Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Transfiguration, Metamorphosis, and Us

I really would like to avoid talking or preaching about the Transfiguration.  And it seems that I'm not alone.  A number of the scholars and commentators that I went to in an attempt to get a handle on this story avoided it altogether; a few had the courage to say that they'd just as soon leave it alone.

But attempting to stay faithful to the Gospel story means wrestling with ALL the story-even those parts we don't understand or that make us confused or reluctant to address them.  So here goes.

Mark 9:2-8 is the passage that we'll be using this week at Commonwealth.  However, all the synoptic Gospels have an account.  This means that the disciples, the Gospel writers, and the early church all attached some importance to it.  For this reason alone, it is worth struggling with.

To begin with, the word "Transfigure" means to transform or to change; a metomorphesis takes place.  In early Christian theology it pointed to a unique display of the divine character.  Later writers said that at this moment the three disciples present there got a preview of the glorified body of the resurrection. 

Look for just a moment at the word "metamorphosis."  In biology it is defined as "a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a conspicuous and relatively abrupt chang in the animal's body structure through cell growth and differentiation."  Before you go thinking I'm nuts to be dragging biology into a theological conversation, remember that the Church has for centuries used the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly to speak of both the resurrection of Christ and of our own life after death.  The idea is woven throughout our theology that we are moving and growing toward being "something other" that is both connected to who we are now and different from who we are now.  The disciples were being shown who Jesus was in His glory and where he was leading them (remember that in the story Mose and Elijah also were glowing and changed).

I also think there is something else going on here as well.  Elijah and Moses were part of the promise of what was to come.  Theirs were the stories that Israel pointed to as signs of what life would be like when the Kingdom came.  It would have been easy (in fact this is what Peter's comment about building three shrines there on the mountain was all about) to get caught up in the 'waiting for' and miss what is going on.  Luckily, the disciples hear a voice that says, "This is my beloved Son, listen to Him."  In other words, the 'waiting for' is over.....the Kingdom is here.

That's some scary stuff.  'Waiting for' is pretty easy.  We can go about our business with a kind of "one day everything will be different" attitude that really doesn't demand much of us.  But if Jesus was telling the truth, and the Kingdom of God is among us....now...then we have to get busy living like people who know that to be true.

I heard Fred Craddock, the great Disciples preacher, say one time that there were a lot of "second coming christians" who didn't seem to think much about the "first coming."  The Transfiguration reminds us of what is happening Now.  That God, in Christ, through us is about the work of healing the world and bringing in the Kingdom.  If that's true, what might it be calling us to do?

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, February 10, 2012

Of Adoption, Marriage, And The Virginia Legislature

Thursday the Virginia state Senate passed legislation that allows private adoption agencies to deny placements with gays based on religous beliefs. 

Now let's note that the impact on the children in question, those needing placement, may well be huge and detrimental.  Christine James-Brown, president of the Child Welfare League of America, stated in a letter to the senators that, "It is cruel to deny them a secure home with a qualified family that happens to differ from the religious or moral beliefs held by a particular agency."  Dozens of these agencies contract with the state to provide foster care and adoption services.  The problem is further compounded by what Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria describes the bill as a biase against the gay and bisexual children who make up a disproportionate number of those awaiting placement.  Imagine those youth being placed in homes where who they are is an anathama.  He goes on further to describe this legislation as about denying GLBT Virginians the right to form families.

As a christian and the Interim Pastor of a Virginia congregation I find this move by the Senate more than troubling.  As a Baptist (yes, Virginia, there are Baptists who are open and affirming of GLBT persons as well as a host of other folks as well) who believes in the seperation of church and state, I am concerned about legislating the religious beliefs of a particular group (specifically conservative evangelical and fundamentalist christians) into law.

I am very, very concerned about what happens when you place a young gay or lesbian or bi-sexual person in a home where their very identity is considered sinful and horrible.  How will the family respond?  Will they provide for the opportunities and the freedom for this child to express their sexuality in healthy and open ways?  I don't think so.  One only has to look at the history of the Indian Schools where Native American children were taught to deny who they were, forced to dress like 'white folks' and beaten for using their native language to find examples of what happens when you put children in places that hate who they are.

Advocates of this legislation would say that the family (and marriage) are institutions created by God for the purposes of caring for one another, for raising the young, and for being a reflection of God's relationship to God's people.  I would agree with them.  Where we disagree is that they exclude a segment of God's people from that picture.  I believe, as a christian, a pastor, and a biblical scholar, that a commited gay or lesbian couple can also reflect God's relationship to God's people, can be "eucharistic" for one another.  And I also believe that such couples can care for, love, and nurture healthy children.

These advocates might well respond that this is not a view shared by some christians or the agencies they run.  They might say that the institution has a right to express its beliefs and morals without being interfered with by the state.  I would say that I agree.....but that if such agencies are going to set this as their standard, they should, both on the basis of morals and ethics, refrain from contracting with the state and limit themselves to placing the orphans and foster children of like minded people with other like minded people.  Further, the state of Virginia should refrain from contracting with institutions who so severely limit their views of the world.....or at least only place children who they can guarantee (at the risk of civil liability) are not going to be damaged by the placement.  After all, if the state placed a child with a known pedophile, would they not be liable for damage done to the child?  Why shouldn't they be just as liable for the emotional (and potentially physical) damage done to a GLBT child placed with persons who hate what she or he is?

One final thought.  If the state of Virginia, and others who hold to the standard of allowing religious institutions to determine the definition of marriage and family are truly sincere, are to truly to put their money where their mouth is, let me suggest the following:

I am pastor of a local Baptist congregation that is proudly open and affirming.  I am a duly ordained clergy person in my denomination.  Local Baptist congregations are, by definition, autonomous....meaning that they make their own decisions.  We believe that the sanctity of marriage extends to and includes committed gay and lesbian couples.  Following the Virginia Senate's arguments to their logical conclusion, when I perform a marriage for a gay or lesbian couple, the state of Virginia should honor that and accept that this marriage, performed and blessed by an accepted faith community, is indeed valid.  Or has the state of Virginia decided that it is in the business of declaring what is, and is not, valid faith and theology.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Stuck In A Story-Reflection on Sunday's Scripture and A Narrative Workshop

I just spent the last couple of days at a workshop on Narrative Leadership.  A shout-out to all the great new folks I met there and to Rev. Amy Butler for hosting the workshop at Calvary.

I've always done a lot with stories.  I believe we live "story shaped lives."  Our lives are shaped by stories and shaped as stories. These stories may have a very long arc, or we may find ourselves trapped in the shape of a story that is a single moment.  Many traumatized or guilt-ridden people have this experience.  They are trapped in the short story of a moment of horror or a moment of failure and sin.  They become like Hans Solo from Star Wars when he was frozen in graphite by Jabba the Hut to whom he owed money. Being frozen in that moment is a kind of paralysis.

The scripture for this week at Commonwealth is from Mark 2:1-12.  In it, there is a young man who is paralyzed.  He obviously can't get to Jesus by himself.  So four friends pick up his mat and carry him.  When they get to where Jesus is, they can't get through the crowd into the house.  So they go up on the flat room, tear off the thatch and hardened mud that cover the crossbeams, and lower him down.

Jesus, it seems, senses something about the nature of this young man's paralysis and says, "Your sins are forgiven."  This man, it seems was trapped in a short story of sin that left him unable to move....literally.  How many people do you know like that?  Folks who're just stuck in their guilt about some sin, some failure to live up.....or maybe they're stuck in the sin itself.....repeating it over and over until they're like a rat on a wheel....just running....paralyzed from going anywhere else.  Maybe you've had some of that in your own life; I know I have in mine.

In any event, Jesus tells him he's forgiven.  No big ritual, no sacrifices (this is gonna tick some folks off), not trip to the temple, and no need to grovel....just "Your sins are forgiven."  And when the folks I mentioned start complaining, Jesus says to the man "take up your mat and go home".....just to prove He had the authority and power to forgive.

What this story means to us is gonna depend a lot on who we are in it.  I need to ask myself that.....who am I most like in this story?  Am I the one who is paralyzed and needing forgiveness so I can get on with my life?  Am I one of the friends; helping my buddy who can't get there on his own find healing? Or am I one of those whiney, moaning by-standers....complaining that "this wasn't done right"?  Honestly.....I've been each of them.

But the Grace in all of this.....or at least part of the Grace.....is that the arc of the story God is telling in my life is long.  I may be whiney today; but God can move in me and I can learn to celebrate the healing-even if it doesn't happen the way I think it should.  I may be paralyzed; but there is forgiveness that will break me out of the story I'm locked in....and free me to become one of those who carries others back to the One who healed me.

There are so many places to enter this story.  So many ways that we can find God's Grace moving around us in it.  I think this is part of what the old hymn meant when it said

I love to tell the story
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest

cause every time I come to the story, I find myself there in a new way.

I hope if you're in the area, you'll come by Commonwealth on Sunday at 11 and look at this story with us.  Maybe you'll find yourself in it too.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Who Are We Willing To Touch

A friend of mine drew my attention this week back to the scriptures we used for the 2nd Week of Advent.  They were from Lamentations 1, where the city of Jerusalem is compared to a grieving woman who "weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealth treacherously with her, they have become her enemies."  And the response to this in Isaiah 40: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penelty is paid..."

When I got to looking at the scriptures for this coming Sunday (it's a long section, but you can find it in Mark 1:29-45), it hit me.....Here It Is!  This is the comfort God was promising to Jerusalem, to Israel, to you and me.  This is what it looks like; this is God's comfort in human form.

Well, you might say, "of course...isn't that what Christians believe?"  And the answer, of course is "yes."  We believe that Jesus was, and is, the fullfillment of God's promises to comfort creation and to heal all its broken parts.  But it's the how that I think we so often miss.

To truly grasp what's happening, back up to last week's scripture and start reading at Mark 21 where Jesus heals the man with an "unclean spirit" in the synagogue.  Jesus is going to move steadily from religious space (synagogue), to private space (Peter's house), to public space (where Jesus meets the leper).  In each of these spaces he is going to encounter people who were considered "unclean"-meaning that having contact with them made you unclean too.

Specifically in two of these cases (Peter's mother-in-law and the leper), Jesus responds by touching the individual.  If we're not careful, we'll miss how absolutely radical this is.  Jesus has-particularly with the leper-risked his own health and ensured that according to the law He himself would become ritually unclean by touching this one.  Jesus doesn't just listen and heal with a word (like he did at the synagogue); he touches, he risks, he engages in intimate contact.

Mark has painted a picture of Jesus going deeper and deeper into the world of the marginalized until he arrives at those at the farthest edge in his day.  This man could not have come to the synagogue, he could not have even been one of those who gathered outside Peter's house for healing.  He was among those who could not go visit his healthy relatives, or share table or bed with loved ones; he was doomed to life as a solitary, seperated species.....one who 'has no one to comfort them.'  For this one, Jesus wrapped flesh around Isaiah's words, "Comfort, O comfort ye my people."

In this single act of reaching out and touching this leper, Jesus rewrites the book on the nature of God's beloved community, on how God feels about those at the edge, and on what we are called to be and do as God's people.

There are "lepers" among us.  Where we are and the make up of our community will define what that means for us....but they're there and you can probably name them for your context with ease.  What happens if we listen to this story and let it guide our life as a community of faith? As people called to live in imitation of the life of Jesus?

There are also "lepers" within us.  The places within us that we think no one would want to touch; the places we fear to speak of.  What happens if we hear in this story Jesus saying, "I do want you to be healed" and feel Him reaching out to touch those places in us that are barriers to our life in community with God and others?  What happens if we learn, out of our own healing, to share with others that there really is a place where we can be touched, be healed, be restored?

My friends in AA and  other 12-Step programs work a program of healing in their lives which includes Step 12...let me paraphrase it:  'Having had a spiritual aakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry the message to others who suffer and to practice thes principles in all areas of our lives.'

What would happen if we, having had our own "demons" (the synagogue and outside Peter's house) driven out; our own "fevers" (Peter's mother-in-law) lifted; our own isolating darkness (the leper) touched and healed.....what if we "having had a spiritual awakening as a result of this encounter sought to carry the message to those who still suffer and to practice the principles expressed in the life of Jesus in all areas of our lives"......who would we touch?  Who would we risk touching?  Who would be healed?

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen