought that light could come from this place can be lifted from the darkness into the light of Christ.  And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.

What Are You Looking For?

“Can I help you find anything?” That’s the phrase we hear in just about any retail market from grocery stores to car lots. Most of us want to hear that in some way, even though we hate answering the question. Usually I say, “No, thanks. Just looking.” Of course there are some stores that you feel you need a flare gun in order to get some kind of service. I’ll never forget being in a certain large store with a friend looking for fabric dye. After about 20 minutes of fruitless searching in the obvious places he walked to the center of several aisles and shouted, “FABRIC DYE! WHERE IS IT?” My wife and I instinctively walked in opposite directions away from him and later rejoined.

Sometimes it seems that our world is full of loud voices competing for their own interests. Sometimes the church becomes caught in the crossfire between joining the shouting match and feeling like we’ve lost our voice. The proclamation of John certainly starts with a shout. “Look, the Lamb of God – there he is!”

Jesus is a rock star. Even the local celebrity worships him, or at least sends him his spare disciples. Come to think of it, this passage raises as many questions as it answers. Why doesn’t John follow Jesus? Why is Jesus the Lamb of God, and how does he take away sin? For that matter, how is it that a story written to a mix of Hellenized Jews and non-Jewish people about a failed Jewish leader supposed to offer hope? For that matter, how could Jesus be both the sacrificial offering and the anointed leader at the same time?

Well, with John we can only assume that he loves his job, and his job is to call for repentance and point to Jesus. Maybe he knew that there could be conflict between followers. Maybe he expected to get arrested. Who knows. Some believe that Jesus was John’s disciple and that after John’s arrest the way was clear for Jesus to proclaim repentance and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. 

Whatever the case may be – John knew who Jesus was, and he knew why Jesus was here. Jesus was “the Lamb of God, here to take away the sin of the world.” Of course the lamb’s blood identified the people of Israel before the exodus from Egypt so that death would pass them by. Even so, lambs weren’t sin offerings. They were faith offerings. Offering a lamb inconvenienced people in a way that made them more reliant on God. 

One commentary states that the verb used for “take away” is more accurately translated “lifts up”. In the midst of war and death and abuses like human trafficking, we might ask if sin has ever been taken away. Perhaps Jesus lifts up sin in a way that helps us to see the part we play. Perhaps, like the story of Moses lifting a bronze serpent on a pole to heal those who have been bitten, Jesus lifts up our sin so that we can be healed. He raises our awareness of the needs and limitations that we seek to deny. He invites us to join in what he is doing, and he helps us understand who and what we are truly about.

John proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God. Two of his disciples go check it out, and Jesus says, “Can I help you find something?” OK, so our text says, “What are you looking for?” and the context of the original text is something more like, “What are you seeking?” 

What if that were the way we approached worship? What if we came to worship as individuals seeking the Messiah – the anointed, God’s chosen One? What if we, as the Body of Christ, approached the community around us with that sincere question, “What are you seeking?”

What if we put our energy behind truly understanding the needs around us - not just issues of poverty and basic social assistance, not in denial of these needs either, but really finding a way for people to express spiritual hunger and to feel the holy space between giving and receiving? It would be interesting to see what we could get in response to the question, “What are you seeking?”

Of course, those who drive for Meals on Wheels and partner with CUPS in the basket ministry can tell you that they know what the holy space between giving and receiving feels like. But every member cannot do every task. Even so, many of you have contributed years of faithful service, leaving a legacy for generations to come. As we look to the future – as we seek to redefine our mission again and again as followers of God’s chosen One – we must not forget that we are chosen, too.

Throughout the scripture readings today there is an overwhelming proclamation that God is active and present in all things, and that we are responsible to tell people about it. So, like the disciples, we look for a teacher. Like the disciples we are invited, for a time, to stay with the One who offers forgiveness, hope, and wholeness. Like the disciples, and the Psalmist, and the Prophet Isaiah we have to respond by telling people about our experience of God!

And then comes the best part. Just as Jesus named Peter “Cephas,” which means “rock,”because  he will become the building block for the church, so Jesus names the best part of you in preparation for the way you will proclaim goodness and mercy and hope. What name will you hear when he calls you, I wonder? 

That may sound intimidating, but it is really more like being rapt in a never ending melody – even though our part will last only a short span. Of course this makes me think of Ed Underwood, and his passing this week makes us all sad. You may not have known that he wrote a song about the faith that saw him through his life and even now assures us that we’re not finished enduring his delicious wit. 

One stanza speaks of Jesus this way:
“He’s the hand that firmly guides me down the rocky road of life. He’s the voice that calls me to him when I stray. He’s the candle burning brightly on a cold and lonely night. He’s the promise in the sunrise every day.”

Jesus is the Lamb of God who lifts the sin of the world for all to see. He is the teacher who asks us to name what we are seeking. He is the chosen One who names the best part of our souls, claims us as God’s own, and sends us out to proclaim the goodness of God. And to that end may we commit our souls – even here, even now. Amen.