Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Does Faith Cost? (Part Two)

I don't do sermon series, but sometimes the text calls for a theme to be repeated. I'm most decidedly not going to push it, but "What Does Faith Cost?" may well turn out to be the theme throughout Lent.

A word of warning: If you think Joel Osteen is the be-all to end-all, if you are a Prosperity Gospel enthusiast, you are not going to like what follows.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,"

Philippians 3:17-4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Last week, the sermon (or Lenten meditation, if you prefer) ended with a question: “What does our faith cost us?” It's a question I've been reminded of a couple of times this week. One of those times happened on (and this should come as no surprise) Twitter when I got a new follower whose user name is “Bible Prosperity.” His latest message on Twitter was “It's Your Fault (if) Your BROKE.” Mister “Bible Prosperity” wants me to go to his website where he will show me how to become wealthy, to manage my finances God's way, to let the Almighty take over managing my money so I can become financially successful.

You may have heard of this belief system called the “Prosperity Gospel.” Its central message is that God loves you and wants you to be well taken care of, comfortable, with plenty of cash on hand. Anything less is a lack of faith. In other words, your faith shouldn't cost you anything, rather it should make you at the very least an upper-middle class suburban American; anything less is evidence of sinful unbelief!

And as I write this sermon, the rainy season in Haiti has begun. It's nighttime, and there are hundreds of thousands of Haitians trying to sleep in the rain, under leaky tarpaulins or waterlogged blankets. Some are lucky enough to have tents. In some areas the water is rising. Help is coming, but it is slow, because there are still so many of them and so little existing infrastructure to get the help to them. Yet it is a fact that many of these men, women and children are Christians. Are we willing to say that these Haitians lack faith? Are we willing to blame the horrors that they are enduring every minute of every day on poor theology, or will we, like Pat Robertson, blame their ancestors for their troubles? And all of this is to say nothing of Chile, which is still counting the dead and digging out from an earthquake some five hundred times stronger than the one which hit Haiti. Where is their Prosperity Gospel?

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul made it a point to let the readers know exactly what he had been through for the sake of the Gospel: “Five times I received from the Jews [meaning, of course, the Jewish leadership] the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.

“I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked... The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”

Can we seriously say that the Apostle Paul lacked faith? That if he had only had a uniquely middle- and upper-class American view of Scripture, he'd have been better off? That all of his labors were misguided? Where is Paul's Prosperity Gospel?

What's more, this Paul, who endured all of this and more, and was ultimately imprisoned and martyred in Rome for the Gospel, is the same one who tells the church at Phillipi in today's Epistle reading to “join in imitating me!” Millions across the Roman Empire did just that – and we spoke last week of the kinds of persecutions they endured for daring to reject the gods of the Romans in favor of the God who was saving them. Were each and every one of them wrong, misguided, poorly instructed in the faith? Where was their Prosperity Gospel?

Abram, who became Abraham, wandered his entire life across the land God promised him, never settled down, never lived to see God's covenant fulfilled.
Did Abram miss the boat somehow? Should he have acted differently, should he have laid some kind of physical claim to the promises, put out boundary stones and settled down and relaxed? Where was Abram's Prosperity Gospel?

Our Gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus made a conscious choice to complete his mission here on earth. He could have taken the warning of the Pharisees seriously and turned back from his journey to Jerusalem. What the Creator of the Universe had already given up simply in order to become flesh, to become God-With-Us, boggles the mind. Christ, too, had been hungry, had been cold, and was on a purposeful journey to a place where he would be stripped, beaten, mocked, and killed. What's more, all of this – coming in the flesh, living and teaching and healing and loving and suffering and dying and rising, all of this was for us and for our salvation!

How does any of this – Haiti or Chile or Paul or Abram or Jesus – make sense in the context of a Prosperity Gospel? Did Jesus die so I could own a Lexus? Is the example of faith a comfortable life? A well-cushioned bank account? Is the example of faith having “enough?”

Or should our faith cost us something?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Does Faith Cost?

This has been an interesting week. I've been called out on a Fundamentalist blogger's website as a member of the "sinfully ecumenical" Emergent Church movement (which, as an active member of a mainline denomination, is a little strange, but OK). Strangely enough, I wasn't angered or insulted at all - I got mentioned in the same breath with my friend Jay Bakker, and it gave me something for a small part of the sermon - we Christians (at least in the West) persecute one another far more than we are persecuted from outside.

Here it is, not so much a sermon as an unresolved chord. Comments, criticism, etc. are welcomed.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Romans 10:8b-13
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I want to say at the outset that this is not so much a sermon as it is a Lenten meditation. What's more, if you're expecting a well-constructed set of arguments with a neat and compelling conclusion, you're going to leave disappointed today. If I can use an analogy from a few weeks back, this morning's meditation is going to leave the chord unresolved.

This is not because I ran out of time writing, or because I just got lazy, but because our readings this morning ask us a question – and while much of Christianity is corporate and is to be understood and undertaken in the fellowship of believers and in the context of the Body of Christ as a whole, the question these texts ask is individual. Personal. Undeserving of an easy, quick, trite, prepackaged answer, and in any case, really unanswerable from any honest pulpit.

With that having been said, let's jump in.

There is nothing easy about the book of Romans. It is a complex and fairly systematic theological treatise, often controversial, and always instructive. Anytime a passage is lifted out of Romans, either to use as a prooftext or as a Lectionary reading, I wonder what was left behind.

And in our series of Lectionary texts this morning, it kind of stands out like a sore thumb. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are instructed to bring their best – the first gleanings of the harvest – and surrender them to God. To forfeit the profit and forgo the benefit of their labors in order to remember that the source of their harvest, the foundation of their success, is God. That without God on their side they would be lost in the wilderness at best, and still enslaved to Egypt at worst.
In Luke, Jesus endures the harshest of tests, plumbing the depths of his soul and the limits of his humanity in preparation for the task before him – namely, our salvation.

Then here's Romans, saying if you think and say the right things, poof, you're a Christian, you get to go to heaven! Now, I'm no Horatio Caine, but either the band of elves that put the Revised Common Lectionary together is crazy, or there's more to the story.

Rome was an interesting place – well, not so much a place as an entity. Bent on world domination, the Roman Empire in the first century AD encompassed most of the known world. While whole cultures were assimilated, governed with an iron fist and heavily taxed, the Empire was remarkably lenient when it came to religion. You could worship whatever gods your culture offered, and were not at all required to acknowledge or accept Roman gods, with one key exception: once a year, every citizen and subject of the Roman Empire (with the exception of Jewish people) were required to burn a pinch of incense to the god Caesar, and to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. You then received a certificate which showed, in effect, that you were politically compliant and not a threat to the Roman Empire. To refuse to make the offering was to announce yourself as an opponent of and a danger to that Empire.

To say “Jesus is Lord,” rather than “Caesar is Lord” was to directly challenge the sovereignty and divinity of the leader of the Empire. It was, in effect, to declare war on Rome.

But there's more to it even than that. Every religious culture in the ancient world was an attempt to reach out to or appease some god or set of gods. Prayers had to be said precisely. Sacrifices had to be made faithfully. Altars and images occupied every corner of the house, the marketplace, the crossroads, and temples to an endless variety of gods and goddesses dotted the landscape. Any natural disaster, failed harvest, or invasion by a foreign army was seen as a failure to properly appreciate the corporate gods.

And while a careful reading of the Law of Moses will show that the God of the Hebrews never intended it to be this way, even the Jews had come to regard their system of laws and sacrifices in much the same way – an effort to reach a distant and sometimes disinvolved Creator.

Contrast this with a God who not only does not require strict adherence to law and ritual, does not require burnt offerings or blood sacrifices, but who has reached out to a disinterested and even openly hostile humankind for reconciliation. It was a completely foreign concept both to Jews and to the Gentile world!
It adds up to grace which is both free and costly. Salvation, a free gift to Jew and Gentile alike, could cost you your home, your family, and could very well get you tortured and killed.

This is the first Sunday of Lent. These forty days, not counting Sundays, commemorate Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness. These forty days are not the only time Jesus will be tested. These aren't the only days he will be hungry, will be in pain, will be alone. What is unique about this series of tests is, among other things, that Jesus confirms that there will be no shortcuts in the plan of salvation for humankind, that nothing about his life or ministry is about himself.

It is difficult for many of us in 21st century America to imagine the dangers of being a Christian twenty centuries ago. And while millions of believers worldwide are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed every day for their faith in Christ, our own confession of faith rarely causes us hardship. Yes, some Christians in our nation, and even in our communities, have been disowned by their family for confessing that Jesus is Lord, but for the most part, the worst we endure is evangelical athiests like Richard Dawkins saying we are stupid or comedians like Bill Mahr making fun of us in a movie.

It is a sad, but quantifiable fact, that we endure more persecution from one another, across denominational and ideological lines within the Body of Christ, than we do from those outside the faith!

We don't have to bring our firstfruits to the Temple; we're encouraged to tithe our income, yes, but no one is inspecting the quality of our gifts, keeping track of percentages, or issuing certificates of compliance.

So what does it mean for you and I to “confess with [our] lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in [our] hearts that God raised him from the dead?” How does both the fact and the ongoing process of being saved change us? Challenge us? Inconvenience us or even put us in harm's way?

What does our faith cost us?

Let us pray.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

We Were Not Meant For This!

Transfiguration - is it a once-in-history event, and for Jesus only, or is it something more universal, more frequent, and perhaps less recognizable?

Is there a message for the here-and-now in the transfiguration, or is it simply an account which reassures us that Jesus is who he claimed to be, or worse, a later tradition inserted into the Gospel account to impose divinity upon Jesus?

Read on...

Exodus 34:29-35
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28-43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the strange by-products of taking our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is that, sometimes, the text seems to be starting off in mid-thought, or leaving something important out of the story. “Now about eight days after these sayings…” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Eight days after what sayings?”

Today’s reading takes place immediately following the familiar account of Jesus asking the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the the Christ of God ,” which signals a turning point in their understanding of Jesus. No longer merely “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Man from God,” “Maybe/possibly 'The One Who Is To Come,'” but the Messiah, Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus warns them to silence, then says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life... If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So eight days after these challenging, these explosive words, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop.

So it’s no wonder that some people wonder if this passage is factual, or if it’s some kind of holy myth that developed later and was inserted into the Gospel, or a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow got misplaced and re-located, back in the middle of Jesus’ ministry instead of right at the end. Neither of these, of course, is my opinion. I think, rather, that the event takes place at the perfect point in the narrative. Jesus has said some very hard things to the disciples. He had made some challenges that, quite literally sounded like a death sentence.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of The Theological Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions, wrote this elsewhere: “When Christ calls a man to come and follow, he bids him come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death which is crucifixion.

So, yes, this story shares some clear links with other passages of Scripture. For example, our Old testament reading today, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai when he received God’s law. We are told that when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was shining with the radiance of God. Or there is the passage where heaven and earth overlap as Elijah is carried away into heaven.

There is, however, another Biblical account that this story can be linked with. As well as looking back all those years to Moses and Elijah, this story also points us forward… to Jesus’ death on the cross.

Unlike the accounts of Moses and Elijah, however, it is more in the contrasts than the similarities that we see the striking links between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion.

In this story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Here in this story, Jesus is accompanied by two great heroes from ancient history; there, on the cross, Jesus is joined by two common criminals. Here, at the transfiguration, Jesus is witnessed by three male disciples - Peter, James and John; there, at Golgotha, three woman are named as witnesses: two Marys and Salome. This scene of transfiguration is one a scene of dazzling light, while at the crucifixion Matthew tells us that darkness came over the whole land. Here, in this scene, Jesus basks in God’s presence, there on the cross He cries out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ Here on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved!’ There it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’

So many contrasts. It’s as if the horror of the Crucifixion account were a deliberate inversion of the splendor of the Transfiguration. And if so, then what is God’s written Word trying to tell us?

At this point in the Gospel Jesus is on a journey - a journey that will take him to Jerusalem and to death and beyond, to Easter. Jesus has spoken candidly about the painful, humiliating death that awaits him, and what this transfiguration story is doing is showing us what is beyond, at the end of that journey. It gives us a preview of Jesus’ destination. The cross, the crucifixion, Golgotha, is one stop on the way, but it’s not the end of the journey. We are not left, thank God, with Christ disfigured, naked, abandoned and bloody, nailed up like a scarecrow. Beyond that is the risen Christ who can only be glimpsed here.

But of course, - and this is an important point - what we see revealed here is not just the goal of Christ’s journey, but the goal of our journey too.

Or to put it differently, what Peter, James and John are witnessing here is not just Christ’s destination, but their own destination too, and ours, yours and mine. We too will shine like the sun.

Christ came to transform us. He came to transfigure us with the light of God’s grace. And the cross is, in many ways, part of our journey just as it was part of Christ’s journey (the discussion of what it means for a 21st-century American to take up the cross is a long one, and for another day), but because of Christ the Cross is not the end of our journey.

There, on the mountaintop, Jesus is the Christ of the journey’s end, our journey’s end. The Transfiguration is Christ’s destination… and our destination.

But down the mountain, of course, we must go. Directly following our reading this morning, the four of them come off of the mountain and find a crowd, and a young boy who has convulsions.

Here a different image of our humanity - not the transfigured humanity that is our destination, but our disfigured humanity. Here in this fearful scene we are closer to the hill of Golgotha than we are to the mountain of transfiguration. This world is the one we are all too familiar with.

It’s a world where lives are preyed on by evil forces. It’s a world where humanity is denied. It’s a world where people’s destiny is a cruel parody of what awaits us when, with Jesus, we are risen.

And when we look around us we see life lived at the foot of the mountain rather than at the top. We see lives that, in the light of Transfiguration, were clearly never meant for us.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets: we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease: we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television: we were not meant for this. Every job lost, every home foreclosed: we were not meant for this. Every flood and earthquake and shooting and scandal: we were not meant for this. Maybe that’s why Jesus healed the epileptic youngster. Maybe that’s what motivated Jesus to heal every other poor person he came in contact with, whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice: we were not meant for this!

And what are we to do about our world? I said before that the Transfiguration was not simply an event that happened in the life of Jesus, a pushpin in the map of Christ's journey, but an indication of our own ultimate destination as well.
Taking it a step further, in the same way that the Transfiguration was an event in Christ's life, we too are transformed and transfigured by the ongoing work of Christ in the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

We can, of course, see this transformation in the lives of the Apostles. Though it didn’t happen until after Pentecost, Peter and James and John, along with the rest of The Eleven, dedicated their lives to spreading the Gospel, to healing the sick and ministering to the poor and the forgotten… telling the world this great Good News that we were not meant for this! These eleven, who had been cowering, aimless, and silent, were transfigured into bold evangelists, powerful speakers, gifted leaders, fearless martyrs. They spoke truth to power, and cared for the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

We, too, have been transformed by a God who, in the words of Max Lucado, loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way. Moreover, the transformation, the transfiguration, is an ongoing process in our spiritual journey.

This Wednesday begins the season of Lent in our liturgical calendar. Last week, I suggested beginning early with a Lenten discipline of looking for the fish in our lives – those places where God is speaking, challenging, directing and calling us through the everyday, the mundane, the familiar, the fixed, the ordinary.
Let's broaden the scope of that discipline to include being sensitive to the ways in which God has transformed us, and the ways in which God desires to further transfigure us.

For most of its early existence, Christianity was considered the religion of slaves. People who had been excluded from fellowship with the Living God, whether because of the place they were born or because of some disease or defect, were being welcomed into relationship, were being transformed and transfigured by the love of God in Jesus Christ, and were being brought to the place of response to the Good News by people like Peter and James and John, people who had denied Christ, who had hidden in fear in the dark days following the Crucifixion, who even though they had spent years living with and listening to Jesus didn't understand what it was all about, but who had themselves been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

And it still goes on today. Men and women from every walk of life – rich and poor, in boardrooms and prison cells, in high-rise apartments and mud huts, in living rooms and in homeless shelters, in cathedrals and nightclubs – are transformed by the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are brought to that transformation by men and women just like you and me. Not well-known evangelists or powerful speakers, but “regular folks” who have experienced the transfiguring work of the Holy Spirit and are sharing it, in word and in deed, with the world around them.

Sharing it because in this wonderful vision of an alternative reality, where streets of gold replace unpaved streets and reeking alleys, where death and sickness and poverty are replaced by glory shining like the sun, in this wonderful promise of the here-and-now, as well as of resurrection and the end of the journey, there is hope.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dude, it's just FISH...

A couple of books I've read have gotten me thinking about epiphanies and Epiphany. I've hopefully made it clear just how much I like these books on Twitter, but I want to make sure and recommend the two books I mention in the sermon: Susan Isaacs' "Angry Conversations With God," and Matthew Paul Turner's "Churched."

In my own life, I've seen God move through friends (my life began to change radically, and for the better by far, because a dear friend recommended a part time youth director position at her daughter's church in Hoover), through things I've read, and through long conversations over coffee at Vestavia Waffle House. I don't get to have Damascus Road, but thank God for fish.

Isaiah 6:1-13
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" And he said, "Go and say to this people:
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled."
The holy seed is its stump.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them-though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It had been one of those nights. They had tried everything, searching hour after hour for fish, only to come up empty every time they cast their nets. Failure upon failure, yet they refused to stop; after all, no fish to sell meant no food on their families' tables. Simon worked feverishly, hoping for just another hour of darkness to try one more spot. Yet as the sun peeked over the Judean horizon, the boats were still empty.

Nothing to do but pull in to the nearby shore, wash the nets, and try again after dark. Better luck next time, and all that.

There was comfort in the menial task of washing the nets. Simon didn't have to think about his failure, didn't have to worry about what his family would eat for dinner. Just make small talk with your partners as you stood in the shallow water, clearing out debris caught in the lines and looking for frayed and broken strands to repair. It was tedious but necessary, and delayed the time when he'd have to endure the shame of coming home empty-handed.

Simon was engrossed in his work, but you'd have had to be deaf and blind not to notice several hundred people crowding up against the lake shore. They were concentrating, or trying to concentrate, on that itinerant teacher from up Nazareth way. Simon had heard him talk before, in passing, really, and thought he made sense. Besides, like Andrew had said, some of the synagogue elite had gotten their tail feathers ruffled by the guy, so he couldn't be all bad.

This guy (John, one of his partners, reminded Simon that his name was Jesus, or something like that) was having trouble being heard, trouble getting settled in to teach.

With that many people, there was no place to sit, and no one could have seen or heard him if he did. Finally, Jesus hopped up over the starboard side of Simon's boat. Of course, someone just jumping in your stuff gets your attention, so Simon began walking over. Jesus simply asked him to push off from the shore a little bit so he could teach. You could be a net-washing failure five feet from shore as well as you could be on the shore, so Simon agreed, and Jesus' problem was solved.

Jesus sat in the bow and taught while Simon and his crew sat in the stern and finished cleaning up and getting everything ready for the next night's work. Simon hoped that James and John had gotten their work done, because once you mentioned Jesus, John was completely useless for anything else. There he was now, right on the water's edge, almost falling forward into the water to catch every word Jesus said.

But Peter had to admit that it was interesting, and that Jesus made more sense out of the Scriptures than anyone else he had heard, though he'd been to synagogue his whole life, and had probably heard the Scriptures read through again and again. Truth be told, by the time Jesus was finished, Simon was hanging on his words every bit as much as John. Simon was ready to agree with John that this Jesus was really something different, until, as the crowd was dispersing, Jesus turned to him and said the silliest thing he had ever heard: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon sighed, and with the air of someone explaining to a small child why the sky was blue, said to Jesus, “Teacher, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing...” He probably would have gone on, told about how he had combed the water for hours, deep, shallow, and middlin', and had come up empty, and he was a fisherman so he probably knew a little about where and when to fish, and oh by the way broad daylight was not the time to fish, and another thing... but over Jesus' shoulder, Peter saw John waving wildly, mouthing the words, “GO!!! SHUT UP AND GO!!!!” DUDE! GO!!!!”

In the end, it was probably worth having to re-wash a net to keep a business partner happy. So he said, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

I've already asked a lot of our imagination this morning, but I really wish I could get away with putting Roy Scheider's line from “Jaws” in Jesus mouth – you know, as Simon throws the net over, Jesus says, “We're gonna need a bigger boat.”

But let's step away from the narrative for now, because what is about to happen for Simon, his epiphany, is big. Huge. Earth-shattering, destiny-altering, history-changing. God is about to call one of the giants of the faith into service. And God is going to do it in a way that makes sense to Simon... and no one else.

In our Old and New Testament readings this morning, we read accounts of or allusions to two people God calls into service through theophany: a manifestation or appearance of God to a person. For Isaiah, it's a vision of God in the Temple, complete with angels and booming voices and hot coals touched to lips to purge them of their uncleanness. And though he doesn't mention it specifically in our reading today, Paul reminds us of his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, where in a flash of light he was struck blind and had a conversation with Jesus.

In our day and age we are skeptical about theophanies. There are many cults which get their start through someone claiming they saw, spoke to, or became God; we've all heard this TV preacher or that one claim to have heard God tell them to tell us to send money, and most of us are old enough to remember Oral Roberts and his vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus. Our experience teaches us that it's healthy and right to be skeptical; after all, we reason, God will tell this or that TV preacher to tell us to send more money next week; far too many cults end up drinking poisoned kool-aid or burning alive with their house; and even Pastor Roberts' 900-foot-tall Jesus couldn't keep that medical center He was supposedly ordering Roberts to build open for more than eight years.

But we see these accounts, and many, many more throughout Scripture, where real theophanies happened, where God really did speak and act and move, and the proof of this is in the results. Isaiah became God's willing messenger, up to and including being martyred by King Mannaseh. Paul changed sides, becoming a champion for the same faith he had previously sought to remove, by force, from the face of the earth. He even changed his name from Saul, and, like Isaiah and centuries of prophets before him, and like most of the Apostles, Paul too gave his life as a martyr for the faith.

And then there's Simon Peter. Oh, he won't get his second name for a few chapters yet, but it's easier for me to just go ahead and call him that. I can see him sitting across the table from his wife, too excited to eat the fish she had cooked, the fish which just a few hours ago he had despaired of ever seeing. His wife looks at him like a flower has just sprouted from his forehead: “Let me get this straight: you're leaving everything and following this Jesus fellow... because of fish? No, no, I understand you'd been working all night, and that it was a lot of fish, and the net nearly broke and the boat nearly sank and you had to get help and it was really amazing and totally a miracle, but, honey... fish? I mean... really? You're a fisherman, sweetie, you see fish every day. You've had big catches before. Simon, think. It's just fish!”

It's just fish. Sure, a few flashing lights and booming voices and singing angels and coals of fire would have made a better story, but for Simon Peter, all it took was fish.

And isn't that a relief? I know I can only speak for myself, but I've wondered from time to time why I haven't had the kind of experience Paul and Isaiah had – I can't point to a vision of God enthroned in the Temple, or a time when God knocked me down in the middle of the road. I completely understand why Paul and Isaiah did what they did, because in a situation like that, there's no doubt Who is talking, and no doubt what is required, and that would be nice sometimes. Not to have to wonder if God is blessing this situation or that decision. To have no doubt. To be just a little less dependent on faith.

But isn't it true that, for us, epiphanies and theophanies, when they happen, are much more like what happened to Peter? Now, this is going to sound like I'm going down a rabbit trail, but bear with me. One of my birthday presents a couple of weeks ago was a gift card to a bookstore, and I am a reading addict and haven't bought a book in forever, so the gift card was burning a hole in my wallet and lasted only the distance from here to Lakeshore Parkway. I bought a couple of books I had been wanting to read: “Angry Conversations with God” by Susan Isaacs, and “Churched” by Matthew Paul Turner.

Both of these books come highly recommended by me, are memoirs, and both address, in their own ways, epiphanies and theophanies.

Susan's life was falling apart, and though she had known God as long as she could remember, God was nowhere to be found. At a low point in her life, a friend (who was trying to help) recommended a book, saying, “Susan, our relationship with God is nothing short of a marriage.” Susan replied, “In that case, God and I need to go to couples counseling. Because we're not getting along.” And that is, believe it or not, what she did. It was a long, tumultuous process, with lots of little epiphanies and imagined theophanies along the way leading up to a healed and restored person and her relationship with God.

Matthew Paul Turner was raised in a strict Fundamentalist church – one that relied on rules and regulations and strict codes and high expectations for doctrinal performance for salvation. One where if you did something wrong God hated you until you repented, where it was always a safe bet to walk the aisle and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior just one more time to make sure you got it right. Matthew was torn up inside most of the time, physically ill, fearful that this errant thought or that offhand comment would get him sent to eternal torment in a fiery Hell.

Yet what turned his life around wasn't an Isaiah or a Damascus Road experience, or even couples counseling: it was a single sentence from a woman who did not go to his church and who his church had taught him was going to hell because she was Catholic: “God loves you.”

Taken at face value, Susan Isaacs taking God to marriage counseling makes as much sense as Simon Peter following Jesus because of a good haul of fish. And I can imagine Matthew Paul Turner trying to explain his epiphany to friends and fellow church members and getting the same kind of look I imagine Peter got from his wife: “Well, OK, God loves you... we know that, I mean, we've told you that, I guess, and we agree, you know, but Matt, dude, she's Catholic.” Man, come on... it's just fish.

Taken at face value, Simon Peter's epiphany, his theophany, would have made sense to no one but himself. He found God's truth in something he did every day, something he already knew everything about, something he was good enough at to be a business owner with partners and property. To anyone looking on from the outside it was just fish.

I want to propose something this morning for those of us who have been in church all our lives, who were present in regular worship services nine months before we were born, as well as for those of us who started going later – because of the kids or because of life changes or because we thought it would be nice or we liked the people there. I want to propose that God most often speaks to us not with flashes of light, burning coals, and voices which shake the foundation of the Temple, but through the mundane and everyday.


I want to propose that sometimes when God speaks to us, it makes sense to no one else, and when we try to explain it, even people who love us look at us like we have a flower growing out of our forehead, and that's OK, it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. That perhaps we don't get knocked in the dirt like Paul or touched with a burning coal like Isaiah, but not because we aren't as good as or as important to the faith as they were; rather it's because, like Peter, deep down we really don't need that. We just need to see the fish.

I know that Lent doesn't start for a week and a half, but I want to suggest this morning beginning to develop a Lenten discipline: look for the fish.

In what ways is God speaking, challenging, directing and calling you through the everyday, the mundane, the familiar, the fixed, the ordinary? In what ways is God teaching you things unique to your personality and experience, things that are exciting to you but irrelevant or confusing to others?

Where is your fish?