Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What DOES It Mean?

Mark 8:27-28
As an art major in college I remember writing one paper on the Italian sculptor, Luca Della Robia.  That was it!  There might have been one or two more papers but, for the most part all of my exams were paintings, projects, or throwing pottery projects on the potter’s wheel.  So when I entered seminary twenty years later it came as a shock to me that I had to write paper after paper after paper complete with footnotes that were precise according to Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Writing’.  It was ok after I got the hang of it, and I did quite well.

But for this one professor it wasn’t the style of writing that mattered, it was much more so the content.  Good thing this was early in my seminary training because it served me well.  In one of her papers I used a ‘canned’ phrase that she reamed me on.  That phrase was ‘Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’.  “What”, she said emphatically, “do you mean by this? You won’t make it very far in seminary if you don’t learn to reflect in more profound ways, articulate more clearly, and formulate a deeper understanding of just who this Jesus is that you profess to follow.”  Yeah! and so I did.  Understanding Jesus can be a highly complex issue if you are pushed to think about it.

Today’s scripture is one in which Jesus poses a serious question to Peter.  ‘Who do you say that I am?’ That Jesus!  Just like my professor he was pushing Peter to dig deeper.  From the 8th chapter of Mark:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus is well into his ministry here in the Gospel of Mark, he has told lots of parables and has healed many sick people.  The Gospel has dropped hints about his identity all along the way and it has also given us some idea of the reputation that Jesus was building for himself and for some like Herod, we know, it doesn’t sit well.   So it is quite remarkable that this particular kind of confession of Jesus as Messiah, by Peter, is the first of its kind in this Gospel.  

Jesus is now back in his own familiar land, not in Gentile territory but in the Northern Galilee in a town called Caesarea Philippi on the coast.  Roman influence is great.  Having to travel by foot, or perhaps riding a donkey took time, we see that Jesus uses his travel time wisely as he and his disciples traverse the hilly countryside of the Galil.  There’s lots of time for talk.

He asks them, hmmm, just “Who do people say that I am?”  It looks like he knows that people are talking about him to his disciples.  Often that’s the case, right?  It’s easier to talk with someone else about a particular person’s issue rather than openly and directly to that person’s face.  Jesus was right. “Well”, the disciples say, ‘some call you John the Baptist, some say Elijah the prophet” who is to usher in the messianic age according to Jewish understanding’.  Jesus pondered this as they walked further and then he asks more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”  After all, they are his hand-chosen inner circle who dropped their fishing nets and left their families to be with him 24-7.
Peter, quick with an answer Peter, says boldly, “You Jesus, are the Messiah!  The Christ!  The Anointed One!’  Honestly, I don’t think he had even one clue of what he said and just what Jesus as the Messiah really meant, like I did that first year in seminary.  At least he had an answer though which was the correct answer.
And they continue walking.  Jesus delves more deeply into the coming events of his life.  He relays to the disciples his suffering and subsequent rejection by the chief priests and elders.  He talks openly about his death and his resurrection. 

But Peter, quick with an answer Peter, really didn’t want to hear any or all of this… ‘TMI’ as they say, too much information.  He scolds Jesus.  But turnaround is fair play, particularly with Jesus.  Jesus scolds Peter and one ups him, get back Satan!

Then Jesus gets down to the nitty-gritty of discipleship or following him.  You want to follow me?  Jesus asks.  Deny yourself, rather get out of your own way.    You really want to follow me?  Jesus asks.  Then take up your cross, pick up the instrument, whatever that instrument is, that can ultimately kill you, which will bring about your death, embrace it then follow me.  Embracing death will ultimately bring about the true nature of life, your life and you only have one. 

For Peter, death is the question.  For Jesus, death is the answer.  We, as a congregation have embarked on a quest.  A quest for redevelopment, a quest for examination of who we are as God’s beloved, and who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.  It is also about who we want to be as Christ followers in the future. You have taken the first step.

But this process takes a whole lot of soul searching and serious deep reflection by each and every member and each one of the redevelopment teams.  It’s not about change for change sake.  We change channels, we change clothes, we change the light bulb when it goes out.  So what we are talking about is just not mere change.  Let me reassure you about that. That would be benign with empty theological premise. 

It is about discernment of God’s spirit working deep within us.  It’s thinking about and prayerful discussion where is God endeavoring to lead us?  It’s about asking the question, ‘who do we think Jesus is, where in the world is he leading us; how can we be disciples of Christ’?

It’s not about growing the church for the sake of adding members or increasing the budget. If you think it is you are mistaken, if that’s what you think it is about, you are barking up the wrong tree.  It is about answering the question, who is Jesus, who you individually and – we together, think he is, what he stands for and how he makes a difference in the life of this congregation. How he makes a difference in the life of this congregation is how we will make a difference in the community of Orange and beyond. 

The redevelopment teams have been hard at work over the summer wrestling with this very question.  Who do you think Jesus is and what does it mean to be his disciple.  I encourage you to not use ‘canned answers’; to not shy away from them because it seems a bit too evangelical.  It’s a starting point.   

Who is Jesus for you?  It is this Jesus who sets us apart from Jews, Muslims, Jain’s and others.  It is Jesus in whom we take our que. What then does it mean to follow in his footsteps? Following his footsteps, his life give us a vantage point that is so different than others.  That is what set’s us apart from social services or community attempts to do good and answer the call to humanitarian efforts.

The Faith Formation Team has been diligent in wrestling with this question.  They found out that the term ‘being a disciple’ holds a unique definition for each one of them. So canned phrases can either be void of meaning, or filled to capacity with wildly diverse meaning.  But this is a question that needs to be answered before we set our course for the future.  Several people are hard at work with this.  I encourage you to become involved with this important work too. 

At the end of this month the team leaders from the redevelopment teams will be meeting to discuss just this and to assess the work thus far.  You will be apprized of the work through an after church discussion and Orange Peal reports.  I promise you.  

So who is Jesus for me?  He was the one I turned to for solace when I heard of Margaret Wright’s death.  He is the one who’s life work I look at as to how I should act or react to humanitarian crisis and intervention.  His death and resurrection is the one that I embrace when I, too need to be reminded that light always breaks forth from the dark, that joy comes in the morning. 

How about you?


It Can't Hurt

James 5: 13-20
So often when I was doing on-call chaplaincy work I would make rounds to all of the patients who were scheduled for surgery the following day.  Some of the religious patients welcomed my visit and practically prayed for me rather than me leading the prayer.  There were moderates who gently received prayer and welcomed the opportunity.  Then there were others. 

Some of those others were more like us in that, ‘prayer is great, but for me, it’s a private thing or I’ve got my own connection up there.’  So ok, fine I’d tell them and wish them healing blessings.

Then there were the other-others who proclaimed they weren’t religious, but sure, if I wanted to sit and chat they wouldn’t mind.  Well a ‘chat with the chaplain’ is never just a chat.  Eventually I’d get down to doing a reality check with them.  Do you have any fears, what do you hope will change after surgery, what or who makes meaning in your life? 

After a while they would built up trust in me so before I was ready to leave I’d take my chances and ask them if they’d like a prayer.  ‘Well, sure, they’d say, it can’t hurt.”  I would pray.  And often somewhere between ‘O healing God’ and ‘Amen’, they would well up with tears.  Men and women alike. 

And they were right.  Prayer can’t hurt.  As it has been said, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole. 

Our scripture for today is from the Epistle of James from the 5th chapter.  The entire epistle reads like a short little ‘go to’ book on how God’s people should live and treat others.  Reading from Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’, faith means action to James,  

Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t—not a drop for three and a half years. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.

My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.  Amen.

While in the days of dear old James it was commonly assumed that sickness was in some way a punishment for your sins, we know better now.  Sin does not cause sickness.  It does not cause cancer or mental illness nor any other medical maladies.  Sin is the separation of a human being from the divine provenance of God.   Although sin could cause one to be alienated from her community, just like illness can separate us from the ones we love they are vastly different yet, at the same time similar.  

Illness, we know, can isolate and separate a person physically.  Sin can isolate a person socially.  And both can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety, self-doubt and vulnerability to set in so both are in need of prayer and this is how we can understand the words of James.

It’s pretty clear in this passage.  We are to pray for one another.  When one is hurt, sick, or feeling on top of the world, we are to hold fast that person in prayer.   When one has erred in his or her ways we need to hold that person in our personal and corporate prayers.  When someone in our faith community has not been here for awhile we are to pray for them.  Yeah.  It’s hard sometimes.  How often have you said, I’ll pray for you and then forget all about that person?  Not because you didn’t mean it but because  it just happens, you get busy with life.  Yet prayer is foundational to our life together.    

Prayer is to be a common practice among us churchy folk to confess our brokenness and pray for each other so that together we may be healed in the various ways in which healing is needed. Maybe that is why James gives us concrete things to pray for and things to do, some courses of action for a gathered community of faith to engage in.

And we are off to a good start!  At the beginning of the service we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us (the Lord’s Prayer) as a way in which our voices are one, acknowledging our common humanity and our universal needs.  And then our needs are made known as we join our hearts together in the pastoral prayer, giving thanks to God and then lifting one another up in need, acknowledging our joys and our concerns. 

Saying and reading aloud the names give us an opportunity to recognize those friends and family who are dear to us as individuals and to us as a community.  The pastoral prayer might seem like it is a laundry list of names, but it is not.  Each name that you hear is beloved to someone and for that very reason that name becomes beloved to us all.  That is compassion at it’s best.  We can know that when a name is read God is standing near to us and listening to our supplications. 

These are two prayers that are concrete acts of our life together.  But there is more.  Each Wednesday a group of about twenty people receive a list of names and concerns to hold in prayer.  Some of the names are what you hear on Sunday mornings and some of the names are not.  It’s called the prayer line and they maintain the practice of prayer weekly.  Might you be involved?

And now there is the redevelopment prayer group of five individuals who hold this church and its congregants in prayer during this special time of transition and redevelopment.  They are another manifestation of the power of prayer.  Here’s a radical idea.  What if, just what if at 11:00 am each day you pause to thank God for this awesome community of believers?  It needn’t be more than a ‘thank you God’ or a recognition of gratitude at 11:00 am.  We, as a community of 620 members could make a difference.   

We pray collectively and individually.  Prayer is not for the faint of heart.  We don’t always ‘get what we ask for’ as if asking is all there is to prayer. You might be disappointed if prayer is the vehicle for you to petition God for the particularities in your life. There have been a couple of things that I have been praying for throughout my life and I’m sorry to say it just hasn’t materialized.  Does it make me question the efficacy of prayer?  It does if I hold fast the idea that God is the dispensary of my every want in life.  Does it shake my faith when prayers go unansered?  Absolutely not!   I know that if am consistent and persevere the mere voicing of my needs helps me to acknowledge the pain and loss in my life.  It helps me to give voice to that which burdens me and brings me way low.  And giving voice to hurt is the beginning of healing and wholeness.  It also moves me to recast my vision and genuinely see the countless blessings in my life.

Prayer is so much more than asking God for things.  Prayer is a way to be close to God, to open your heart before the divine one with your needs and then to wait in silent expectation for the peace that prayer provides for us, the knowing that God is with us in all circumstances, of joy, happiness, pain, sorrow, and suffering.  God is there.

I am convinced that God doesn’t need our prayers.  We are the ones who are in need of praying.  God is omniscient, God is all knowing therefore our needs, our wants and desires are already known to our beloved God.  We are the ones who are ‘standing in the need of prayer’ as the gospel hymn proclaims.   

I encourage you to pray.  To pray always, and to pray in all ways.  Because you need it.  It is cleansing for your soul.  As you know I was in Colorado this past week on vacation.  Whether it was serendipitous or providence I was able to attend a Yom Kippur service at the Denver Botanic Garden.  There is a beautiful line in the Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing that says: "Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing."  Even in the face of adversity we pray that there is a blessing in it and we ask God to show us the way.  Prayer is a blessing.  Your life is a blessing.  Let your life be your prayer and in doing so be blessed.

And let us say, Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Carrying Vessels

John 4: 1-42
It was in July of 2008 that I went with seven other people on a tour of Nablus in the West Bank.  Nablus, or Shechem, is a city in the West Bank, approximately 39 miles north from Jerusalem. It's an old, old city founded in 72 CE by Vespasian but before that the area would have been called Samaria.

We walked through the narrow stone corridors of the city and into the larger squares of this metropolis of about 140,000 people.  We passed men smoking nargilla pipes, rug merchants with their wares in folded stacks and fresh vegetable stands.  The women, dressed in their hijab’s or burka’s, hurried past scantily clad female mannequins.  That always made me wonder…who knows what goes on behind closed doors when the burka’s come off. 

We visited one of the oldest olive oil soap factories and a spice and Arabic coffee shop where we were treated to a hospitality cup of coffee before the expected price haggling began.  We took another coffee break at a Turkish bath but of course it wasn’t Thursday so women weren’t allowed to partake.  It’s unusual to see non-Palestinians in this troubled city where the population is predominately Muslim however there are some Christians and about 750 Samaritans still living there.

While the history of the city is quite interesting and varied I'm not going to go too much in it here. Biblically speaking, this is the place where Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well.   

We eventually made our way to a crypt of a modern and brightly lit Greek Orthodox Church name the Church of St. Photina. In the crypt is a well which is considered the most authentic sight of Jacob’s well since it is more than 40 meters or 131 feet deep and who can possibly move a well that deep?? 

It was from the blistering July middle eastern sun that we took sanctuary in the church and went to the well.  We were each given a cool drink from that very well that never tasted so good. I came away refreshed from the well that had, for so many years, refreshed others.  I also came away this little tchotchke. 

This tiny replica of a water-jar that might have been like the woman of Samaria had carried that day to the well and left there, has been an enduring memory for me and a reminder of this beloved Biblical story.  For surely I came to the Holy Land that year with a metaphorical vessel that carried so much that I needed to work through and when I left I no longer needed that vessel.  I needed, and was given living water to sustain me these many years since.

We are finishing our seven-week series on the ‘Genius or Way of Jesus’.  We have studied Jesus as encourager, balancer of power, resister of violence, seer of soul, ever present and today as refresher of souls.  From all of this we see that the character of Jesus is complicated and has many facets all of which are available to us for our soul’s nourishment.
Today we have a very long text.  It’s one that we have examined together in the past but today we will look at it through a different lens.  It is a beautiful text of restoration, witness and hope. Referred to often just as ‘The Samaritan Women at the Well’, it pours out redemption and love.   I’m going to start at verse 1 because it sets up why Jesus happened to wonder off the path and wind up in foreign territory and why this story is so important to the character of Jesus Christ.  I’ll also be stopping with some explanation along the way to break up the reading.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

It’s notable that he stopped in Sychar or Shechem because Sychar was a Samaritan village and a Jew wouldn’t have been caught dead in Samaritan territory and especially in the middle of a hot day making a stop.  There was a long-standing hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans because of their differences in cultic and religious understanding and practice.  It would have been dangerous for Jesus to expose himself like that.  But he does and in doing so he meets an unlikely character.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

This woman comes to Jesus in broad daylight which would have gotten her in trouble, she was an outsider on several levels. But this woman has chutzpah!  She challenges Jesus to a theological debate and ultimately his authority, she is not passive by any means yet she recognizes her limitations.  Jesus lets go of ancient social barriers that enforced human division in his day and speaks to her.

She comes to the well with her water vessel.  What’s interesting to note is that Jesus comes to the well unprepared, he has no bucket, how was he supposed to get a drink? But of course well water wasn’t what it was about.  This is one of the longest conversations that Jesus has that is recorded in the New Testament. And we see that the story hasn’t ended yet.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

It is here that his divine nature is revealed; she knows he is a prophet with the things he has told her about herself, her former marriages, and her current situation.  And we also see their differences- that her ancestors worshipped on Mt Gerizim in Samaria and Jesus ancestor’s worshipped on the mount in Jerusalem but those Jesus says, who worship the true God will neither worship on Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem but in true spirit and energy because God is spirit, and God is love.  She becomes a believer that blistering midday at the well.  Living water and spirit.  But then this divine aha moment however is interrupted…. 

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him….

…Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The disciples witnessed Jesus meeting her in her most vulnerable state and offering her acceptance, forgiveness and clean, refreshing, rehydrating, life giving and life informing water to drink.  She no longer needed her vessel, she no longer needed to carry the extra weight that she carried to the well.  She was filled from within.

Let us think about the vessel, the water jar, the bucket or gourd or animal skins that the woman brought to the well with her that day to fill.  She did have, as they say, a lot of issues but who are we to judge?  I speak for myself, I’ve got some issues too and I’m guessing you do as well.  

That year I went to Israel to live was a year in which I needed to sort out a few things about my life.  Did I really need to go to Israel?  Apparently I did.  The point is I took my empty vessel hoping that it would be filled.  And I was overflowing when it was time to come back.  Just not in the way that I thought.

We all have this life that we have been given.  At times it is filled to the brim and that’s when you are happy, content, and you are loving those around you and your life.  You are in sync God and all is really good.  You feel as if you are on top of the world.

And, at other times, not so much.  Your life is void and anything that brings you some sense of balance is absent.  God seems distant and unobtainable.  It’s at those times that your vessel is bone dry.  It’s at times like these that we can remember the woman at the well.  Bone dry and desperate she was met by the living Christ because she was open to a new reality, because he showed up when she needed him, because she let go of the heavy vessel.

All we have to do is show up and we too will be met and be filled with the living water of Christ.  The well of God’s love is deep, and God’s love and forgiveness for you is even deeper.