Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not What We Would Have Chosen

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, Mark 1: 14-20

It's not what he would have chosen. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is a faithful fearer of God. He gets his chance to serve God in the way that most fearers of God would love to--by going to a place, and being a prophet, and communicating God's displeasure about them to them, and calling them to repentance.

Except he has this problem. The people he is sent to are not believers like him, they are the people of Nineveh, a foreign land and a once and future enemy of Israel.

One could say that Jonah has little hope of his message being heard and obeyed, and, because these are people who are pagans, enemies, this might very well be a suicide run for Jonah. Add to that the feeling Jonah has that these Ninevites are probably less than human anyway, because they are not like him.

So, thinking that God has lost his marbles, Jonah decides to go hide until God regains his focus. He heads for Tarshish.

Now, Tarshish isn't a clear reference on a map--I'd heard that there used to be a town named Tarshish somewhere on the Spanish coast, but the commentaries actually clam that there is no clear destination. There are cities in Greece and northern Africa that have names that can be interpreted as Tarshish, including the Apostle Paul's hometown of Tarsus in southern Turkey. The term Tarshish can also mean anyplace that is far away, the way we sometimes use the city name of Timbuktu. What is true is that all possible geographical destinations that could be Tarshish are northwest, or west of where we assume Jonah is, and Nineveh, where God is sending him, is east, on the Tigris river, in what is now Northern Iraq.

So, off he goes in a ship, headed the opposite direction from where God wants him to go.

The story says that God sends a storm, and as soon as the sailors of the ship take up Jonah's offer to jump out, the sea calms, and a big fish comes and eats Jonah.

Three days, Jonah stays inside the fish, and figures out in the time of quiet and meditation in a nice warm dark place that God probably does mean what he says, and that God isn't going to steer him wrong.
The fish comes close to shore, and "spits" (read as "barfs") Jonah out, and Jonah heads for Nineveh.

He arrives in the icky, pagan city of Nineveh, and begins his work. "Forty Days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!" Well, The Ninevites see this unwashed Israelite, who is all crusty and slimy from being inside a really big fish, talking about the fact that Nineveh will take another beating at the hands of this Yahweh, this Israelite God, and they pay attention. Everyone puts on sackcloth and ashes, from the king down the slaves, even the donkeys, and assume the posture of penitence.

Nineveh is saved, and Jonah was disappointed. He'd left the town, and gone away to watch the destruction of Nineveh, Sodom and Gomorrah style, and when it doesn't happen, he's disappointed.

So, at the beginning of chapter 4, here's Jonah saying "God, I knew you were merciful and gracious, and I knew you would keep your word with these people. That's why I ran away, because I don't like the people, and I don't want them to be saved". He goes and sulks, and while he's there, sulking, God grows a great big leafy plant that shades Jonah, which he likes. But God kills it, so that Jonah is in the sun all the next day (this is the granddaddy of all sulks, apparently, because it takes two days).

"You are unhappy about the bush, God says, which you didn't plant, didn't water, and didn't grow. I gave it to you freely. But you're angry about it's going away. Shouldn't I be full of care about Nineveh, 120,000 people, which I am also responsible for, did create, and do care for, just like I care for you?

Jonah wishes that they would have received God's grace after a little more pain, perhaps some blood, and certainly a lot of resistance. Grace was offered, grace was received, and it just seemed too easy. It's not what Jonah would have chosen.

Here's another story; Jesus is walking down the beach. He stops, looks at some fishermen and goes up and talks to a few. They drop their nets and follow him.

This is the beginning of the Christian movement in the world. It seems that more care should have been taken. Interviews should have been given, psychological profiles should have been constructed. Someone might not be ready, or might fail. Someone might turn against Jesus. These just don't seem to be the right people--they don't have the right skill set. This gift of grace they are being given, to be the first to follow Jesus, and to help him, Jesus is just too free with this. Grace was offered, grace was received, and it just seemed too easy. This just isn't the way it should be done. This is not What We Would Have Chosen.

Thank God for this thing about grace. Grace is offered, grace is received, and it just seems too easy. This is not what we would choose.

Thank God that grace is something that we don't get to distribute. Thank God it is in God's hands. And thank God he is so free with it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Everything's Gonna Be All Right

Mark 1: 4-11

There's a sense that you get, sometimes, when a decision has been made, a threshold has been crossed. It's a scary moment, and sometimes you are forced into it by circumstances. Almost always, there is a situation that is begging for a resolution. But, once that resolution is chosen, there's a sense that you get of rest, of peace, of decision.

Now, I am not talking about such things as choosing what to have for dinner--I am not talking even about buying a car, though these feelings can happen then. No, I am talking about the big transcendent decisions we make just a few times in our lives. For me, there have been three--deciding to get married, going into the ministry, and deciding to be baptized.

I realize that I am a minister in a tradition that practices infant baptism, and that means that many of you do not have a memory of this decision. Perhaps even Confirmation was, for you, something that you just did. Perhaps you have never really thought about your faith, but you have just attended church, taken the occasional peek at a Bible, and maybe gone to camp once. The momentous decision of accepting the invitation of God, of allowing the Holy Spirit into your heart is not something you have experienced.

That's OK. Not everyone has to have a great conversion narrative. Not everyone can point to one moment and say "that is when I accepted Jesus into my heart". Not everyone can. For some people it was a gradual acceptance over time, years, perhaps, and this is what comes from having been baptized as babies--there was never a time when Jesus was not a part of your life. The way I mean that is that if you were baptized as a baby, that meant your family was probably already Christian, so there was never a time when you were not steeped in the language of the church, the presence of people who are not your blood family but who nonetheless know you as if they were aunts and uncles.

Because that is what it means to be a member of the body--that you have family all over the world. When we pledge to support the family as a congregation in the vows of our baptism rite, what we're saying is that you are mine, and I am yours. Your child is as important to me as my own, and I will care for them spiritually as if they were mine.

It is a rite of acceptance. This child is OK, and is a child of God.

I read the language of cleansing the same as any other Christian. I hear the songs about being made white as show through baptism. I understand what John the Baptist was baptizing for in the Jordan the day that Jesus showed up. In understand John's hesitation, knowing full well who Jesus is. " I should be baptized by you", he says in Matthew's version of this story. "Let it be so for now, because we need to fulfill all righteousness".

You know, what I think this means is, that even though Jesus is blameless before God, and there is nothing for him to repent of, baptism is still necessary, because the symbol of spiritual cleansing is still necessary. No one will believe what he claims if he does not submit to the symbols they understand. Indeed, this story appears in some form in all four gospels, one of the few stories that do.

When we speak of baptism as Methodist Christians, we use the language of baptism being the "outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. . . " Whether you are a child or an adult, being baptized means that you are part of something. As a child, you become part of something as a way of being raised--the church, God, and Jesus are just part of how you live. If you chose to be baptized as an adult, then you choose to be a part of this thing on your own. Confirmation is that choosing if you were baptized as an infant.

We acknowledge that, by this baptism, God does work in our lives. We have faith that what has happened to us, or what will happen to our children, and the sign of that belief is baptism, the same event that happened to Jesus himself. God was well pleased with Jesus, his son, the beloved. By our being baptized, by washing our sons and daughters, we are demonstrating to ourselves and to each other our faith that God is well pleased with us as well.

God is in the midst of our lives. Our baptism is our reminder and our claim on that fact.

By being baptized, we know that everything is gonna be all right. There will be hard times, there will be easy times, but the claim of the baptism is true and certain, because God doesn't lie. We are his, we are marked.

In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to be reassured of our baptism. We will say words, we will speak the proper responses. But beneath those words, I hope will be for you the true and certain belief that in the water of baptism, you are marked as one of Christ's' own. As you come forward to touch the water, put some on your forehead or on your lips, be reassured that you are Christ's own brothers and sisters. God loves you, and in you he is well pleased. No matter where you are in life, no matter what mistakes you make, you are one of God's own. Even if the waters of baptism have not touched your head, you are still a child of God.

Everything's gonna be all right.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Dangers of Changed Perspective

I have a Facebook page. It actually is one of the better things I've done recently, because I have reconnected with friends that I have not talked to for years. I don't "friend" just anyone--that's what MySpace is for. In Facebook, my rule is I have to have known you in the real world. I have "friended" people from as far back in my life as elementary school--half of the kids I played with on McBeth Street in the early 70's are now "friends" of mine, and someone I am connected with knows where the other half are. There are people from my years of working in the wineries and attending community college, in California; my old undergrad campus ministry unit at Delaware; my years of seminary in Texas; and all my church colleagues, youth, and friends from here and now. It's about a 36 year span, from two high schoolers I met last week at a district youth event, to people I knew when I was 4.

The people I knew from high school are one of the most special groups to me. We even arranged a small reunion at a local Newark tavern last Thanksgiving. Recently, I got a friend request from someone I don't remember, and the information she posted included our common high school, though not from my class. She didn't have a name I recognized. It's probably her married name, but I thought a trip through my yearbook might not be out of order.

So I opened it up, and was leafing through what this particular person said was her graduating year. Sure enough, there were no people listed under that last name, and all of the first names were initialized.

As I closed the book, it fell to the page that covered my senior prom. I looked through the faces of that Queens' Court, and while I wasn't necessarily in their social circles, I recognized almost all of them. A few have even re-appeared in Facebook. But there was one face I remembered, and I was shocked to notice looked like she was absolutely fuming. I'd never noticed this before. She appeared to be the first-runner up. She's looking right at the camera, and she looks like she was about ready to drill through the picture.

Now, I wonder. Was she mad that she didn't get elected, or was there something else going on? And if it is a matter of her not being elected, was there a reason other than not getting enough votes?

I ask these questions, as I look at her face. The only African-American face in the Queens' Court. I ask these questions because in my travels through life, I have been sensitized to the fact that I had the privilege of missing a lot of what went on around me. You really can't put much value on the average Anglo's perceptions and opinions when it comes to what our fellow Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American feel.

Now, it could very well be that she just hates having her picture taken. She may have had a fight with the guy who is standing behind her, a guy that I believe she later married. There could very well be any number of possible explanations, some of which she might have even used had she been asked what was wrong by those who knew her better than I did. I can imagine her saying to herself "they wouldn't get it anyway, tell them something they'll understand".

I want to ask the woman that girl became what was going on. And I want her to trust me, even though I am a white guy who has just entered middle age (ooh, it hurts to write that!) I hope that it isn't what I fear, that she was somehow, by prejudicial vote or racist machinations of administrators, kept from becoming the Prom Queen of her senior class.

Our senior class.

As I write that, I really do not want to take anything away from the girl who is wearing the crown in the picture. It's just that this other face is so livid, it makes me wonder. . .

So, to my fellow Newark Yellowjackets on Facebook or elsewhere on the web, I ask for your help in finding our common friend. And if she reads this herself, I hope she trusts me enough to contact me and tell me the story. And if it is what I fear, I hope that she understands that I really want to hear the story, even with all the pain she may feel.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

To Make Everyone See

Matthew 2: 1-12, 16
Ephesians 3: 1-12

There's an old commercial that runs through my head periodically. It's from when I was a kid, and it suggested the power of person to person sales. It involved a woman with long, glossy, lustrous hair in the old Farrah Fawcett style of the 70's talking about how great the shampoo was. And it ended with her saying ". . . and I told two friends . . . " and two other women appeared, also with long shiny hair. The three of them say together "and we told two friends. . .", and four more women appeared.

By the end of the ad, there was some large number of women, all with shiny soft hair saying that they had passed on the good news of shampoo. It's been such a long time, I don't remember if there were any non-white faces in the crowd of soft and shiny haired people, but undoubtedly the makers of the product would not have objected to women of non-white ethnicity and with money in their hands buying their shampoo.

It's often been in my mind, this image of friends telling other friends, the end result of it being a lot of people hearing the news. Nothing is better advertising than a friend telling another friend of a new product or service. All the advertising in the world can't do the job better than someone recommending something to someone else, based on the already understood common needs and interests.

It's even been suggested in an evangelism tool--rather than a preacher go into an area with tent and band and entertainment values, a few people simply move into an area, be visible in an unobtrusive way, become part of the community, and act according to the love of God in their lives. Based on a buildup of trust between the new people and the others, the word of God is passed along on the strong coils of relationship.

The story of the coming of God into the world was passed along by extraordinary measures. A star led the wise men, and Angels announced to shepherds. It's really easy to believe something's up when you see a star moving outside the charted paths of the heavens, or a celestial being appearing in front of you saying, go into town now, and see the new divine creature that has been given to you.

But the lights fade, the star disappears, and the angels fly away. And after Herod's terrorist slaughtering of every child under two in the area of Bethlehem, there isn't much that happens, until a guy appears announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. When he goes to prison and dies, this other guy is seen walking down the beach, stopping and talking to fishermen along the way. He's not shouting, he's not gathering crowds, he's just being social, it looks like. But then a number of them drop their nets and walk down the beach with him. No shouted slogans, no campaigns, no coercion. Just a conversation.

We know that Jesus is inviting people to "come and see". We sit here this morning because that invitation was, at some point, extended to us. It may have been because of the leadership of parents, it might have been the stories told by a friend when we were young, it might have been a holy experience at camp. It might have come by a spiritual two-by-four upside your head, like Paul on the road to Damascus, or it might have been the gradual growth into faith over the course of months or years, as you grew into your faith. Whatever, the invitation was extended, and if you are here this morning, it was either accepted or you are still thinking about accepting.

What happens next is up to you. It's up to us. We have to make everyone see what we saw, what the shepherds saw, what the wise men saw. Epiphany means to experience the appearance or manifestation of a deity. I think we should probably let God handle the appearances, but I think that we are called to handle the manifestations--the actions and speech that cause others to realize that God exists, and that the God we believe in is love. Radical love.

It's the kind of love where Israel and Hamas put down their weapons.
It's the kind of love that helps people stop flying the confederate flag because they realize how hurtful it is to others.

Howard Thurman, a theologian and poet of the 20th century, wrote this which I had never read before. A friend posted it in his Facebook web page:

"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."

This is our work. And through our work, though our stepping outside the walls of this building into the world to serve God, we can make everyone see that the love of God is for everyone, not just a chosen few. And then they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on. . .

Note: since I wrote this, two enterprising folks have found the ad on YouTube. Thanks to Penny and Carlton, and here's the link, from Penny!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Thoughts at the Turn of the Year

(elaborated from diary, 12/29/08)

I've been thinking about changes in the new year. I want to be healthier, a better preacher, a better musician, and have a more regular prayer life. So changes need to be made in all those areas.

Exercise? Do it. I walked for 40 minutes this morning, which at my pace is about 2 miles.

Preaching? Change the creation rhythm,because the change I want is to not have pressure on Sunday mornings.

Music? Kinda like exercise, in that I should practice, both mandolin and my new pursuit, bass guitar. I should also try to understand music theory better.

Prayer Life? I am in the final discernment period about whether to become a Benedictine Oblate through the Monastery of St. Brigid of Kildare, a United Methodist house sponsored through the General Board of Discipleship. My hesitations revolve around the fact that to pledge to live in a benedictine style requires regular contact with the other members, and this is a house that has very little physical presence, and exists almost entirely online and by conference call. What physical presence it does have is located in Minnesota, and this years' annual gathering is in Northeastern Kansas. My distance from these areas and my family obligations in the summer put me in a quandary, because the Rule of St. Benedict puts high value both on regular contact with the house, and fidelity to the oblates' commitments. One of my pledges in final oblation will almost certainly be being present, mindful, and available in the most important commitments of my life, and being a dad and a husband certainly count among the highest of those.

Living according to the Rule of St. Benedict doesn't present as much of a problem to me as the proximity of the house I want to pledge oblation to. Praying the Psalms three times a day is something that to my mind presents less of a problem than maintaining community.