God is Speaking!

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Last Saturday, Brandon and I cuddled up on our gigantic couch in the family room, turned on Netflix, and proceeded to binge watch an entire season of a new show.
There was no waiting to see what would happen next… the episode played automatically.
There were no spoilers, because the series, Altered Carbon, had just come out and there wasn’t any buzz about it yet.
We just curled up, stuffed our faces with popcorn, and had the opportunity to experience the entire wild ride.

That is very different from how we used to watch television.
I can still remember in seminary how obsessed I was with Grey’s Anatomy. On Fridays, a girlfriend and I would meet for coffee and we would recap the previous nights episode. There had been one particularly harrowing cliff-hanger and to spend an entire week waiting to see what would come next felt brutal. We spent most of our time debating whether or not we wanted to go online and glimpse at the spoilers on the fan sites to get a clue as to how the situation might turn out.
In the end, we decided we wouldn’t be able to concentrate on our class work if we didn’t know if the character lived or died… We were invested in the story, in the people… as ridiculous as it sounds, we needed some kind of hope, some glimpse that things were going to be okay. So we sought out every single spoiler alert we could find.

Over these past few weeks, we have ever so briefly followed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In reality, we’ve only scratched the surface, living mainly in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. And already, we’ve encountered God, watched ordinary people become disciples, and have witnessed any number of miracles of healing.
The gospel of Mark moves so quickly from one moment to the next… just like those episodes on Netflix play automatically and keep you engaged for just one more…. In fact – I bet if you went home after worship today and opened your bible you’d find that reading through Mark is a breeze and it would be over before you realized it.
We find out Jesus has the power to not only cast out demons and heal, but to calm the waters and miraculously produce food out of crumbs. Like any great season of television, the energy is building towards triumph and freedom and release over the first eight chapters of Mark’s gospel.

And then we get to chapter 8.
As we reach the very end, Jesus begins to teach the disciples that the path towards victory and life and God’s salvation for all people was a journey through death.
He began to warn them about the suffering and rejection and brutal punishment that awaited.
And it was not an easy message to swallow. Peter even had the audacity to scold Jesus for saying such things.
Yet, this was the path before them.

Imagine, for just a moment, that you are in the very last episode of the season and THIS was the dialogue that was taking place.
You begin to realize that the next part of this story was going to look very different than the first. What was full of joy and celebration and miracles is going to be darker and more dangerous.
You are now invested in this journey, you’ve left everything you have to follow Jesus and now the path looks so different…
How are you going to make it through to the next season?
How are you going to manage the wait and the anxiety and the unknowing?

And so before this part of the story ends, Jesus shares with a few of the disciples a gigantic spoiler alert.
He takes them up the mountain and as they reach the summit, Jesus moves a few paces ahead and then turns around to face them.
And as he does – he changes before their eyes!
His whole body seems to radiate with an inexplicable glory and even his clothes shine brighter than the sun.
Just as the three disciples begin to adjust their eyes to this brilliance they see two figures appear beside their Master… two figures who could only be Moses and Elijah.
As Peter and James and John cower in fear and trembling before this amazing visage – the three figures have a conversation.
Now, if I’m Peter, if I have been learning at the feet of Jesus for a few months, if I have been a part miracles that have taken place, and if I’m led up to the top of a mountain where my teacher suddenly begins to glow and radiate glory… and if I am terrified to face a path of suffering and rejection… then I might grab a hold of this moment and think that THIS was what they had been preparing for.
He interrupts them, offers to build shrines and temples, essentially trying to re-direct the entire journey and turn season two of this story into a show on top of the mountain.

But that is NOT why they are there.
A cloud overshadowed the trio of disciples like a fog rolling in. The glory of Jesus, Moses and Elijah was concealed by the dense cloud and in a rumble of thunderous glory the voice of God spoke to their hearts: This is my Son, This is my Beloved! Listen to him!
Just as quickly as the cloud moved it, it dissipated, and the three bewildered and terrified disciples opened their eyes to find their teacher Jesus, standing before them alone. With hardly a word, apart from telling them not to talk about what they had seen until after the resurrection, Jesus leads them back down the mountain.

I can vividly remember pouring over still images on websites with my friend, trying to guess what was going to happen next in our favorite show based on a few glimpses. We would speculate based on the characters or where they were standing or what else was present in the background and try to make meaning out of the signs so we had something to hold on to.

In many ways, this brief moment on the mountaintop was that kind of spoiler alert, giving the disciples something to hang on to.
The voice of God rang out, shaking them to their very core, and reminded them that God’s power and purpose was present in their teacher, Jesus.
The presence of Moses and Elijah, affirmed that the law and the prophets were being fulfilled in the ministry of the Son of God. Everything they had been taught and believed about the restoration of Israel… of all creation… would come to pass.
And, it was a reminder that even though the next part of this story would look different, they had a glimpse of the light and the glory that would give them hope on dark days.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has now set his face towards Jerusalem. They were leaving behind the healing and the teaching and were heading straight towards the seat of power… not to be a force that would overthrow it violently, but through a display of righteous love.
They didn’t quite understand what the resurrection meant… but they saw a glimpse, a spoiler, of the things to come, that they could hold on to when the going got tough.

We were never called to build tents and tabernacles to enshrine these moments forever.
This story is not yet finished.
We have to keep working.
We have to keep seeing what changes need to be made.
We have to keep hearing the voice of God speaking into our lives.
And that means coming down from the mountain, rolling up our sleeves, and getting to work.

After all, that is what Jesus did.
The light of glory revealed on the mountaintop was meant for the world.
And Jesus knew that for that light to dwell within each of us, he was going to have to shine even in the darkest places of the world.
He was going to have to confront evil powers.
He was going to have to withstand betrayal and abuse.
He was going to have to carry his cross and enter the grave of death.
But he did it all so that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God could shine on us.

Unlike the disciples, we know how this next part of the story ends. We’ve seen our way through Jerusalem, through the cross, and have watched countless generations listen to God’s call to let their light shine.
What we sometimes forget is that we can’t stay on the mountaintop either.
This is not simply a story we curl up on our couches to experience.
Our season, our part of this journey is still being written.
And God is still speaking and still calling us to follow Jesus.

So as we enter the season of Lent, we, too, will set our faces towards Jerusalem.
This Wednesday, we will remember our mortality and our own journey through death with a cross of ashes on our foreheads.
We will once again have the opportunity to redefine ourselves in the light of the one who came to save us.
Over these coming weeks, we’ll explore what it means for Christ to be our hero and our savior and perhaps we will discover all over again what it means to be a disciple.
Friends, let us come down from the mountain where we have tried to wrap up our faith with a neat and tidy bow. A whole new season is beginning and this time you are ones God is calling to let your light shine.

Life Abundant… and what it means for us and Haiti

According to our “Enough” study, I’m supposed to preach on the American dream – about how the quest to have it all has taken it all away from us. I’m supposed to preach on the difference between abundance and the life abundant. I’m supposed to preach on our need to consume and acquire and what we give up in the process.

But all of that seems very trite when we remember that brothers and sisters not too far from here were rocked by an earthquake. All of that seems vanity when we think of the lives of missionaries and doctors and orphans and moms and dads and brothers and sisters in Haiti. All of that seems just plain foolishness, when we consider those who have nothing.

I am a part of a number of online communities that have been sharing stories of the lives of people who have been affected by the earthquake in Haiti. I have been praying for the rescue of and now mourning the loss of the head of our United Methodist Committee on Relief, who was killed in the rubble under our meeting place in a hotel there. And I read this letter from a friend’s parents who are working at a hospital in Haiti.

“Hospital Ste. Croix is standing. John and I are fine. The administration building collapsed, and our apartment collapsed under the story above. We have nothing we brought with us to Haiti… Someone who was here gave me some shoes, and I found another pair of reading glasses that will work, so I have what I need…

Everyone connected with the hospital is alive except that we have not heard from Mario… several people lost members of extended family. The St. Croix church is cracked, I don’t know how badly. Eye clinic looks fine…
At night we sleep in the yard behind the hospital where the bandstand was. It has fallen, as has the Episcopal school. There are 2-300 people who sleep in that field at night. They sing hymns until almost midnight, and we wake up to a church service, with hymns, a morning prayer, and the apostle’s creed. The evening sky is glorious. In the field there is a real sense of community. Of course, we are the only blancs (whites) there… People have shared with us and we are getting a chance to feel how Haitians really live…

I have never understood joy in the midst of suffering, but now I do. The caring I have seen, the help we have received from the Haitians, the evening songs and prayers. Are wonderful. The people will survive, though many will die. Please pray for us. And pray that we and the hospital can be of help to the people here. Suzi.”

One of the lines that really struck me was the one that said: we have nothing we brought with us to Haiti, but someone gave me shoes and I found a pair of reading glasses, so I have what I need.

That is an amazingly different way to view the world than through the American Dream.

Living under the quest for the American dream, we have a constant need for bigger and better stuff.

Did you know that the average American home went from 1660 square feet in 1973 to 2400 square feet in 2004?

Did you know that there is estimated to be 1.9 billion – yes, billion with a b- 1.9 billion square feet of self-storage space in America? We have so much stuff that we don’t even know what to do with it or where we will put it.

And to get all of that space and all of the stuff to fill it, we have exploited our credit systems… and our credit systems have exploited us.

In the past twenty years, the average credit card debt in our country rose from $3,000 a person to $9,000 a person.

Thursday night, someone in our group mentioned that we have a hole in our lives that we aren’t quite sure how to fill. So we try to fill it with money and possessions. But are we happier? Are we filled? Do we have as much joy in our hearts as the woman serving in Haiti who has only a pair of shoes and reading glasses?

I’m not saying that we should sell everything we have, or throw it in to a ravine and go and serve the poor… although those were the very instructions that Jesus gave to a young man seeking his kingdom.

No, I’m instead saying that maybe our vision of what abundance looks like is a bit off.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus isn’t chastising people for their wealth and celebration… he joins together with friends and family at a wedding feast and when the wine runs out and the party threatens to fall apart… Jesus provides. Jesus takes ordinary things like jars and water and creates abundance.

In Psalm 36, we are reminded of God’s abundance… How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 7-9)

God desires abundance in our lives. An abundance of life. An abundance of joy. An abundance of hope. An abundance of relationships.

And – an abundance of the things that we need to live in that simple, generous and joyful way.

I was struck by a column this week by David Brooks in the New York Times. He wrote:

“On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services…”

This week was a reminder that stuff isn’t always the problem. People around the world need safe places to live in and well constructed buildings. They need access to medical care and they need proper roads and clean water. And not having access to those things created a disaster that far exceeds the earthquake.

I don’t know very well the history of Haiti. What I do know is that it was a nation of slaves who overturned an oppressive government. And I know that although we as a nation benefited from their success and were able buy a whole boatload of land from the defeated French for a measly 1 million dollars, we did nothing to help them. I know that their culture is very different from ours and in some cases religious practices too, but hey are still our brothers and sisters in the human race. They are God’s people too.

And yet some among us have called them cursed.

I don’t know about that. But I do know that our God has something to say about cursed and abandoned places. In our reading from Isaiah this morning we heard: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is In Her, and your land Married; for the lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.
The Lord delights in you. The Lord is with you in the middle of the field in Haiti and you sing hymns and praise him. The Lord is with you as you work for healing and bind up wounds. The Lord is with you as you tear down the rubble and begin to dream of rebuilding. The Lord is with you and the Lord will provide.
As a colleague said this week, “we trust that God wants abundance, so we follow in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus prodding God for divine compassion and generosity:”

She looked upon the situation at the wedding feast and knew that something had to be done. So she went to someone she knew could help. She went to her Lord… ‘They have no wine.’ She said.
And we have joined her this week in our prayers. They have no medical supplies, we prayed. They have no way out of that rubble, we have prayed. They have no clean water, we have prayed.
How will the Lord provide? The same way the Lord has always provided… through transforming ordinary things into the miracles of life.
That’s what Jesus did at the feast. He took simple urns and filled them with water and out poured abundance. And that is what God is doing in Haiti. He is taking fields surrounded by rubble and turning them into his cathedrals. He is taking a United Methodist Habitat for Humanity mission in the Bahamas and transformed it into rescue and recovery flight service. He takes kits made by United Methodists all across our country and turns them into health and healing for those who have nothing. He takes our dollar bills – these green pieces of paper – and turns them into food and water and medicine for the people who need them the most.
And perhaps the most amazing thing. God takes our lives. God takes our hands and feet and eyes and ears and turns them into his. When we allow Christ to work in us. When we allow ourselves to be transformed by Jesus into wine for a broken and hurting world – I think that is when we truly know what abundance is. When we are poured out for others is when we are truly filled. When we look at the ways that we can transform our time and talents and resources, we find that there is an abundance to be given. We find that there is joy in letting go of all of the things that we though we needed. We find that living below our means – we have so much more room to share.

In your bulletins, there is an insert with some worksheets. Had this week been different, we would have talked more about these things – but they will come later. For now, take them home and read over them and maybe think a little bit about the budgeting that is in the insert. Think about what you though abundance and wealth meant in your life before. And think about what God has called us to – think about what God, in the abundance of his love has provided.

Amen. And Amen.

Wisdom of the Cross

Why do you follow Jesus? And how far are you willing to go?

This past week, I got to spend some time with one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century – Jurgen Moltmann. At the age of 84, he traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to come and have a conversation with the 100 or so of us gathered in Chicago.

I had known parts of his story before and I had read at least one of his books. I knew that he was the mentor, a father-figure really, to one of my most important professors in seminary. But to sit before him and hear his story in his own words was absolutely stunning.

The center of Moltmann’s theology is the hope of the cross and the resurrection. Everything else in the world is futile if we don’t see hope there. And our journey of faith must travel through the cross to the love that awaits us on the other side.

The cross is a very difficult thing, however. It has become much easier in our lives to minimize it’s importance, to minimize its call, to polish it up and paint it beautiful colors and let it become merely the symbol of our faith.

But time and time again, this statement of Jesus’ comes up in the gospels:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Why do we people follow Jesus? Are we willing to go to the cross?

Peter certainly thought he wanted to follow Jesus. As one of the disciples, sure he didn’t always get things right – but he tried. And when Jesus and his band stopped just outside of Caesaria Phillipi to refocus their mission, Peter was ready.

Jesus asked, “who do you say that I am?” And Peter got the answer right – “You are the Messiah!”

But he didn’t understand the depths of the word that he was uttering. He heard a word that was full of power and justice and victory – when Christ has a much different sort of path in mind.

And I think that is true for many of us as well. We too balk at the idea that of a suffering Christ. We like to quickly pass over the parts about his death and get to the resurrection. We, like Peter, are eagerly waiting for the victory of Jesus to be shown in the world!

And when we are focused on victory and power and success, then we get sidetracked by other things.

The cross that we are called to take up becomes a status symbol. We wear beautiful crosses around our necks… but aren’t willing to give all we have to the poor.

The cross becomes an excuse to flaunt our difference before others. We wear the cross all over our clothes on pins and hats and backpacks… but we aren’t willing to go the extra mile for someone in need.

The cross becomes excitement and entertainment as we flock to the biggest churches with the most charismatic preachers… but we aren’t willing to see the least of these on the street corner.

The cross makes us feel good and we show up for church once a month to get our fix… but then we turn back out into the world and leave our faith in the pews.

Wisdom cries out in the streets; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Peter needs to be shown another way. He needs to have his simple story of success and victory with little or no cost altered. He needs to hear the truth. We need to hear the truth.

This week, I believe I heard the truth.

Jurgen Moltmann decided to follow Jesus as a Prisoner of War during WWII. As a young man, he had sort of found himself joining the Hitler Youth movement – not really for any good reason, and then he was drafted into the German Army. During his time of service, he witnessed the Allied bombing of his hometown of Hamburg – where over 40,000 civilians were killed – mostly women and children. He saw his best friend torn to pieces by a bomb right next to him. The two questions that lingered in his mind for years were, “Where is God?” and “Why am I not dead like all the others?” He was later captured by British soldiers and sent to a POW camp in Scotland.

It was only there that Moltmann began to hear about what had happened in the concentration camps. It was there that he began to be wracked with shame and grief and agony. And he had absolutely nothing from his experience that could get him through his pain and suffering. He had grown up in a secular home, and humanist philosophy had no words to describe his loss and guilt and grief.

But in Scotland – as a prisoner of war – as a German soldier and as a man who carried upon his shoulders the guilt of a nation – he found grace. The guards in Scotland looked at them as human beings, not demons or enemies. One of the chaplains handed Moltmann a bible – and with nothing else to do, he began to read.

Moltmann talks about how his life was completely desperate and desolate – that all the prisoners in the camp were trying to conceal their wounded souls with this armor of untouchability. But as he read through that bible from cover to cover, he was deeply moved by two things in particular: The psalms of lament and the death cry of Jesus – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He found in these words a fellow sufferer who understood what true sorrow was like.

Moltmann dove into the study of scripture and theology because God was the only thing that could save him from his despair. And out of his experiences and out of the scriptures, he shares with the world a new understanding of the cross.

While we tend to emphasize the cross as this cure for our sins – this simple and singular act that washes us clean, Moltmann began to see it as a complex and messy and passionate and painful understanding of the cross.

At the intersection of the cross all sorts of separate things fight for one another: live vs. death, hope vs. despair, the godforsaken and the godless collide.

And Christ bears these tensions – all of them, and takes all of these struggling forces to the cross and comes out on the other side with only victory: there is only life, there is only hope, there is only God.

But first, God suffers with us.

We look at the sin in our own lives, and yes – that needs to be dealt with – it needs to be redeemed by God. That happens on the cross, as Christ takes our place on the cross, and in doing so, brings us through to the resurrection.

But Moltmann also talks about Christ suffering with us. Because while there needs to be forgiveness for the sinner, there also needs to be justice for the victim. The victim needs to find peace also.

In his experience, this happened as the stories of the victim were presented to those of the perpetrators.

After the war, Moltmann said, we listened to the stories of survivors of concentration camps- because we didn’t know what happened in the death camps. We listened to their stories and looked into the eyes of the survivors and became aware of who we the Germans really were. Same took place in the truth commissions in Africa – the victims must tell the stories, perpetrators must listen to the stories, or they can’t become aware of their guilt. Sacrament of repentance! Confess the truth, change your mind, make good where you have done evil as you can”

What does it mean to take up this cross of Jesus? To really take it up, to really follow in his footsteps.

Moltmann says that we must not become apathetic. He said that we shy away from love because we believe it will only bring us pain. “If you love no one, you will feel no suffering – if you don’t love yourself you will not feel your own death b/c you don’t care. I saw soldiers who became so apathetic that they don’t care about death b/c they were completely resigned and no longer in service of life, but in service of death.

If you love life again, you risk disappointment, you must be ready to suffer on behalf of your compassion for another person and you must be ready to feel their dying.”

When Christ asks us to take up his cross, he asks us to go to those places where life and death meet. He asks us to go to those places where the victim and the perpetrator meet. He asks us to go to those places where the rich and the poor meet. And we are to listen to their stories. We are to heal their wounds. We are to love them. And by loving them, we open ourselves up to feel their pain. We open ourselves up to be hurt. But we also open ourselves up to God.