Possession

Sermon on 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Yesterday morning, I brought my three and a half year old to the playground for the first time in a number of months. It wasn’t exactly warm, but she was suffering from acute cabin fever and driving her mother crazy, so off we went. I was surprised to notice that there was nothing she couldn’t do on the playground. The last time we were there, she would start climbing an apparatus and, upon getting stuck halfway up, would call for me to help her. Yesterday, however, she climbed every rope ladder, climbing wall, and ramp without any assistance. When she announced her intention to get on the swings, I assumed she would run over to the toddler swings, but instead she made a beeline for what she calls “the big girl swings.” As she scrambled on the swing and I spotted her, I began to feel incredibly sad. This sadness stemmed from a poignant and deeply human recognition: if I’m lucky, there will come a time when my daughter won’t need me anymore. In fact, the best case scenario is that my little girl will grow up and move away from home. Of course, there’s a part of me that wants to prevent me from happening, but that would just be me trying to possess my daughter, instead of letting her become who she is meant to be.

There is something poignant and deeply human about the reading we heard from 2 Kings this morning. Elijah is moments away from ending his earthly pilgrimage, and his assistant and protege Elisha is trying to make the most of every last second he has with his mentor. Three times Elijah tells his traveling companion that he should stay put, because the LORD has sent the old prophet to some far off location; three times Elisha responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” There is clearly intimacy and devotion expressed between Elijah and Elisha, and it’s further highlighted by Elisha’s interactions with the companies of prophets at the holy places. All of the other prophets ask Elisha if he’s heard that his mentor is about to be taken away from him. Elisha responds, “I know! Be quiet!” It’s as if he doesn’t want to be reminded about the loss that he is about to experience. I think we’ve all been there at one point or another. When we have to say goodbye to someone we love, there are times when we are simply not ready to acknowledge the reality of their departure. In many ways, this whole sequence testifies to the friendship and love shared by these who prophets of the Most High.

At the same time, there is a shadow side to Elisha’s devotion. When Elijah asks his young companion what he can do for him before he is taken away, Elisha’s response is revealing: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this request. After all, Elisha is a prophet: why shouldn’t he ask to share some of the spirit wielded by one of God’s greatest prophets? He even says please! If we look a little deeper, however, there is something inherently self-serving about Elisha’s request. It’s not that he asked for a share of Elijah’s spirit. It not even that he wanted twice as much as his mentor! It’s the fact that Elisha’s request seems designed to nullify the effects of Elijah’s departure. “Give me a double portion of your spirit, so I can continue to operate as if you were still here.” This is, perhaps, a worthy goal, and an understandable one for someone about to lose a trusted teacher, but it also represents an attempt to domesticate Elijah, to speak and act on his behalf. It’s worth nothing at it’s not clear whether Elisha’s request was granted. A few verses later, some bystanders proclaim that the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha, but we’re not told if it’s a double share. One wonders if Elisha was trying to co-opt Elijah’s authority instead of establishing his own prophetic voice. To put it another way, there was a level at which Elisha saw Elijah as something to possess.

We see a similar dynamic at play in this morning’s gospel reading. The Transfiguration is generally interpreted in one of two ways. The first option is to view it as a meditation on the urgency of discipleship. In this interpretation, the whole point of the story is that we are supposed to get off the mountain and get to work. Why else would Jesus ignore Peter’s question about building houses? With that said, the second option is to read this story as yet another episode of the “Peter completely missing the point” show. In his sincere effort to ingratiate himself to Jesus, Peter says and does the first thing that comes to mind, without thinking about whether it makes any sense. Even Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say.” In this sense, this story is a cautionary tale: an opportunity to sympathize with Peter even as we try to avoid his mistakes. Yet, while there is merit to both of these interpretations, neither fully captures the true essence of the Transfiguration. Ultimately, Peter does not err just because he wants to build houses for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. If anything, this impulse reveals that he recognizes the significance of the moment. As someone deeply familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, Peter knows that both Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences, and that they were up there for a long time. Peter is just being proactive when he suggests building houses for Jesus and these two prophets of Israel. Moreover, as far as Peter was concerned, this was the moment Jesus had been waiting for. He now had the endorsement of Israel’s greatest prophets: Jesus had arrived. Maybe the houses were just the beginning: perhaps Peter was daydreaming about establishing the “Jesus Christ Center for Spirituality” on this mountaintop and inviting people from all over the world to sit and learn at Jesus’ feet.

Even if this is an overstatement (which it probably is), the fact is that Peter’s response to the Transfiguration reveals that he saw Jesus a source of holy wisdom: someone who could provide him and others the tools necessary to make it through life. In other words, Peter’s error was that he saw Jesus as something to possess. This perspective is not unique to Peter. In the very next passage in Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes down the mountain and finds that his disciples are unable to cast a demon out of a young boy. After Jesus successfully heals the boy, the disciples ask why they weren’t able to do it. They behave as if they had missed that day in class or were somehow using the wrong words, when in fact they were misunderstanding the entire purpose of Jesus’ mission. Jesus did not come to teach us how to live; he came to reveal who God is. Jesus Christ came to reveal that God has power to raise the dead to life. Jesus Christ came to reveal that God’s love for creation transcends even the depths of human frailty and sin. Taken seriously, such a revelation should fundamentally alter the way we understand the world. In the end, Peter responded to the Transfiguration by attempting to domesticate Jesus, when the proper response would have been to transform the way he experienced the world.

We often think of faith as something to possess: a balm we can apply when we are feeling scared, discouraged, or sad; a tool we can use to justify our sincerely held beliefs or shame those with whom we disagree. In reality, it is our faith that is supposed to possess us. Let me be clear about what I mean, because I feel as though this statement can be misinterpreted. I am not saying that we are live in thrall to religious leaders or that our faith can be summarized with a list of religious requirements. After all, Jesus reserved his sharpest criticisms for the religious establishment. If our faith possesses us, it means that our entire lives are animated by a fundamental trust in the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It means that we make every decision with the knowledge that God has the power to raise the dead to life. It means that we nurture every relationship with the understanding that God’s love for us transcends even the deepest human frailty. Our faith is not about acquiring information or performing certain tasks; it is about allowing our lives to be transformed by the God revealed by Jesus Christ on the holy mountain, the God whose love possesses us and helps us become who we are meant to be.

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And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.

Invitation

The week between January 18 and 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Heavenly Rest observed this occasion by having a pulpit exchange with First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, TX.  What follows is a sermon on John 1:35-51 offered to the people of First Central Presbyterian.

Indulge me for a moment, if you’d be so kind.  Think about the television show Wheel of Fortune.  What is the first image that comes to your mind?  While I’m no mind reader, I’d bet anything that for the vast majority of people, the first image that Wheel of Fortune conjures is Vanna White, clad in sparkly evening gown, revealing letters on a game board.  Am I right? 

For those of you who either haven’t seen or aren’t aware of this television show, Wheel of Fortune is a game show in which contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles to win cash and prizes determined by spinning this giant carnival wheel.  For the past 25 years, the show has been hosted by the aforementioned Vanna White, who reveals the correctly guessed letters from the puzzles, and Pat Sajak, who explains the rules of the game, makes small talk with the contestants, and is responsible for the giant wheel.  vanna whiteVanna is virtually silent and has very little to do during the course of the television show; all she has to do is point.  Pat, on the other hand, has to work the room like a small-town politician; he’s constantly encouraging people when they want to solve the puzzle or feigning interest in their mostly tedious anecdotes or consoling them when they lose.  It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the person most associated with Wheel of Fortune is not the guy who communicates with the contestants and operates the eponymous wheel; it is the woman who shows us the answer.  Apparently this is a source of some consternation for Mr. Sajak.  I heard a hilarious radio interview with him a few months ago.  Evidently, when people see him on the street, the first thing they ask him is: “Where’s Vanna?”  Sajak intimated that he would like to respond, “Why are you asking me?  We don’t live together!  And why do you care?  All she has to do is point to the letters!  She doesn’t even have to turn them around anymore; it’s all computerized!” 

While I suspect Mr. Sajak was being somewhat sarcastic, his question is an interesting one.  Why is it that we are more likely to be interested in Vanna White than Pat Sajak?  Why is Vanna White the first person we think of when we think about Wheel of Fortune?  I don’t think it is just because she wears beautiful clothes and seems like a pleasant person.  I believe that there something deeper at play.  There something about the human condition that attracts us to people who reveal things to us.  There something deep within us that draws us to people whose job it is to say “Let me show you.”

A few moments ago, we heard the gospel of John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  For those of us familiar with this story from other gospels, John’s account is decidedly unfamiliar.  There is no miraculous catch of fish, there is no abandoning of nets by the shore, there is no “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Instead, John tells us about these individual encounters with Jesus, and they’re all pretty strange.  First, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist; there is simply a declarative statement that reveals Jesus’ identity.  In the next encounter, one of John’s disciples asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  It’s an odd question to our ears (why would this guy care where Jesus is staying?), but this is how student-teacher relationships started in the ancient world.  A potential disciple would ask a rabbi where he was staying, and then present himself at the threshold of that teacher’s door early the next morning, demonstrating his devotion to studying under his tutelage.  So while the disciple’s question seems strange, it is actually Jesus’ response that is odd; instead of waiting for the disciple to present himself as a supplicant the next morning, Jesus tells him immediately, “Come and see.”  It’s as if John is saying that what Jesus is revealing to the world can’t wait for morning; it has to happen right away.  Hot on the heels of this encounter is the meeting of Jesus and Simon. The moment that Jesus looks at Simon, he says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.”  In John’s gospel, Peter doesn’t get his nickname after correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah; Jesus reveals it to him in the first five seconds of knowing him.  The final encounter is easily the strangest one.  After wondering sarcastically if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Nathanael approaches Jesus, who says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  This statement eventually leads Nathanael to identify Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel.

In some ways, this whole sequence is absurd.  No one walks around exchanging declarative statements like this and no one ends every sentence with an exclamation point (unless that person’s name is Richard Simmons); it’s just not how human beings communicate.  I’m confident that John understood this, that he deliberately chose to present these encounters with Jesus in a bizarre way.  This leaves us to wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us.  It’s pretty clear that for John, the revelation of Jesus Christ is something that simply can’t be contained.  Carousel june bustinThose of you who are familiar with musical theater may know the song “June is busting out all over” from Carousel; in the first chapter of John’s gospel, revelations are busting out all over.  For John the Baptist the mere presence of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Lamb of God and indicates that God is manifest in him.  In a similar way, Peter’s encounter with Jesus is an opportunity for conversion and transformation; it represents a call to a new vocation that is informed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  So on one hand, it might seem as though John is telling us that if we truly encounter Jesus, the effects are immediate: we will immediately recognize him and our lives will be transformed accordingly.  Christian history is filled with dramatic conversion experiences like these, stories of people who have had epiphanies of Jesus Christ that have led them to change their lives completely.  Indeed, I think that there is a popular assumption that the only way you can experience God is if you have had a sudden and dramatic conversion.  Part of the reason for this is that our culture loves conversion stories.  We love to identify those moments that changed people’s lives; we love stories about people who reoriented all of their priorities after a single dramatic experience.  Why else would the notion of “love at first sight” be so universally compelling?  Sure, we love love, but more importantly, we love a good conversion story.  And from what we read this morning, it seems that John is suggesting that this is the way God operates, that our encounter with Jesus Christ should represent one of these conversion moments, that as soon as we experience the Word made flesh, we should feel inexorably motivated to reorient our priorities and transform our lives completely.

This is certainly how it worked for numerous people throughout Christian history.  The stories of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, to name but a few, are all informed by this emphasis on conversion and transformation.  These men were living a certain way, had an epiphany of the living God, and then proceeded to live their lives in a radically different way.  As compelling as these conversion stories are, however, it is vitally important for us to recognize the other, more gradual ways that God can be manifest to us.  And while John gives us dramatic examples of conversion in his account of Jesus’ early ministry, he also gives us compelling instances where God’s purposes are revealed in a more subtle way.  There is, of course, the nameless disciple of John whom Jesus invites to “come and see.”  We do not read that this disciple felt compelled to change everything about himself; instead, Jesus invited him into a relationship, a relationship that wasn’t predicated on any particular result.  Even more powerful is the example of Philip and Nathanael.  After Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael’s caustic response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was something of a backwater, not terribly well regarded, especially by those from the more cosmopolitan cities around the Galilee, like Bethsaida.  Nathanael’s question has particular resonance for me, as my hometown was a place that was not terribly well regarded.  hartfordI have heard a version of “Can anything good come out of Hartford” more than a few times in my life.  My response to remarks like this tended to be defensive and sometimes angry.  I would ball my fists and list all of the luminaries who had called Hartford, CT home, from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn.  I would, in other words, shut down the conversation.  But notice that’s exactly what Philip does not do with Nathanael.  Instead of responding defensively, Philip responds with an invitation: “Come and see.”  Instead of shutting down the conversation and telling Nathanael to go find his own Messiah, Philip turns to him and says, “Let me show you what good can come out of Nazareth.  Let me show you what God is up to in this Jesus.  Let me show how your life can be different.”

It occurs to me that in many ways, this is the nature of our vocation as Christians.  We are called to be like Philip, and if you’ll permit me, we’re called to be like Vanna White.  We are called to show the world the good that has come out of Nazareth.  We are called to show the world what God is up to in this Jesus.  We are called to show the people of this world how their lives can be different.  This is a challenging time in the history of the Church.  In the face of scandal, abuse, denominational infighting, and whole host of other issues, fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians.  People look at the plethora of Christian denominations and wonder whether there is anything that they can agree on, if there is any point to them trying to have a conversation.  More and more, the Church is regarded as an irrelevant artifact of a patriarchal past, one that is destined gradually to disappear.  In short, people are asking, “Can anything good come out of the Church?”  Even though we might be inclined to respond defensively, the God we serve calls us to invitation.  Even though we might want to avoid challenging conversations, the God we worship calls us to say, “Let me show you.”  Let me show you the Medical Care Mission, a ministry of this church that has provided people with low incomes with health care for thirty years.  Let me show you Christians of many denominations serving breakfast to the working poor over at First Christian before the sun comes up every day of the week.  Let me show you people from a variety of backgrounds worshiping together with silence and song as they gather for ecumenical Taize services.  Let me show you a group of people committed to serving their community and seeking Christ in everyone they meet.  Let me show you love.  It is in the moments that we acknowledge and celebrate our love for one another, our love for our community, and God’s love for everyone in this broken world that we most vividly show the world what good the Church can do.  Ultimately, the Church does not exist for itself; it exists for the transformation of the world.  In that regard, we cannot reach out to the people of world with the intention of getting them to become Episcopalians or Presbyterians; we must reach out to the people of the world with the intention of showing them how much God loves them.  This week of prayer for Christian Unity that we celebrate today is an opportunity to do just that, an opportunity for us to embrace our Christian vocation, our call to be in relationship with the world and invite the world to come and see. 

Unfinished

Recording technology has changed music in a variety of ways.  One of the most intriguing innovations that has emerged from recorded music is the “fade out.”  We have all heard this technique used: the singer repeats the chorus for the final time and instead of stopping at a clear endpoint, the song gradually fades into silence.  This would not have been possible before the advent of recording technology.  The fade out saves the songwriter the trouble of having to come up with an ending and makes it much easier for songs to be strung together on the radio.  Some of the great popular musicians of the recorded music era have employed this technique; I’m always surprised when I listen to a Beatles album that includes a song with a distinct ending.  By precluding musical conclusions, the fade out permits songs to remain unfinished and theoretically to go on forever.

Every once and a while, however, singers sing live, which forces them to come up with endings to unfinished songs.  This is unfailingly unsettling.  When a singer concludes with an actual cadence a song that normally fades out, it is enormously distracting.  The song isn’t supposed to have an ending; we’re supposed to imagine that it could go on forever.  These songs that fade out are meant to be unfinished, they are not intended to have a hard and fast conclusion.

urlA few years ago, the United Church of Christ launched a marketing campaign called “God is still speaking.”  The idea behind the campaign is that we should be open to the continuing revelation of God; though God disclosed God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ, our understanding what that manifestation truly means continues to develop.  The campaign enjoined Christians not to put a period where God had put a comma.  Though some people have argued that the UCC’s motto is unscriptural, there is actually a warrant for it in the gospel of John.  When Jesus speaks to his disciples before his betrayal, he discusses what the coming of the Holy Spirit will mean for the Christian community:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).

This is a perplexing passage, especially given the fact that in John’s gospel, Jesus constantly tells his disciples things that they can neither bear nor understand.  Nevertheless, this brief passage seems to indicate that Jesus understood that there is more for us to know as Christians, that we need to be attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit through the Church.  We see an example of this in the Acts of the Apostles, when the Church gathers together to determine whether the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian community is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

As a Christian community, we are faced with a variety of controversial questions.  Should gay and lesbian people be fully included in the life of the Church?  Should we make the Holy Eucharist available to those who have not been baptized?  What should the Church’s stance on gun control be? On all of these issues, we cannot allow ourselves to be entrenched in ideological fortresses.  We must be open to conversation and willing to see multiple perspectives.  Above all, we must be attentive to the Holy Spirit and receptive to the God whose work of revelation remains unfinished.