Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"A Land of Holy Questions" - at Gethsemane: "Are You Asleep? Could You not Watch One Hour?" Mark 14:32-42

And there they sleep. Can we blame them? At some point the human body has to give in. It has already been an intense week for them, as Passover usually tended to be, anyway, with all of its running here and there making preparations, visiting relations. But this particular Passover had taken it up a notch or two. They had followed Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, finding the donkey for his strange parade. They had stood by at the temple as the conflict surrounding him grew. They had no doubt dealt with the rumors that must have been circulating about the anger Jesus was stirring up among the religious leaders. The conversation in the Upper Room the night before had been particularly heavy, requiring constant thought and attention, and there was the constant worry that someone in their intimate circle would break ranks and deny him or, worse, turn him in. All in all, there was probably not much sleep to be had that week. Lots to be considered, contemplated, but eventually the body and the mind give in.

I know that my body eventually gives in. I tell people that with a house containing an infant and a two-year-old, I have a completely different relationship with sleep than I did just a few years ago. I can get up and respond to a whimper or a cry, mix a bottle with one eye still shut, but eventually some voice inside me says, “Put your pillow over your head and drown it out.” And I’m strangely proud to say that I’ve learned to sleep with one pillow under my head and one pillow over it. It sounds unfair, but I guess I’m just resigned sometimes to letting Melinda can deal with the middle-of-the-night issue alone.

I guess what I’m saying is that I can’t really point a finger at the disciples. The going has gotten tough, but the disciples just aren’t going. Even Jesus’ closest three, Peter, James and John—the same three he had chosen to climb the mountain for the Transfiguration, the three who had been there when he had raised Jairus’ daughter, the three who had been given the special briefing about his upcoming suffering—even they have either had enough or do not realize just how serious things are and have chosen to pull the pillow over their heads. Furthermore, Mark tells us they press the snooze button not once, but three times, as if to underline their utter inability to stay awake. “Are you asleep?!” Jesus asks, in frantic disbelief, “Could you not stay awake—could you not watch—one hour?”

And for what are they watching? In the parable Jesus had told the day before about the necessity for watchfulness, the doorkeeper had been told to watch vigilantly, for he would never know when the master would return. It was a reminder that the end of things was to come soon and that falling asleep, letting the mind drift to other subjects and the hands to idleness was not a wise use of time. The Lord could arrive at any minute and usher his kingdom in fully. Had they so soon forgotten that lesson? Had the whirlwind events from the week been so bewildering that it was still better just to pull the pillow back over the head?

Or might Jesus have told them to watch for the betrayer, who would certainly be followed by the guards come to arrest him? The words of Jesus’ anguished prayer, echoing the psalms of question and lament, certainly seem to suggest that Judas’ deed was on his mind. Maybe Peter and James and John had been brought like a lookout for danger, highlighting how this is a conflict of wills within Jesus’ own soul: might Jesus, at the last minute, be tipped off to Judas’ approach by watchful disciples so that he may flee?

Perhaps he just needed their ministry of presence. So deeply agitated and worried about what was to come, he needed them as friends, as people who could help him bear his torment a little easier just by being there? Disappointed, let down, he asks, “Are you asleep? as if to say, “How could you do this? Was staying awake too difficult a task?

Although I’d always envisioned this dialogue taking place in a serene garden, a place designed for quiet contemplation, in reality we learn it is a place of work, monotonous toiling and turning. Yet, to a large degree, the proximity of a large oil press seems actually to make sense, helps paint and even better picture: the heavy weight of God’s will imposed upon him, the grinding of this cold, hard reality squeezing in on him. One nineteenth-century theologian actually compared the kingdom of God to a giant wheel that Jesus set in rolling motion by his preaching and healing, but that eventually got out of control and crushed Jesus, unable to get out of its way fast enough.

Jesus prays at an oil press for the stone to stop turning, for the cup to pass, for the kingdom to continue rolling without any suffering—and asks you and I to have the common decency to stay awake with him. Jesus requests that we keep him company, that we keep each other company, that we keep the community of the baptized as our primary company.

He bids us to be on the lookout for temptation, to keep our eyes peeled for those things that do harm to God’s people, to be vigilant but vulnerable in the midst of turmoil.

He asks us stay alert for the ways God is calling us to serve, to keep the team or committee meeting on task, to respond to his call at a moment’s notice.

And yet there we sleep. In prayer, our minds drift so easily into daydreaming—at least mine does. In the grind of ministry, we let the pointless details derail and destroy us. We get burned out, stressed out, we tune ourselves out, tired and frustrated to the tasks of faith at hand. We prize the feeling of community, but we stop attending worship, we stop serving. We want our relationships to be whole and sound, but devote little energy at real acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. And the church, as a whole, sleeps through its share of opportunities of being Christ’s willing disciples in mission and outreach. In ways large and small, when it comes to being Christ’s willing disciples in each and every tough situation we look for the opportunity to pull that pillow over our heads time and time again. But can we blame ourselves? Absolutely.

At the oil press we have named Gethsemane, we see the essential tension that embattles the life of every believer: that conflict between the spirit and the flesh, the will that is in bondage to sin and the desire to be better. And, at the oil press we have named Gethsemane, we also see the grace from an incredibly patient God claim once again even our sleepy heads for his kingdom. Even after three instances of falling asleep on the watch, after three times wondering, “Are you asleep?” Jesus still asks us to accompany him. “Get up,” he says, “let us be going.” Once more being beckoned—being called from our slumber, our slackness, our sin we are invited to continue with him—invited to be with the man who has striven hard in the night with his Father, and now takes up the cup of suffering to be crushed hard for us against the cross and usher the kingdom in fully.

“Get up,” he says, “And let us be going.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent, Year B - March 15, 2009 (1 Corinthians 1:18-24)

The hymn we just sang as the hymn of the day, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” was written by a young Englishman by the name of John Bowring who eventually, toward the end of his life, became Governor of Hong Kong. As the story goes, Bowring was moved to write the words to the hymn upon seeing the bronze cross that sits atop the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Macau, China, when he was just 33. The Cathedral of St. Paul in the Portuguese territory of Macau, once the largest church in all of Asia, was damaged by a typhoon in 1835 and all but the façade and its large bronze cross burned to the ground. The intricate carvings on the stone façade were fashioned by Japanese Christians in exile in Macau, and bones of other Japanese martyrs have been discovered in the crypt. One of the remaining uppermost carvings depicts Christ’s conquest of death. Never to be reconstructed, thanks to a decline in the Christian population due to the demise of colonialism, this façade now looms over the town of Macau, a mere shell of the glory and grandeur it once possessed. With that back story in mind, one can perhaps better appreciate Bowring’s opening lines:

“In the cross of Christ I glory, tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time.
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.”

But, before we get too carried away, we must remember that people have not always gloried in the cross of Christ, nor have folks recognized that all sacred story gathers round its head, sublime, or otherwise. In fact, Paul tells his congregation in Corinth that the message of the cross is foolishness for those who don’t believe or understand it, like local pagan Gentiles and Jews. The Greek word for “foolishness” is where we get the word “moron.” In the eyes of non-believers, Paul says, only a moron would allow himself to be identified with Jesus’ crucifixion, and who would want to be associated with a moron God? For a world that has learned almost from its birth to measure strength in terms of the ability to inflict violence and injury, to assess intelligence in terms of the ability to outsmart the opponent, to award success to the brilliant and the beautiful, Jesus’ death on the cross makes absolutely no sense at all. And if God’s ways have their culmination around this event, much like a bronze cross adorns the pinnacle of a grand cathedral, then God himself runs the risk of making no sense at all. “Will the wise debater please stand up and take the mike?” Paul jokingly picks a fight. How about the one with all the fancy credentials behind your name…B.A. B.S., M.Div., why don’t you give this a whirl? Can any of you smartypants make heads or tails of this?” “I don’t think so,” Paul answers his own rhetorical question, because using human wisdom as the standard, God’s going to just look moronic.

Yet, even in that, God is wiser. And God, even at his weakest, at God’s sorriest, at the point of God’s most stinging defeat is still somehow capable of victory.

Paul is very direct with his style and language here, right off the bat, because, surprisingly, the Corinthians had begun to forget this plain fact. They shouldn’t have, given that, as Paul points out, none of them had gotten into the family of God with their smarts or their looks or their powerful connections. Yet they were apparently beginning to be enamored with things other than the gospel—things like social status and economic privilege and intellectual pedigree—and it was even creeping into the way they related to each other. Paul points out that if they weren’t careful, the Corinthians would run the risk of contradicting their own message of the cross. That is, allowing these external measurements of wisdom and wealth and status to creep in and infect their community and how they related to one another would necessarily infect their message, their proclamation about the Jesus. It’s not just that division and conflict would set in, but that they would begin to proclaim human wisdom and human power as the gospel, and that would be far inferior to God’s wisdom and power made known in the cross. What made that wisdom and power so life-saving, so world transforming was that it was built on weakness.

I always hesitate to make a reference to a movie for a sermon illustration because these days there are fewer and fewer movies that everyone has seen, but there is a clip from the 2006 film “We Are Marshall” which has stuck so clearly in my head that I can’t help but share it. The movie “We Are Marshall” tells the true story of the athletic department of and the community around Marshall University following the horrific plane crash in November of 1970 that all but wiped out the football team, the coaching staff and key alumni.

The plot centers on the university’s reluctant decision to rebuild the team from nothing and the obstacles they face in a struggling town whose main pride is linked to the fortunes of the football team. When they win, times are great. When they lose, people grow restless and depressed. From the start, the new coach brought in for the task, Jack Lengyel, played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, faces an uphill climb in his attempt to form a team with no scholarship players. His most formidable criticism, however, comes from his own assistant coach, Red Dawson, played by Matthew Fox, who is embarrassed and mortified at the weekly trouncings the new Marshall team is taking. Red, who was not on the plane that went down, is convinced that continuing to play, even though they are by far the weakest team in the conference and therefore completely unable to win—much less score on a regular basis—is a desecration of the dead players’ memories and of the former head coach’s philosophy, which was “winning is everything.”

At the turning point in the movie, Coach Red has abandoned the team, humiliated by the team’s loss and convinced that Coach Lengyel is doing the wrong thing by continuing to field the team. One night, Coach Lengyel tracks down Red on campus to talk him back into returning. In a moving scene, Coach Lengyel concurs that for sports teams, winning is important, if not primary. But in the circumstances of Marshall’s situation, he explains, he has realized that winning looks altogether different. Rather than defining winning by the tally on the scoreboard at the end of the game, Coach Lengyel suggests that their team wins just by stepping onto the field, in a way, by acknowledging their weakness. For their situation, embracing the team’s obvious weakness will be victory, in and of itself.

The setting for this conversation between the coaches is what makes the scene totally effective: they are sitting together in what appears to be the university chapel. And, as their talk draws to a close and Coach Lengyel has said all he can about redefining the concept of winning and he gets up to leave Coach Red in prayer, the camera pans out over their shoulder to focus on the wall behind the altar where there hangs, plain as can be, a cross.

I’ve been meaning to look up to see if that cinematographer was Lutheran, because the message of grace is so blatantly clear. Winning does look different now. Not necessarily in football…but in a life lived by the message of the cross. When we take to heart the message that victory is won when Jesus fully embraces his weakness—our human weakness—and dies on the cross, then all our attempts to appear powerful or clever or connected really fall flat. “Where is the debater of this age? Where is the one who is wise? Could someone take the microphone and give it a go?” Paul’s old questions ring out, but we know the answer.

My sense is that the world still hasn’t quite made sense of the cross, present preacher included. It’s not like two thousand years later we’ve suddenly realized what the Corinthians hadn’t. We try to talk down the importance of the message of the cross, thinking there surely might be other reasons we should hang out together: it’s a great place to network, it’s a social club; it’s entertainment. We clutter the route behind Jesus’ footsteps with all kinds of gimmicks and programs that we think will help the community of Jesus win in the surrounding culture but in the end which do little but hide the fact that we all stand in need of this grace. We set up all kinds of ways to impress each other, and, we hope, in the process, God. We forget that because God won victory in handing over his Son to weakness and brokenness, the way of that victory involves simply stepping on the field of life, in all our human weakness, and letting the power of the resurrection have its way there, too. Most of all, we neglect to consider our own calls, that no matter who we think we are, we all started—perhaps even kicking and screaming like I’ve heard I did—in the same wet marble basin, with the same words, “you’ve been marked with this cross of Christ…forever.”

In the end, that will be the cross that towers over the wrecks of time, gathering the light of sacred story. Not a bronze cross that adorns a fallen cathedral, no matter how shiny…not even a bigger wooden cross that towers over the end of Monument Avenue, but the cross that marks the lives of the people who have been chosen purely for their losing status. The people who broadcast, primarily through their own weakness and lack of wisdom, that God has won. It is an odd way of winning, perhaps. It has been called foolish before. But God is victorious, indeed.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B - February 22, 2009 (Mark 9:2-9)

I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t like to have a story spoiled for me. If there is a movie I know I might see but haven’t had the time yet, I tell my friends who have seen it not to mention anything at all about the story—even if they think the nugget they want to share is not going to spoil the ending. I’ve found that any little detail they might divulge could ruin the effect of the story on me. Likewise, when I’m reading a novel whose plot has really pulled me in and I’m finally in that last twenty or so pages where everything’s going to get resolved, I find that I have to place a piece of paper over the pages I have yet to get to so that my eyes don’t curiously wander over to the end. The pull to ignore what’s happening in the plot now and concentrate on the end is so hard to resist. I want to preserve the effect of the story, but at the same time I have this almost irrepressible urge to know that everything will turn out OK.

Perhaps you’re the same way. Perhaps we’re all the same, especially about things more serious than books and movies. We stand there, like Elisha, gazing at our future as it whizzes out of our grasp, scared for the present and desperate that God will give us in the end what we’ve hoped for. I was speaking recently to a mother who just gave birth her second child four months premature. Inexplicably, her body went into labor after already having announced it to the world, delivering a little baby girl who was too frail and small to survive. Heartbroken and emotionally unmoored, the mother struggled to put her grief into words over the phone. “All I wish,” she said, “is that it were already a year from now.” She knew, almost instinctively, that in a year the pain would be less sharp, the future a little less bleak, her emotions a little less raw. She, like many of us, would rather skip to the final page of that book to glimpse the reality that all will turn out OK.

It occurs to me that the Transfiguration of our Lord—by many accounts one of the odder things that happens to Jesus—is a glimpse at the end of the story, a brief look at the future reality for an assurance that it will all turn out OK. The transfiguration is not simply a biblical version of TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” with Jesus flanked by Elijah and Moses, two Old Testament Clinton and Stacy’s, explaining how the addition of one dazzling white tunic can transform himself and therefore his life. Jesus’ transfiguration is a bright flash of glory and hope—a light at the end of the tunnel, if you will—that serves, in some way, to sustain through the dark days ahead. And those days—those long pages in between—are going to be dark, very dark, especially for Jesus.

According to Mark’s account of this mountaintop experience, Jesus’ transfiguration falls right in between two of his predictions of his death and resurrection. In fact, it is six days prior to this event, in Caesarea Philippi, when, together with all of his disciples, Jesus lowers the boom on them that following along is not going to be all fancy healings and zinging the Pharisees with sharp teachings. There’s sufferin’ in them thar hills, and Jesus means to go there. Those who come along will need to expect to lay down their life, too. And as Peter, James and John come down off the mount of Transfiguration, we overhear their nervous conversation, thanks to Mark: “What in the world does he mean,” they ask, “with all this ‘raising from the dead’ talk?” And they’re thoroughly confused, and they speculate that Elijah may be coming back, and Jesus tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to explain it all again. But before too long, conversation returns to the bits about dying and rising and Jesus spells out once again that the pages in the upcoming chapters will be full of betrayal and violence and murder.

And so, it is not clear from the story whether the disciples realize this glimpse for what it is. What they do see on the mountaintop is surely amazing. Jesus’ figure is somehow altered or changed before their very eyes. It is a mystery exactly what this means—the Greek word is essentially metamorphosis (think: caterpillar to butterfly)—but no matter what happens to his appearance, the disciples are still able to recognize him as Jesus. And his clothes become brighter than any experiment with a Clorox bottle. And the two most significant Old Testament figures—Moses, a stand in for God’s Law, and Elijah, representing all the prophets, appear to confab with him awhile.

It is more than the three former fishermen can take. The white light, the changing appearance of their friend and rabbi, and the unprecedented arrival of two Jewish heroes who disappeared off the planet long ago all leave them speechless. The only thing Peter can think to say is, “Let’s build some tents and camp out awhile here.” And then, before they can put their heads together to come up with a well-thought-out social statement on the matter, to be passed by a simple majority, a cloud covers the whole crowd up and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” On the way down the mountain, Jesus explains that no one should speak a thing. Don’t want to spoil the ending for everyone else, remember?

This is really the first instance in Mark’s gospel where anyone has any idea that Jesus might have something to do with the divine. The thunder of a similar heavenly voice had occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, but at that point, only Jesus had heard it. Up to this point, demons have recognized him as the Son of God, but no human has claimed him thus. And the only thing Jesus has directly mentioned about himself has been…the dark chapters of suffering and dying ahead. Inexplicably, yet totally in-line with the surprising instances of grace a surprising God is prone to visit upon us, the transfiguration becomes a sneak-peak into Christ’s heavenly nature. In Jesus’ transfiguration, God gives Jesus’ followers a grace-filled glimpse of the greater glory that awaits Jesus at the end of the story, when the radiance of the resurrection will show that everything does turn out amazing. There will be white clothes at that point, too—empty grave linens—and also a command about telling others, except this time the command is to spread the news, not to remain silent. Ironically, fear and speechlessness will grip the disciples then, again, but by then the plot will have really been settled, once and for all. Death and darkness and suffering and injustice thought they had conquered. But God had other plans. God ruined the end of that story by raising him up.

So, welcome to the Great Story, James Edwards and Greyson Castle! It’s a good one, but it has its ups and downs. You and your parents look just as unsuspecting as the rest of us today—unsuspecting to those ups and downs that accompany the life of every disciple. As we paraded you down the aisle after your baptism, we couldn’t help but reflect on our own journeys with Jesus: how our days began in the joyful wonder of baptism—happy beginning—and then carry on through who-knows-what. Eventually, there will be death. We often wish it weren’t like this—we often wish we could just pitch a tent in the fun parts and let the world go by—but it’s a fact of redeemed life in a broken world.

As James and Greyson grow in faith and obedience to the will of God, they will likely reach points at which they realize, as you and I have, that following this Jesus guy is no walk in the park. They’ll encounter those days we wish it were already tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. When this happens for them—heck, when it happens for any of us—let us not forget to remind each other of the glory for which we’re bound. Let us not forget that Jesus has stood on the mount, transfigured, with a glory and a story that transfigures you and me. When it is difficult to go forward into the dark days, when we feel our life slipping away despite our every effort to hang on, let the foretaste of that feast be placed in our hand and on our lips to remind us our eyes can, indeed, drift to the end of the story, once again.

Yes, they’ll need to drift over there, gloriously spoiled ending that it is: He is risen. That transfigured guy? Yep, he rises from the dead!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.