Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7B] - June 21, 2009 (Mark 4:35-41)

My parents always told me to respect a storm. Lightning does strike people, they’d tell me. Every year it does. Trees can be taken down by the wind. When we were little I distinctly remember we were never allowed to take showers or baths when there was a thunderstorm doing its thing outside. It was a useful bit of wisdom, I suppose.

Perhaps, then, they’d be mortified to learn that just a couple of years ago I went on a jog on an afternoon when the news reported that a storm might be brewing. Thinking I could outrun it, I started off when there were only a couple of small clouds in the sky. About a mile or so into my run, I noticed that it started to get really dark. I thought to myself, “No big deal. I’ve run in the rain before.” Before I knew it, a lightning bolt struck nearby that stopped me in my tracks. I was at the top of a high hill and figured I was like a human lightning rod, even though I knew the statistical chances of getting hit were very low. Within a few seconds, the bottom fell out of the clouds and lightning was flashing all around me. Not wanting to stand underneath the tall trees that were lining the street, and knowing I was too far from home to turn back, I made a mad dash for a covered porch on a house across the street. I did not know these people, so I rang the doorbell when I got there just to ask their permission to bide the storm’s passing. I didn’t want to be asked inside, but I wanted them to know I was there. To my dismay, no one answered. For fifteen whole minutes I waited on that stranger’s covered patio for the storm to pass. I felt safe and I kept dry, but I just kept hoping that some other neighbor wouldn’t see this strange sweaty man on a porch he didn’t belong and report him for trespassing. Well, you know what they say…any porch in a storm!

The disciples in this morning’s story have no such safety or place to watch the rain and lightning, but they do ring the doorbell and get no response. Jesus, their teacher and leader, the one who would know what to do in this frightening situation, sleeps soundly through the chaos. They begin to try to rouse him, but with what hope? What is it exactly that they think he’ll do for them? Chart the quickest path to some stranger’s front porch to wait it out? Devise some system for reducing the boat’s watery ballast mid-storm? Lead them in a psalm for safety? He had healed so many already…do they hope he can bring that power to bear on them now in some way? After all, they are perishing! Can’t he save their lives?

It’s difficult to say for sure, but it occurs to me—based on their final reactions—that the last thing they would ever expect him to do is make the storm stop. They look to him in this moment where everything is out of their control because they have come by this point to respect his leadership. He is their Rabbi, their Teacher. It is likely they want him to solve the issue of their boat, but Jesus will end up solving the issue of the storm.

Mark paints a very vivid picture of what happens next. Jesus does not consult anyone about emergency procedures or take stock of people’s feelings. Jesus gets up from his cushion and stops the storm. The word in the Greek for what Jesus does when he wakes up—diegeiro—suggests that he goes to the uppermost point in the boat, the bow. I imagine Jesus doesn’t look all that different from that scene in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character stands out on the point of the bow, wind blowing through his hair, and shouts out onto the open sea, “I am the king of the world!!”

Interestingly, the same Greek word for Jesus’ act of rising up is used to describe seas when they get rough and choppy. So here we have Jesus, the sleepy-headed rabbi, “growing rough and turbulent” in an answer to the seas that have grown rough and turbulent. He rebukes the wind—angrily scolding it for the tempest that it is—and the word of God commands the waters to be still. Standing up there in the bow, no doubt looking like some silly King of the World, Jesus tells the chaos to come under control.

And it happens! There is dead calm. The storm vanishes, and the boat of disciples continues to the other side of the lake.

What always catches me a little off-guard about this story is the disciples’ reaction at the end. Their prevailing sense of mind is not one of relief that their life has been spared or thankfulness for the calm seas, but rather awe, amazement, fear for who Jesus is, who he might be. Mark describes them as “fearing a great fear,” saying to one another, “who is this man, that even the wind and seas obey him?” Jesus has just essentially ridiculed them for a lack of faith, and they are still getting over the fact that their rabbi—the one who was just sleeping there on the cushion—has just demonstrated a power known to be possessed only by God the Almighty. They fear him. In fact, he is the only thing they really ever fear in this text.

So often this story of Jesus and the storm is used to draw a comparison to the various storms of our lives in order to bring relief, to assure us of God’s presence with us and power for us in the midst of calamity. And certainly we are reassured, on some level—through the cancer treatments, the loss of the job, the marriage that seems to founder—that Jesus can take our rocky boats and glide them safely through the storm. Yet in the stilling of the storm on Lake Galilee, Jesus is not simply a steady hand at the tiller. He is very God. By commanding the seas to be quiet and then invoking fear, rather than relief, in his disciples, Jesus is cast undeniably in the role of God—the God who commanded creation into existed with his word, the God who controlled the crashing waters at the first creation. Jesus is this same God who answers Job out of the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? [When I] shut the sea with its doors?” Jesus, our Teacher, speaks on behalf of and, in fact, embodies, this God who alone set the stars in their courses and set the measurements of the universe.

We have the temptation in the midst of crisis—whatever it is—to develop a myopia of misery, a nearsightedness that causes us to fixate purely on the storm and our place in it, to ask the question, “Why me?” or “Don’t you see that I’m perishing?” The challenge for faith is to remember God has the long view, the entire picture in mind. Just God was there at the beginning, God will be there at the end and into eternity. God knows how we got into the storm and how it fits into whatever comes after. God deserves our thankfulness and our devotion for our steps along that path, but God also deserves our fear.

Martin Luther begins every one of his explanations to the Ten Commandments with the words, “We should so fear and love God, that we should…” The First Commandment, for example, for Luther, means “We should so fear, love, and trust God above all things.” As we encounter our Lord in the Words of Scripture, in the sacraments, the point is not that our overwhelming reaction to God is to be afraid of him, but that we, through whatever happens, develop a profound respect for God’s ability to mould the universe and all the little events in it.. In this Galilee boat, like so many other times in the gospel story, Jesus is prodding his disciples to a deeper faith, a more profound respect, a deeper realization of how God engages and then declares authority over the winds and waves of life. Choppy and turbulent, chaotic and destructive, the waters rise up and threaten to do us in, but he rises up, too, and puts them in their place.

Yes, he rises up too. On the third day he rises, standing there, glorious, like the King of all Creation. In the storm that is Good Friday, even Jesus submits to the waves of abandonment and suffering for the sake of the God who alone can take the long view that sees through to Easter morning…and beyond. A deeper faith and trust in this God of Jesus makes us confident that no matter what, no matter what, God has the final word with the resurrection.

As Luther suggests, a faith based in fear and awe of God moves us not to question God’s whereabouts as we ring the doorbell frustratedly, wondering, “Are you there?” “Are you asleep??” Neither does such a faith lead us to consider God’s obliviousness to our plight, frantically asking, “Don’t you care that I’m dying?” Instead, it leads us to trust in the midst of the whirlwind that God is victorious over it, that there is no way, now that Jesus is in our boat, that we can be completely overcome. No way. Never. He rises up.

And, so, today our boat gains a new crewman. His name is River Jacob. A great watery name to remind him, perhaps, of the crashing river that birthed him, the waters that birth all of us in that new creation free from sin that Jesus brings. It is the water that washes up at the feet of the saints among whose great company we all will stand some day. Until then, River, pick up some wisdom along the way, from us, your rivermates, and, of course, your loving parents.

Like: respect a storm. They can be kind of dangerous.

But mostly: respect One who can still it.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Day of Pentecost, Year B - May 31, 2009 (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

The hours until his departure are growing shorter, and Jesus is trying his hardest to convince his worried and perplexed disciples that when he finally leaves them things will be just fine. Despite any fears and misgivings about this strange plan they may have, he assures them that they will be able to carry on without him: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:” he says, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”

As if there could be something better than having Jesus himself!

And yet, Jesus himself implies quite strongly that this Advocate, this Counselor—whom they have not even seen, the one who will come only if Jesus vacates the premises—is the more-exciting “Act II” of God’s gracious redemption story. That’s what Jesus seems to be saying, but I cannot help but think that they must sense they are about to be left in the lurch, with no one reliable to turn to show them how to carry on.

It kind of makes me think about the people in that reality series Clean House, which airs on the Style Network. I had never seen it until a few weeks ago, but as Melinda will testify, I can’t help but watch it when I stumble upon it channel-surfing. Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn in. Perhaps I’m thinking, “They could come to my office! And my car!” In an episode of Clean House, a quartet of extremely animated and ambitious home-makeover and design experts descend upon an inexplicably messy and cluttered house and attempt to organize it, throw away most of its contents or sell them at a yard sale, and, finally, completely renovate and refurbish the place. Clean House is kind of like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but with a more realistic edge and no sappy stories to make you cry. They don’t get a new home or a new yard, or new thousand-dollar household accessories to make their lives easier. The people on Clean House are, to put it bluntly, just plain messy, and the show’s organizing and design experts have to work with what they’re given and leave them better off.

In any case, one of the reasons I find the show so compelling is that the four experts who descend upon the house to clean it up are able to transform it so completely. Sifting through years of needless clutter and junk—junk which often obscures any useful purpose for the house’s given space—these feisty four people have the skills to clean, sweep, prioritize and counsel the homeowners into a completely new existence. And then, at the end of the show, after the house is re-done, they leave.

Anyone who has ever seen the show cannot help but wonder at that point: how long will that house stay so neat and clean once the experts have left? How long until the lucky homeowners return to their old, unfathomable clutter-generating ways without the motivation and know-how of the cleaning folk? They’re still the same people, with their same idiosyncrasies for collecting and allowing useless items to pile up…won’t the house go back to its former state in no time at all? I, for one, would like a Clean House, Act II.

That’s what I wonder, at least, and I wonder that about Jesus’ disciples, a group of folks who are about to be involved in a much larger world-organizing and cleaning scheme than an episode of Clean House. How are they to carry on once the Expert Redeemer has left the premises, when he’s crucified, then resurrected, then ascended? How are they to manage things once the Incarnate Christ is no longer hanging around? They’re the same disciples—aren’t they?—with the same flaws and idiosyncrasies as before. What will keep them from running this movement into the ground?

That’s when, Jesus does explain to them a little about the power of this Advocate, whose very name suggests he will be able to speak for and through the disciples and God. The Advocate will come into their collective midst and guide them in the truth, enlightening them one way or the other about Jesus. Nothing less than a direct connection to the Father and the Son, this Advocate will speak to the disciples the very communication he hears between the Father and the Son, the ongoing outpouring of love for us that we see on the cross. Jesus himself says that he hasn’t been able to say everything to the disciples, but this Advocate will enable him to do that. He will not lead them astray, nor will he withhold anything about God’s life from the disciples. “All that the Father has is mine,” Jesus reminds them. “For that reason I said that the Advocate will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

And even when they wonder about this Advocate’s presence, there will be undeniable proof when they begin to point to Jesus and Christ’s righteousness in everything they say and do. If they’re wondering how they’ll keep this giant world-cleaning project going, if they’re wondering how they won’t return to the same lives they led before, then they’ll need to look no further than their own life together, for the Advocate will be stirring and speaking among them. Jesus promises it.

Jesus rises and ascends to heaven and in his absence arrives a fuller presence of God. Only by the Holy Spirit can we truly experience the fullness of God’s life, that overpowering selfless love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son has for the Father. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we deeply connect, one life to another’s, in the same way that the Father and the Son deeply connect to each other. And so in letting go of and saying “farewell” to an incarnate Christ we receive the mission to take that Christ elsewhere. It’s not that having the Spirit is better than having Jesus, but that by receiving the Spirit, we begin to embody the fullness of who Jesus is and will be for the whole world.

Back in March, after I had only been here a matter of weeks, I attended a meeting of the team formerly known as the social ministry team (now named the Community Service Team so as to give a clearer description of the ministries they undertake). The meeting began and the team leader rattled off an impressive list of projects the team was organizing for the congregation in the spring and early summer. The list was long, and I barely could keep up. When I thought we were finished the team leader asked the question, “That’s what we’re doing now. Is there anything else we could do? Any ideas?”

At that point one woman across the table reached into her purse, pulled out a newspaper clipping, and proceeded to read an notice that the General Assembly of Virginia was preparing to earmark appropriations to purchase luggage for foster children. Holding the clipping in her hand, this woman expressed her near anger that state money was going to be used for something that the churches clearly should be doing. “This is a job for the communities of faith,” she remarked, “not for taxpayers of Virginia.”

I was astounded! Here was a person who was reading the newspaper looking for ways to serve as Christ’s people. Here was a person in our midst who, I may say, was so in tune to embodying Christ in her day-t-day that the daily news had become “daily opportunity.” I did not remember the woman’s name at the time, but she could have been called “Advocate,” for she was clearly animated by him, tongue of fire practically leaping off her head.

As could be expected, the Community Service Team pounced all over her suggestion. I’m not sure at what point the foster system luggage project stands right now, but you will hear more about it soon. For me, however, that moment in that meeting was another one of those knock-me-over-with-a-feather moments because I knew God had sent me to a place that was receiving the Advocate with joy and courage. Here was a group of people, here is a congregation who is unmistakably stirring with the Spirit, prodding each other receive that Life-giver, to continue the mission that Jesus has begun.

It reminded me of what turns out to be the wonderful surprise of Pentecost. As Bishop Kalistos Ware, a bishop in the Orthodox rite, puts it: “If the aim of the Incarnation, is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, the aim of Pentecost is the continuation of Christ’s Incarnation within the life of the Church" (The Orthodox Way, revised edition. Kalistos Ware. St. Vladimir's, 1979 (1998) p.93).

To put it differently, there is, as it turns out, an Act II of God’s glorious redemption story, and we are it! You are it! I may be it, too, as the person holding the newspaper clipping attests. Together, the church is, so to speak, God’s bold next Act in the plan to remake and re-fashion creation. We are the fuller presence of God that comes about when Jesus ascends to the Father. And the Spirit is who makes this possible, because when we receive the Spirit we receive the whole toolkit, the whole assembly package, for being Christ to each other and to the world, be that through luggage for foster kids, or speaking a word of resurrection as we, this afternoon, inurn our faithful departed and supporting the bereaved in their grief. We are Act II, my friends, and the Spirit will spur us to countless ways of incarnating Jesus.

Or, to say it another way, “We’re not the same old disciples we were before! His grace changes us! Let’s…keep the house clean!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.