Monday, July 30, 2012

Do not be afraid

Do not be afraid
Psalm 14; John 6:16-21

Today the assigned gospel reading moves from Mark to John, written much later, after years of tried and tempered discipleship and reflection. 

We’re going to embark on several weeks of reflection on our own discipleship through John’s eyes, deeply theological, more contemplative, and less narrative than Mark’s

Mark tells stories, John adds meaning for a people distanced in time from Jesus’ life.

Todays story follows the well-known tale about Jesus feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, and it’s followed by a long teaching about the metaphor of bread, that Chris will be focusing on the next couple of weeks.   The miraculous feeding story is the only miracle to make it into all four gospels; but each of them also has some version of the storm on the sea of Galilee.  In John’s gospel the two are connected.   This little five verse incident interrupts the whole bread image.  Why? I wonder.

Here’s the connecting link: verse 14-15
When the people saw the miracle, they said, This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

The connection is an issue of identity.  Who is this Jesus?  Is he a prophet from God, which we sorely need?  Or the one who’s going to free us from Roman oppression as our new king? 

The way John puts together his gospel suggests this Jesus is much more.  And I think that might be why he puts this little storm story in where he does.     It challenges me to wonder, just who IS this Jesus we say we’re following? 

Let’s first go through the story using our minds….
(Bible) When evening came, the disciples went down to the sea, got in the boat and started out towards Capernaum.  Jesus has gone off by himself to pray—when things go awry Jesus turns to God.  They’re left to their own devices so they do what they know how to do, get in a boat and head home.

It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.  Remember, this is written for people who had been waiting for Jesus’ return to earth ever since he’d left, and they were wondering why he’d not come back the way he’d promised.
The sea became rough because of a strong wind; they rowed about three or four miles.  That’s a lot of hard work.  I wonder if it means that when things go awry, disciples turn to their own efforts and just row all the harder?  Or if it’s an affirmation of the importance of working together to face the hard stuff?
They saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat.  Ah here’s the question - who is this Jesus we say we’re following?  This is someone who can walk on water, who can tame the wild element of what’s known in ancient times as “the deep”, who can trample on the dwelling of monsters that can engulf people with its strength.
This is not just a meek and mild Jesus who feeds us and fixes us and comforts us when we’re hungry or sick or lonely.

This is not Jesus the healer, this is not Jesus the feeder.  This is the Cosmic Christ.  No wonder they were terrified.  They are confronted with something much bigger, more awesome, more powerful than they ever imagined.

And it’s confirmed when Jesus says, It is I, do not be afraid.  Now here’s something interesting.  What the Greek that John writes in actually says is ego eimi.  I am.  

Now throughout the gospel of John there are “I am” statements galore, but always with a noun.  I am the bread of life, I am the door I am the good shepherd and so on.  But here, just “I am”.

Those of you who know something of the Bible will know that in Hebrew that’s the given meaning of the Divine, the unpronounceable name of God, transliterated Yahweh.  No wonder he can walk on water.  John is letting us know that we disciples have chosen to associate ourselves with something much bigger than someone who runs a soup kitchen or offers free health care. 

And that’s not too comfortable for me.   When we are confronted with something of the awesomeness of the divine, it can be scary.  But even then, do not be afraid says Jesus.

And as soon as they realize that it’s the same person, they want to invite him into the boat.  But somehow or other – another miracle – they’re already safe by the shore.

So there’s some of the head stuff about this story.
Now let’s try something a little more meditative—getting out of our heads and into our souls.  Never mind the details of the story, let’s more fully and imaginatively enter the story,  open ourselves to what God might be saying to our souls, not just our minds.

You might want to close your eyes, or look at the image on the screen, but try to put yourself in the same boat as these disciples. 

You know the Jesus who feeds the hungry and cares for the sick. You know he sometimes seems close and sometimes seems to leave you to your own devices.  And you go about your life with questions about what following him really means, sometimes they’re in the forefront of your mind, at other times pushed back in the face of darkness, or the winds and storms of life, when it’s all you can do to keep going forward.

The sea became rough and a strong wind was blowing.  What winds are you rowing against?

Jesus had not yet come to them. Do you sometimes wonder where God got to?  Left you alone to battle life?

They saw Jesus walking on the water and coming near the boat When has Jesus come unexpectedly to you?  In our psalm today we are assured that God is always looking for those who’re looking for God, even in times of despair.   So Jesus comes near.

and they were terrified.   Is there a sense that Jesus coming close to your boat is frightening?    What about this Jesus you follow is scary?  Just what does it mean for your life to know who Jesus beyond the comforting and comfortable?

It is I; do not be afraid.  Jesus tells us that the same Jesus we know and love is also much bigger than we think, but that isn’t cause for fear; rather it is a source of power.  (music)

do not be afraid of the wind or the storm, Jesus comes close.
 do not be afraid of the holy, Jesus comes close, with power
do not be afraid to follow, to invite him into your boat
do not be afraid, the God of the cosmos, is with you.
(song) do not be afraid I am with you

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Christ

"In Christ"
July 15, 2012;  Chris Jewell
New beginnings--Being in and participating in a new environment, being in a new creation. This, according to the apostle Paul and his earliest disciples, including the author of our text this morning— summarizes the Christian message. The author of Ephesians uses the phrase “In Christ” or one of its equivalents 11 times in verses 3-14 of chapter one. “In Christ”, “in him”, “in the heavenly places”, all point to a new beginning, being in a new state of being, being in a new environment, a new creation.
I guess this morning I am feeling very Christian—for I am definitely aware that I am in a new place, in a new environment—the pulpit at Fairport United Methodist Church.Right out of the gate I have to reveal something about myself—although I was raised in a Methodist church by Methodist parents, I am a convert—for my experience of Methodism, of Christianity—is radically different today than it was even a short time ago. That is why Paul and his school of thought interest me—for our great apostle, mystic, and social architect was a convert speaking to other converts.
When Margaret and I first discussed my role in today’s service she sent an email saying “I have penciled you in on the 15th to preach slash, tell your story. And it started to become real—uhoh, preach, tell my story-- Ten years ago in divinity school I didn’t see this happening…after all I was a bit of a loner and an introvert--- (I’m still an introvert) who was also a non-church student who saw himself going on to the classroom not thechurch and certainly not the pulpit. That was the thought—the academic road to the PhD. So I finished up the MA degrees at Colgate and St. Bernard’s and was accepted into a PhD program in San Francisco, a city I had always felt drawn to—and would eventually study in. But the summer before I was to leave for the west coast I noticed something shifting, stirring within myself—In divinity school I had spent most of my time reading, studying, and interpreting stories and letters about other people’s religious experiences—as I read the letters of Paul and his disciples, including Ephesians, it bothered me that I was simply reading about someone else’s experience of Being “in Christ”, not actually having the experience of Being in Christ. This was like the difference between reading a story about being in the TajMahal whilesitting in Starbuck’s in Rochester NY vs actually walking into andbeing in the TajMahal. And so there I was—sitting uncomfortably with the realization that reading about being in Christ was not the same experience as actually being in Christ—I must confess I had not been in the “heavenly places”, or in the Christ that we read about in Ephesians.  Ephesians marks a shift—the blessings in and from the “heavenly places”, the blessings that result from being “in Christ” are spoken of as being experienced in the present---rather than at some future point. Iknew at that time I wasn’tpresently and deeply experiencing the blessings the author of Ephesians wrote about—I was reading about other people experiencing these blessings--Christianity had somehow come across to me as a spectator religion---I knew that both the apocalyptic Judaism out of which Christianity was born and early Christianity itself were not spectator religions—they were transformative practices that actually transformed.So I found myself standing at a crossroads—do I go down the road leading to the PhD or do I explore another way? I deferred my acceptance in San Francisco and opted for a meditation practicum in Boulder Colorado.  Scholars like Marcus Borg and Christopher Rowland had shown me that early Jewish and Christian mystics like Jesus and Paul practiced deep forms of prayer and meditation as a way to access the “Heavenly places”, but I had very few if any opportunities to learn or practice these myself while studying theology, for the emphasis was on the rational, not the contemplative.
In Boulder I found myself meditating several times a day—and at least once a week I would gather with the other participants for a group session. We were a diverse group—men and women with different religious and cultural backgrounds. Women and men who had grown up Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian all gathered together to discuss our meditative technique and experiences. As I sat in and discussed meditation I began to catch snap-shots of the workings of my own mind. Practicing meditative techniques similar to those Jesus and Paul practiced opened up another dimension of Christianity to me. I started to see I was like Jesus’ “rich young man”-- it was my material and my psychological possessions—my ideas, conclusions, prejudices about myself and the world—that built up and kept me in what Paul calls the “old self”—and that prevented me from entering the “new state of being” that is being “in Christ”—I could see that the “new self” that the author of Ephesians writes of transcends those psychological possessions. I also began to suspect that this was what Jesus had in mind when he asked us to “lose our life in order to save it”. There was something remarkable about a group of people all engaged in this practice—we were all together questioning our conclusions about the world—our conclusions and ideas about our identities. There was no more Jew or Greek male nor female, slave nor free. I had experienced moments filled with the “spiritual blessings” that the author of the letter to the Ephesians writes about—for example, the self-transcendent feeling of being a member in “the body of Christ”.
As the course ended I felt as if a transformation had begun—changing how I viewed and what I wanted to do in the field of theology. I felt that practice—and not just meditative practice—was the gap closer—the action that built the bridge between the experience of reading about being in Christ and the experience of actually being in Christ. And out there in the mountains of Colorado I realized that being in Christ felt and lookedvery different than I had imagined—in fact it was strange and somehow separate from the “old” Christianity that I had labeled a spectator religion. Christ and the Heavenly places were shockingly new structures that challenged my old perspective when only experienced briefly from the inside. Having grown up in a religion that had long ago become identified with the dominant culture I could for the first time appreciate Christ as counter-cultural, for this was a Christ that demanded I question and challenge the culture within. This iswhy I deliberately chose to project a picture of the TajMahal—an image that is non-neutral and somewhat challenging to the dominant culture—imagine what the image of a “good Samaritan” did to the first Jews thatsaw it in their mind’s eye. The Jews generally despised Samaritans. Jesus and Paul both consistently question and challenge the dominant cultures of their place and time.
I came back to Rochester with a renewed sense of the importance of both practice and community and soon found myself speaking to a Salvation Army officer. He described for me what he called a “residential church”. It sounded interesting to me—a “residential church”. I told him of my interest in practical theology---putting theological principles and practices to work to see if they can transform lives—in a way similar to twelve-step groups, organizations that have done just that, radically transforming millions of lives for nearly 80 years. He offered me a job—working in a part of town I generally avoided for a variety of reasons. Since I have been a counselor at the Salvation Army I have been enraged, ashamed, puzzled and humbled by the conditions and challenges the people of our community live in and with. I also see men and women participating in a New Reality while seemingly trapped in an old one. That I can certainly relate to. The importance of community, of support, of the “Body of Christ” has never been made clearer to me than at the Salvation Army. In ancient Israel redemption was group redemption—as the Pauline author of Ephesians writes, “In him we have redemption.” That is the message I have received via my religious practice and my time in our community on West Avenue:If one is actually in Christ, actually inthe Heavenly Places then one’s self-centered barriers can come down—and allow for the “we” experience called redemption—even  those of us who are introverted loners.

Monday, July 09, 2012

What do WE need?

What do WE need? 070812
Psalm 48; Mark 6:1-13
Margaret Scott

All parents know their words are not always heeded. Yes? And it affects us, doesn’t it.
Every pastor knows her words are often discounted. And it affects us too.
Each one of US knows there are times when we only hear what we want to hear.  Yes?   It’s called selective deafness in my house.

Jesus found this out when he went home to preach in the town he’d grown up in.  For whatever reason, they didn’t think much of him.

And it affected him.  In fact, it so affected him that his power was diminished.  Remember last week when he felt his power leave his body when the woman touched him?  

This time it was as if his power had nowhere to go, because the cynics changed the atmosphere.   Our attitudes of hearing what God has to say affects everything around us, in church and out.

I don’t know whether what happened next was a direct result of this rejection;  but the writer Mark clearly thinks it is.  “Then” Jesus left there, but he didn’t give up; he kept going--he went elsewhere with his message. And then he does an amazing thing; he adapts his style.

He calls the disciples together and gives THEM the task of doing what he did.  He sends them to engage deliberately with the world they live in, to make an impact wherever they go, everywhere they find themselves. 

He changes from being solo charismatic rabbi to franchise builder.  Genius.  Then when the Pilate crucifies him and thinks he’s cut off the head of the movement, it doesn’t work.  Brilliant strategy that has served well for 2000 years. 

So he sends them out, not singly, but in two’s.   We all know how much easier a task is when its shared with someone who is also trained and empowered for it.

And he sends them out with authority over unclean spirits.

Unclean spirits meant all sorts of things  back then, from sickness to mental illness; stuff that wasn’t  understood was often attributed to the powers of evil.   Today we might think of all the kinds of habits and addictions and behaviors that entrap and bind people, 
demons of memory or hurt that beset us
or spirits of soul that depress us.

He sends them out WITH AUTHORITY over those things.  Jesus empowers them with the same kind of divine energy that he has.  Wow. 
Imagine: We who have the Spirit’s power have something much stronger than evil, much more powerful than the habits and spirits that bind us.

I am reminded of a benediction I received once, and have used here:
God’s goodness is stronger than your badness; God’s power to forgive is larger than your power to sin;  God’s strength is much greater than your weakness.

This is what disciples today, we the church, are empowered with!  Why on earth don’t we tap into it?

I wonder if it’s because Jesus also sends them with clear instructions about what to take and what not to take.  And we’re a bit too attached to all our stuff, or maybe our habits, to take Jesus seriously.

He sends them with power.  With each other.  With a walking stick. With the clothes on their back.   With trust in the divine hospitality that was assumed among God’s people in Galilee, trust that what they need will be provided.  That’s it. That’s all.  That’s enough.

I remember driving behind a giant RV, with bikes attached to the back of it, a loaded roof rack, and  a speedboat pulled behind it; and the bumper sticker on it said “Who says you can’t take it with you!”

Funny, but it’s an image that has stayed with me and haunts me; because I believe it’s a great metaphor for the things and behaviours  I depend on and think I need.

There’s not much space left in this crowded life for the simplicity of the Jesus call.  God provides all we need, often through our own work and the care of others, but we complicate it all with stuff—physical stuff, emotional stuff, harmful habits and destructive relationships.

Jesus sends us without baggage.  He expects us to drop some of our baggage.  That might be a lifetime’s work, or it might be a short term experiment.  Both of these we’ll discover with our summer experiment.  But with less baggage, there’s more room for what we really need….the power and the purpose.

Jesus sends us with power.  With each other.  With some kind of walking stick.  
But Jesus also sends them with purpose.  Preaching, teaching, healing, anointing….all tasks that are extensions of Jesus’ purpose.  All tasks we are called to do, and try to do, here at FUMC, and in our own lives.   Some are called to teaching (psalm tells us to share God with the next generation—plug for SS teachers!)
Some to healing ministries, some encouragement and anointing ministries.  But each of us has a godly purpose to our lives.  We are sent intentionally by Jesus to fulfill it.

Sometimes people will listen, notice them and pay attention to our life and message; sometimes not.  He learned that first hand at Nazareth, so he passes it on to disciples, to us. he says not to perseverate on a failure to make an impact, but to move on.  Do your best and leave the rest to God. 

Remember the psalm?  It used the metaphor of a city to show the complexity and strength of God, who is our guide forever.
We are not sent alone; we are together on the journey.  No more independence (sorry July 4), but we are an interdependent people; God needs us and we need God and we need each other. 

So let’s be sent out from here today,                                                                                 to follow Jesus’ call…                                                                                                      let us draw on God’s power,                                                                                              drop the baggage,                                                                                                          trust in God’s provision,                                                                                                  teach the next generation, and share the good news of God’s love for the world wherever we go.

Let’s be sent.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

What do you need?

What do you need? 070112
Margaret Scott
Psalm 130; Mark 5:24b-34

We turn our eyes and hearts to you God, with all our wants and needs, hopes and fears, worries and wishes.  Give us a word for our lives.  Amen.

So, what do you need?
In the psalm, the need is help out of some kind of despair (out of the depths I cry)—it’s a despair born of the need for forgiveness. We don’t know why.  But the psalmist knows God knows.  And the psalmist knows God’s love and redemption is available, which brings hope.
Turn your eyes upon God who is love, and you are brought out of the depths….you might have to wait, perhaps so you can more fully realize your need, or to understand that what you think you need may not be what your really need….but in God, your need is met. 

With God, the poem says, is great power to redeem…. redeem….it means to restore to right relationship (which may or may not be what I had in mind when I was in the depths!)
Turn your eyes upon God, and your need may be clarified.

In our gospel reading, I bet this woman knew this psalm.   She knew the depths of suffering, she knew despair, and she had waited, how she had waited!  And her waiting wasn’t passive; she had kept turning her eyes this way and that, for the healing and help she needed.   This waiting had made her alert to all the ways God might be working, even in the depths.  So when she heard about Jesus, she was ready to risk.  She’d heard about his power, his steadfast love like the divine love the psalm assured her about.

So she turned her eyes upon Jesus, and slinking quietly in between the jostling crowd, she reached out and touched his clothes.

In the jostling busyness of life, with all the pleas and prayers and needs Jesus must hear, Jesus feels that humble, touching, plea.  In the raging noise of life, Jesus hears the still small voice of hurt.

Every act of faith, every bleeding soul, every quiet desperate plea, gets noticed…..but we have to reach out, and not just assume that without our participation God is a mind-reader.

This woman interrupts the flow of the crowd; she shouldn’t have been out in public where her ‘uncleanness’ could infect someone else;  And she messes up Jesus’ agenda. And I bet Jairus, whose daughter Jesus was on the way to heal, was really ticked.

  But then Jesus really messes things up:                                                              he is willing to be interrupted,                                                                                                          he is attentive to the moment, aware of what’s happening in his own body and soul,                                                                                                    and he is more concerned with relationship than rules

He wants people to understand that faith isn’t about rules and regulations and religion.  It’s about relationship and  restoration – that redemption the psalm talks about.

So he stops.
He puts himself into a relationship with a damaged soul, restores her to relationship with the community, and names her daughter, one who belongs.

I wonder why, as the body of Christ today, we do less?
Perhaps because we really need, we think, our secure boundaries, which protect us from the chaos we think is out there all around us?

But the last two weeks we’ve had sermons on crossing boundaries. And here it is again.  D’ya think God’s trying to tell us something?

Jesus crosses the boundaries we set up to define our safe communities or families or congregations.
Jesus called her daughter, made her one of the Jesus family, now one of us,  and this challenges us to rethink what “we” and “us” really means.

When Jesus does stuff like this it forces us to look at our own rules and phobias about who is in and who is out…who the ‘them’ are that we talk about (actually ‘think’ about, since we’re often too politically correct to actually name “them”)

As long as there are imagined ‘unclean’ folk –
the filthy poor or the stinkin rich,
the immoral liberals or the intolerant conservatives

as long as we can name ‘them’, we can feel secure in who we are.

But Jesus changes all that; she had been left out but now she’s a sign for all time that the JESUS community is different from business as usual, different from the way the larger society operates. (a good moment for a plug for our Practicing the Way of Jesus experiment!)

Those who practice the Jesus way belong to an inclusive community, one that yes is full of pain and suffering, health and wholeness, bleeding souls and busy crowds; a community that has people in the depths and people flying high….but it’s a community where all of them belong, and all are responsible for supporting one another through it all, by a touch, a smile, a word of hope, a gift of time….people who are the body of Christ at work now, as then – people who will stop and listen and spend energy.   THAT’s who we really are called to be.

I read an article this week and the author said this:
I hope the bleeding woman had all the other healed freaks over on a regular basis, because that’s how we remember who we really are. (Nadia Boldt-Weber)