Monday, March 19, 2018

3-18-18 “Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices”

3-18-18  “Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices”

   “Finding your Mystic” sounds like one of those quizzes that pop up from time to time on Facebook doesn’t it, like “What Star Trek Captain are you? Take this quiz.” Or, “Find your St. Patrick’s Day Name - take this survey!” Right? So how do we find our mystic? For that matter, what is mystic? 
  A mystic is one for whom God is not something merely to be believed in, but is an experiential reality. As theologian Marcus Borg put it, a mystic is one for whom God is “a first-hand religious experience rather than a second-hand religious belief.” Mystics are people who have decisive and typically frequent first-hand experiences of the sacred. And while mysticism is not exclusive to any particular faith, there are many people in the Christian tradition who are considered to have been mystics: Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and more recently, Thomas Merton, just to name a few. Jesus was certainly a mystic in that same tradition, and maybe Paul was as well. And as we think about that, we understand that these are people who have not conformed to the patterns of the world, right? They’ve been transformed by the “renewing of their minds” to discern God’s will - what is good and pleasing and mature, as Paul put it. 
   So, how are we, as the message proposes, to find our mystic? Does the title suggest that we should search through a list of people considered to be mystics and choose one, or go online and find a quiz about “What Mystic Is Best For You?” I don’t think so, because as followers of Jesus we have already found a mystic to follow, so this must point toward something else. But what? The reading we heard earlier talked about finding our own inner mystic, but many of us may not feel like we have one, so then what? Let’s see how scripture can guide us.
   Romans 12 is one of the most difficult passages on which to preach because it deals with two very touchy subjects; sacrifice and change. And as much as most people don’t want to sacrifice, not really, they REALLY don’t want to change. Change is hard. 
   Today we’ll use the passage from John as a case study of what Paul means. If we consider this reading through the lens of what Paul suggests, we see an extreme example of what it means to conform to the patterns of the world. To conform here means, in one sense, to go along with the crowd, to give in to peer pressure, to take the easy way out, to maintain the “status quo.” 
We can also get an idea of what Paul means by the “patterns of the world” through this reading.
   What patterns are we talking about? Well, it depends on what aspect of the world we’re talking about. For example, the pattern of the business world is capital gain, accumulation, transactions, and profit, right? The pattern of the military world is training, discipline, strategy, strength, conflict avoidance, and when conflict cannot be avoided, victory at nearly any cost. There are also patterns of violence that are increasingly common across the world, often stoked by fear, greed, or hatred of another group. There are patterns of greed that occur when people feel that there is not enough of whatever in the world so they seek to accumulate more for themselves in order not to run out - not trusting that God will provide. Those are just some of the patterns found in the world at large.
   A more common way that many might think about patterns is in making clothing, right?How many of you have ever made clothing from one of those store bought paper patterns? My mom used to do that occasionally. Those patterns would guide one to make a reliably predictable piece of clothing if the pattern is followed. The patterns of the world lead to reliably predictable outcomes when we conform to them. Good or bad. 
   Thought of a different way, think about our own daily lives - perhaps we experience patterns as well. Patterns are different than our routines, for example, “I always get up at 7, drink my coffee, read the paper, get dressed, go to work, have lunch at 11:15…,” etc. is a routine. No, a pattern is, according to Merriam Webster, “a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution, such as a behavior pattern, a spending pattern, or a pattern of speech.”

   We follow a worship pattern in the Christian church. Our worship opens with what is commonly referred as Gathering. And Gathering always includes music, some words of welcome, an Opening hymn, and some kind of opening prayer or liturgy. Then the service moves into Centering, where we begin to focus our worship. We hear or read scripture and music, we have prayer or meditation, and there is a message or teaching. Then we move to a time of Reflection or Response, where we’re invited to respond to what we’ve experienced. 
That might include prayer, the giving of our gifts, the sacrament of Holy Communion or something else. And finally we move to a time of Departure, sometimes called Scattering or Sending, where we are challenged as those sent by God to go into the world as a living embodiment of the pattern we experience in worshiping God in the world. 
   The patterns of the world Paul alludes to here assume control when our values or actions are determined not by our faith or how our faith shapes us, but by our culture and the world around us. And these patterns of the world are often driven by the loudest voices in our society aren’t they - like celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and the media. And often, those outer voices shape our inner voices.
   So we need to consider, what is behind these loudest voices in our culture? 
Is it greed, a desire to accumulate more money or more wealth? 
Is it about position or power, a desire for control? 
Is it an attempt to set one group over and above another, and if so, for what reason, to divide and conquer? The voices behind the patterns are often as important as the patterns they represent. 
   When we look at the story of Jesus’ trial in John’s Gospel, we see represented the patterns of the world. 
In today’s story, to whom do the loudest voices belong?
The crowd, the Jewish religious leaders
   And what is behind their voices?
Fear of loss of power, or fear of having their power and authority undermined, fear that the Temple system that supported their livelihoods would be challenged, fear that if they didn’t silence this Jesus Rome would enforce their Pax Romana, their Roman peace, by military force. 
Do you recognize the “patterns of the world” in play here? 
    So we see the crowd conform to those familiar patterns. They single out those who threaten the status quo, who threaten their power, or threaten to upset their plan, they plot to kill those who might to upset their apple cart. And this pattern has persisted throughout history:
  • Cain didn’t like how Abel’s offering to God was preferred over his own, so he killed his brother. 
  • Four decades before Jesus’ birth, a group of Roman Senators, fearful of the power he was accumulating, assassinated Julius Caesar. 
  • In 1865, stoked by anger over the Union victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer, who is in turn killed by government troops before he can be brought to trial. 
  • In the 1950s and 1960s assassination became the     de-facto replacement for lynching for white racists in dealing with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • In 1980, after Archbishop Oscar Romero called on Salvadoran soldiers to refuse to follow their orders to kill innocent civilians, he was assassinated while presiding over Mass in a hospital chapel by a government death squad.

   The pattern of employing violence in order to protect power, wealth, status, or any other thing of value is ingrained, has been ongoing throughout the centuries, and has been a common tool of both the so-called “good guys” and “bad guys.” In their cries to “Crucify! Crucify!” the crowd simply follows the pattern desired and promoted by the loudest voices.
   But it’s not just the crowd who gives in to worldly patterns is it? The soldiers conform in how they so easily play the school yard bully in mocking and causing harm to those not like them, those with less “apparent” power, those who are somehow different or who appear weaker. 
   And Pilate is a conformist as well, isn’t he? He’s willing to let Jesus die even though he knows he’s not guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. 
He turns a blind eye to the injustice of which he’s a part in order to protect his own powerful position. The high priest Caiaphas had said it was better for one man to die than for the entire country to be destroyed. Pilate allows those outer voices to shape his inner voice and then he just conforms.
   And so this compels us to consider, when have we contributed to or accepted injustice done to others, simply to conform with one of the well-worn patterns of the world? Upon whom have we consigned the status of “other,” either openly or by failing to stand up or speak up on their behalf, and allowed the powers-that-be, the loudest voices in the world, the nation, or worse yet the church, to consolidate their own power, wealth, or position at the expense of the marginalized, the minority, those who are in some way different?
    Paul says that rather than conform to the patterns of the world, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern God’s will—what is good and pleasing and mature. To renew our minds that we might be transformed requires intention on our part. We must be intentionally open toward those things that will lead to our renewal in Christ. As disciples of Jesus, people who have made covenant to follow this mystic who, more than anyone, had a first-hand experiential relationship with God, how do we understand what it means to do God’s will? If doing God’s will is doing, as Paul says, what is good and pleasing and mature, what does that look like? The prophet Micah, perhaps also a mystic, said that what is pleasing to God is to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And as Jesus told us, to love God and love our neighbor.
   At the same time, though, Paul says to us, in our consideration of how we will or won’t seek to do the will of God, “don’t think of yourself more highly than you to ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you.” Now, we can think about that message in a couple of ways. One way we might hear those words is, don’t think that your way of practicing or understanding the faith is the only way, the end all and be all, because God has only given you a partial faith, so that your mind might be renewed by growing in faith. And another way we might hear that is, don’t think that the things we prioritize for ourselves, many times those things he earlier named the “patterns of the world,” are more important than those things which please God, that because God has measured out only a portion of faith to each one of us, our faith is incomplete. It is immature, only a portion of what God could give us, would give us, if our desire were for those things that renew our mind, that are pleasing to God, that stand up to or go against the patterns of the world. 
   And Paul makes this point by comparing our faith and our gifts to the many parts of the body. All of the parts of the body are not the same he says, yet together they make up the whole body. My incomplete faith, your incomplete faith - on their own are limited - but when joined together as the body they glorify God. The gifts that any of us bring to the body of Christ, on their own, are but a partial picture of God’s desire, but when joined together to do what is good, pleasing and mature in the eyes of God, bring glory to God. 

Paul writes,
 We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

   Whether or not we are transformed by God is a choice we make. James Hopewell offers these thoughts: “Ponder this: the Greek metamorphousthe, (from which we get the word metamorphosis) [grammatically] is a passive imperativeImperatives imply Go do this — but the passive imperative is Go have this done to yourself, or don’t actually go, just let it be.
   “This metamorphosis goes hand in hand with the decision to abandon conformity. The passive imperative is all about God’s doing; and yet we are responsible.” (MM)
   “We are responsible,” he says. The choice is ours, this suggests. We have the freedom to choose, to choose which outer voices we let in, because we know that the outer voices influence the inner voice that determines our actions. 
God gives us a portion of faith. John Wesley considered that portion a grace of God, prevenient grace, grace that goes before us, grace that is present in and within us before we are even aware of God. It’s a grace that draws us nearer to God, that seeks out God. Thought of another way, the image of God in which we are made plants a seed within our Spirit that seeks God, that seeks union and unity with our Creator. A partial faith, or the desire or potential for faith, is built into us, whether we use it or not.
   Paul declared rightly that we all have gifts; they differ from person to person, but we all have gifts that are given us by God. And he goes on to say, basically, 
“If your gift is this….do this, and if your gift is that…do that.” This is how we allow God to transform our minds, by using the gifts God has given us to God’s glory, to God’s pleasure, to seek God’s will - for us AND the world. NOWHERE does it say that we are to sit on our gift, that our gift is not valuable, that our gift is to be reserved, saved, retired, or DENIED. It’s not to be put under a bushel.
   And then he concludes that we are to love without pretending. We are to hate evil but love what is good. Remember, love is an action, not an emotion. 
Our love is measured by what we do, not by what we feel. We’re to love the other, he says, like members of our own family. Paul wrote,
“Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer.”

   It is in doing those things, Paul suggests, that we are renewed or transformed, like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar that emerges from its cocoon a beautiful butterfly. When we allow God’s voice in Jesus Christ to guide our renewal, our experience of God borders on the mystical.

   The voices of the world would have us conform to the ways that maintain patterns of greed, violence, mistrust, and hatred and which represent evil in the world. And these voices are loud - hard to ignore. But when we take time to listen, when we are intentional about silencing the voices of the world, we begin to hear that still small voice of God. And behind the voice of God, the voice of our mystic Jesus Christ, is nothing less than love, compassion, and justice. That is the way of Christ and is to be the way of Christ’s followers.
   They say change is inevitable, even for those who resist it. And intentional change can be particularly hard. But if we follow Paul’s words about how we are to be followers of Christ, we can’t help but be transformed - we can’t help but resist being conformed to the world and being renewed in our minds, our thinking, and our living.
   So, what’s behind the voices you listen to? Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

3-11-18 Sermon   “Finding Your Power: Listening for Healing”

A Note to Readers or Listeners. Prior to the beginning of this message we viewed the Rob Bell NOOMA Video titled "Rhythm." It can easily be found on YouTube if you would like to see it before listening here.

   As followers of Jesus Christ, we must answer a couple of tough questions: “Who is Jesus?” and “Who is God?” And once we’ve done that, we have to consider what it means to have a relationship with either one of them. What does that look like? How do we do that? 
   Some will say we must first trust in God. But how do you trust someone you don’t know, that you don’t have a relationship with? Others will tell us that we must pray. But some don’t know how, and others have a rather warped sense of what prayer is, approaching prayer as though God were some wish-granting genie. Others use God to pass the buck, handing off to God, under the guise of prayer, those things they don’t want to do themselves.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. At its most basic level, prayer works something like this: we pray to God to end hunger, then we go feed people. We ask God to provide for the poor and the homeless, then we roll up our sleeves and provide for the poor and the homeless. We pray for God to bless our friend or neighbor who is going through a tough time, then we go do something to blesses our friend or neighbor.
   Is that the only way prayer works? No, but I’d venture to say it’s the most common way. WE, the CHURCH, are the hands and feet of Christ. When someone prays for help, or blessing, that prayer comes first to us to answer. The answer to a prayer for peace is for us to become more peaceful people. 
God can’t bring peace to a world full of angry, unpeaceful people.  The answer to a prayer for a more loving world is to become more loving people. God’s can’t bring love to world that hates - that’s not how it works. We have free will. God won’t force us to do or be what we don’t want to do or be. So, when we pray for peace, or financial security, or a job, or a happy marriage, we had better be prepared to DO something to align ourselves with that goal if we want that prayer to be answered in the affirmative.

   So what is prayer, why pray, and what do we seek in prayer? Let me answer that by talking a little about the video we saw. I like how Rob Bell thinks about God here. But here’s a spoiler alert! God is not an old man with a long flowing beard. God is not a man, regardless of all the patriarchal language in the Bible, because God is not a human. Scripture tells us God is LIKE a lot of things - among them that God is Spirit and God is Love. But what does THAT look like?
   Honestly, I don’t know. But when Bell says he thinks of God as being like a song, I can relate to that, because a song is more than mere musical notes on a page or the sounds that we hear, just as God is more than mere words in a book or ideas in our minds. Interestingly, scientists tell us that our universe generates a tone or a hum that can be heard by radio telescopes - like a galactic soundtrack. So, while that hum might not pass for what we think of as music, this image or metaphor works for me.
   So, using the metaphor of God as being like a song, then prayer helps us, as Bell put it, get in “tune” with God. Because sometimes we find ourselves “out of tune” with God, right? While we are created in the image of God, sometimes we don’t come close to matching the likeness of God that we see in Jesus Christ. 
I know you’ll be shocked to hear this, but even as a pastor, sometimes my words or behavior don’t match Jesus’ model for us - when I’m out of tune with God’s song. I know you’re shocked by that! I try, but I fail regularly. Thank God for grace!
   Maybe you don’t have times like that, maybe you all have your stuff together, but I sure don’t. In our little bowl up here where we’re invited to write down something that gets in the way of our relationship with God, that we then burn and give it to God in the purifying fire, I wrote the word “Anger.” 
Maybe you don’t have issues like that, but I have some anger issues that I needed to give to God. Partisan politics, what’s happening in government, violence against women, children, and minorities, corporate greed, all make me angry - not just irritated but viscerally angry. Facebook, more often than not, makes me angry, so I spend very little time there, other than to post daily devotionals that make me think and really bad jokes that make me laugh. 
That anger changes me; it changes my mood, it warps my attitude, it even sometimes changes my language. It forces me out of tune with God, with who and how God wants me to be, and with how to be. So I pray. I pray in my car. I pray in bed. I pray here. I pray that I can get back into tune with God’s song, with God’s will. And you know what? Since I wrote it on that slip and burned it, it’s gotten better.  
   So, I think one way prayer works is by getting us back in tune with God, and then by our going out and DOING what God tells us needs to be done. I believe our prayers for other people work because when we pray for another, putting another’s needs ahead of our own, it simultaneously lifts that person before God while also bringing us closer to how God created us to be, to being in tune with God. For prayer to truly be effective in our lives, it must be an active spiritual discipline, not a passive one. Prayer is like a first step, it strengthens us, shapes us, and then emboldens us to be the hands and feet of God when and where we can.

   Today’s readings include three different healing events. And while none of them talk about prayer, you just know that prayer’s fingerprints are literally all over these stories. In the story from John’s gospel we have this powerful political leader, who begs for the life of his child. Jesus is his only hope. We don’t know what other steps he’s taken before this, but we can be certain that as Roman leader, Jesus was NOT his first option.
   And we find in this story that miracles aren’t always necessary for trust to be present. This father believes Jesus can heal his son, sight unseen. He goes to Jesus trusting that Jesus WILL heal his son. Even when Jesus refuses to go with the man, he still trusts Jesus’s word that the deed is done - that his son is healed. He trusted without seeing. 
   So this passage invites us to explore our own level of belief and trust in God through Jesus Christ. Many of us in the U.S. may not have this same degree of deep trust. Our level of material security is often strong enough that, even while we love God and believe in the Jesus story, as Sharon Watkins puts it, “we participate in the ‘circus of life’ with a safety net.” Many of us live life with such a security backup that we never completely get to the point of trusting our whole lives to Jesus. We've hedged our bets. 
   In many parts of the world, however, Christians place their trust in God without that same net of material security. And interestingly, these are the places where Christianity is growing fastest. For centuries the center of Christianity was in the Northern Hemisphere. Today, it’s in Africa. While Christianity declines in the Northern Hemisphere, it grows exuberantly in the Southern. In many communities where Christianity is growing, the people have no illusions about material security. Where Christianity is growing fastest is where people most fully trust in the power of God, not the power of the purse.

   Jesus says at one point in John’s Gospel, “I Am the resurrection and the life.” In this story from John he brings a boy back from the brink of death - restoring him to the fullness of life now. Life in Christ is not something for which we have to wait. Jesus brings eternal life, immediately, to those who are willing to trust their lives to him. And that is as true of communities, even church communities, as it is of individuals. Sometimes our security net, whether it’s money, material things, or a desire for certainty, continuity, or the good old days, keeps us from life-giving involvement with our neighbors. Do we, for our own security, stay quiet, stay home, or stay safe when we’re being called to be the answer to prayers, or to advocate in Christ’s name for the life-giving changes our neighbors and community so desperately need? In many important ways, this passage invites us, even challenges us, to deepen our own belief, to trust God as our safety net.

   Our second story takes a different approach. Jesus is called upon by a synagogue leader to come to his home and heal his daughter. Unlike in John, though, Jesus goes with the man. But on the way, there is an interruption to the plan. Except it’s not just an interruption, it’s a person. A woman who has suffered for twelve years with bleeding or hemorrhaging, likely her entire adulthood. This was no simple disorder, but one that had significant personal and social consequences as well, as it likely prevented her from bearing children, which likely isolated her from her community. She had seen physicians, Mark tells us, had endured their treatments and remedies, their poking and prodding, all to no avail. Twelve years of bleeding, of suffering, of disappointment. Not only that, but having spent all she had, she was destitute as well. All of which means that she, too, is desperate, as desperate as Jairus, certainly, and perhaps as desperate as any of us have ever been.
   And so, like Jairus, she comes filled with both hope and fear, hope kindled by word of this miracle-worker’s abilities, fear that nothing will change. 
But hope overrides her anxieties and she makes her way through the crowd toward Jesus.
   Mark shares that this woman has only one thought as she approaches Jesus: She won’t even need to ask him for healing. She won’t even need to disturb his progress toward the house of an important person like Jairus. 
If she’s lucky, these two men won’t even notice her. No, she need only touch Jesus, even just touch his clothes; she’s sure that will be enough. Like the father in John, this is a woman with a deep and trusting faith. 
   But it doesn’t go as planned. She’s right about what she needs – she touches him and is immediately healed. But she’s wrong about no one noticing. Jesus immediately senses the what and turns to see the who. But there are too many people crowded around them. So he asks, and his disciples – perhaps already bad-tempered by the crowds and this unexpected detour to Jairus’ home – react to the absurdity of the question: Tons of people are touching you, Jesus, what are you talking about?
   But the woman knows; she knows exactly what Jesus means. And so while she has no idea what will happen now that she has interrupted this powerful man’s journey to another powerful man’s home, nevertheless she comes forward, overcoming her fear, and kneels down in respect to confess.
   She told him, Mark says, “the whole truth.” The whole truth of what she has done maybe, or perhaps the whole truth of her twelve long years of suffering, disappointment, painful treatments, failed remedies, shame, and isolation - the whole truth. Not an easy task. She’s not a man, not a leader, like Jairus. 
All her actions up to this point have been planned to keep her invisible, under the radar. Yet now she comes forward and tells the truth, the whole truth, no matter the consequences.
   And in return she is not merely healed but noticed, affirmed, listened to, confirmed in her faith, and restored. “Daughter,” Jesus calls her. A term of endearment, affection, and restored status. Daughter. And then he bids her go in peace, healed, restored, renewed beyond even her wildest dreams.
   And this story puts that question to us. Can we tell Jesus the whole truth – not just the parts we’ve rehearsed or prepared, but everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, the easy and difficult, the successes and failure, the hopes and the disappointments? Can we tell Jesus the whole truth? Doing so requires a vulnerability that many aren’t willing to consider. In fact, it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing: we won’t be vulnerable until there’s trust, but we can’t grow in trust until we’re willing to be vulnerable.

   Maybe we need to change how we think about vulnerability. We tend to avoid vulnerability -- to admitting that we don't have it all together -- because it can leave us feeling exposed or desperate. We see that in these stories. But we've also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently. So perhaps admitting need isn't the end of the world we think it may be, but just the end of the world we've constructed for ourselves. And as this world of self-imposed or culturally cultivated perfection crumbles around us, we're invited to enter a new world of mutual care, acceptance, and inter-dependence, a world where we don’t have to pretend we have it all together. Maybe we can become a community where we can just be who we are, a safe and caring community where we can come as we are rather than pretending to be the person we think others want us to be. The only way to trust God's great "I love you" is to first hear God's equally important "I know you." Because as long as we think we're fooling someone -- a loved one, a co-worker, a neighbor, or God -- 
we can never really trust that they accept us for who we really are.

   On any Sunday morning we bring a mix of experiences. And it’s into that mix that these stories speak. They fall on the ears of those who like Jairus have been able to celebrate life even after it appeared all was lost, and on the ears of those who like the hemorrhaging woman have cause to rejoice long after every conceivable medical option has been tried. And to be sure, these stories also fall on the ears of some who have prayed desperately, who have desperately reached out to 'touch the hem of Jesus’ robe,’ but for whom the much yearned for healing has not come. Who say in the wake of such stories, "Why not me?"
   And we must also remember, though we prefer not to think about it, that everyone whom Jesus healed, in these and all the healing stories, did one day finally die. Perhaps Jairus' daughter lived a full life as a mother and grandmother herself. Maybe the hemorrhaging woman, declared ‘clean' and made whole again, was able to return to the full life denied her for twelve years. No doubt both of them felt a deeper gratitude for God's gifts because of all they had experienced. But in the end, like all of us, they one day died as well. So, it’s not enough to hear these as simply miracle stories granting cures to earthly diseases. There’s more to them than that; we must dig deeper to more fully understand their gifts for God's people now.
   Perhaps this story could remind us that Jesus receives our deepest hurts and fears even IF he’s our 'last resort.’ Or maybe, as the story suggests, it’s a reminder that God's power is greater than what you and I can imagine. That in the face of the seemingly impossible, even in the face of our disbelief, God still works. Sometimes with results we can't even imagine. 
   In the story of the unnamed hemorrhaging woman we also hear of one so desperate she will go to any length to find wholeness.  I use the word 'wholeness' here because like any physical disease hers was one that isolated her in ways we can hardly imagine. Any one who has ever struggled with illness or disability has some idea of what her life must have been like. We can be certain that her illness had broken not just her body, but also her spirit. And yet even in her desperation, she lacks the courage to go to Jesus to ask for what she needs. Rather, she believes if she can just get close enough perhaps she can snatch some of the goodness Jesus offers. And sure enough, that was so.
   But the story doesn't end there. It ends with Jesus turning to her and acknowledging the connection they now share, with Jesus' promise that her healing was not only physical - but would extend to her whole life. 
And that larger promise of healing and wholeness is only spoken and received in the relationship formed between them. When they speak face to face. So perhaps a deeper healing or sense of wholeness is the point of these stories in the end.
   And maybe the story that sandwiches this one isn’t about the sick child at all, but is about the healing of Jairus. Maybe his healing was discovered in his loving his daughter so much he would do anything to save her life - his wholeness realized in his willingness to abandon much of what defined him and brought him security: his position and his sense of pride, to name two - and to turn without shame to Jesus who alone could answer his deepest need. 
   The no longer hemorrhaging woman realized healing or wholeness not only when the bleeding stopped, but when she finally looked into the face of Jesus. 
In that moment she was lifted up from being one who felt she had to sneak up behind Jesus and anonymously receive the gifts of God to one who was recognized by and acknowledged by Jesus himself. She who was not 'named,' is called ‘Daughter’ and is one in relationship with Jesus. It seems her healing wasn’t complete until then. So perhaps this is the gift of this story: that the healing we’re blessed to receive in our physical beings, whether by miracle or medicine, can be the very gift of God - but that it is only temporary. On the other hand, the healing that comes to us as our relationships with Jesus deepen and grow leads to a wholeness that permeates our entire beings and our relationships and lasts far beyond this single earthly life.

   Let me conclude by offering this simple prayer: Most merciful God, draw us to you in confidence that we might be vulnerable enough to tell you the whole truth of our lives and, in return, listen as you call us your beloved children that we might be made whole in faith and life. 

Through the Holy Spirit may all who listen more deeply experience God's healing and God's wholeness, both in the hearing of these stories and even more so, in our lives. Amen.

Monday, March 5, 2018

3-4-18 “Finding a Word: Listening to the Texts”

3-4-18    “Finding a Word: Listening to the Texts”

   Ten years ago, after I returned from my first trip to 
El Salvador in 2008, I bought the Rosetta Stone language learning program in order to learn to speak Spanish. I knew I would likely return to El Salvador and I was also involved in Hispanic ministry through the church I served on the east side, so I thought it would be helpful to learn the language. And for a while I made progress. I learned some basic phrases, and even with a wobbly foundation in the language I was able to figure out the meanings of other words and build simple sentences. But at some point, I quit working on it. I don’t know why, I just got busy with other things and stopped using the program. And of course, without the practice, that new learning faded away. So to this day, I cannot speak Spanish. Since that time, new language learning programs have come out, and with the advent of smart phones there are now language learning apps that weren’t available ten years ago. And that’s all well and good, but I suspect that any app I tried would meet the same fate as those now dusty Rosetta Stone CDs in my desk at home.

   This past week, though, I saw an ad on Facebook for a device called a Pilot Translator. And the Pilot is a small device, about the same size as one of the ear buds that comes with smart phones, that fits in your ear and instantaneously translates any language you hear into the language that you speak - right into your ear. 

   Now, if you’re a Star Trek geek like I am, then you recognize this as being the same concept as the Universal Translator technology used in all iterations of Star Trek over the years that allowed humans to communicate with untold numbers of intergalactic aliens. But Trekkie or not, I think we can all recognize the value of a device like this that would enable communication between two people who don’t speak the same language. If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a person who speaks a different language than you, then you know how difficult, confusing, and even frustrating it can be. We often resort to the use of hand signals or some kind of pseudo sign language, maybe grunting or pantomiming, and perhaps even drawing pictures in order to get our message across. Finding a communications bridge is vital; without being able to communicate it’s really impossible to get to know someone.

   I mean think about it. When we go to a dinner or a party or some such event where there are people present we don’t know or haven’t met before, we have to engage in some degree of small talk in order to navigate that situation. And as an introvert, let me tell you, having to make small talk is introvert HELL! 
Most introverts would rather have dental work done! But in order to get to know someone, or to be known by someone, we have to be able to communicate. When we’re honest in our speech we reveal something about who we are. 
We can’t know or get to know someone who won’t speak to us, and we can’t be known by a person we won’t speak to.

   As part of premarital counseling I’m doing for two couples whose weddings I’ll be performing in May we’re all reading the book, The Five Love Languages
The premise of this book is that we all speak one of five specific love languages, and that like any verbal language, if we don’t speak the love language of our partner, then we can’t communicate our love for the other in a way that they will understand. And I think we all understand how important communication is in any relationship we’re part of, but especially in committed, long-term relationships like a marriage.

   Similarly, we have faith languages that we use as well. And I think some of the same principles apply to how we talk about faith - if we aren’t speaking in the same faith language as another person then we might not be communicating our understanding of faith in a way that they can understand.

   In fact, the late theologian Marcus Borg, in his book Speaking Christian, says that “for many, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted. They think they are speaking the language like it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is very different from what these things meant originally.” And he goes on to suggest that, “Modern Christians are steeped in a language so distorted that it has become a stumbling block to the religion.”
   So how are we to “listen to the texts,” as our title suggests, if we don’t know the difference between what these words mean now and what they meant when they were written? How do we communicate with one another, how are we to commune with God through scripture, if we’re not speaking the same language?

   Well, biblical scholars and theologians like Borg and many others across the theological spectrum of mainline Christianity would offer many ideas about how to do that, but one that would be consistent among most of them is the idea of how we view Scripture, how we read Scripture. 
For example, John’s gospel begins with that beautiful prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and so on. And as we’ve discussed both here and in our two bible studies on John, the word translated as Word - capital W - is logos - a Greek word meaning logic, reason, wisdom, revelation, or even plan of God.  And we don’t understand Word with a capital W to mean the same as words with a lowercase w, as in the letters on a page that make up the words that we read or speak. There is a metaphorical meaning attached to capital W Word. And we know this because the passage goes on to say that the Word, capital W, became flesh and we know that refers to Jesus as God’s plan incarnate, not to words from a book.

   So, when we think of Scripture as the Word of God, capital W, we also understand that in the same metaphorical way that we understand Jesus as Word - that is as logos, as the reason, wisdom, logic, the plan of God. We say Word of God, not words of God, because we know that Scripture, while inspired by God was written by humans, within a specific time and place, within certain contexts - both historical and cultural. And we recognize that those writers brought their own cultural, and often patriarchal, influences into their writing. 
   So, what do we mean by Word of God? Well, Word as a metaphor - we know Jesus is not literally a collection of letters of the alphabet - is a means of communicating an idea about God, or of communing with God. 
Scripture reveals the nature of God to us as that nature has been understood over the centuries by the human beings who wrote the books that make up the Bible. Jesus, however, the Word in flesh, is the ultimate revelation, the last word, if you will, about who and how God is. When there is conflict between the nature of God as described in a biblical text and how the nature of God is described by or modeled by Jesus, Jesus wins. To echo language from the Reformer Martin Luther, the Bible is the manger in which we find Christ. But we don’t follow the manger, we follow Christ. 
   So when John speaks of the Word being with God and in fact being God, he’s saying that God is speaking to us - God is revealing God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. What God has always been is now being offered to us so that we can know who God is and how God relates to us. Jesus’ words and actions reveal God’s nature, just as our speech and actions reveals our nature.

   God does not use the kind of speech we think of when we think of one human talking with another. God’s Word, God’s reason or logic, in order to be understood by us mortals, becomes human: a form we can understand, a form with which we can interact. 
John writes, “The Word [that is, the self-expression, the self-revelation of God] became flesh and made his home among us.” 

   Many Christians, though, get hung up on the words, on the words in the Bible as the revelation of God and forget that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s Word, God’s plan, God’s desire. For example, did you see the new comedy on CBS that debuted this past week, Living Biblically? It’s based loosely on a book that I have referenced to you before, The Year of Living Biblically by author A.J. Jacobs, and its premise is that a man who had been agnostic at best, after the death of an old friend and then hearing the news that his wife was pregnant, decides that he needs to do something to be better person. He decides he wants to try to live strictly and completely according to the Bible, attempting to follow every rule, every law in the Bible literally. He consults both a priest and a rabbi, who tell him - as I have suggested to you before - his task is impossible because adhering to some laws causes you to be in violation of others. Nevertheless, he persists in his quest to make himself a better person in this way. Having read the book, and having seen the opening episode of the show, I look forward to seeing how all of this is portrayed.

   But it points to a bigger issue. Trying to read and understand the scripture in order to deepen your own journey with Christ is a wonderful thing to do - we offer Bible studies on a regular basis in order to help people do that very thing. The bible requires some study, it requires some interpretation, in order to truly hear what it has to say for us. But many Christians don’t try to listen to what the text is saying to them, saying to us. Rather, some will pick a particular passage that, taken out of context, seems to support some religious or political agenda they have, and rather than trying to improve themselves, use that passage as a weapon to browbeat (or worse) those who don’t have that same religious or political point of view. So, rather than listening to what Scripture is saying to us - what in theological talk we call exegesis - they read into Scripture what they want to hear it say - what is called eisegesis. 

   That is, in part, what Jesus accuses the Pharisees of doing in how they interpret the laws in Scripture. Earlier in the book, in chapter 8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that there is no room in them for Jesus’ word. Why? He suggests that they have become enslaved to a very literal way of interpreting scripture. Rather than reading it in such a way as to bring life to the people, they’ve turned it into a tool for enslaving them. Their strict adherence to trying to live out every detail of the law, and insisting that everyone else do the same, thinking that that was the only way to be saved, had actually enslaved them, had hardened their hearts toward the very people and the very God that they claimed to serve. 

   Carol Miller, the author of our Wednesday morning Bible study guide on John’s gospel, pursues this line in our study, asking, 
“What are the things that truly enslave you, things from which you need to be set free? It could be some addiction or compulsion. It could be a dark sense of guilt or unworthiness. It might be a desire for acceptance from someone who cannot give it. It might be enslavement to money and possessions - things people sometimes use to convince themselves that they deserve a place on the planet. It could be control over others or power to get your way.” She asks good questions of us.
   The Pharisees were so convinced that the only way to free Israel from the oppressive thumb of the Romans, the only way that a Messiah would rise up to save them, was if Israel was righteous in the eyes of God. 
And the only way they understood that could happen was if every person in the nation of Israel, followed every dot and tittle of the law as interpreted and reinterpreted by religious leaders like them over the centuries. 
This understanding, this zealously literal interpretation had enslaved them in such a way that they failed to recognize the long-awaited Messiah when he stood before them. The words had become their master, rather than the living Word of God.
   We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn the Pharisees though. As Miller suggests, “Everyone serves a master. It may be that your master is acceptance or control or any of a thousand things. All false masters are cruel masters. You can never be free; you can never do enough - unless you serve the one master who is able to make you whole…” 
   So why did Jesus say back in chapter 8 that there was no room for his word in the hearts of the Pharisees and religious leaders? What is taking up the space? 
For them, it may have been pride and judgmentalism and all those rules and laws they had memorized. For us, it may be a preoccupation with work, an overly busy life that measures importance by how desperately it’s over-scheduled. Perhaps it’s an obsession with striving to be good enough to win God’s favor or a burden of guilt over past failures. As Miller suggests, “when there is no place for Jesus’ word, there is a desire to be done with him: ‘You look for an opportunity to kill me,’ Jesus told them, ‘because there is no place in you for my word’ (John 8:37, NRSV).” Jesus was bringing them what he had seen ‘in God’s presence,’ what he had heard from God. What more could we possibly need? And still Jesus instructed his opponents, still holding open to them the freedom of life lived in God: ‘As for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father’ (John 8:38, NRSV). There was still time for them, he offered; they only needed to listen to God, to hear God’s message, [God’s Word] that is Jesus. It is possible to be free from every cruel, misery-making master and to serve God. One only has to hear Christ’s invitation. Keeping every letter of the law cannot save us because ‘being saved’ has to do with a living relationship, not with performing certain works in certain ways. It has to do with embodying the love of God in your life, not keeping score of how many laws you [or anyone else] keeps [or breaks].’ And Miller suggests, “Keeping the law without God’s love and compassion is worthless. 
It means exactly nothing.”

   In our passage today, what Jesus had said of his opponents, that the lack of room for him in their hearts had led them to seek ways to kill him, was coming to fruition. Charged with blasphemy, he would be tried for violating the very laws that they worshiped as their master and that Jesus had come to fulfill, to conclude, to replace with what he called the Greatest Commandment, to love God and to love neighbor. That was how Jesus said we should live our lives. That, he said, was the nature of God.

   Miller invites us to “Look seriously at the way [we] are living [our lives.] What is its driving force? Why do you get up in the morning? When all is said and done, who is your master? Many ‘church people’ are rule-keepers,” she observes. “They see keeping rules and laws as a way of knowing whether they are following God or not. 
That presents a huge danger. We have seen that the Pharisees and scribes were great rule-keepers, but that didn’t necessarily make them close to God.
   Life with God is not about keeping laws. Life with God, now and in the life to come, is a matter of embracing who God is, celebrating God’s nature revealed to us in Jesus, becoming more and more like him as we live joined to him - branches on a vine, vessels for living water. It’s not in the rote keeping of laws that life is found; it’s in knowing God, the God we see [ultimately and most fully revealed] in Jesus. 
   Are you trying to be ‘good enough’ for God to love you? Are you trying to keep as many laws as you can so that you will know you are following God? Do you pride yourself on being just a bit better than some others you could name,  [thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve never done THAT!’]? How well are you listening to Jesus’ description of God? Jesus had a warning: Your law-keeping won’t work. And he has an invitation: ‘All who are thirsty should come to me.’  -  (Carol Miller, Immersion Bible Study: John, pg 40)

   That’s why Bible Study, and Lectio Divina, and Bible meditation, and a good study bible, are all important ways of listening to the text - no one way will help us understand what it is God is trying to say to us. If we only bring one tool to the task, it’s like trying to drain the ocean one teaspoonful at a time. You might eventually get the job done, but it’s highly unlikely.  


   Sometimes, I could use one of those in-ear translators in order to decipher what our 3 year old grandson is saying. If you ask him his name, which is William, he’ll tell you “Bil bum.” That’s what he hears and how he can say what he hears at this age when you call him by name. When he tries to ask you or tell you something, you have to listen not just to the words he says, but you also have to place them in context. What was he just doing before he said that? Who was he with? What is he reaching for? Context is important when he’s telling you what was just on the TV in the other room, what he had for lunch that day, or when he’s asking if you have any more blue suckers. He’s very confident in what he’s saying, whether we can understand him or not, so without listening for context, we might as well be a translator-less Captain Kirk trying to speak to a Klingon.

   We don’t have to wonder or worry about the nature of God. Jesus reveals God’s nature to us. Despite those places in the Old Testament that portray God has as angry, judgmental, and even vengeful, Jesus Christ, the Word of God reveals to us what is the true nature of God: God is love. That is the overarching message in Scripture of who God is, from beginning to end, and that’s the word Jesus wants us to hear, the God he wants us to know through him. That is the lesson he wants us to listen for in Scripture. And then he wants to know from us, do we have room in our hearts for his word? 

In the silence, Christ listens for our response. Amen.