Sunday, July 30, 2006

Proper 12B

2 Kings 2:1-15; Psalm 114; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16; Mark 6:45-52

It all started with Batman. I don’t even know where our then three-year-old son’s first Batman toy came from, but there he was on our coffee table, his superhero body impossibly proportioned, his long plastic cape forever frozen in mid-rustle, standing strong and tall and proud, and towering over all the others. All the others, that is, who had come to visit the little toy baby Jesus lying in a little toy manger. It seems Charlie had arranged a somewhat chaotic jumble of sheep and shepherds, kings and camels, dinosaurs and matchbox cars all there together to visit baby Jesus, all safe under the protective watch of Batman. Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.

I think it was Spiderman who swung into Charlie’s life next; then came the Incredible Hulk, and Superman, and the Power Rangers, until his toy box was full of superheroes using their super strength to save the day. But that began to change after we took him to see The Incredibles, an animated movie about a whole family of superheroes. You see, in that family, each member is a superhero, but only the father, Mr. Incredible, has super strength. The mother, ElastiGirl, is super stretchy. The little boy, Dash, is super fast. The little girl, Viola, can become invisible. All of a sudden, then, toys without impossibly proportioned bodies and plastic capes became potential superheroes. Little Charlie’s stuffed monkey, rescued a thousand times by Superman, had the power to walk on his tail. The little red racecar had the power to fly. The happy meal puppet had the power to leap tall buildings….well, you know. The little toy baby Jesus had never been safer.

The little real baby Jesus was born in a world that felt very unsafe to the people of Israel. They longed for a messiah, a superhero with super strength to rescue them mightily from the weight of the law and the heavy hand of Rome. So far, it didn’t exactly seem like Jesus was going to save the day. Sure, he had some impressive powers – healing diseases, exorcising demons, restoring life, and that thing with the loaves and fish had been a really neat trick. Maybe this was just his secret identity, they thought. Maybe he was waiting for just the right moment to flex his muscles, brandish his sword, and defeat the enemies of God’s chosen people. But Jesus was not that kind of hero. All the while they were waiting for him to show his super strength, he was saving the day, saving them, saving the whole world by the power of love. He was defeating the enemies of God’s chosen people – not the religious authorities or the Romans but enemies far more prevalent, far more sinister. Fear. Hatred. Isolation. Judgment. Despair. Death. Like so many superheroes, Jesus’ power was completely misunderstood.

When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. It doesn’t sound much like saving to us, but as wind whipped water sent currents into chaos, and the little boat fought to move forward, Jesus wanted to show them that his power to save was far beyond the strength of even the mightiest warrior. His was the power of God. Take heart, it is I. Be not afraid.

In the ancient near east, and all throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the power to manipulate water belonged only to God. Water represented chaos and destruction (in Mississippi and all along the Gulf Coast we understand why). Over and over again, when water threatened life, God alone was able to hold it back, to dry it up, to contain its chaos. And yet in those same scriptures it is also out of water that life is born and with water that life is sustained and without water that life withers.

In the beginning….in the very first chapter of the very first book of the bible, a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters, and begins to create the heavens and earth. Where once there was chaos, now there was life. In their flight from Egypt, God saves the Hebrew people when by faith Moses stretches out his hand over the Red Sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. In the very midst of chaos, the way to a new life is offered. While journeying through the wilderness, the Hebrew people grow thirsty, but there is no water to drink, and they despair, wondering if God is among them. God tells Moses, I will be standing there in front of you….Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. When chaos disrupts or threatens life, God is standing there, mighty to save. Whose life was ever more chaotic than Job’s, who yet in the midst of his ordeal struggles to hold on to his belief that God still cares, saying, God is wise in heart, and mighty in strength….who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the Sea….Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him. Like Job, straining against adverse winds, our eyes squinted and our muscles tense, we do not see God walking toward us, passing by, beckoning us to turn our boats and follow. The mission of Jesus Christ would be to help us see God in the midst of chaos, a mission that would begin when Jesus came up dripping from the waters of the Jordan River, and a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved.

Water, the chaos that threatens our lives and the means by which we live, is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace given to us in baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death, our prayerbook reads. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. We may never be able to part oceans or to turn flintstone into flowing springs or to walk on water, but in our baptism we do receive the power to be creative in the midst of chaos, to live in hope though the wind batters our boats, to see and to help others to see Jesus and not a ghost. In our baptism we receive power not as self-sufficient superheroes, and not as mere sidekicks, but as many members of the Body of Christ.

And so lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, Paul writes, sounding for all the world like Peter Parker’s grandfather….With great power comes great responsibility. Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

It wouldn’t do too well at the box office. By the world’s standards, it doesn’t sound much like saving the day. It doesn’t sound much like power. But then, our inclination to save ourselves, to strain against adversaries, to fight our way forward, to stand strong and tall and proud, towering over all the others….in the end, it just whips up more wind, more water, more chaos, more fear, hatred, isolation, judgment, despair, even death. In the end, it wears us out.

Adverse winds blow from every direction, in our world, our nation, our community, our families, in our dear Episcopal Church. Straining against those winds, against one another, against God, we misunderstand our own powers. Early that morning, on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walked on the water full of the mighty power of God - not super strength, but the awesome power of humility and gentleness, patience and love, unity and peace. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are given the power to make a way in and through the chaotic waters of life. We are given the power to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors and our adversaries as ourselves, to work for justice freedom and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being – all this never by our own strength, but always and only with God’s help.

What would happen if we faced the adverse winds in our lives with humility and gentleness rather than fierce straining? With patience rather than fumbling urgency? What if, in the midst of struggle, we bore one another in love? What if we made every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, not blind to injustice and sin, to what divides us, but also not blind to hope, to the presence of Christ in our midst? The storms might not cease – they didn’t always cease for Jesus either, but it was by this kind of strength that he rendered wind and chaos, fear and isolation, hatred and despair and even death powerless.

When he sees that we are straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he comes toward us early in the morning, walking on the water. Will we see him? If not, we don’t have a ghost of a chance. But if we are willing to look into the wind, to look at one another, with the power of his love, then we are saved, and a new life has already begun. Let us pray,

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Proper 11B

Isaiah 57:14b-21; Psalm 22:22-30; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44

Don’t Panic. So reads, in large, friendly letters, the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is intended to reassure travelers, to put them at ease right from the start as their journey through Life, the Universe, and Everything begins. Don’t Panic.

Of course, from time to time, the assorted characters in Douglas Adams’ novels about that journey do panic, and not without good reason. One character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, finds himself on a desolate planet where he faces a sentence worse than death – he is to be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex. It is worse than death, because it shows its victims how insignificant their lives are. For inside the Total Perspective Vortex (incidentally no larger than a coat closet), they are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation…the infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself in relation to it…an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.

It turns out to be no problem for our hero Zaphod, who believes he is the most important thing in the universe. Inside the Vortex, he indeed glimpses how infinitely small he is, but he also sees that entire unimaginable infinity of creation revolving around his invisible dot.

Far more often, those who entered the Vortex were unable to cope with the perspective of life it revealed. The immensity of the universe, filled with countless spheres separated from one another by vast, empty space; the staggering population of lives – of invisible dots – separated from one another by vast, empty space….It overwhelmed the mind and heart and spirit of its victims, not killing them, but turning the rest of their lives into a vast, empty space in which they would always see themselves as small and isolated and alone.

Such a terrible machine seems out of place in a novel that otherwise has its readers laughing till they’re out of breath, but then the terrible realization that such a perspective of life isn’t very fictional at all would just take our breath away anyway.

Did it take Jesus’ breath away, and the breath of his disciples, wouldn’t it have taken your breath away, to come away to a deserted place – other translations say a lonely place – and find it full of people? A lonely place full of people….people who were hungry and hurting and hopeful that their lives could be happier. A lonely place full of people….

And in the midst of that lonely crowd were Jesus and the disciples, surrounded and yet, I suspect, feeling themselves quite small and isolated and alone. They had come to this place to escape the crowd, to catch their breath, to attend just for a moment to their own hunger and hurt and hope before facing the infinite needs of the world again.

But there they were, that crowd, that ever-present always hungry, always hurting, always hoping crowd. Them. Jesus and the disciples had every reason to be angry or resentful or, in their weariness, despairing, and I suspect the disciples felt all those things. But Jesus looked at that great crowd from a different perspective in which the unimaginable infinity of creation is not full of empty space and invisible dots but is, rather, a closely knit fabric with countless colorful strands twisting around one another. And so Jesus saw not a crowd but a collection of people, and he had compassion for them, Mark tells us, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

It would have been so easy to just see a Them – that’s how the world teaches us to see. Us and Them. In that crowded lonely place it was Us, the helpers, and Them, the needy. In Paul’s time, as we heard in his letter to the Ephesians, it was Us, the Jews, and Them, the Gentiles. But the categories areunimaginably infinite. Us, from this country; Them, from another. Us, with one skin color; Them, with another. Us, from this side of the tracks; Them, from the other side. Us, college graduates; Them, no high school diploma. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born, liberal and conservative, labor and management, gay and straight, old and young, Baptist and Episcopalian and Methodist and Lutheran and Catholic, Ole Miss and State….We’re really good at knowing what makes us Us, and them Them. And we’re really good at knowing why it’s better to be Us than it is to be Them. And while this knowledge helps us feel strong and significant and secure, it is also what separates us from one another, not so much by vast, empty spaces but by walls which may as well be infinitely wide. We are surrounded by Them, and they by Us, but if our walls keep us from seeing one is a lonely place full of people. “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling.

But there is another perspective. It is vision of the One who, according to Isaiah, dwells in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit. It is the sight of the One who was fully God and fully human. It is the perspective of the One who saw a great crowd with compassion, and who, Paul writes, created in himself one new humanity in place of the two (Jews and Gentiles, Paul means, but it could be any Us and Them), who created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross. It is the perspective that allows us to sing, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

The whole wide earth – it may not be the infinite universe, but it’s still a pretty big place. And there are still a great many hungry and hurting and desperately hopeful people, including ourselves from time to time. And there are a great many people who look or act or speak or hunger or hurt or hope or believe very differently than we do. It’s overwhelming. Try as we might to distance ourselves, to make this big lonely crowded place smaller by putting up walls, the foundation we’re building on, whose cornerstone is Christ, just doesn’t support that sort of structure. Jesus would have us stand face to face, to look with compassion upon one another, upon that great collection of people that surrounds us. Kinda makes you want to be invisible, right? How can we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hurt, such hunger, such hope?

The disciples asked Jesus this very question toward the end of that long day in that not-so-deserted place. There may have been some compassion in their suggestion that the crowd break for dinner, but it sounds to me like the need for distance was greater: Send Them away, the disciples said, so that They may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for Themselves to eat. When Jesus breaks down that wall, You give them something to eat, the disciples desperately throw up another, answering, in effect, Jesus, we just don’t have it in us. How can we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hurt, such hunger, such hope? We just don’t have it in us.

Mark doesn’t say so, but I think that in that moment, Jesus saw his disciples as he had first seen the great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because hiding behind that wall, the disciples, too, were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them about Life, the Universe, and Everything from his perspective. You don’t have it in you? Well, what have you got? Jesus asked them. You've got something. How many loaves have you? Go and see.

You know what happened. They brought back five loaves and two fish. That was all they had. Well, that and, and this is what I think they hadn’t considered, they had those few loaves and fish, nearly invisible before the size of the crowd, and they had Jesus. And everyone was fed.

It is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospels – a cherished event in the life and ministry of Jesus. Many have wondered just how five thousand people ate dinner. Did he break off enough tiny bits for everyone, more a symbolic meal than a feast? Did others, when Jesus blessed the disciples’ generosity, begin pulling food out of their packs for a giant potluck picnic on the grass? Or did five loaves and two fish, by some divine mystery, simply feed everyone until they were full?

The real miracle, though, is not that a small amount of food somehow fed a large number of people. The real miracle was a change in perspective. We may be small, but we are not isolated, never alone. We are sheep with a Shepherd. We are a collection of people upon whom Jesus has looked with compassion, whom Jesus has fed with his word and with bread, with his body and blood. Whether we have five loaves and two fish to offer, or much more, or much less, if we offer them to Jesus, he will bless them and use them.

Molly Wolf, writes, “Whatever you’ve got, give it. You don’t know what price tag God puts on it, after all.” (How valuable that day were five loaves of bread and two fish!) She continues, “It is probably safe to assume that God’s values are not much like ours, and what seems unworthy to us may please God greatly. But don’t worry about it. Just give whatever you have most of. It will do.”

A change in perspective. How do we, who are so small, step into such a big place, such a big crowd, such hunger, such hurt, such hope? Don’t Panic. We go together, no longer Us and Them, no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Amen.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Proper 9B

Ezekiel 2:1-7; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-6

The first time I drove to Camp Bratton-Green by myself, I had been given pretty good directions – which exit to take, then take an immediate left, which state road to turn on to, which side of the road the entrance to camp was on. And I made it there just fine. But when it was time to leave, I noticed that the directions didn’t actually name the road between the exit and the state road, so, afraid that I would miss the turn, I asked someone for help, and was told, “Oh, you know, I don’t know, but it’s that intersection where the two-story house used to be.”

I’ve gotten a few directions like that around here, too – “Just turn at Mary and Dave’s house, well, the Smith’s live there now, and it’s right there. Just before the house where Ann grew up.”

Places – especially in the South it seems – are very often more than they are. They are also who they used to be. They don’t have names – they have stories, and someone who’s lived here a long time can recognize them as easily from a piece of their history as from a street address.

People can be like that, too, especially in the south, especially in small towns. Everyone knows everyone, and who their parents were, and who they took to the prom. Ask who was sitting behind someone in church, and you’re likely to hear, “Oh that’s Steve, the doctor, Jack and Lisa’s son. Scored the winning touchdown in the state championship. He grew up across the street from Mary and Dave’s house, well, the Smith’s live there now. ”

Nazareth was very much like a small southern town. Everyone knew everyone – most of them were related, if not by blood, then by marriage. Businesses were handed down by generation. No one ever left.

Except Jesus. Just as he was taking on his father’s trade and responsibility for supporting the family, he up and left, muttering something about water and the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God. Bless his heart.

When he finally came back home, the townspeople recognized him right away. He was the one whose birth to parents-barely-married had caused quite a stir. The rabbi remembered Jesus dutifully studied the Torah as a young boy, full of questions about God and the world. The shopkeepers remembered him running with his friends through the marketplace at breakneck speed. The young women, now mothers themselves, remembered wondering if he was going to be the one their parents chose to be their husband. And most of them had something in their home he had made with the careful, calloused hands of a carpenter – a bench, a table, a doorframe.

Jesus was no stranger to the people of Nazareth. They knew him as well as they knew themselves. Like them, he was not just ordinary – he was extra-ordinary. Jesus was no stranger, but no one had any idea who he was. Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?

There is a modern-day story about a young man who, as a teenager, had been kicked out of the corner grocery store in his neighborhood for causing more than a few problems there. Twelve years later, the devoted father of two and a newly certified social worker, he returned home to visit his family. He walked over to the corner grocery for milk, and was surprised to see the same store owner behind the counter. The store owner looked up at him, squinted his eyes and said, “I told you, stay out!”

A more familiar modern-day story, perhaps, is that of mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent, so ordinary that all it takes is a pair of glasses to keep people from knowing that he’s Superman.

Theologians have called this the scandal of particularity. Someone or something is so familiar, so common, so extra-ordinary, that we miss what is extraordinary about them. We know them (or think we know them) so well that we don’t know them at all.

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? Jesus, who spent most of his adult life as a craftsman, had no credibility as a tent-show evangelist in Nazereth. Where did this man get all this? they asked. What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands?

The people of Nazareth had such an opportunity that day. They could open their hearts and minds to something new, finally believe Mary’s strange story about an angel and a baby and a promise that God was going to be at work in the world in a very ordinary and wonderful way. Heaven right there, in their small town. Jesus, the Messiah, the boy whose sticky fingerprints were always on the water jars.

Instead, they took offense at him. His preaching – though apparently astounding – was scandalous. He was pretending to be something he was not. Instead of miracles, they saw magic tricks. Instead of God, they saw a carpenter. Their hearts and minds remained closed around what they already knew, that Jesus belonged among wooden beams, with a hammer, and nails in his hands.

Thousands of years and millions of witnesses later, we know that the man who walked into town that day was the carpenter, the son of Mary, and that he was also the Savior, the Son of God. In Jesus, God was a little boy who lost his father, who stubbed his toes, who learned a trade, who worked for a living, who supported his family. What was once a scandal we now take as the foundation of our faith, the scandal of a God whose intimate familiarity with us went even to death on a cross. In Jesus, love was made extraordinary in ordinariness.

There is, then, a unique challenge for us in this morning’s gospel. From our baptismal covenant we know that we are called to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Our beautiful worship spaces, our fine and ancient liturgies, our passion for outreach, our summer camp, are all truly extraordinary efforts to answer that call.

But this morning we are being called to something much more….ordinary. We are being called to see what the people of Nazareth could not, what they were too scandalized to see – that God is most profoundly present in what is most profoundly common, familiar, and ordinary in our lives.

The ordinary contains extraordinary wonders. We make that claim every time we share a meal of bread and wine, every time we are sprinkled with water from the font, every time we gather to celebrate the life of the carpenter, the son of Mary.

When you leave here this morning, go back just the way you came (you know, past Mary and Dave’s house, well, the Smith’s live there now, and through the intersection where the two story house used to be). Go back just the way you came and look along that familiar road. Every day, look in the most common, familiar, ordinary places and people of your lives – the ones you know so well – and see them, perhaps for the first time, as places where God is profoundly present, as people whose stories reflect something of the story of Jesus. Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? Yes, it is, and thank goodness, for in him the extraordinary love of God touched our ordinariness, so that our lives, too, could be made extraordinary. Amen.