Star Trek

bonding in water

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people it has served to illustrate a theological point!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And with art imitating reality, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman is killed, leaving a young son who already had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 mkAs the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Watching that show, I saw an example of ritual for the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in ours.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Today we celebrate a ritual, the sacrament of baptism.  It also involves a bonding, as well as a welcoming into a family.

Here’s something our Book of Order says about baptism (W-3.0402):

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church…  [Needless to say, circumcision only applies to males; baptism includes females!]  Baptism also represents God’s call to justice and righteousness, rolling down like a mighty stream, and the river of the water of life that flows from God’s throne.”

2 mk

The water in this font has a powerful lineage!

Speaking of power, our New Testament scripture is part of the reading for the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate in January (Mk 1:9-11).

John the Baptist has told the people who have come to him, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).

“In those days,” as we’re told, Jesus comes along and presents himself to John.  Mark’s version is brief; we don’t see John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus that we see in Matthew’s telling.  We do, however, see the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending like a dove and landing on Jesus.  There is a celestial voice claiming him as “my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v.11).

This is the anointing of Jesus; the Spirit is poured upon him.

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened, that is, visibly or audibly.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

Here’s some more from our Book of Order: “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ…  Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith.  These two forms of witness are one and the same Sacrament.”

3 mk[Someone displaying the shirt he wore at his baptism.]

I was baptized as a believer, at age 21.  Our young candidate is being baptized as an infant.  We both receive the bond of unity, the bonding in water and Spirit, in Jesus Christ.  We both are welcomed into the family of God, as children of the covenant.

In a few moments when the water is sprinkled (or maybe poured!) on her, she won’t simply be a wet child—she will be the newest citizen in the kingdom of God.

 

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the


memento mori

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 ps

"Transience of Life" by Daniel Kansky

That is the poem “Ozymandias,” by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in the early nineteenth century.

This Ozymandias was a fellow who wanted his name to live forever.  By virtue of this massive monument, he wanted to defy the grave.  I wonder how that worked out?  The traveler tells the poet of a “colossal Wreck.”  Long ago, the head fell off.  “Half sunk a shattered visage lies.”  The face has been smashed.  There is a proud boast: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  However, who is there to look on his works?  “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

His bid to defeat death has turned into rubble.

Having led or helped lead two funerals in just over a week, and one the week before, I’ve been thinking about death recently.  Actually, I’ve been reminded how everything returns to its fundamental parts.  The chair you’re sitting on has crumbled into nothingness—it’s just a question of when it happens.  It’s true of your house.  It’s true of planet Earth itself.  In about seven billion years, our sun will expand out to Earth’s orbit.  (Not exactly the day after tomorrow, but we’ll get there.)  Bye-bye, Mother Earth!

2 psMemento mori.  That’s Latin for “remember death,” as in “remember your death.”  It’s a reminder that we are not immortal.  Lest we think memento mori is a walk on the morbid side, here’s something else to remember: we have an entire season in the church calendar that emphasizes the same thing—Lent.  Our Ash Wednesday liturgy directs us to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There are plenty of people who don’t like Lent because they think it’s too much of a downer.  I’ve even heard ministers say they feel the same way.

There’s a line in a prayer from our funeral liturgy that has helped remind me of such things these past few days.  “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.  And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live.”  It is a joyful affirmation that we will be with the Lord.

Memento mori comes from the time of the ancient Romans.  We’re told, “It was the custom of Roman triumphs, for example, for a slave to stand behind the triumphant general in his victory parade, and tell him ‘memento mori’—remember, in your hour of glory, that you are destined for the dust.”[1]

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”?  Well, here’s another one.  “You can’t take it with you!”

That seems to be the message of Psalm 49.  We already get that in verse 1, as the psalmist proclaims, “Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world.”  It’s a message for everyone on planet Earth.  The Hebrew word used here for “world” is interesting.[2]  It only appears five times in the entire Old Testament.  It means “world,” but with the sense of a short period of time.  It means “transient” or “fleeting.”  It’s the perfect word, considering the theme of the psalm.

Give ear, all dwellers of this perishable planet!

There’s quite a bit in Psalm 49, but we don’t have time to go into all of it.  I’ll just mention a few points.  I want to take a tip from Ozymandias and “those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches,” as verse 6 puts it.

That’s some shaky ground.  We’re told we can find security in money or gold or real estate or whatever.  Considering the fires and floods and famine and whatever the coronavirus is up to, I think security might better be found in drinkable water.

3 ps

The psalmist continues: “Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it.  For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, that one should live on forever and never see the grave” (vv. 7-9).  Well, tell that to the researchers who say death is something we can delay indefinitely.  There are some folks who say a lifetime of 150 years isn’t too far down the road.  And then there are already some people who’ve had themselves cryogenically frozen.  The hope is they can be thawed sometime in the future.

Of course, there’s always the vampire option!

Keeping my promise to hit only a few points, I want to jump to verse 16.  “Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.”  We can become intimidated in the presence of those with great affluence.  Verse 18 reminds us, “you are praised when you do well for yourself.”  (Remember the show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  Robin Leach would engage in what could almost be called televised drooling.)

Nurse practitioner Vincent LaBarca notes, “Life pulls us into painful directions and our impulse is to fight.  But resistance is futile.  (I don’t know if he’s a Star Trek fan, but that’s the warning from the Borg.  You will be assimilated.)  Like swimming against a riptide, we inevitably wear ourselves out and drown.  If, however, we relax and allow the tide to take us, we are safely guided back to shore.”[3]

Verses 12 and 20 have always been the ones to catch my attention.  It is a repeated thought.  “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.”  We humans cannot hang on very long to our splendor.  I like the way Eugene Peterson put it in The Message: “We aren’t immortal.  We don’t last long.  Like our dogs, we age and weaken.  And die.”

I suppose if our measure of life is pomp and splendor, we might very well end up like an animal, even a beloved doggie.  I don’t believe their deaths are meaningless, but one thing we can do which they can’t is to consciously prepare for our passing.

Henri Nouwen spoke of a “grateful death.”[4]  “The way we die,” he said, “has a deep and lasting effect on those who stay alive.  It will be easier for our family and friends to remember us with joy and peace if we have said a grateful good-bye than if we die with bitter and disillusioned hearts.  The greatest gift we can offer our families and friends is the gift of gratitude.  Gratitude sets them free to continue their lives without bitterness or self-recrimination.”

I had a professor at seminary who shared four statements that help in the very things I just mentioned.  “Please forgive me.”  “I forgive you.”  “Thank you.”  “I love you.”  That works both ways, for the one passing and for those left behind.  No regrets.

4 ps

photo by Efren Baharona on Unsplash

I was fortunate and truly blessed to have that kind of ending with my father.  Banu and I lived in Jamestown at the time.  My dad had been hospitalized several times, but this time, there was more a sense of finality to it.  I got a call from my sister, telling me I needed to come home.  I flew to Nashville the next day.  My brother-in-law picked me up at the airport and drove directly to the hospital.

My mom and sister, and my mom’s pastor, were in the waiting room.  They had already said their goodbyes.  So I went into the ICU and stood next to my dad’s bed.  His eyes were closed.  I held his hand and told him that I loved him.  He didn’t last much longer.  I think he willed himself to hang on until I arrived.  My dad passed away at five in the afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set.  He was welcomed with its orange-red rays.  It was like something from a movie.

It puts a little different spin on the promise of the one who said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved” (Jn 10:9).

I don’t need to tell you we’re constantly surrounded by death.  We are routinely reminded of the Covid count.  In some quarters, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to inspire fear.  However, our risen Lord says, “Fear not.”  Instead of fear, he inspires us with holy boldness. Memento mori is a fierce and wonderful embrace of life.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] medium.com/@julesevans/the-memento-mori-f588311adce0

[2] חֶלֶד, cheled

[3] medium.com/illumination/an-existentialist-and-a-christian-walk-into-a-bar-91f713d5e5f0

[4] henrinouwen.org/meditation/a-grateful-death


going home

“You can’t go home again.”  We’ve all heard that one.  You can’t go home again.  Why not?  I go home on a regular basis.  (By regular, I mean at least once per year.)  Home for me is Tennessee.  (That is, it’s my second home.  My first home is wherever Banu is!)  Tennessee is where my mom and sister live.  Home includes both space and time.  Every time I return, things have changed.  There are new stores and restaurants.  Some stores and restaurants Banu and I liked have disappeared.  (A couple of examples include the breakfast place, “The Egg and I,” and a lovely gyro place owned by an Egyptian family.  We do miss that place—and them.)

Of course, who knows how long it will be before we can enjoy sitting in a restaurant?

1 gn

More fundamentally, “you can’t go home again,” refers to memories: of people, of events, of good times and bad times.  For some people, home never really felt like home.

Regarding not being able to go home again, think of Jesus in Matthew 13.  He goes back to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue.  There’s no problem with that, right?  Wrong.  The people look at each other; they look at him.  Where is he getting all this stuff?  Son, we know your family.  You weren’t raised to be some kind of philosopher.  The scripture says, “And they took offense at him” (v. 57).

Jesus couldn’t go home again.

In Genesis 32, we see another fellow trying to make his way home: Jacob.  He has left his Uncle Laban, and not on the best of terms.  Let’s go back many years, and briefly sum up.  Jacob leaves home in a hurry because his brother Esau sees red and wants him dead.  Jacob has been up to his trickery.

(And if you recall, along the way he has his vision of a stairway to heaven!)

As he approaches Laban’s place, he sees Rachel, who we’re told is really good-looking.  There’s also her older sister, Leah, who apparently is not quite as good-looking.  Laban says, “Work for me for seven years, and you can marry Rachel.”  Seven years go by and Laban says, “Oh, I just remembered.  The older sister has to get married first.”  Seven more years go by.  (I wonder how Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has fared!)

In time, Jacob figures out how to arrange for his goats to breed and become stronger, while Laban’s goats are the weaker ones.  He’s back to his shenanigans; maybe he feels justified this time.  Anyway, Jacob is found out, so he takes his family and possessions and hits the road.

There’s one little obstacle between Jacob and his destination—Esau, his aggrieved brother.

My obstacles in going home have been along the lines of road construction, a traffic accident, or bad weather.  I can’t claim to have ever had a family member blocking the path.  (That’s a claim I wouldn’t want to make!)  And I must confess, as I’ve gotten a bit older, stops at rest areas have become more frequent, as Banu will testify.

2 gnAs I said, it’s been many years since he last laid eyes on his brother.  Jacob wonders, “What will he do when he sees me?  How will he feel?”  Jacob decides to err on the side of “furious.”  He sends some of his guys ahead to take Esau’s temperature, so to speak.  When they return, they tell Jacob that Esau is on his way—and incidentally, he has 400 men with him.

We’re told that Jacob “took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had” (vv. 22-23).  He has everyone go first, including his beloved Rachel.  I wonder how she felt being used as a human shield.

{"Rachel: Noir Bible" by James C. Lewis}

Jacob has sent everything and everyone away.  He is all alone.  He is all alone in the darkness of night.  I imagine we can relate to that.  I’m sure there have been nights in which it seemed like dawn would never arrive.  We’re left with our thoughts, our fears, our hopes.  And we are struggling.

For Jacob, that struggling is quite literally true.  He is wrestling with a mysterious man all night long.  Who is this man?

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, who teaches at Mercer University, has some suggestions.  “Theories abound concerning the identity of ‘the man’ with whom Jacob wrestled.  Was the man God? Was it Esau?  Or was it Jacob’s own inner being wrestling with itself?”[1]  She favors that last one.  Maybe there are hints of all three.  Maybe it was his fear of Esau—I don’t believe it was the man himself.  There was certainly that inner struggle, that inner conflict.

It was all wrapped up in Jacob’s wrestling match with God at the Jabbok stream.  It might be helpful to know that the Hebrew words for “Jabbok” (יַבֺּק, Yabboq) and “wrestle” (אׇבַק, ’abaq) sound very much alike.  We have a showdown at Wrestle River.

So what happens when dawn finally comes?  Jacob’s combatant hasn’t been able to pin him.  But before the match can end with the ringing of the bell, he gets one more whack at Jacob.  He sucker punches him in the hip socket, and it’s put out of joint.  Consequently, Jacob walks with a limp.  It sounds like Jacob needs hip replacement surgery!  Still, he is hanging on to his opponent, and he’s demanding a blessing.

After that long night of struggle, that long night of inner struggle, Jacob is still hanging on.  We’re told, “Jacob wrestled and received a new blessing (not one obtained by trickery, but this time by honest struggle).”[2]  Jacob is given a new name.  Says the man, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28).

Jacob has held on.  He hasn’t let go until he receives his blessing.  That takes stamina.  That takes determination.  That takes a stubborn resolve.

Terence Fretheim has an interesting take.  “God may encounter people in conflictual times by taking the very form of the anticipated difficulty.”  I find this interesting.  [quoting Walter Brueggemann[3]]  “‘In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.’”[4]

I’ve heard it said that dreams prepare us for similar events in the waking hours.  They prepare us for life.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to avoid a lot of the stuff that happens in dreams.)

Of course, this is about more than dreams.  He continues, “Having been through such a time with God provides a gracious rehearsal for the actual life circumstance.  To refuse to engage with God in that struggling moment denies oneself a God-given resource.”

It’s said, “The only way out is through.”  Encounters with God, and by virtue of the Holy Spirit within, encounters with oneself, can be annoying, fearful, painful—and yet, not without a certain joy and revelation of love and grace.

3 gn

Jacob has traveled that path and made the awesome discovery: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30).

Still, there is that limp!  He has been injured, and he will carry that injury, that scar.  Nevertheless, that dislocated hip is a sign of grace.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  That area of vulnerability, whatever it is, is where God can especially work in our lives.

Last spring, I spoke of my surgery to remove a brain tumor, and I spoke of the scar left behind.  What I didn’t mention were the changes that experience made.  I came to new insights and understandings of people who suffer mental problems.  (Actually, for me, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!)

The steroids I was taking gave me a glimpse of those with wild mood swings.  (I’ve never been accused of that.)  Here’s one quick example.  One year when we lived at the seminary, people were decorating for Christmas.  I was upstairs in our apartment, watching Star Trek.  Banu, who was with two of our female friends, called and asked me to come down and help them hang a decoration.  As I descended the stairs, I became angrier and angrier.  How dare they take me away from Star Trek?

I noticed they had a ladder poised at the spot.  Any of them could have easily climbed up and attached the decoration.  They didn’t need me to do it.  I gave them the silent treatment.  It was clear how incensed I was.  Later on, I apologized for my unwarranted behavior, explaining about the steroids.  One of them replied, “Now you know how PMS feels.”

Understand, I’m not saying God gave me the brain tumor, but it could be seen as my own wrestling match.  I still carry that limp.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would learn anything.

4 gn

One way in which we all are going home is the return to our church sanctuary.  There are precautions to take, based on New York state guidelines, the CDC, and no doubt most of all, our calling to love one another—to love our neighbor.

As we go home, how have we been struck on the hip socket?  How are we limping?

We are limping, but as I said a moment ago, it is a gift of grace, as strange as that might sound.  In this time of pandemic, we hold on for the blessing.  We hold on for the blessing of the earth, for the blessing of the suffering, for the blessing that rights the wrongs.  If there were anyone who understood holding on for the blessing, while bearing scars, it was Jesus.  Even now, Jesus as the risen and ascended Christ, holds onto us.  He travels with us as we go home.

 

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,” Review and Expositor 111:1 (2014), 75.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 75.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 267.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 569.


a corona confession

There are various moments when the coronavirus pandemic first entered our consciousness.  I was aware of the dreadful toll being paid by the Chinese and the Italians, but it still felt too distant, I say to my shame.  But then, on March 11, the NBA suspended its season.  I thought it might be a bit premature, but then the next day, the NHL followed suit.  I have become a big hockey fan, and that was the one the really struck me.  And oh my, what if the NFL delays or, as seems likely, cancels its season?

1 blogSuch were the trivial events that caught my attention.

Cancellations and closings of all manner became a new way of life.

In some small way, I have enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that exists, for example, when I take my dog for a walk.  For a moment, the introvert within me finds a sense of tranquility.

But the moment quickly passes.

I am reminded of the terrible hardships that have descended upon the world and upon my community.  I think of people being cooped up in their homes.  I think of people getting on each other’s nerves.  I think of children whose schooling has been disrupted.  I think of needed services that are largely unavailable.  I think of people losing their jobs.  I think of those for whom home is not a safe place.

Plus, there’s the constant annoyance of the continuous sanitizing of surfaces and avoidance of touching one’s face.  And oh yes, the 20 second ritual of washing one’s hands.  (Which is much easier if you have access to clean water.)

2 blogThere is the overall aggravation of not being able to meet in person.  It takes extra planning to get everyone set online.  And imagine the irritation—I’m being euphemistic—of visits being curtailed or even banned.  (I am a pastor, by the way.)  Regarding worship services, preaching to people, even in real time on the internet, is a weak substitute for the give and take that fosters the joy, creativity, and power of the Holy Spirit.  (Not to mention my often lame attempts at humor.)

My last sermon dealt with the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.  “Can these bones live?”  I asked some questions.  What will come of our present exile, this new world we’ve been led to?  Will fear win the day?  Will hope win the day?  I think of science fiction / horror movies in which a biological or environmental disaster emerges and turns people into savage beasts.  But the Star Trek fan in me is encouraged by how the human race learns from past mistakes, past atrocities, and builds a new society of justice and peace—though not without its own problems, mind you!

3 blogEzekiel’s vision is more expansive than what Star Trek offers, I must say.  Our efforts alone do not suffice.  “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14a).

The coronavirus doesn’t get the final say.


water bonding

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  Have I ever mentioned that I like all of the Star Trek series, as well as the movies?

I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people that it has influenced my theology!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And reflecting that, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman who is killed leaves a son who already, at a very young age, had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 baptism

As the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Okay, are you still with me?  Watching that show, I realized how very important ritual is to the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in our universe.  It helps in many different aspects of life.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Still, I think we all can agree that various rituals have various levels of value.  Some rituals are good.  They communicate life and strength and courage.  Some rituals do the opposite; they are bad.  Some rituals reinforce fear and oppression and bigotry.  They should be fought against; they should be resisted.

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord.  This year the gospel reading is from Mark.  Later on, we’ll look at Jesus’ participation with John in the ritual of baptism.  Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the church.  But before we get to all of that, I want to tell another story.

After Banu and I graduated from the seminary, the first church we served was in Nebraska.  One of the members was a lady in her seventies.  After we had been there for a little while, she asked us if we would baptize her.  But she didn’t want to do it the usual way, in a worship service.  She wanted what was basically a secret baptism, on a Saturday afternoon when no one would be around.

We explained that baptism isn’t a private matter.  It’s a joyful act of the church.  After the sermon, during the baptism, the congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenant.  For there to be a covenant, there has to be more than one person—more than one party involved.  When there’s a baptism, we promise each other things, in the sight of God.

My impression was her request came from a sense of embarrassment.  This lady had probably lived her entire life in the church, but without ever being baptized.  I tried to reassure her that’s okay; this is a cause for celebration.  She wasn’t persuaded, so Banu and I compromised.  Besides the presence of some of her family, we arranged for a couple of the session members (representing the congregation) to attend her baptism.  She was okay with that.

One thing I never found out, though, was how she was able to join the church to begin with.  “Have you been baptized?” is one of the first things to ask.

At any rate, I find interesting what I figured her underlying feelings were.  Somehow, it was communicated to her—probably many times and in some unintentional ways—that baptism is, in some way, a sign of merit.  It’s an accomplishment!  And if you haven’t undergone it, then there’s something wrong with you.  At some point in her life (and I admit this is speculation), raising the question of baptism became uncomfortable.

Again, I can’t say for sure that was part of her life story, but it does happen.  When it does happen, it turns baptism, and the entire Christian life, on its head.  It’s not an occasion for pride; it’s a matter of humble, loving gratitude.

UCC minister Bruce Epperly sounds like a fellow Star Trek fan when he says, “Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.”[2]  Baptism is about love and healing.  It’s not about jockeying for position; it’s not about grandstanding.

2 baptism

He continues, saying that “baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism.  There is salvation—and revelation—outside the church.”  The mystical, invisible body of Christ is larger than the visible church.  “While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love.”

Earlier, I spoke of the Klingon ritual of R’uustai.  I added that Lt. Worf explains its meaning to the boy Jeremy.  This enables him to benefit from it.  It becomes more than a series of actions involving candles and strange symbols; instead, the ritual becomes a way for him to experience a whole new dimension of life.  Losing his mother and becoming an orphan means the end of life as he’s known it.  The ritual of R’uustai offers the promise of new life.

New life is what the sacrament of baptism is all about.  But just as with the Klingon ritual, if there is no understanding and no intention of embracing that new life, then the waters of baptism do little more than simply get us wet.

Our Book of Order says this about baptism:

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).  That’s what I was saying earlier about it being the sacrament of entry into the church.

Sometimes people get an impression about baptism.  It may sound like, “Hey that’s a pretty good deal!  I can get baptized, and totally forget about it!”  Not exactly!  There’s still that bit about the covenant.  There’s still that bit about loving, healing relationships.  As we continue with the Book of Order, we also hear this:

“Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.”

The body of Christ is one.  We are one!  Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.  The community of the baptized is not bound together by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, and all of the other junk we come up with.  Christ liberates us from that.

There is another reason for being baptized, but I hesitate to mention it, because it involves a concept that has too often been abused and distorted.  But here it is: we are baptized because we are obedient.  We obey our Lord, who says, as part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).

I hesitate to mention obedience, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about it.  Obeying the Lord isn’t the obedience demanded by one who’s just waiting to smack us down.  It isn’t blind or mindless obedience.  It’s the mutual, loving obedience of one whose eyes are wide open and has come to serve.

In our scripture text, Mark says that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  (I said we would look at Jesus getting baptized.)  So why is Jesus baptized?  Does he need to be forgiven of sin?

In Matthew’s gospel, John is reluctant to baptize him.  He’s wondering about this, too.  “But Jesus [answers] him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (3:15).  Or as the Revised English Bible puts it: “it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

Remember, “all that God requires” is not satisfying the whims of a bully or a tyrant.  It’s not dealing with one who says, “On your knees!  Kiss my boot!”  It is, however, working along with one who lovingly chooses us in bringing all creation to a glorious fulfillment.

Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus is baptized as directly as Matthew does.  He does tell us that “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (vv. 10-11).

Baptism is a public identification with the people of God.  It is expressing solidarity!  Of course, Jesus’ identification—his bonding—with God’s people receives quite a dramatic display of acceptance.  The “heavens dividing” doesn’t occur every day!

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

3 baptism

There’s something that Matthew in the Great Commission, and Mark in today’s reading, tie with baptism.  Luke does the same in Acts 2.  On the day of Pentecost, after Peter tells the people about Jesus, they ask, “What should we do?”  His response?  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

All of them link baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the greatest gift of God.  The Spirit is God, constantly being given to us—constantly being poured into us!  The Spirit is everything good and wonderful that we can imagine—and everything that we cannot imagine.

We are baptized once, but repentance is a lifelong journey.  We are called and invited, over and over again, to repent.  That means to have a change of mind, to turn around.

(Speaking of turning around, turn around right now.  Look at everyone here.  Do we welcome each other?  Have we locked horns with anyone?  Is there anyone we ignore?  The Spirit of God calls us and helps us in fanning the flames of holy love, and if need be, lighting the spark!)

John baptizes with water.  We baptize with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.  The Spirit is the one who makes that bonding in water effective.  The Spirit is the one who gives it power.  The Spirit is the one who takes a bunch of dripping wet people and fills them with faith, hope, and love.

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the

[2] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-01-08/baptism-jesusfirst-sunday-after-epiphany


built for worship

Many, if not most, of you have heard me speak of my love of Star Trek.  Well, there’s another show, a cartoon, one which has been on the air since 1989, although I haven’t seen many episodes in quite a few years—The Simpsons.  I want to use it as an illustration of worship.

For those who’ve never seen the program (there might be a few of you out there), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be safety inspector at a nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

The mother is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  The son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  The daughter, Lisa, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.  Rounding out the cast is a multitude of other characters, residents of the town of Springfield.

1 Ps 122

There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a cold building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never again go to church.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I mention The Simpsons because Homer’s theories about worship are more common than we might think.  Actually, the idea that worship is meant to placate an angry deity goes back for millennia.

Increasingly common is the feeling that worship, at least, involvement in a worshiping community, isn’t very important—it’s not worth the trouble.  I know I felt that way as a teenager.  I even had a problem with the word “worship.”  It seemed like something that would only appeal to losers.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson reflects on “all the reasons people give for not going to church:

‘My mother made me when I was little.’

‘There are too many hypocrites in the church.’

‘It’s the only day I have to sleep in.’

“There was a time,” he says, “when I responded to such statements with simple arguments that exposed them as flimsy excuses.  Then I noticed that it didn’t make any difference.  If I showed the inadequacy of one excuse, three more would pop up in its place.  So I don’t respond anymore.  I listen…and go home and pray that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.  I go about my work hoping that what I do and say will be usable by the Holy Spirit to create in that person a determination to worship God in a Christian community.”[2]

2 Ps 122

The reality is: we’re built for worship.  (We’ll hear that phrase again.)  From our own Presbyterian tradition, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we hear the often-quoted question and answer (with the masculine language.)  “Q. What is the chief end of man?  A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

So much for my former theory that worship is for losers!  To be able to glorify God—to be able to enjoy God—that’s not the mark of a loser.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate when worship goes astray and we turn to idols, however they present themselves.

Most, if not all, of the psalms were used as songs.  They were the song book of the early church.  Many churches still sing them.  Even some Presbyterians!  Our hymnal has an entire section inspired by the psalms.  Reading (or singing) the psalms is a healthy practice for our spiritual life.  If we don’t immerse ourselves in them, even become familiar with them, we are impoverished.

The large majority of psalms have titles.  You can see them right before verse 1.  Psalms 120 to 134 have the title, “A Song of Ascents,” or words to that effect.  These Songs of Ascents are believed to have been sung by Hebrew pilgrims “ascending” to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals.  They ascend because Jerusalem is geographically higher than the surroundings.

Eugene Peterson notes, “But the ascent was not only literal, it was also metaphor: the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God.”[3]

He says Psalm 122 describes the nature of worship.  It “singles out three items: worship gives us a workable structure for life; worship nurtures our need to be in relationship with God; worship centers our attention on the decisions of God.”[4]  We could come up with some other stuff, but that’s not bad!

Using The Message, his paraphrase of the Bible, Peterson says verses 3 and 4 are about structure: “Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship!  The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship.”  When the Hebrews gathered for the major festivals, it was for all the tribes, occupations, and social classes.  This is worship as quite literally a structure for life, a clear example of being built for worship!

3 Ps 122Another reason to worship is to foster our bond with God.  The second part of verse 4 reads, “To give thanks to the name of God—this is what it means to be Israel.”  This is about identity.  As the people of God, worship is part of our identity; it’s who we are.

Starting with verse 6, the psalm shows us how worship affects us, or at least, how it should affect us.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  Unfortunately, that scripture is too often abused and taken out of context.  I’ve heard people say praying for the peace of Jerusalem basically means supporting one side or the other in conflict over the city—sometimes involving war.

We become what we worship.  Being built for worship, we all worship something, even if it’s something we’ve never bothered to examine—even if we’ve never thought about what we actually worship.  So if we truly worship the God of peace, we’re led to become people of peace.

Having said all of that, it is also true that “church people” often make church less than inviting.

It’s not unusual for congregations to lament the small number of youth and young families in worship.  The question is often asked, “How can we get them to come to church?”  A question we might ask ourselves is, “When was the last time we spoke to one of those young folks and asked them why don’t they come to church?”  If we’re able to do that without getting defensive—but actually wanting to hear from this person—then that goes a long way.

Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, wrote an article coming at it from a different angle.  For those who don’t know, Group specializes in youth ministry.  He titled the article, “The Rise of the Dones.”[5]  He describes the “dones” as those who are done with church.

Schultz gives a case-in-point with a fellow named John.  Here’s how he describes him:

“John is every pastor’s dream member.  He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously, and leads others passionately.

“But last year he dropped out of church.  He didn’t switch to the other church down the road.  He dropped out completely.  His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member.  It wasn’t triggered by any single event.

“John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision.  He said, ‘I’m just done.  I’m done with church.’

“John is one in a growing multitude of ex-members.  They’re sometimes called the de-churched.  They have not abandoned their faith.  They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.  Rather, John has joined the Dones.”

Even though all of us are built for worship, there is that increasing group who feel worship and church are two different things.  And these aren’t people who constantly grumble and complain.  They aren’t people who are disruptive and who bully others.  Schultz says many of them are “among the most dedicated and active people in their congregations.”  So why are they leaving?

For many, church has become something to do, but not to be.  It becomes just another activity—and for some, a tiresome and even soul-crushing activity.

This is a wake-up call for all of us.  It is extremely important that we learn to listen; that’s a lesson I have to learn over and over.  It is important to listen to each other.  That’s a key part of learning to listen to God.  If we don’t listen, then our worship will be a performance and nothing more.  It won’t be that spiritual connection that gives life meaning.

4 Ps 122

The author and speaker Phyllis Tickle, who died in 2015, once told Banu and me her prayer for us, and for those we minister with, is that church would be not a place to go, but a people to be.  That’s a vision we get from scriptures like Psalm 122.  It was true in ancient times, and it’s still true today.

Can we discover how worship pervades all of life?  Can we discover how worship happens outside these walls?  Can we discover how everything we do, like waiting in line, blowing our nose, or sitting through a meeting, can be an act of worship?

With discoveries like that, we might even hear the words of verse 1 in a whole new way.  “When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God.”  When we think of going to the house of God, when we remember that we are built for worship, we might hear, “my heart leaped for joy”—not from the psalmist, but from such a one as Homer Simpson!

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000), 49.

[3] Peterson, 18.

[4] Peterson, 51.

[5] holysoup.com/the-rise-of-the-dones


we saw it (heard it) for ourselves

I’m a fan of Star Trek—of all of the TV series and the movies.  But I’m not one of those characters who wear Vulcan ears or try to speak the Klingon language!  One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the one called “Transfigurations.”  (What a coincidence!  Today just happens to be Transfiguration!)

For those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I’ll try to be brief in my description!

1 transfigurationsThe crew of the Enterprise discovers in the wreckage of a ship a seriously wounded alien.  (They’ve never encountered his species.)  It turns out that he has amnesia, so they refer to him as “John Doe.”

“John” makes astonishing progress in recovering from his injuries.  But there’s something else about him.  His body is undergoing transformation at the molecular level; every now and then, he convulses in pain.  Still, one wouldn’t know it by his behavior.  John has a comforting, peaceful presence; it endears him to everyone he meets.  And John has power.  He demonstrates his ability to heal—and even to bring somebody back from the dead!  (Does this sound familiar?)

Slowly, John regains his memory.  When he’s told by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) that they’ve figured out the location of his home world—and plan to return him there, he says that he can’t go back.  But he still doesn’t know why.  He only knows that he was trying to escape from his planet.  He believes that he’s on some kind of mission.

Eventually, we find out what it is.  The Enterprise is stopped by a ship from his home planet, the captain of which demands that John be turned over to him.  The man is furious at John, but more than that, he’s afraid of him.  He claims that John is a fugitive, sentenced to death for subversive activities.  When Picard dares to question this other captain, the Enterprise is hit with a field that paralyzes everyone on board—they can’t even breathe.

John touches a wall and sends a wave of light throughout the ship, healing the entire crew.  In that moment, he attains perfect clarity.  He now knows who he is and why his leaders are terrified of him.  He explains that his species is on the verge of a wondrous transformation.  That’s why he had to flee—to have time to let the process run its course.

And then, before everyone’s eyes, John is transfigured.  His entire body begins to glow with intense light, until he is transformed into a being of energy.  He says there is now nothing anyone can do to prevent him from returning to his people and telling them that they, too, can embrace the transformation.  No one can stop him from letting them know that they, too, can be transfigured.

The story of this transfiguration is a fictional one.  (By the way, I think the plural title “Transfigurations” speaks to how all those witnessing John’s transformation are also changed.)

There is, of course, another transfiguration which is mentioned in St. Peter’s Second Letter.

A quick note on that: this letter was written after Peter’s death.  There’s a reference in chapter 3 to the letters of Paul, which are now being gathered together and beginning to have the authority of scripture.  The deaths of Peter and Paul were pretty close together in time.  There’s no attempt by the author to trick anyone.  Writing in the name of someone else was a common practice in those days.  It was a way to honor revered teachers, to speak in their voice.

2 transfiguration

Now, back to the transfiguration of Jesus.  As we see in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain (17:1-9).  And then, before their eyes, he begins to shine like the sun; he radiates with the glory of God.  He is joined by the epic figures of the Old Testament: Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the prophet among prophets.

Second Peter is addressed to an audience which is plagued by disbelief and mistrust.  The years are going by, and the Lord hasn’t returned.  Prophecies and predictions are spreading around.  People are gathering followers and saying, “Listen to me!  God has let me in on the secret.”  We might even say they’re promoting conspiracy theories.

Isn’t it great that we don’t have to deal with that foolishness today?  Hold that thought!

Our author says, “Ignore those false prophets, those silver-tongued, slippery devils.”  Instead, he says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16).

I like how the Revised English Bible puts it.  “It was not on tales, however cleverly concocted, that we relied…”  It wasn’t even on tales as cleverly concocted as Star Trek!  Another version says “any sophisticated myths.”[1]

Maybe that’s ironic, since we might consider ourselves today too sophisticated to believe such a ridiculous story.

The late Dwight Peterson, who taught at Eastern University, deals with what we just saw, our writer’s concern to establish the reality of the apostles’ experience and to not simply dismiss it as fantasy.

He says, “His appeal to the Transfiguration is an attempt to root the eschatological expectations of the church in the eyewitness (and ear-witness) experience of those who were present at the Transfiguration.  They saw Jesus ‘receive honor and glory from God’ that day, and they heard the authoritative voice from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.’”[2]  They saw the majesty with their own eyes, and they heard the voice with their own ears.

This letter is presented as Peter’s last will and testament.  Right before today’s reading, we see in verses 13 to 15: “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”

There’s an effort to reassure the church that even when Peter is dead and gone, his message will continue as a firm foundation.

3 alternative facts

The false prophets are presenting a competing version of reality.  To refer to them as “false prophets” and “false teachers,” as he does at the beginning of chapter 2, is definitely putting a negative spin on things!  This is a picture our author (or artist) paints of people who are, not simply mistaken, but have an intent to deceive.  I’m not sure all of them have such motives, but nowadays we have become familiar with the term “alternative facts.”  It’s kind of like the movie The Matrix (1999), in which the human race is dealing with parallel realities, and the truth depends on whether or not you’re aware of the other reality.

Fortunately for the early church, they aren’t held hostage to alternative facts.  Second Peter exposes the alternative gospel that is being disseminated.  The writer bases his argument on “the prophetic message” (v. 19).  Another version says, “All this confirms for us the message of the prophets,” that is, the true prophets, adding, “to which you will do well to attend” (REB).

He wants them to pay attention; it will serve them well.  It will serve as “a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19).  Hold on to this reality; hold on to this gospel “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”—“until day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds” (REB).

The glory of transfiguration shines into our sophisticated, sarcastic, and jaded darkness.  The temptation to be cynical these days might possibly be the greatest any of us have experienced.  For those, while yawning, say they’ve seen it all—maybe for us, if we say the same thing—that light of transfiguration, the radiance of the morning star, will glow ever more brightly and show us the new thing that God is doing.  That is, it will happen if we throw open the shutters.  That revelation cannot be denied.

Like the story in Star Trek with the transfiguration of John Doe, it happens before everyone’s eyes, including the frightened captain who would have him killed.

That prophetic message is true, because it isn’t based on “human will, but [on] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God” (v. 21).

4 transfiguration

We are on the doorstep of Lent, a time of reflection, repentance, and even lament.  Too often, our eyes are closed.  We turn away from the light.  What transfiguration needs to happen in our lives?  Or perhaps better, to what transfiguration do we need to bear witness?  To what do we need to testify?  There are those who would convince us of alternative facts, false prophecy, a fake gospel, fake good news.

The good news for us is that we can say, “We saw it for ourselves.  We heard it for ourselves.”  We have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

 

[1] Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 156.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=28


spocktacular tribute

Here’s a wonderful movie I saw a couple of days ago.  (For the love of Spock, I tell you!)  Plenty of interviews, aside from the usual names you might expect from Star Trek: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, and others.  It’s a heartfelt, revealing, disturbing, and funny homage to a father from a son.  Once or twice I ALMOST had a tear or two come to my eyes (I say “almost”).

Leonard nimoy


the neutral zone (redux)

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comFor those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction!  Or it can really have us confused.

We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies.  While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on.  At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly.  It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one.  That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo.  That is its neutral zone.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo.  (I should probably explain!)

As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).  Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

They are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”

But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger.  They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29).  But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist.  It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

image from cx.aos.ask.com

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it also has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire.  You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!

So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Here’s a note about the reptile brain.  At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice.  Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain.  For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!

Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University.[6]  It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign.  The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people.  A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst.  That last 1% said they don’t know!

Good and bad spock

When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes.  Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.

Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers.  This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today.  Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.

Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone.  A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  What does the future hold?  What will we do next?  Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be?  How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how to belittle each other.  That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[4] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 8-9.

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

[6] www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092816

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)


losing to be found

By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year.  It was a learning experience for each of us.

The Nashville area was flooded in 2010.  That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry.  Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement.  So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?

My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls.  But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do.  Open space began appearing in the basement.  There was room to breathe.  The energies of feng shui became more harmonious.  However, the garage had hardly been touched.

Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.

Rummaging dog

We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold.  But we did need some walkways!

Here’s to my main point.  There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson.  Amazingly, it had vanished.  The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was.  After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.

Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts.  Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered.  Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.

So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.”[1]  Very high praise!  Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.

Here’s the scenario.  We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus.  This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.

This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes.  They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them.  They are grumbling.  One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible).  If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!

So, who are these tax collectors?  The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS.  No, this is on a whole different scale.

These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government.  They could rightfully be called traitors.  It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going.  The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done!  As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.

The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons.  The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people.  They are no friends of the empire.  But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors.  These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.

Now, how about these “sinners”?  As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.”[2]  The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people.  That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery.  Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.

But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks.  Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more.  They’re done with pretending.  When they come to Jesus, they mean it.  When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.

Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables.  And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.

The first one is about a lost sheep.  He asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (v. 4).  At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up.  Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?

Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual.  Every single sheep is treasured.  Every single one of us is treasured.  Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.

Lost and found

The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin.  She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it.  She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart.  And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party!  I found my coin!”  (And wouldn’t you know it?  She finds it in the last place she looked.)

Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?

Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience.  That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year.  And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had.  “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.”[3]  Jesus knows all about being poor.

And again, he brings his point home.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10).  There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.

There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  (Who knows, there may be others.)  As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope.  The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6).  He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts.  The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit.  Our worship and prayer become lackluster.  Possessions don’t always have to be physical things.  They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort.  Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being?  Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away?  I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.

“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible).  Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith?  Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits?  Have we ourselves ever had such an experience?  Have we lost something precious?  Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?

“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”

Today is a day of “recovenanting.”  I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning.  It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred.  It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other.  It isn’t businesslike.  It has the elements of artistry and beauty.

We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant.  But the covenant remains intact.  God is faithful; God keeps faith.  God does not break promises.  For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.

It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel.  The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.

In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:

“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established.  Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love.  In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found.  That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

Spock

This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed.  The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.  This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others.  (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!)  One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic.  One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense.  It’s just foolish and irresponsible.

And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music.  (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)

Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God.  God will not let us go.  God will pursue us relentlessly.  Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.

 

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, The Compassionate Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 202.

[2] Bowie, 202.

[3] Bowie, 205.