"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Call to Mercy, A Call to Life

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Since I was a member of the diocesan Commission on Ministry for the past seven years, I have talked and heard a lot about “call.” At first glance, our call stories seem to follow Jonah’s pattern. God singles us out and calls us to perform some task—to preach or to teach, to serve the poor or to comfort the sick. It can be a job to which we are powerfully drawn, yet it is almost always a job that will turn our lives upside down in scary ways. We might have to move, or give away money, or social standing, or possessions. Often, we run from this call, like Jonah, getting as far away from God’s annoying voice as we can. Of course, since no one can run from God, we eventually end up over our heads in some tumultuous sea, or cooling our heels in the noxious belly of a metaphorical fish somewhere, tossing and turning until we figure out that we had better obey the voice. Call—Refusal—Flight—Repentance—Submission. That’s the pattern that comes through the clergy narratives that I used to hear, over and over again.
Not surprisingly, that’s also the pattern that we preach to you guys in the pews: “Don’t you hear God’s voice nudging you to give of your many gifts? There’s a job out here in the church or in the world that God wants you to do. You can’t run from it; eventually it will catch up with you.” With this understanding of call so ingrained in our minds, we often don’t know what to do with Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John in today’s Gospel. “Wow,” we marvel. “Look at those faith-filled disciples. They don’t run from God’s call like I do. They don’t even have to think about it. They hear Jesus’ invitation, and immediately they give up their jobs and their families and take off with him. I could never do that. I’m much more like Jonah.”
That’s what I thought, too, when I first started reflecting on this week’s Gospel. “Did I ever make a huge life-change without running away first?” I wondered. And then it hit me. Yes, I did! And it wasn’t my call to ordination! Yes, once I was just like those disciples, throwing down their nets and hitting the road with Jesus. You see, when I was 21 years old, I went to France to live for a year at a French Protestant seminary. I was just supposed to stay and do some research in church history—just for the school year--before coming back home and going to grad school. But one day, after I had been there about 5 months, I was walking back to the seminary from town, and I suddenly decided to stay.
          The story that I usually tell people is that I fell in love with my New Testament professor. I got engaged. That’s why I stayed. It makes for a dramatically romantic and even shocking story, but that’s not really all that happened. After all, my fiancĂ© could have come back with me to the US. What happened was that I had entered into a new world in France, a world that I wanted to make my own. I had lived for 21 years in a very narrow world, a safe world, but a sad and confining one. It was all about pleasing other people, following the rules, working, doing what was expected. Suddenly, across the ocean in France, I found freedom: the freedom of expressing myself in a new language, the freedom to be remade from the inside out in a new culture. I found love, but I also found community—the close-knit community of the French Reformed Church. In the seminary dorm, I found friendship with men and women from countries all over the world, and I learned for the first time how God was working in those countries for justice, how the church was working in those countries to fight poverty and disease. I wanted to be a part of that world of limitless horizons and goodness: that world of freedom, love, and transformation. It’s hard to describe how I changed. Almost overnight, my life in the United States didn’t matter anymore. My family and friends, my old career aspirations …. None of it mattered. I had glimpsed something better. Something that I knew I had to join, or wither and die.
          That world of new horizons, I believe, is what Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John saw in Jesus of Nazareth. They didn’t hear a call to do some difficult and annoying task. They caught a glimpse of God in Jesus’ eyes. They saw the immediacy of God’s reign of love and freedom and transformation in Jesus’ words and deeds. And nothing was going to keep them from holding on to what they saw. They saw the old oppressive world of fishing to provide food for Roman tables, as the emptiness that it was. They didn’t join Jesus to become brave and successful Fishers for People. They entered into Jesus’ world simply because they found life and joy there, and, stepping over the threshold into God’s Kingdom, their lives and their work were transformed.
          Was it easier for the disciples, perhaps, to recognize the Good News in the physical person of Jesus Christ than it is for us 21st-century people, dependent on Scripture and the Holy Spirit? I’m not so sure. What I do know is that, as Christ’s Body in the world, the Church is supposed to be the community that calls us all into God’s amazing new life. The Church is supposed to be the place of life, love, mercy, and joy so wonderful that frightened 21-year-olds, hope-starved workers, jaded elders, and thirsty, starving travelers of all kinds will want the joy and love that we have. They will want it so badly that they will put their burdens down and join us.  Our “call” is not something that God is mainly offering to people who want to be ordained. Our call is whispered into the ears of each one of us at our baptism, as we—often nothing more than helpless little babies—are drawn across the threshold of a new world and made into fishers of people. So often, people fall in love with God through the Church and think that means that they have to be ordained in order to live in the world that they desire. But that world is meant for all of us—old and young, rich and poor, saint and sinner—no exceptions. You don’t have to be a bishop, a priest, or a deacon to give yourself to living the Good News of Jesus Christ.
At our best, then, we as the Church are the place in which the world can see God’s mercy and love. When it comes down to it, this is the true message of the Book of Jonah. Jonah isn’t really a call story at all. It’s a story about God’s love and mercy. Jonah’s problem is not that he doesn’t want to give up his comfy everyday life to go to Nineveh. Jonah’s problem is that he hates the Ninevites. They are the evil arch-enemies of his people. They want to slaughter his friends and family. He doesn’t think that they are worthy of God’s—or his—attention. When God uses Jonah’s begrudging prophetic words—the short sentence that we hear today in our reading—to turn the people around and completely forgive the whole nation, Jonah is furious with God!  “This is exactly why I ran away!” Jonah fumes. “Please just kill me God!” he rants. “If this is the way of things, it is better for me to die than to live.”
“Would you rather die judging and hating?” Jonah’s author asks us, “or live out of God’s love and mercy?”  I saw the movie “Selma” last week, and during the movie, I loved to hate then-Alabama governor George Wallace and his minions who responded with such hardness and cruelty to King’s message of love and justice. “Boo…” I jeered to myself whenever they appeared on the screen. At the end of the movie, the writers included a little blurb about what happened to each of the characters after the events in Selma. For George Wallace, they pointed out that he was later shot in an assassination attempt and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. “Ha--serves him right,” I thought to myself. Later, my friend told me that the writers had left out one important fact. Wallace, like the Ninevites, had repented. He had repented of his cruel and self-serving racism. After he was shot, he experienced a religious conversion. He asked forgiveness of God and of Martin Luther King, Jr’s family. Both forgave him, and Wallace changed his ways.[1] It’s too bad that the movie producers ran from an emphasis on mercy and repentance at the end of their movie.
Would you have forgiven Wallace, if you were King’s widow? Can you take the hand of someone who recently humiliated you, if it is offered at the Peace? Can you help the mean kid with her homework, the same mean kid whose bullying ways got you in trouble last week when you tried to defend your friend? Can you forgive the Patriots for “deflategate,” even though it looks as if they are always getting away with pulling a fast one? Can you pray for the members of Boko Haram with the same love and concern with which you pray for their victims? God’s call to us is not an individual task at which we succeed or fail. It is a joyful response to love and freedom. Each one of us is called, right now and every day of our lives, to choose love and mercy, to choose to live as a community of love and mercy, even over our own sense of fairness. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."[2] That is the challenging and transforming Good News that God offered to Jonah, and that Jesus offers to us.May we run towards its promise.

[1] Larry Provost, “The Redemption of George Wallace,” found at http://townhall.com/columnists/larryprovost/2014/07/11/the-redemption-of-george-wallace-n1860547
[2] John 13:35.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An Episcopalian Reflects on the Creation Museum

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

          Two giant angels clothed in white danced in front of me, as I watched clouds of stars swirl in the empty darkness of space. As the angels moved, my seat shook, and I heard a loud boom like a jet engine. As the waves of the primordial sea crashed all around me, strong jets of cold water squirted into my face, as if they were aimed right at my glasses. Was I dreaming? Caught up in an ecstatic vision of the creation of the universe? No, I was watching an interactive show at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, and I was very unhappy with this baptism into the mysteries of creationism. There was something about this film presentation, with its condescending argument for a literal interpretation of Genesis, that made me feel as if I were being spit upon and purposefully blinded by this water, rather than drawn into the reality of the creation story.
Yes, last Saturday, I accompanied my curious adult children to the Creation Museum. The multimillion dollar museum is the brainchild of “New Earth Creationists.” They believe that the universe was created in six literal days and is only about six thousand years old. They believe that Adam and Eve lived with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, and that dinosaurs accompanied Noah on the Ark. They believe that Charles Darwin and, really, most modern scientists, are deluded at best. Most of all, they believe that holding fast to an unyieldingly literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis is the only way for humans to keep a strong faith in Jesus Christ and to live as true Christians. Their organization is called, “The Answers in Genesis,” and it is indeed in Genesis that they find all of the answers to life’s questions.
I could spend my whole sermon time today mocking the exhibits at the Creation Museum. It would be an easy way to get some laughs, and it would certainly make us feel superior and happy with our own enlightened minds. I am going to try to resist the temptation, however, even if the lectionary did hand the reading from Genesis 1 to me today on a platter.  I don’t think that it hurts me to remember that, with these Christians who built a showpiece to “New Earth Creationism,” I actually do share a love for the creation story. I believe that it can speak to us today. Instead of totally poking fun, we could perhaps try to find some common ground.
First, we both believe that Genesis 1 tells us that God creates order out of chaos. Hear a close Hebrew translation of the first verse of our scriptures: “When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.”[1] We human beings can all relate to chaos and darkness. The ancient Israelites wrote down this account of creation during the chaotic years of the Babylonian exile, after the tumultuous and frightening destruction of their city, of their Temple, and of their whole way of life. “At least the orderly succession of day and night remains the same,” the priestly writers must have thought in their exile. “At least the order of light and dark, winter and summer, land and sea can’t be taken away from us.[2]” Today, too, as we face chaos in our lives and in our world, there is something about the rhythm of the days and the seasons the comforts us. There is something about sitting at the sea shore and watching the waves touch the sand, or counting the rings in the trunks of a tree stump, or tracing the symmetry of a seashell or a butterfly wing, that brings order to our anxious minds.
It is reassuring to trust in the mighty ordering power of God. At the Creation Museum, they too make a big deal about the chaos of the modern world. As visitors walk through dark tunnels filled with grim images of crime, drugs, murder, pornography, abandoned church buildings, and unruly teenagers, signs preach that all of this disorder has come about through the specific abandonment of a literal belief in the story of Creation. For these Christians, the first chapters of Genesis are somehow the firm structure that holds chaos at bay. They cling with all their being to the black and white words on the pages of the Bible.
While I fear chaos as much as anyone, I find my comfort, instead, in God’s ongoing creation. For me, Creation was not something that God did once 6000 years ago in the short span of six days. What is important to me is that God continues to order and sustain creation, even now. God continues to send God’s strong, ordering Spirit into our chaotic world. Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel, we see God’s Spirit come down to earth again at Jesus’ baptism. Mark is deliberately echoing Genesis when he describes Jesus going down into the dark, chaotic waters of the Jordan and emerging into the order of the light of day. In Jesus’ baptism, God’s loving and creating Spirit also swoops back down to earth from the heavens. I was interested to learn that the “tear” in the heavens that Mark describes is not, in Greek, a dove-sized door of some kind that will close up again as soon as the baptism is over. The Greek word refers to an opening that will keep heaven and earth in permanent communion.[3] In Jesus, God begins God’s “new creation:” A creation in which God has permanently joined heaven and earth. Our Christian struggle is not to fight reason and scientific discovery in order to remain true to an ancient story. Our Christian struggle is rather to fight our own despair and apathy in order to keep alive the promise of our Christian hope:  hope that the continued ordering power of God’s justice will one day put an end to all of the disorder in our world.
Secondly, the Creationists and I would agree about the importance of God's Word. In the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors, the world comes into being through warfare among the gods. The Babylonian creation story, for example, describes how the goddess Tiamat is brutally slaughtered by her rebellious children in the process of creating the world.  The Hebrew Scriptures, in contrast, tell us that God peacefully speaks the world into being. Made in God’s image, we human beings create with language, too. We give birth to beauty and wisdom with our words. And yet we create hurt and destruction, as well. I couldn’t help but think about the recent terror attacks in France as I reflected on the power of language this week. Human fundamentalists of all kinds will fight to the death to defend the holiness of divine words on the pages of a book. Other human beings can throw sharp words around like knives, with careless and hurtful abandon. Our God, however, creates and preserves not with violence, but through the deliberate use of the rational structure of language. In Genesis and again at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks, and that loving speech transforms. Today, God speaks through and in us. When the twelve new Christians were baptized in Ephesus, our reading from Acts tells us that the Holy Spirit gave them, too, the gift of words. At their baptisms, they were not given swords with which to conquer or super-powers with which to bring about instant change. They began to speak in tongues and to prophecy. Their new relationship with Jesus Christ opened their lips to speak the Good News of God’s love and justice: the Good News of love and justice that transforms creation.
One of my favorite poems is Christian Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing.” Wiman turns the phrase, “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made” in several different ways, emphasizing God’s presence with us in creation. That’s the ultimate answer to the chaos and tragedy of our lives, isn’t it? That God is with us. That God is with me and you and every living plant and creature on “this fragile earth, our island home.” That God loves every blade of grass and sustains every human breath. That God became flesh so that we might understand God’s love and join with God in tending God’s beloved creation. I believe that even the folks at the Creation Museum would probably agree with me in the truth of Wiman’s last stanza:
“God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
The things that bring him near,
Made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
Apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”[4]

[1] Translation taken from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 5.
[2] Richard Boyce, Genesis 1:1-5. Found in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008),  221.
[3] John Shea, Following Love into Mystery: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Teachers and Preachers (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2010), 65.
[4] Christian Wiman, Every Riven Thing, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24-25.