Saturday, January 21, 2012

Who You Follow Changes Everything Including How you Follow

Whenever we hear about the fishermen, perhaps the biggest question always seems to be why? Why do they go? It makes no sense their leaving others who depended upon their skill and strength; who depended on a livelihood. They walk away from houses and from being bosses, becoming uprooted, with little idea what will come next. They go from the known to the unpredictable. It’s a total mind shift.  And really, what would we think if we were out in a boat and on the shore was a man yelling “Follow me”? It’s all a little unsettling. “Follow you- who are you? Where are you going and what do you mean? It’s true Jesus was already in town proclaiming the good news, so maybe they recognized him, but it still seems like a radical thing happened. Yeah, he was a rabbi, people should want to learn from, but students asked the rabbi to follow him. No self-respecting rabbi went fishing for students. Besides, what’s the big hurry? “Follow you, as in NOW? Can’t you see we’re a little busy here?”  Way too many questions to justify their immediate response to follow him. It would have to be something really compelling.

Then I think about what “following” means today. The hippest of people talk about who they follow on Twitter, seeing if others do too. Comparing how many people follow them. The funny thing about following someone on Twitter is that it’s about little random bursts of information followed by periods of time where you’re totally disconnected and free to do whatever else you want. Before all that, in another age, people used to follow shows on TV or before that even, on radio. We’d set aside everything at the appointed time to make sure we caught up with the latest, and couldn’t wait to see our friends and analyze it. When’s the last time that happened about something at church? Anyway, no matter which of these media speaks to you, or some other interest, it’s always about a world divided between followers like us and everyone else. We follow without many questions.  Yet our devoted following of these crazes comes and goes. We can quickly decide to tune out or move on. And you know, even when it’s entertaining or riveting, none of it is really life altering. Yet we put everything on hold and call it important. It’s amazing how we’ll follow and let our lives be shaped by what isn’t life altering.  
How does this shape how we follow Jesus? Is our cultural approach the filter through which we live out our connection to God?  We are more likely to speak about being members of a congregation, than to say we are the followers of Jesus here. We have programs and fellow members we’re connected to. But as things and people come and go we move on. And we can decide on any given day, whether we come and connect, based upon balancing our other options.  Even joining a congregation can seem like a singular event. If we look at today’s gospel from the perspective of our decision making and evaluate why the disciples responded as they did, we stay stuck in our world view. It isn’t really life altering.  It has very little to do with Jesus at all or with what would compel us to walk away and into a different life led by Christ.
Our gospel opens with Jesus telling others to walk away- to repent from the world’s view and to believe in something new- the good news he brings. Then he demonstrates this by choosing people against popular expectation, and telling them to follow. He doesn’t ask if it’s OK today, or if they mind, or if they want to. He compels them not only to walk away from something but to walk into a sudden and new reality. That must have been powerful- An amazing power to stand in the presence of. It must have been enough to answer all of the “why” questions. When we say we believe in this Jesus Christ, and follow, do we grasp that kind of power? Can we sense a presence of “God drawn near” so compelling that whatever thoughts we have about what we’re leaving are eclipsed by who we’re turning to?  In this season of Epiphany this is a revelation of Jesus to contemplate-a revelation of presence and power. The same power that ripped open the heavens and will go on to heal and to redeem. Turning toward and believing in that power and in this God is what we really should be thinking about.
In the face of our world, this kind of following is still radical. And it won’t be enough to respond one day and never think about it again. Truly following where Jesus leads takes more.  It’s not about picking up and putting down being connected to God, or even a church, or picking and choosing whether we think people are in our group or not. If we really follow where Jesus leads this is exactly the life view that gets altered.  We’ll be told to throw the net out wide. When we look at what Christ's net catches, it will be full of life, but will also be heavy and unwieldy and unpredictable. it will get torn and need mending. There will be risks and costs. We won’t always see the fruits of the labor. And there will be days we’ll feel like we’d rather cut bait than keep fishing. But still this is where Jesus is calling. To follow Jesus and to keep following as Jesus leads us to replacing our instinct with God’s vision. To believe and to keep on believing, that the power of God in Christ is bringing forth a new world. To be constantly connected.
Maybe that’s why what Jesus said to them and to us isn’t just “follow me,” it’s more like “stick with me. Don’t let me out of your sight. Focus all your life on me. Because again and again you’ll struggle with turning away from all that would distract you.” It’s the exact opposite of intermittent, random and free to do whatever else you want. To stay focused in this following to which God calls us we must continually journey with Christ in sight. In a total connection that shapes everything else we do. God chooses this connection with us, saying “Follow me-Focus it all on me. It will change you and it will change everything.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Listen and You will See

“Where have you seen God at work here in the last six months?” This was the opening question at our congregation council retreat. “Where have you seen God?” We broke into small groups and people began sharing. As I listened, it was kind of like listening to microwave popcorn. An idea would come forth but then there would be a pause, but little by little it took off with bunches of thoughts and people joining in energetically. Sharing where they’d seen God. Sometimes asking each other if what they were describing was really about God; being told by others how it was. And through them God spoke and we listened. And came to grasp that we’ve seen God: In new faces and new volunteers; in increased Sunday School participation; in our 100th anniversary; in re-energized committees; in increased worship attendance; in a new Prayer Circle group; in a re-vitalized Dove’s Nest program; in the commitment of Council to the work of the church; in God’s abundance that we’ve had the resources to carry out ministry; in a new Facebook page and the fact our Cub Scout pack is back with 17 boys. In the sound of our renovated organ; in our dedicated staff. In our renewed outreach in our neighborhood. And we’ve seen God in our worship and liturgy; in hands working together in our intergenerational event; in the visitation of our members and the chances we’ve had to reconnect. We’ve seen God in the listening and encouragement of change and in a renewed spirit of the people. It’s a pretty inspiring story! Told first in small conversations then gathered into larger ones as we helped each other see God. And I watched as smiles and a spark of light broke forth as people could see an even bigger revelation of God’s presence and work, active in our community. Maybe that’s what ears tingling in Samuel is about. The response really good news brings.

Then I asked the group- if someone told you six months ago, that you would be able to say you have seen all this, on a scale of 1-10 how likely would you have been to say it would look like this? “One” means almost impossible and “ten” means you were absolutely sure. Where would you be? Everyone around the room was a “One.” Six months ago, low expectations- That’s a pretty dark place.

In a very real way this mirrors the sense of darkness at the opening of our lesson from Samuel where “the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions were not widespread.” Where for whatever reasons the ability to see God active or hear God’s voice had evaporated. Maybe it seemed easier to just lie down as the light of hope technically was still flickering but seemed likely to go out soon. Where any connection to the Lord seemed more driven by going through the motions than inspiration. It’s tragic, yet we in the church are sometimes the ones who least expect to see God revealed. And a real direct calling from God? One might wonder if THAT kind of revelation really exists.

We see the world as it is, finding it hard to be amazed, quite sure that nothing new or good can come. Yet one writer suggests this behavior is rooted in our way of being, not God’s. We become hard of hearing, hard of heart, believing that the word of the Lord is rare, and expecting nothing new. Not because the Lord has withdrawn from us, but because we can convince ourselves that we hear nothing and see nothing. It’s all too easy to get to such a place. Once we settle in there, though, to get back from it takes divine intervention.

In our midst God has been doing just that. And the greater things we will see are about grasping that our expectations will and must be surpassed by a greater vision.

Bernard of Clairvaux noted that “if you wish to see, listen. Listening is a step toward vision.” When we let our collective chatter prevail, we never really give space for God to speak or for our perception to be altered. Our council retreat provided that space for us, like for Samuel, a time when we stopped our daily routine, and could say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And through the words of those gathered even those who not so long ago couldn’t expect it, God spoke.

As we listened to each other, little by little we connected the stories and had an epiphany. Not only had God been at work in all of these moments, God had been at work in our hearts. As we shared we saw that hearts had moved, and then moved a little more. It is a thing to be amazed by, our seeing leading to insight and our listening leading to discernment of a greater vision. New possibility opened up because God had brought us together and was revealed to us together.

Yet as powerful as all the events we highlighted were, more powerful was the realization it happened not by our works. The one thing, the only thing that had brought this forth in us was the One whose hand called and gathered us that we might be enlightened: Jesus the Christ. Out of Christ’s work a new vision and connection to God have been made known. By God alone, hope and light have been revealed. And the lamp really isn't going out after all. It took being together for this revelation to develop. These stories were not about a private revelation. It took setting time aside, being together and listening to God in others. In greater and greater circles this vision emerged. In community, and centered in Christ. This is how God creates us to be, how God speaks and how God works. And this is the vision we serve, a vision not only about the “leaders” but all of us. God has called and gathered all of us to enlighten us, to hear of marvelous things and of the God who has brought them into being. And our expectations will continue to be surpassed, when we come together here, to be energized by the power of what God is doing here and to tell others: Come and see! Listen to God’s story in our lives! This is the vision that will shape our mission and ministry as God’s servants. A vision we believe is inspired because God is with us, a vision of light and hope speaking now. Listen…

Saturday, January 7, 2012

But what if we did?

"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…"- Howard Thurman

The writer of those words could also be speaking about what the work of baptism begins- what God does and brings forth in us. When I first read those words I chose to state them in a calming and peaceful way, but if we’re really serious about the power and meaning of God in our world, the Gospel of Mark would tell us it should be anything but calming. Because the heavens have been ripped open and they can’t be put back together as if it never happened.

Being lost, feeling broken, being hungry or imprisoned or torn apart by war and conflict- these are wild places. Places where we try to return from but we’re sure we’ll never be quite the same. Someone once pointed out that you can try to sew ripped fabric back up but you can always tell. It can’t be the same. That seems like bad news but today we hear in the baptism of Jesus- that things can’t be the same but through God’s power, things will be better. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ story and the power to make this so. Because the heavens have been ripped open and God is on the loose!

Today we not only commemorate the Baptism of our Lord, we’re celebrating the baptisms of Brandon and Ryan. Brandon is a baby and like most of us will not remember God’s work this day. Ryan, however is 8 and will be able to remember the moment he was baptized and tell about it. And for each of us every baptism is a chance to hear again and contemplate God’s words and promises. Powerful stuff. For an 8 yr old boy, conveniently our gospel lesson is from the Gospel of Mark. I say that because of the four gospels, Mark is the ‘action figure” version of the story of Jesus. Everything is BIG and things happen IMMEDIATELY and things get RIPPED APART AND THROWN AROUND and lots of other really great action words. The story explodes open, starting with Jesus’ baptism- the sky is ripped apart and the Holy Spirit comes down and possesses Jesus and God speaks. John the Baptist had said something big was coming and here it is! Cosmic power happening!

So we really should read those words about the lost and broken and people in need believing in that kind of power and believing that God is powerfully reclaiming all of the wilderness places.

It's not calm and domesticated, it’s disruptive! God’s moving into all the wild places, but God isn’t coming in Jesus and through the Spirit to just smooth it over and play nice. God is bringing spirit warfare. Ripping apart the things that have created separation, calling us back and calling us closer and calling us by name. And at the same time God is putting all the forces of evil on notice. Good news! Powerful stuff.

Jesus’ baptism confirms who he is and confirms the power that he has. Words not only for those who long for a savior. They are words to tell those who most fear one- that the game is on. And once the Holy Spirit possesses Jesus, the very next thing that will happen is that same Spirit will drive Jesus into the heart of the wild places to begin the work of bringing God’s will into being.

After this every other time we hear about spirits in Mark, it will be Spirit-possessed Jesus casting out and overpowering evil spirits, unclean spirits, demon spirits possessing others. Bringing life out of death. In events that are wild and disruptive. We too receive this Spirit in baptism.

I’m not sure we think of our baptism in this way. But what if we did?

Today we not only baptize two children, we're installing our congregation council members for the year. People who have responded to God’s calling, to living out of their baptism by serving as leaders of the ministry and mission we hope to carry out here. Work done for the sake of the good news we are hearing this day. To continue God’s work of claiming and restoring and calling people out of wild places and into life in Christ. Finding, bringing, healing, rebuilding, feeding and freeing.

Engaging in disruptive Spirit warfare for the sake of the gospel.
I’m not sure any of them really had that in mind when they agreed to serve as church leaders- disruptive Spirit warfare for the sake of the gospel? But what if we did?

All around us, there are wild places and rips and tears that need to be mended. When these are our places, we hear the God’s words as healing and comfort- "you are mine, you are my beloved." But we too are then driven and possessed by the Spirit and confronted by the rest of the world- and all those other wild places and torn apart people. To live as those empowered and possessed by the Spirit as followers of Christ.

The meaning of our baptism is a death to what causes separation, and a life where we're given a new identity and a new power- marked with the cross of Christ forever. As we each hear this, we know we are personal to God. Yet we’re also a people of God through this baptism. We’re not blessed, claimed and empowered to go off and do independent projects and just smooth it over and play nice in the midst of a hurting world. But to be a people of God who proclaim the new reality ushered in by Jesus is still breaking forth.

This may seem too wild and disruptive and frankly impossible. Indeed, there’s one final time in the Gospel of Mark when the word spirit appears- it’s when Jesus tells the disciples that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. But here’s where we can recall that where the Spirit sent Jesus, he is tended to and cared for as he tends to and cares for creation. As he brings restoration and new life to the wild places. We are promised this same Spirit that is willing and that brings power to respond. To we who are too small and too weak on our own to respond, God calls us to entrust our weakness to God's cosmic power.

What if we lived as those who believed God really is as powerful as we say?

Just think how powerful a force that would be in our world.

What if we responded to our Lord and our baptism in this way?
What if we did?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Surely Goodness and Mercy

Another whirlwind over the next couple of days and as happens more often than not big theological stuff gathers in piles as I prepare to baptize a baby and an eight year old, install our council members and lead a retreat to help us begin to shape and discern for our first full year together in ministry, and then the next day proclaim resurrection victory with the family of a spry 97 year old woman who until recently was a real spitfire by all accounts. If I only I had met her, but as it is I will stand at the graveside of a third woman whose life will remind me here was another great story I just missed.
She was born in 1915, and would go on to meet the world with determination and a sense of wonder and adventure who was a loving teacher immersing herself in history, nature, and travel. Immersing myself in the time in which she was born, it made me smile to see that someone who was so invested in Girl Scouting was born in the year Girl Scouts was founded. A woman with a zest for travel who was one of the earliest travelers to China, was born in the year of the Worlds Fair in San Francisco and the Pacific Exposition was all the rage. A woman who embraced new ideas and would not be held back, born the year another daring woman, Eleanora Sears was the first female equestrienne to ride astride and NOT sidesaddle at the National Horse Show.
The day after we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, in a no holds barred account of Jesus' ministry being unleashed by the power of the Spirit in the Gospel of Mark, I cannot help but envision Dorothy as a woman who fully charged forth to encounter God's world, and to live out her identity as a child of God in the fullest, not only for herself but for the sake of so many to whom she both taught and lived her faith.
When I asked if there were any particular passages of Scripture with which she was most connected, I was not told a passage to use, but a passage to NOT use. This piqued my curiosity- DO NOT USE PSALM 23 I was told!
But then I learned the back story- that a young girl in the 1920's and 1930's saw executions of criminals in the time of our history when such events were public spectacles. And Psalm 23 was always spoken at such times. In the face of executions she simply could not hear these words because how they were connected to imposed deaths.
I can't help but wonder whether God might not feel the same way.
But at the same time if ever there was a person who truly embodied a belief that God is always there to lead and guide us, who was determined to live in faith of the words "surely goodness and mercy" really following us each day, and seeking to share goodness and mercy and rejoicing at an overflowing cup of life, it was Dorothy. Now we miss her here but she has fully discovered that surely goodness and mercy is true and the rest of the promise is true as well- that the final destination on an incredible journey is that we dwell with God forever. Thanks be to God!