Thursday, June 28, 2012

Crossing Over by Emily Huyge

In his final sermon here at Fairport UMC, Pastor John spoke of crossing boundaries.  Toward the conclusion of his message, John made an observation: “It’s interesting to me,” he said, “that the Gospels are filled with incidents of crossing boundaries.  It almost seems that one of Jesus’ primary aims was to cross as many boundaries as he could...”  Indeed, today’s Gospel reading, like so many others, is a story about Jesus crossing boundaries and calling his disciples to follow him.
The story picks up at the end of a day of teaching on the seashore in Galilee.  As night starts to fall, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” or as some translations say, “Let’s cross over.”  So Jesus and his followers, already in the boats, cast off and begin their journey across the sea.
In a quick reading, it seems as though the only boundary Jesus is calling his disciples to cross with him is a physical one.  They are to travel from one side of the sea to the other.  Jesus’ call, though, was much more significant than that.  Until this point, Jesus and his followers had been doing all their teaching and ministry in a Jewish environment.  Being Jewish themselves, this would have come relatively easily to them; they had a home-turf advantage, so to speak.  The people who lived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, though, were Gentiles.  The disciples were about to leave familiarity, even to leave home, to enter into ministry in a strange new environment.
Nevertheless, the disciples did as Jesus asked.  They got in their boats and began to cross over.  As is often the case with the path God leads us on, it was not smooth sailing.  While they were together on their journey, they were interrupted by a ferocious storm.  The winds picked up, tossing the boats around.  Waves were so high that they were crashing into the boats, putting them in danger of sinking.  The disciples were terrified; they feared for their lives.  And all the while, Jesus slept!?
This interruption, this storm, made the Jesus-followers fearful and angry.  They were being faced with what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle.  If they were to have any hope of keeping the boats from going under, they needed all hands on deck.  Yet Jesus, their leader, the one who had called them to cross the sea to begin with, was sound asleep.
It’s no wonder the disciples lit into Jesus a bit.  Author Mark says, “they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  I can only imagine their next line.  “We know this isn’t typically your job, but if you don’t pick up a bucket and start bailing water, we’re all going under!”  The disciples weren’t asking for a miracle.  We know this because they were surprised when Jesus performed one.  They were simply asking for their leader to care.
What happened next far exceeded anything they had hoped for or imagined.
Jesus woke up, probably yawned, probably stretched a little, stood up tall, looked at the storm, and said, “Peace!  Be still!”
And it was.
Violent waves dropped down to a gentle ripple.  Roaring winds subsided to a whispering breeze.  And Jesus’ followers stared in awe.
These events which transpired while the disciples journeyed catalyzed a second crossing-over.  Seeing firsthand the power of Jesus caused the disciples to cross over from fear to courage, from terror to awe, from groundlessness to faith.
This crossing over, like the crossing of the sea, was a process; it didn’t all happen at once.  Really, it all began when the storm hit.
If Jesus had the power to stop the storm in its path, why did he not just prevent it in the first place?  Perhaps the storm was just what the disciples needed.  The storm gave Jesus the opportunity to demonstrate his power.  It gave the disciples a chance to rely on Jesus and to grow in faith.  Sometimes the greatest good can come out of the greatest tribulations.
The storm resulted in fear, which caused the disciples to call upon Jesus.  There’s great power in calling out to Jesus.  Jesus responds, and his response has a tendency to far exceed our expectations.
The result of this all?  Courage for the work to come.  Renewed hope.  Faith which surpassed any they had had before.
The crossing-over was a process, but each step along the way was invaluable, even necessary.

We, like Jesus’ earliest disciples, are together on a journey and following his lead.  Today, many (if not all) of us find ourselves in the midst of a storm.
How will we respond to our circumstances?  Will we cry out in fear, wondering if God even cares?  Will we run to Jesus with feelings of helplessness?  Will we stand in courage, knowing that in God’s perfect timing, this storm will be calmed?

Today we are each being uniquely summoned to cross over from ministry as we know it to something less familiar.  We are also being called upon to cross over from fear to courage, from helplessness to faith.  This is a tremendous calling!  Do we have what it takes?
We do!
We can cross over to courage and faith because, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”  God repurposes things.  Chaos became the ordered world, and lumps of mud became the start of humankind.  Out of the despair of devastating persecution came much of the beautiful poetry in Psalms.  A most terrifying storm became an opportunity for the disciples to witness a new miracle.  Even the great atrocity of Jesus’ death was undone by the profoundly powerful love of God.  Crucifixion gave way to resurrection.  And end gave way to a beginning.
We can cross over to because we know that no matter what changes in our lives, certain things hold true.  We are not alone.  God works in us and in others.  Jesus is our Judge and our Hope.  God is with us.  We are not alone.

Jesus has called us to cross from the familiar into the unfamiliar, from fear into faith.

So let’s do it.  Let’s cross over.  It may not happen in a moment; in fact, it may take a bit of a sustained effort, but we can make the journey.  We can live in the fullness of faith, in the center of the kin-dom of God.
By the amazing grace of Jesus, the infinite love of God, and the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit, we can weather this storm. 
So let’s do it.
Let’s cross over.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

brief thoughts from a wandering pastor

It's been just over a week that we've been experiencing South Africa: from the privilege and pleasure of a game lodge in Sabi Sands to the pain of racism remembered in Soweto.   It's all a bit much - over-stimulation both in joy and thanksgiving for God's amazing creation, and in humbling realization of how entrenched our world still is in keeping a gap between races, genders, nations, even hemispheres (it's very disconcerting to hear that south is "up"!)

From our safari experience, I learned that nothing is what it seems or what is expected: what sounds like a lion's growl is actually an elephant; what sounds like a bird call is a zebra; and Egyptian goose is actually a duck....

From our tracker Martin, I learned that he is like God; he will just NOT give up.  If he thinks there's a leopard to be found, and it's hiding where it thinks no-one can see it (and I certainly couldn't), then Martin will persevere while we sip coffee in the cold dawn, until he finds it.  Ironically, that morning my daily reading was from Genesis, where Adam and Eve hide themselves from God!

From Soweto I learned that I stand in that awful human tradition for better or worse; may it be for better.

From the fact that my camera battery died out in the bush, and I couldn't snap pictures, I learned that pictures can be bought or cut out of magazines,  but the experience of a lion about two feet away cannot be captured.   Just be here now, Margaret.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Crossing Boundaries

June 10, 2012
Luke 10: 25-37
J.W. McNeill

[This is pretty close to a reprise of the first sermon I preached in Fairport in July of 1995.]

I.  What’s this story about?
            The parable of the Good Samaritan is a familiar parable.  Difficult to hear it because we think we know it already. But let us try to hear it with new ears this morning to see if there is something different for us to discern within it. 

Story within a story
            Let us first notice that as we are presented with Luke’s text, the parable is placed within another story.  So, it’s a story within a story.   A lawyer stands up to test Jesus.  He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Characteristically, Jesus turns the question back to the one who would put him to the test, and asks the lawyer what is written in the law.  The lawyer gives what may have been a rather commonplace summary:
            You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

This is a good answer as far as it goes, but the attorney must press the fine point of the law -- who is my neighbor?

Self-justification [why do we feel like we need to do that?]  Luke tells us that he presses Jesus on this point in order to justify himself.  The lawyer is looking to set a boundary to the concept of neighbor in order to limit the extent of his obligation in conforming to the law. 
He can only justify himself if there is some limit to his obligation.  If his obligation is unlimited, then he will not be able to do so. 

Now this insight as to the intentions of the lawyer  turns the context of the story so that we can see that the parable is not simply a story about how we should help others.  The context of the parable of the Good Samaritan is at least in part a story about attempts at self-justification.  Let me return to this topic later.
II. Bad rap on the Priest and the Levite
            But it’s also a story about other sorts of  boundaries, and how we function with boundaries.  To some extent, the Priest and the Levite get sort of a bad rap on a quick reading of the parable.  We may get the sense that these two are implicitly condemned by Jesus because they were too busy with their religious duties to help an injured traveler.  In this sense, we may take them to be hypocrites. 
            But I think that there is another issue that is raised by their behavior.   That is the issue of the boundary between what we might refer to as the clean and the unclean.

            The problem faced by the Priest and the Levite was that if they touched the injured traveler and it turned out that the traveler was dead, then they would be made unclean by that contact.  And if they became unclean, they could not fulfill their religious duties at the temple, because those who were unclean had to submit to a time-consuming process of purification before they could again enter the temple precincts.     
Their obligations to their professions prohibited them from endangering their ability to do their jobs by crossing the boundary between clean and unclean.

III.  Samaritan crossed a boundary.
            On the other hand, the Samaritan did cross a boundary.    I don’t know whether he knew that he was crossing a boundary or not.  Since the half-dead man was stripped by the robber, he could not have determined that he was a Jew by his clothing.  But the road between Jerusalem and Jericho would have been mostly traveled by Jews.
            In any case, knowingly or not, the Samaritan reached across the bitter boundary separating Samaritan and Jew, to rescue a traveler in dire straits.   And for that, he is celebrated in Jesus’ parable.  This character’s crossing of that  boundary has come to be recognized as the epitome of charity.

IV. But did the half-dead man want a boundary crossed? 

As I try to put myself in the place of the naked, half- dead man on the side of the road, there is certainly a part of me that would just as soon be left there to die.

I have already been humiliated by my assailants.  I am naked (which would have been more of a big deal for Jews of that time than us).  That fact in itself signifies defenselessness and exposure.  I am helpless, completely vulnerable.  I cannot maintain my boundaries.  I cannot protect myself.  I am at the mercy of the world.  To be helped is in some ways only to prolong the humiliation.  I’d rather die.

There have been times when I have felt something like that.  Do you know that feeling?  Do you know helplessness?  Do you know what it means to be vulnerable?  Do you know what it is like to be at another’s mercy?

Many of us have a hard time with that.  We have an easier time helping someone else, than accepting help for ourselves.  We have an easier time forgiving someone else than accepting the forgiveness of another.

Some of us would rather drive around aimlessly for miles instead of simply asking for directions.  Some of us would rather injure our backs trying to move a piece of furniture than ask for help.  These are the smaller sorts of cases that are magnified in the naked, half-dead traveler at the side of the road.

To accept help, to accept aid, is to allow someone to pass through our boundary and into ourselves.  Some of our discomfort about that is based on a concern about persons manipulating us by their help, and so we are sensitive to the possibilities of strings being attached to other peoples’ assistance.  Some is the embarrassment or shame at not being able to take care of ourselves.  Some of it is self-consciousness about being needy.

That can be uncomfortable.  To the extent that we feel vulnerable -- or worse, humiliated -- that discomfort is magnified.

So I would want to say that crossing boundaries is a tricky business.

[Go down into the congregation.]

When I leave the pulpit and come down here, I’ve crossed a boundary.  It may make some of you a bit uncomfortable.  Of course, this had more of an impact when I did it on my first Sunday here. You didn’t know me then.

When that boundary is crossed it can make us a little uncomfortable.  It puts us on alert.

            When is it okay to cross a boundary?
            When is it not okay to cross a boundary?  These are serious questions that require some discernment.

V. Neighbors and fences
            Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor?

The proverbial wisdom about neighbors tells us that good fences make good neighbors.  Perhaps you can guess why this is true. 

Fences set clear boundaries.  If there is a fence around my neighbor’s backyard, I will be unlikely to enter without being invited.  The boundary is well-marked and can be easily respected.

The harder cases come up when persons have no fences, no marked boundaries, no clear sense of personal integrity that forms the definition of an individual. 

One of the tasks of raising children is to help them gain a sense of their own boundaries and the boundaries of others, so that they can have a clearer basis of respect for themselves and for others.

I have noticed over the last few weeks of getting ready to move that my sense of vulnerability has been quite high.  I have had a sense of a need to put up some fences around me There have been times when I have found myself resisting help in order to preserve some sense of boundary in my life. 

I don’t feel as “in control” of my life as I like to feel and I sometimes respond to that by building fences.

Part of our task together within the community of faith is to develop both the trust and the discernment to know when to let others in, and when we need to keep some distance.   A clue for this is in Christ.

VI. God in Christ crossed a boundary
God crossed a boundary in Jesus Christ.  God entered the human realm in a very intrusive way.  How did God do that?

God did not come to manipulate.  God did not come in power to overwhelm. 

But in order to meet us in our vulnerability -- in our weakness, in our failure, and in our limitations -- God became vulnerable and limited.  God came in love, not power.  Or, to put it better:  God came in the power of defenselessness.

Christ comes not to overpower our defenses, but to enter into our weakness.
I don’t  know about you, but God makes me nervous sometimes.   Sometimes God raises my anxiety level a bit.  I think I’d feel better about it if I could justify myself.  Then I would have a leg to stand on when God came to visit. 

If God’s gonna come over my boundary I want some defense!  If I can justify myself, if I can help myself, if I can save myself -- then I can keep God out.

I may be half-dead, stripped naked, barely able to breathe, but I’m okay, Jack.  Just back off and leave me alone.  I’ll make it on my own.

If you’re going to help me in this position, I need to be able to know that you cross my boundary not in power, but in love.  And then the remnants of my boundaries can collapse and I can submit to your love and comfort and healing.

When God crossed the boundary into the human realm in the person of Jesus Christ,  God came defenselessly, vulnerably, without power in the usual sense.

And when the Good Samaritan climbed over his Jewish neighbor’s fence, he did so -- like Jesus says --
he was moved with pity.  Not to steal his dignity, not to make him feel small, not to put him into his debt, but because he was a fellow child of God.

Those of us with some experience of the deeper things of the world and of the Spirit, know that these questions of boundaries, dignity, love, and integrity can be very difficult. 

We are fragile creatures on this earth.  The strongest among us are easily hurt.  The weakest among us can easily hurt someone else.   And yet even so, God has called us into a community of faith -- not because we are already so expert at loving each other, but in order that we should in this way learn how to love better.  In order that we learn how to better trust each other.   Not only do we come to learn how to help each other and to help those neighbors we have not yet gotten to know, but also how to be helped.  How to submit ourselves to the difficult business of being loved not for our merits, but for being daughters and sons of God almighty.

It’s interesting to me that the Gospels are filled with incidents of crossing boundaries.  It almost seems that one of Jesus’ primary aims was to cross as many boundaries as he could: boundaries of class, gender, nationality, even the boundary of the Sabbath and the codes of clean and unclean.  Jesus celebrates crossing boundaries in our parable this morning.

Old Testament Judaism, in its code of purity, its code of holiness, its code of clean and unclean, legal and illegal, Jew and Gentile, was in great measure a religion of respect for boundaries.  And in our day of increasing informality I think that  we could learn something from the sort of respect for the holy and the respect for boundaries that is so central to much of biblical Judaism.  We may cross boundaries too easily for the wrong reasons.

But at the same time, I would like to say that in Christ, holiness lies in the crossing of boundaries in love. 

Love has a habit of crossing boundaries.   But it crosses them in the Christlike way of emptying oneself, dying to oneself, losing oneself for the other person.  The way God in Christ crossed the boundary into the human realm.  The way the Samaritan neighbor rescued the Jew.  The way you have invited my family and me to be a part of your life together.

Within the community of faith, we cross boundaries by stepping on each other’s toes and by lifting one another up.  Both are important parts of living a life together and I will always be grateful for  the adventures in grace we have shared together over the years.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Fire on the lips and sighs in the soul

I was fascinated last week by John’s questions for the journey about what language we speak.  It was Pentecost last Sunday, with lots of celebration of fire and wind and the HS  touching our youth in their confirmation…and the Spirit helped people talk in languages that weren’t natural to them.

On Monday Lisa asked me if I wanted help getting rid of all the decorations, balloons and ribbons and so on, since Pentecost was over.  And I read todays readings – the psalm with its flames of fire (ie lightning) and Isaiah 6 with its burning coal—and realized no.  Pentecost isn’t over; we are Pentecost people, and  our language is important.  What we speak with our lips matters. The fire keeps on going.  The spirit keeps empowering,  God keeps calling. 

First the psalm, the song of the thunderstorm, where the poet realizes that God is present in the very creation that scares the heck out of us.  God’s incredible power in creation is recognized, and it immediately leads to recognizing our human smallness.  In the force of a tsunami, what’s a mere human being?  God’s power leads us to realize our smallness: majesty and humility, and that leads the poet to seek strength and blessing…to understand that something much bigger than me is unleashed in the world, and I need what that Something has to offer.  You are awesome God, bless me with peace.

Then there’s the Isaiah text.  God experienced in awesome splendor in worship leads to an understanding that we, like Isaiah, are pretty messed up.  I am a person of unclean lips says Isaiah.  In the face of God’s majesty, I’m pretty puny.  Not a comfortable realization for us today—we are very used to thinking well of ourselves.  Sin’s not a particularly popular concept these days, used as we are to establishing and raising self esteem.  But, fact is, we’re not so great.  We fail.  We screw up.  We say and do stupid and unhelpful things, sometimes even illegal things.

Isaiah has this vision that when he realizes he messes up more often with words than anything else, and God has something much greater than he to offer  (I am a person of unclean lips)—God comes to him with hot coal to touch his lips, a wonderful image of cleansing and transformation – so he can be freed to answer the call God has, who shall I send?

There is nothing quite so humbling as sitting at Annual Conference on Thursday and Friday, making smart alec sassy remarks only half under my breath, beside Alice, who has looked at this text with me on Tuesday at SLB sits beside me and mutters in my ear hot coals on your unclean lips Margaret.  My anger at the injustice, my cynicism of the denomination, my failure to listen to God speaking through unexpected people, all come out in the lips.   Fire on the lips.  Forgive me God and move me forward.

Guard your lips, says Saint Benedict.  Watch what you say.

Positive words spoken may help a child move forward in trust
Words of confession spoken, and words of forgiveness received may heal a relationship
Caring words may soften a hardened heart into love
Prophetic words may move a church out of its comfort into its call
Daring words spoken out against injustice may transform a home, a school, a community, a world, into peace
Unspoken words, unuttered in silence at another’s side, may open a soul to the hope of God

Fire on the lips.  Watch what you say.

Third in the trinity of texts is a favorite from Romans: when we do not know what to pray the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words
This has to be one of my favorite pieces of scripture.  Our journey often takes us deep into places where words will not do.  Where words cannot even form.  Where hurt or fear is so strong our lips cannot even say words. When language fails us.  I know its hard for you to think that I am ever stuck for words.  But I am.  And at that point, like in the psalms awesome awareness of creation, and the prophets understanding of God’s majesty, I can do nothing myself.  I can only say I trust God.

All these texts talk of the power of God.   The power of God to transform our lives… with the psalmist, God’s power to strengthen and bless us with peace… with Isaiah God’s power to cleanse us and make us whole, to guard our lips and call us into ministries of justic….and with the Romans, God’s power to know us deeply and work in us when we are at our wits end.

This is the awesome God we trust our lives to.

May our lives be touched  by God’s awesome power, causing us to praise and seek strength and peace

May our lips be touched by God’s fire of forgiveness and healing, freeing us to speak the language of love and justice

And may you develop such closeness with God that the sighs of your soul may be God-breathed, so when your lips cannot speak, you heart may still know it is beloved.