Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It's Gonna Leave a Mark

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Preached for the 5th Cooperative Midweek Lenten Service, at Evans Falls UMC, and then, with slides, on Palm/Passion Sunday in the Center Moreland Charge.

I have been playing the mandolin for about 15 years. It will be 15 years since my wife gave me what I now call Fiona, and I am still not at a place where I can say with confidence: "You go ahead and start and I'll pick up." But I have tried. And within the last three years, I am able to at least play in public, if I can see the music ahead of time. As I have played more, there's one thing that I have learned. When you commit to the mandolin, there is a physical change to you. The fingers of the hand you use to fret with, to play the notes on the neck, become sore and sting, the skin can sometimes peel off, and after a while harden into tough patches of skin. In other words, you form calluses. It's true for any string player.

If you were to see the left hands of any famous player, if you were to look at the fingers of Bill Monroe, the calluses would perhaps be smaller and harder than a guitar player because the strings of a mandolin are smaller and there are two of them for every note. You look at the right hands, and often they have grown out their nails to a hard and inflexible point; they are not practicing bad hygiene, they have grown out their nails to pick the strings with.

What this tells me is that if you commit to something, truly commit, it will change you. It will leave a mark. Committing to faith is no different. We live in a world where it is harder to commit to becoming a Christian. The worldview we have always understood as "Christendom", where everyone we know and everywhere we go is either majority Christian or a mission field, the way the world has been oriented for 1700 years, is now passing, if it has not yet passed. You can't coast by anymore; you can't drift along like a leaf caught in the current of a river.

If you look at a map of Yosemite National Park, in central California, it's a large park, it covers a lot of territory. By far the bulk of that territory is unspoiled wilderness, rarely touched by human feet, and sanctuary to a bounty of wildlife safely beyond the reach of humans.

But when most people go to Yosemite, they are not looking for the unspoiled backcountry. They want Yosemite Valley, the photogenic valley carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, the old stomping grounds of Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt. They want to stay at the Yosemite Hotel, which is a full service hotel with a very strong wine list, cooking staff, and showers, saunas, and tennis.

There are people who will tell you, though, that the spiritual heart of Yosemite has been covered up by the blacktop, the hot dog shops, the buses, and the parking lots. To see what's left, you have to get away from the glitz, the day trippers, the millions of pounds of trash that are picked up in the valley every year. To truly get Yosemite, you have to put on your boots, strap on your backpack, and get into the high country. It's there you can hear the hawk call; it's there you can hear the Milky Way whooshing by at night. And be sure to pack the blister kit--because taking that hike up into what the true meaning of Yosemite is going to leave a mark.

Growing in faith, the way we claim is the way to salvation for us, is also like hiking a mountain. Yes, there are many paths to God, but you'll never get to the top by dabbling a little bit here, and a little bit there. It's a good way to circle the base of the mountain; it's a good way to stay in the Valley. To get to the top, you have to commit to one path, and walk it. And the walk will change you.

To be a Practicing Christian, Not one of Wesley's "Almost Christians", you have to open yourself up to it. You have to practice. You have to come to church, you have to take communion, you have to read your Bible, you have to pray. How? Doesn't matter. The time spent is the important thing, just like practicing a musical instrument.

You have to know what you believe, and make choices according to your beliefs. You have to live according to the choices you have made for your beliefs to matter. You have to commit in a way you didn't use to have to. To be a Christian is returning to meaning something. Perhaps not in the way that being a Christian got you thrown to the lions, like back in Rome, but we all know stories where there are people of our faith who have been killed for what they believe.

Mandolin players are known by their calluses. High country hikers are known by their blisters. Their commitment is known by the marks on their bodies.

How do we know you’re a Christian? It's more than jewelry. It's more than abstinence from alcohol. It's more than not smoking, though these things can be important for some of us. It's more than carrying around a Bible, or putting a bumper sticker on your car.

How do you love? How do you show mercy? How do you show the face of God to the world? How do you defend the helpless against the bullies? How do you name the injustices you see around you? Like the plaque in one of our Sunday School rooms at Center Moreland; if you were being put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

We know one who didn't hide his face from insult and spitting. We know one who gave his back to be struck. And worse. Our charge, our commitment as Christians is to grow into resembling him. To be as brave, as loving, as wise and as strong as he is.

It's gonna leave a mark. Are you ready to commit anyway?

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