Tuesday, February 28, 2012

wet, dry, ready

I’ve taken a lot of trips recently. In fact, some have even wondered if I still work here! And each journey has had its own unique qualities (and of course adventures)-- a quick visit to see my dad, a sad one to bury him, another for vacation: from the chills of Scotland to the balmy breezes of the Caribbean, all have involved preparation, good and difficult times, and a primary purpose.

So journeys have been on my mind a lot. And Journey has become a common image for the spiritual life, and particularly for Lent – our midweek suppers are themed around “Journey to Hope”-- so I was intrigued when studying this gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent to see the same kind of movement for Jesus that I’ve been experiencing in my recent journeys: preparation, good and difficult times, and a primary purpose. Jesus too was on a journey….

We find ourselves still in the first chapter of Mark, in fact, retracing our steps back several episodes. Will we ever find our way beyond chapter 1, you ask?

Do you remember this baptism text a few weeks ago? Remember your baptism, we said, and many of us wet our hands or heads or lips or hearts as an act of remembering where we’ve come from, remembering that we are claimed as child of God, and remembering we are named as Beloved of God.

Remembering that is important; it’s vital to get wet in the spiritual journey. I have just spent 9 days in an unexpectedly dry place, where there is no natural water on the island and rain is a necessity, not a nuisance, I also read A Long Walk for Water while I was there, so water has been on my mind, and as I read about Jesus’ baptism, and remember my own, I realize just how important getting wet is in the spiritual life, those deep nurturing spiritual moments, not just actual baptisms, for those are the moments that fuel the journey, that prepare us for God’s call on our lives—baptism, and lush, wet moments and seasons of life, are preparation for the journey.

They’re vital because every one of us knows there are also dry times. Jesus was no exception. He has no sooner had this awesome God experience than he finds himself in the desert, hungry, thirsty, and deeply tempted by a life lived apart from his call.

Dry and difficult times happen.

Mark tells us only he was tempted, and wild beasts were there: it’s a jungle out there……corporate life, wild beasts of anxiety, fear, temptation to power, cut corners, lie……

But angels came and ministered to him: I can almost categorically say (almost) that any time I have experienced dry, or tempted, or fearful wild beast times I have also known there are angels….maybe not recognized at the awful time, but there.

From Matthew and Luke we know one other way Jesus dealt with that thirst, that dryness, that temptation, those beasts….

He remembered. He may have remembered his baptism, but he also remembered all he’d learned as a child—he remembered his Bible….not some dusty scroll or book on a shelf, but deeply ingrained, memorized, and lived-out words from the holy writings. He held on to what he’d been taught.

Here’s a challenge for Lent. Memorize a text, one a week, and talk about it with each other, in family or small group or at work…start with one you already know and talk about how it has helped you.

It won’t happen without intentionality, any more than my recent journeys happen accidentally. You need to make it happen.

sometimes there’s an inbuilt temptation with the journey imagery – it can easily be used as an excuse: oh, I’m not very far along, or I’m resting on the journey right now, or I like where I am and don’t need to move on just at the moment. Then, before you know it, you’re in the wilderness and dried up like a prune.

So watch for that temptation, and remember that the key word in Mark’s gospel is “immediately”, and with urgency Jesus is propelled by his baptism into a time of temptation then propelled again out into a hurting world saying, NOW! Time’s up!

As then, so now. People are hurting, fearful, sick, hungry, thirsty, and messed up. It is a jungle out there. Light and LIFE need, to be unleashed on the world immediately. Now. Right now. Said one blogger on this text.

The Jesus journey, then and now is purposeful, like each of my recent travels. Being baptized, having an intentional spiritual life has a point…and it’s not just for our own feel good satisfaction but for doing God’s work! Now. Immediately.

God has a call on your life and mine, a purpose for each of us, and for all of us. At the very least we are ALL called to bring about the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. That’s what Jesus did…he kept moving, getting the message out that God is here, and God is involved, and the world can be different. LIFE, abundant rich soaking wet lush life is possible. God calls us to live it out! And invite others into it!

Maybe your call is into ordained ministry, maybe to do some pastoral care or visitation, perhaps to share the good news with children in SS and help them memorize stories and texts that will sustain them in their lives, or share your abundance at Covenantor at the Pines Learning Links tutoring programs, perhaps to offer refreshing water of care to someone who’s having a difficult time, or to show by your work ethic how you deal with life’s stress and temptations…perhaps it’s to invite someone out of the dead and dry places of life into what John called the holy reality you find nurtures you here….

What’s your life’s God-purpose?

Be assured, as you seek it and live it, that when we are Wet, we are beloved and called – prepared for the journey

When we are Dry, we are nurtured and fed – on the journey

Then we are Ready to keep growing and moving on, proclaiming and living out the good news that God is here right now, aching to be in relationship with us, actively seeking to help us, like Jesus, to shape the world back into its original God intent.

Wet or dry we must be ready.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holy Reality

Holy Reality
Mark 9:2-9
J.W. McNeill

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9: 2-9)

The Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge has been broadcast every year since 1928, with the exception of 1930. A hymn setting is commissioned every year. Begins at 3 p.m. local time. If you join the queue before 9 a.m. you will most likely get in. The doors open at 1:30. The gates to the college are opened at 7:30 in the morning.

Although I am not generally home much on Christmas Eve day, I do know that it plays on our radio from about 10 until about 11:30 in the morning over WXXI.  This year I happened to be home and paying attention towards the end of the broadcast.

As the service came to an end the BBC announcer began to describe the scene in the chapel. He described that the choir was recessing, the officiating clergy were recessing, and finally he described the people who had attended the magnificent event. They were slowly making their way toward the exits to – as he put it – return to “the real world.”

Return to the real world? To leave beauty and reverence. To leave magnificence and wonder. That is leaving the “real world?”
I beg to differ. They had been in touch with the real world. They had experienced the real world of transcendence and beauty, holiness and joy. That is the real world.

Now they were going back into a pale and fragile shadow of the reality they had experienced and it would be that reality that they carried with them from that time of worship which would shed reality on their experience afterwards.

This opens for us the question of “what is real?” That is a deep question, but 
I do ask us to note a certain cynicism or suspicion or almost negativity when we use the world “real” in many contexts.  For example: in common speech to be “realistic” is not to hope for too much, to focus on people’s less noble qualities, to assume the worst. To be “realistic” is to assume people acting only in their own self-interest, to be vindictive, or only out of fear or greed. It is contrasted with “idealistic.”

Since the rise of explanatory social science, what has seemed most realistic or plausible is that people generally act out of their own desires for power or sex or money. Whole theories of what it means to be human – the psychology of Freud or Nietzsche; the political economy of Machiavelli or Hobbes or Marx or Ricardo all assumed a set of motivations that were founded on a kind self-interest or class-interest.

I have no doubt that there are many instances of people acting out of evil motives or from what we might call animal instincts or selfishness, but why are we so quick to call them that which is real? Why do we assume them as more basic? More real?

A passage from the Screwtape Letters. This was an important book in my return to the Christian faith. Not to everyone’s taste. One has to keep in mind that “the Enemy” is God in these upside down letters.

The premise of the book is that an elder, master devil is instructing a junior devil by letter. The instructions are all about how to work on the man to whom he has been assigned so that he will be kept from God. This man is the patient. The senior devil’s name is Screwtape. The devil he is instructing is called Wormwood. In the book’s first letter Screwtape warns Wormwood that he should not use logic or argument with his patient, because once he does that his patient is apt to look at the big picture and universal concepts and not be distracted by the “stream of immediate sense experiences.”

Read from Chapter One.

Screwtape’s patient was close to God in a moment of reflection. Screwtape’s goal was to get him out into “reality” and cover over the transcendence and holiness with the bustle and noise of the city.

What happens on the mount of Transfiguration?
This experience connects the disciples with the reality of who Jesus is. Can’t be fully explained.

The holiness of God in Christ shines through.

This reality is to frame their coming to understand at a later point. They are not ready to understand yet. This reality is to shine for them through the dark days ahead.

In light of this reality we are to understand, take in, experience all other reality.

Transfiguration on the mountain is of Jesus, but this experience, this event is to transfigure every other event/experience, because it illuminates that Christ – the beloved son of God – has transformed the world and is transforming the world and is transforming us to see the beauty and goodness and grace that takes shape within us among us and around us.

Sometimes preaching on this text – maybe even some of my own – has focused on how we cannot stay up on the mountain, but must return to the real world, down in the valley. I think this misses the point: the idea is to understand that the reality is the revelation on the mountain and then to take that revelation to shape and frame all our experience and understanding.

Jesus is revealing for us the reality of love and justice, compassion and mercy. On the mountain we are told: this is my beloved son, listen to him. Listen and learn this reality of peace. Listen and learn this reality of reconciliation and beauty and purity.

As we move through lent toward holy week and finally Good Friday this reality will be obscured by the competing claims of retaliation and condemnation and torture and death. They will seem strong, but we will learn if we continue to the end with Jesus that they are not the realities that they pretend to be. They are passing away.

Only that which will finally attach to God can finally be real. Only that which is good and true and beautiful and just can be real, because only those things can be eternal and shine with the light of Christ.

Another instance:
At the end of September I went to NJ to attend my high school class’s 40th reunion. I have to say I had a great time. I saw some folks who I went to 2nd and 3rd grade with. Even someone from 1st grade. I was surprised how old they all were. At the same time in a lot of folks I could see the 10 year old or the 14 year old. And I got to know some folks I didn’t even really remember from back then, but there was something about connecting with people with whom I’d grown up – knew well or scarcely at all. It was a joyful event.
And behind it all I felt a spirit of reconciliation. We all knew or at least vaguely remembered the rivalries, the competitions, the slights, the insults, the embarrassments in all of our trying to learn to be human beings: to grow up and find out who we were to become.

It’s a tricky business and all of us had stepped on one another’s toes as we tried to sort it all out. But let me tell you about one encounter there in particular.

The reunion event had a website where I could see who was going to show up. I noticed that George Sirgiovanni planned to be there. I made up my mind that I was going to have to make sure that I talked to him. You might be wondering why. George was one of perhaps two or three guys I had an actual fist fight with in those days. We mixed it up in the locker room until a gym teacher came and intervened. By now I really don’t remember what it was about. I just knew I felt bad about it.

I knew I needed to apologize to George. I wondered whether I would recognize him. Finally after dinner I spotted him across the room. While I was still probably 15 yards away he saw me coming and recognized me. Within moments we were apologizing to each other and laughing and shaking hands and then embracing.

Amazing moment. He couldn’t remember what the fight was about either.
That moment was reconciliation and that moment was reality. He teaches history now at a Catholic college in NJ.

That reunion was a taste of those enduring realities of forgiveness and reconciliation. Of honoring relationships and shared history of joy and of sorrow.

In the days and weeks that followed I began to think more and more of that reunion weekend in NJ as a taste of the enduring reality of heaven. The enduring reality of peace and joy and beauty. The enduring reality of reconciliation and laughter. The enduring reality of connecting with love and so connecting with the realty of God’s presence. It is the reality of that connection that allows the reality of all those things to shine forth also in our so-called ordinary moments. Grace shines through when we have heard and seen it on the mountain already.

That taste of holy reality is ours in worship, in prayer, in all beauty, in moments of love and compassion, in encounters with forgiveness and mercy.
Holy reality seeps into all of life once we have seen it, once we have heard it, once we have learned to encounter its beauty shining all around us – as our hearts learn to be open to it. 

Holy Reality. 
On the mountain and in our midst.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 06, 2012


Mark 1:29-39
February 5, 2012
J.W. McNeill

Interruptions.  People have different tolerance for interruptions.

Did you notice the interruptions in the Gospel story this morning? Picks up last time. Do you remember then that the man with the unclean spirit interrupted Jesus’ teaching?

1.      After this they go to (Simon) Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for dinner after church. Good plan. But that plan is interrupted because Peter’s mother is sick.

2.      Jesus interrupts that sickness and the Sunday after church dinner resumes.

3.      Then the visit at Simon’s house is interrupted by the crowd that gathers at the door and Jesus interrupts the sickness and the demon possession.

4.      The next morning Jesus leaves all these people behind to go the deserted place.
5.      The disciples go looking for him and then they interrupt Jesus at prayer.

6.      Then Jesus interrupts the stay at Capernaum to take the disciples with him to the neighboring towns to preach and to heal.

You’ve probably had a number of interruptions in your life this week. Things happen. At church we had a big interruption because Margaret’s father died and she had to leave in pretty short order to go to Scotland. A major interruption.

I’ve been thinking about interruptions because of a big interruption in Martha’s and my life that I’ll tell you about in a few minutes.

I’ve been thinking about interruptions as the intersections of stories.  An interruption is where one story enters another story. Sometimes it absolutely takes it over.

I’m going to be away this week to direct and teach at Local Pastors’ Licensing School. I was remembering that when I went to Licensing School as a student 30 years ago, one of the activities we did was everyone was instructed to sing out loud their favorite hymn as we milled about the large room in which we were meeting. I can’t remember what I began singing, but within just a few minutes the song that interrupted all the others and took over all the rest was – any guesses??  Onward Christian Soldiers! Started by one of the faculty members who had come into the Methodist Church out of the Salvation Army.  The stronger song takes over and the stronger story can take over as well!

So here’s the interrupting story that is about to take over Martha’s and my story – and your story as well:
Four weeks ago tomorrow -- on a Monday I received a phone call putting me on alert that I would soon be receiving a phone call from one of our Conference Superintendents, asking me for a phone number where I could be reached in the next couple of hours.

Within a short time I did receive a phone call from Dick Barton, the DS of the Finger Lakes District. He asked me if I would be open to talking about moving to become senior pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca.

I gave him a pretty long story about why I really did not think I should move. He understood my thinking on it and said that there was really no pressure, but that the bishop and the whole cabinet were convinced that I was the right person for the appointment. I agreed to at least read the material and give him an answer within 24 hours whether Martha and I would agree to move forward.

He emailed me the material and Martha and I spent the afternoon quite distraught. Not wanting to leave Fairport. Wondering whether moving was the right thing. I spent some time just being quiet asking God what would be the right thing. As I kept going over the material there were just a few things that didn’t feel right to me. I concluded that I was really not meant to go there.

So before 5 pm that afternoon, I called the Superintendent back and told him I didn’t think it was going to work and how appreciative I was that I was being allowed to decline.

Interruption over.  I had a meeting that night down here and went ahead getting back into life in the midst of Fairport UMC’s story.

Tuesday went by.  But I had an uneasy feeling. I had a scheduled meeting with my spiritual director (my spiritual counselor, who I’ve been working with for about 15 years) and I described what had happened and how I had really felt called NOT to move to Ithaca. But just beyond my full awareness, the words were ringing faintly hollow.

I decided not to worry about it and move on. But when I went home for lunch on Wednesday, Martha immediately raised some new conversation about the possibility of the move and I told her that I had also had some second thoughts. I have to say that we spent a pretty intense hour, because I knew it could not be long before they moved to offer it to someone else.

I called the Superintendent back and asked him if we could still talk about the appointment in Ithaca. He said that as things had worked out, he had not gotten anyone to move forward with it yet and we could still talk.
We went over some of the considerations we had talked about and we agreed to go ahead and try to schedule a time for Martha and me to visit Ithaca and meet with the Staff Parish Relations Committee at St. Paul’s Church in Ithaca.

That meeting could not be arranged until this past Tuesday, when Martha and I went to Ithaca and met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee and we all agreed that I would be appointed as their Senior Pastor as of July 1, 2012.

The interruption is here.  On Thursday night, our District Superintendent, Ted Anderson, met with me and our Staff Parish Relations Committee to tell them of what had happened and to talk about how we would make this announcement this morning and how Fairport UMC would go forward.

Of course, the plan was that Pastor Margaret would be at that meeting and would be here this morning – to preach actually – but that story was overtaken by the story of her father’s death. A story that is overtaken by God’s eternal life story.

I will tell you that this is not easy. We’ve never lived anywhere for this long. Martha and I are very sad to be leaving this wonderful church home. I can’t really say a lot about all that right now, because I want to keep myself pulled together and going into too much detail is liable to make me cry. Martha and I have not been anything but blessed to journey with you for the last 16 and a half years and have our children grow up among you.

Interruptions are where stories intersect: Last week we read about Jesus’ story intersecting with the story of the man with unclean spirit and interrupted that unclean spirit story episode, freeing that man in the synagogue.

Jesus interrupted Simon’s mother-in-law’s sickness story with a healing story. Jesus interrupted his ministry story with a prayer story that intersected him at the deepest levels of cosmic love and then the disciples overtook that story – or went with Jesus to carry that cosmic love story into the despairing and desperate stories of hundreds of people seeking to be overtaken by healing and wholeness stories.

So let me just tell you a little about how St. Paul’s in Ithaca’s story was interrupted. Last November their pastor, Margie Mayson, died suddenly of an aneurysm while she was with her daughter out west. The church was stunned. They are still hurting very deeply. Margie was about the same age as Margaret and I. You can imagine.

In God’s wondrous and interrupting way, their story is now overflowing to intersect our story. Their story is particularly overtaking Martha’s and my story so that we are being absorbed into their story. And in turn all that we have lived with you here will go with us to become spoken or unspoken parts of the story we will live out with them.

In that cosmic way, you go with us. That should not be too surprising, of course, because overarching all our stories is God’s bigger story that is drawing us all together into the biggest story that will overtake all the stories of all of us who have ever lived: the story of God’s cosmic love that Jesus lived out among us.
We share in that story together as we gather as one people around this table to be refreshed and nourished to live out that love in Fairport or Ithaca or anywhere in God’s love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.