Saturday, February 28, 2009

Signs and Covenants - Lent 1B

It was probably the most sick and scared and ready to die I have ever been in my life. It was in January of 1986, in the North Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles off the coast of Bermuda. I was part of a research team on the research vessel Oceanus out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. We left the Sargasso Sea after we were done with our sampling. Then we were hit by this severe winter storm. And now we were in the middle of it. A little 170 foot boat listing 16 degrees on a side, waves washing over the deck so badly that we had to change our heading so we wouldn’t capsize. I just wanted to get back home.

In the fall of 1984, I had tried to meet with my freshman college advisor and was told “he’s on a cruise”. At first I thought “cruise” meant vacation, lots of food, suntanning. But no, going on research cruises was part of his work! I immediately decided I would find out more about this profession of chemical oceanography.

And so, 18 months later, here I was. I didn’t realize that I would get terribly and violently seasick as soon as the ship left the harbor. And now, in the midst of this terrible storm, I just wanted everything to stop moving! I tried going downstairs to my cabin but that just seemed to make things worse. Finally, I went up to the bridge. The captain took one look at me and said “There’s only one thing you can do. Keep above decks – and keep looking up toward the horizon” I went outside to the deck, grabbed a rope, and lay on top of a wooden crate. I forced myself to look out and up at the horizon, and I prayed that I would make it through the next hours. And finally, I started to feel a little better. Looking out at the sky, I felt that the world was more than the heaving and tossing waves surrounding our little boat. The sky, gray as it was, was a sign for me that we were going somewhere.

But nothing compared to the next morning, when I awoke to find the ship slowly cruising back into the Woods Hole harbor. Land! The sight of land on the horizon was one of the sweetest views I have ever experienced. It had only been a six day cruise, but six days surrounded by a heaving ocean were more than enough for me.

Have you ever been on a ship on the ocean, or maybe even one of the Great Lakes, where you have gone far enough away from land that you are surrounded by nothing but water? It can be a frightening experience, with the seas rising and falling in a never ending rhythm around you.

Our Old Testament story for today is the last part of the story of Noah. Almost all ancient societies tell a similar story, of a great flood, waters covering the earth. But the story of the Hebrews is unique, because the story doesn’t end with a ferocious God being conquered. God’s power is still present at the end of the story – God’s bow, unstrung, placed in the sky, facing upwards instead of towards humanity, no longer a weapon of destruction but a sign of promise. God’s choice – to make a promise to Noah, to Noah’s descendents, and even to all of the animals who had been with Noah on the ark.

In our passage for today, God is the only one who speaks. Noah makes no response, and is asked for no reply, to God’s promise. God simply tells Noah “what I just did, I will never do again. I covenant with you and with all living creatures to never again destroy the earth.” Never again will the entire earth be covered in water. Never again will only a small remnant remain of God’s creation.

The rainbow is a sign – a sign of the first covenant between God and humanity, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. That word, “covenant” isn’t one we hear very often today. A covenant is a promise, but more than a promise. In the study guide for the Disciple Bible Study series, the author defines the word covenant like this:
Covenant is not contract. Covenant is an agreement worked out between two parties. Covenant means a binding pact between God and God’s people.

A binding pact between God and God’s people. And a rainbow for a sign.

Can you remember the first time you saw a rainbow? We don’t see them very often here in northeast MidwestState. According to the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, three things have to happen in order for you to see a rainbow: (1) the sun has to be lower than 42 degrees from the horizon, (2) You have to be facing rain, and have the sun behind you, and (3) the sunlight has to be hitting the raindrops to produce the prism of colors that make up the rainbow. My husband will tell you that the rainbow effect depends on the raindrops having a near-perfect spherical shape, and the number and size of the drops is very important. With all of those requirements, it seems amazing that we can see them at all.

Sometimes God’s signs are hard for us to see. Sometimes, it seems like God is not really giving us any signs at all. Have you ever looked for a sign from God and had trouble finding it, trouble seeing your way out of the wilderness? When I was on that boat in the middle of the ocean, the gray sky was the only sign that I wasn’t completely surrounded by water – I saw no sign that the storm was going to end. Sometimes God does God’s work without a sign, it seems. Sometimes we have to make the signs ourselves, with God’s help, to let others know that God is present. Sometimes, when we take the time to make the sign, God shows up in the midst of it.

We’ve been talking about signs quite a bit in the new Marketing Committee here at the church that was formed at the beginning of the year. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the building of the chapel, this wonderful space where we get to worship together every week. And yet, if you are standing outside the church on Number Street, you won’t see any signs that announce the presence of this space. We have a big sign that says who we are, SmallCity First United Methodist Church, and our address, CCC Number Street, but nothing that says the sanctuary is over there, and the chapel is over here. We have a little sign that we put out by the door on Saturday nights announcing our service, but nothing permanent. I hope that soon we will be able to have a sign that tells the world, or at least that part of the world that drives or walks down Number Street, that there is a chapel here, and we have a great time together worshipping on Saturday evenings – and invites people to come on in!

God gives Noah his promise after he endures the trial of the flood. For Jesus, it was, rather, the opposite. You might remember that we read the story of Jesus’ baptism just seven weeks ago, but then, we stopped our reading at verse 11 – “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Today, we take the reading further, as we hear that immediately (Mark’s favorite word again) after he was baptized, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he remained for 40 days. This story comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before Jesus has, as far as we know, done anything at all to merit God’s favor. Jesus appears on the scene where a crowd has gathered to be baptized by John. Jesus joins the crowd, and with them is baptized, and then, God tells him how much he is loved.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ time in the wilderness from this passage in Mark. We know that he was tempted by Satan, was with the wild beasts, and was waited on by angels. And we know his time in the wilderness was the same length of time as the flood, and of our Lenten journey – 40 days. What signs did Jesus look for when he was in the wilderness? How did he know his Father was with him? Was he able to trust in the word he had just received, that he was the Beloved Son?

What gets you through your wilderness times? We all have them, don’t we? Times when we aren’t really sure where we are going. Times when God seems more distant than present. Times of loss, times of struggle. Maybe you are in one of those times right now.

I vividly remember Lent back in 1996 – 13 years ago now. We had lost our son, who was born still, on February 2 of that year. In a couple of weeks, my body began to return to normal, but I didn’t. I went back to work, but it was hard for me to concentrate on anything. I found myself thinking about Michael, as we had named him, almost all the time. We were fortunate to have a pastor who could tell us that grief doesn’t have a time table – that we weren’t supposed to “get over” our loss in a short period of time. Lent for me that year lasted more than 40 days – but in that wilderness, there were signs. People who had been through similar experiences – who shared our pain with us. A pastor who made time to talk with us and grieve with us, and let us know that we were not going nuts. Sometimes, even just a beautiful sunny day.

And the sacraments of the church. Sacraments are signs – one definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” For us in the United Methodist Church, we recognize two sacraments of the church – two special signs that we “do” – knowing that God works in and through them. These are baptism and communion. The sacraments are tangible signs of God’s presence among us – the water of baptism reminding us of God’s spirit working in and through us – water, like the water that represented chaos in the flood, used by God instead to cleanse and renew us. And the bread and the juice we use for communion – signs of Christ’s body and blood, representing God’s self giving in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the visible hallmark of the worship experience is the giving and receiving of signs of God's love. From the songs we sing and hear, to the handshakes and hugs we exchange, to the cross on the altar. We know God is in this place. We know because we see the signs. This is why we are here, so that we can see the signs of God, so that we can remember the covenant of love. In my wilderness times, I come back again and again to receive communion, the Eucharist, literally the sign of thanksgiving. By this body and blood, I am healed.

As we enter the season of Lent, our liturgical walk in the wilderness, 40 days before we arrive at the joy of Easter, we are asked to turn inward. We are asked to assess our lives, to reflect on how we have responded to God's will. Sometimes, when we do this, we find ourselves looking into bleak and dark corners, things about ourselves and our lives that are painful, things that cause us fear, things that make us feel poorly about who we are and what we are worth – wilderness places. During Lent we are asked to face these dark corners of our lives. We are asked to shine a light into these corners, to sweep out the heartache and the dust, and to open the doors to the coming Spring of God's love and acceptance. This is not easy work. And we cannot do it without God's signs.

We need the signs. We seem to be built this way, don't we? Throughout our entire live, every day, we need to be reminded of the fundamental nature of God's unconditional love for each of us. This is our weakness and our strength: we keep forgetting about God's love. We keep falling into darkness and despair. And yet, all we need to climb out of our dark hole once again is just one little sign from God. One little reminder, and we can be back in the light of love.

Thank God for the signs of love. Thank God for the rainbow. Thank God for the dry land. Thank God for the bread of life, the cup of salvation, and all of the signs that lead us from darkness and hunger to love and light as we walk in the wilderness of life. Thank God for the signs of God’s covenants with us.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Fork in the Road Friday Five

Singing Owl over at RevGalBlogPals writes:

I am at a life-changing juncture. I do not know which way I will go, but I have been thinking about the times, people and events that changed my life (for good or ill) in significant ways. For today's Friday Five, share with us five "fork-in-the-road" events, or persons, or choices. And how did life change after these forks in the road

This was one that required some thought! Here are five I can remember:
1. One early fall night, my friend Jennifer invited me to join her at our church's youth group. I was a sophomore in high school, she was a freshman. The group had about 12 members, sometimes more. I went that week and never looked back. The counselors, Mr. and Mrs. "C" were in their 50s then, but they related to us like I had never seen an adult relate to a kid before. I became very, very close to them, and my theology and even political views were formed as I spent a lot of time with them over the next few years. I don't think I would have ever heard my call to ministry if it weren't for this couple, who are now in their late 70s. They literally saved my life several times, when I was down and depressed and didn't know where to turn. God Bless them!

2. On May 22 of my senior year, I was accepted off of the waiting list to Big Name Engineering school. I had already filled out my dorm preference card for Smaller Name school, where I had a full scholarship. But my dad was so excited to see me get into Big Name School, he told me we would figure out how to pay for it. I didn't think I would survive at BNS, and I almost didn't, but I am really, really glad I went there, mostly for #3 below:

3. When I went to college at the Big Name Engineering School, I knew no one. It was Rush Week, my parents dropped me off on the big street by the school, and I was on my own. After seeing all the dorms in a couple of hours, I decided to call the co-ed fraternity where my ex-boyfriend's friend was a member, even though I had only met him once. I went over there on Saturday morning for breakfast, and, you guessed it, never looked back! In this wonderful living group, where I lived for the next four years, I met my three best friends ever, one of whom is my husband Starman, the love of my life for the last 24 years.

4. Starman asked me out on October 5 of my freshman year at BNS. He wasn't my ideal picture of a boyfriend - I was very preppy back in 1984, and he still was part of the "hippy" look - long hair, flare pants. He wasn't tall, he wasn't muscular. But he had great eyes and we seemed to have an endless supply of things to talk about. I said yes. By December I knew I wanted to marry him. I have never dated anyone else for more than a month. He still isn't a great dresser, but he has short hair now. And he can fix just about anything that breaks. And we still have an endless supply of things to talk about!

5. In 1995, we decided it was time to have some children. Got pregnant fast the first time, but lost 5 babies through miscarriage and stillbirth in about 3 years. Each time, we had to decide whether we wanted to try again, whether it was worth the possibility of heartbreak. After all those losses, the doctors finally figured out the formula, which included bedrest, two heparin shots and a baby aspirin every day, a cerclage at 12 weeks, progesterone shots daily through twelve weeks and modified bedrest. Oh, and constant unrelenting nausea necessitating trips to the emergency room. We did it three times, and it worked three times. I am so glad we didn't give up!

Of course, deciding to give up consulting engineering for seminary was another choice, and there of course were more after that, but these are 5 big ones. This question reminds me of my favorite poem, by Robert Frost, and I will leave you with that:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy, and wanted wear,
Although for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I left the first for another day
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back

Oh, I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

Thank you Singing Owl!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Coming Clean - a sermon for Epiphany 6B

I’ve been praying hard this week for two different families. My friend, X whom I told you about last week, just had a baby boy on January 28. X you might remember, is a pastor down in South Carolina. Although his baby J seemed fine at birth, it turned out that he needed major heart surgery. J has come through his first surgery now, and seems to be on the road to recovery. I am sure there are hundreds of people praying for J and for his parents as they go through this ordeal. And in this case, the prayers seem to be “working” – the odds are good that after the surgery is complete, J will be able to lead a normal and long life.

I have also been praying for a family from my daughters’ elementary school. C is in my daughter Skye’s fourth grade class, and she has an older sister, a younger sister in first grade, and a three year old brother. Their father, D, found out about a week or so ago that he has cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer has already spread throughout his organs and into his brain – and it looks like it is inoperable and incurable. He has only months to live. Many people who know the family from our elementary school, their church, and in their neighborhood are praying. But the prognosis, while not absolutely predictable, is grim.

I was thinking of these two families as I read the Old Testament and Gospel passages today about two very different healings. What can these passages tell us about God’s power to heal? What does it mean to be healed, anyway? Why do some people receive miraculous “healings,” while others do not? What do we do when we do get healed? What do we do when we do not?

First, we have the passage from 2 Kings, the story of Naaman. Naaman is the commander of the army of Aram, or Syria, who has just defeated the Israelites. Naaman is pretty high up on the social ladder, which makes his leprosy less of a pariah like disease and more of just a very physically uncomfortable one.

In Biblical times, leprosy was the word for any number of skin diseases, not just the disease we envision today. But whatever disease Naaman had, it was certainly one that was very uncomfortable, even painful, and chronic – it had been bothering him for quite some time.

Naaman really isn’t sure what he can do to cure himself, but he is desperate enough to listen when a nameless slave girl – an Israelite who had been taken captive during the war – recommends a path to healing. Almost wistfully, the slave girl laments, “If only my master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed of his skin disease.”

Naaman wastes no time – he goes to his boss, the king of Aram, and asks him for help. And the king sends him off to Samaria – not to the prophet that Naaman is looking for, but to the king – king-to-king, power to power. The king of Israel is understandably upset to see Naaman, gifts in hand, ready to be healed. How is he supposed to heal Naaman? He’s no doctor! He bemoans his fate, wonders if the king of Aram is trying to start a war over this, or what.

Then Elisha shows up. Elisha is a prophet who was a protégé of the great Elijah – and he is ready to do God’s work. But he isn’t going to do it the way Naaman expects. In fact, he doesn’t even come out to greet Naaman. He just has his servants tell Naaman to go down to the Jordan, wash in it seven times, and he will be clean.

Naaman is understandably upset. The Jordan is kind of a muddy creek, especially in comparison to the Abana, a swift flowing and clean mountain stream. Why would washing in a muddy river do any good? But again, it is a servant who helps him out here, basically asking him what he has to lose. And after following Elisha’s instructions, he finds that his skin has become not only healed, but renewed, like the flesh of a young boy.

Naaman follows instructions – he listens to those he normally probably wouldn’t pay any attention to, those in a social class far below his own. And it works. He is no longer a leper. He has become clean – clean as a new baby. And, he in turn comes clean and recognizes who has healed him – not his boss the king, or the King of Israel, but God Godself, working through servants and through the prophet Elisha.

It seems to me that Naaman jumped through a lot of hoops to get what he was seeking – healing of an annoying, if not debilitating, disease. He was, by all accounts, desperate – desperate enough to travel to another country, desperate enough to bring riches beyond belief with him, and finally, desperate enough to listen to those he normally would have ignored, at best.

But what Naaman received was more than a physical healing. I imagine he looked at the servants in his life in a new way after this. I imagine he wasn’t so quick to label them as below him, not worthy. And I imagine he had a new respect for the prophets of Israel. And finally, from our last verse, I know that Naaman had a new relationship with God as a result of his healing.

What changed for Naaman, then, wasn’t just the texture of his skin but his circle of relationships. The same can be said of the leper in our Gospel story for today.

The leper in the story from Mark isn’t some big important general like Naaman. He doesn’t even have a name. He meets Jesus after Jesus has left the city, probably because he himself isn’t allowed to be in the company of others. He doesn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to heal him, but he does wonder if Jesus will choose to do so. And Jesus does. When the leprosy is gone, he returns to the city to tell everyone of his good fortune. He, too, “comes clean” to his friends, and presumably to the priest Jesus sent him to in the first place.

But he doesn’t follow instructions. Instead of keeping quiet as Jesus has sternly warned him to do, he goes and tells everyone what Jesus has done – how Jesus has healed him, how Jesus touched him and made him clean. Jesus, by touching a leper, is now himself unclean. And the former leper has become Jesus’ latest evangelist.

Two men, two different stories of healing. Two different responses to being made clean. But in both cases, the healing of their disease changed their relationships with others. The leper in Mark, we can presume, now becomes a part of society once more, returns to his family, is no longer an outcast. And Naaman we can imagine, is now a follower of God, and more aware of others.

So what are these healing stories really trying to tell us? At face value, it might seem that being healed is just a matter of following the right formula, taking the right number of baths in the right river, or of begging Jesus for a cure. I have to tell you, sometimes I do wish it were that simple. I wish that if we just brought our cancer ridden friend to Jesus, and begged him, the cancer would be gone. Do you have people you wish that for as well?

Most of us here have lived long enough to know stories where prayers for healing have resulted in a miracle – children cured, successful one-in-a million chances for a surgery to work. Maybe you even know someone who had a cancer diagnosis, and that cancer disappeared.

But for all those stories, we know stories of those who were not physically cured. We know about mothers and fathers who didn’t get to raise their children to adulthood. We know of children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose lives ended tragically and all too soon.

How do we as Christians put all of this together? How do we make sense of it all, especially after reading these stories today? I have to tell you, stories like these mystify me, and they anger me. As we said in our prayer of confession, it is stories like these that make us think that we can take the credit by praying to God for a cure, and we can blame God when it doesn’t work out.

I don’t think it is that simple. To understand what is going on here, we need to understand what healing meant in the time these stories were written. In Jesus’ time, there were many “healers” – people who went around the country giving people various prescriptions that may or may not have helped their physical diseases go away. With a limited understanding of illness and its effect on the human body, it was both easier and more difficult for those folk healers than it is for our modern health professionals to diagnose and treat illness.

Jesus, we all know, was more than a folk healer like these others. That may be part of why he told the leper not to tell anyone what he had done. Jesus was about more than physical healing. Jesus came to restore relationships, to renew faith, to show the world who God was.

So disease was different, and healings were different. If we hold these ideas in our minds as we look at these stories, what can we learn? Maybe more than “God heals those who ask for it” Maybe “God shows us, again and again, how God wants us to live” From Naaman, we learn that paying attention to those you might not even notice can lead you to a new way of life. From the leper in Mark, we learn that it is almost impossible to keep the Good News of Jesus Christ a secret. From both of these stories, we gain a new concept of community – a community where your former enemies, the ones who have conquered you in battle, become the ones in need of healing, and are healed by their interactions with you.

What is your “leprosy” – what is the disease you carry with you wherever you go? We all have something about us that we would rather not have, that we are afraid will alienate us from our friends and communities. This is the thing Jesus came to heal. Our separation, our inner wounds, our alienation from others – this is what the ancient disease called leprosy represented in Jesus’ day. Maybe it is a bodily disease you carry with you – a chronic illness like fibromyalgia, or Crohn’s disease, or AIDS. Let me assure you, I don’t believe it is wrong to ask God to heal you of such a disease. I don’t believe it is wrong for us all to pray that those who are sick in body, or in spirit, may once again become well.

But, like Naaman, we need to be aware that the answer to our prayers may be more than we are seeking. Frederick Beuchner, in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, puts it this way:
What about when the boy is not healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.

This idea, of “beating down the path to God’s door” gives us a sense of direction when we are in need of healing. When we literally do not know where to turn, we can turn to God. When we can do nothing else but pray, then that is exactly what we can do. We beat a path to God's door, with nothing more to offer than our miserable hurting selves. And the good news is that having arrived to God's door, the one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that God will take us in. God will accept us in the place where we are, with all of our doubts, with all of our desperate needs, with all of our sickness and sin. God will open the door. God will take us in. In from the cold and the dusty road, from the dirty water and the fear of disease. In to the good clean warmth of God's everlasting love. This is the gift of prayer. A gift to cleanse the body and the soul, to heal the broken heart, and to lift out spirits in love. A gift of healing that is available to us every minute of every day. Thanks be to God.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Five: Pets!

Sophia over at RevGalBlogPals writes:
My son's tiny beloved lizard, Elf, is looking and acting strange this week. His skin/scales are quite dark, and he is lethargic. We are adding vitamin drops to his lettuce and spinach and hoping and praying that he is just getting ready to shed his skin--but it's too soon to tell. Others in the ring have also been worried about beloved pets this week. And, in the saddest news of all, Songbird has had to bid farewell to her precious Molly, the amazing dog who is well known to readers of her blog as a constant sacrament of God's unconditional love.

So in memory of Molly, and in honor of all the beloved animal companions who bless our lives: tell us about the five most memorable pets you have known.

1. My heartdog, Munro, a.k.a. Eaton's Eastshore Yorick, (1990-2003) Munro was the first dog that ever owned me entirely, I bought him for myself as a gift for getting my Master's degree. He was a light colored Golden Retriever. I could write books about him - he helped me adjust to living in Chicago, far from family. He was a Frisbee champ - and if you said the word "Frisbee" - he would cock his head just so, and his ears would perk up. We played about 1/2 hour every day before I left for work. When he was about 3, my husband began bringing him to work with him in the physics dept. of the University of Chicago. He became kind of famous, for Starman set up a webcam that would take his picture in the office every 5 minutes. There were lots of Munro Channel fans. He helped with physics demonstrations for freshman physics lectures, and would sit and wait for a ball to be "shot" from a "cannon" and hopefully land in his mouth. He helped me get through the years when we longed for a child, through miscarriages and a still birth. When Skye finally arrived, he was the best big brother ever. He was unassuming, and kind, and just about perfect. He died from bone cancer - we had his leg amputated in June, but it had already spread, and we had to put him to sleep on December 27, 2003.

2. Cricket was my family dog from the time I was 1 to 13. He was a ball of energy, a Heinz 57 mongrel with lots of border collie in him. He could climb trees to get a ball, pull us on our sled, jump through hoops and over sawhorses. He was a really fun companion. When I couldn't sleep, I would go into the hall where he lay and lie next to him, and my mom would find me there the next morning.

3. Dunstan, our current Golden, a rescue who was about 18 months old when we got him in the summer of 2005. A goofball, very pushy for attention, very unlike Munro, but he tries to be good. He is a great companion for my morning walks, and yesterday spotted an otter on the ice on the lake for me. He follows me everywhere. I wish I liked him the way I loved Munro.

4. Breezy, or Kentucky Breeze, my sister's horse, who is kind enough to let my children ride and groom her every summer when we come to visit. I have grown to love her.

5. Bramble, my sister's Australian shepherd dog, whom she has trained for wilderness search and rescue. He can find anyone anywhere, and has gone on countless searches as a team with her. He did find an 80 year old retired priest in a field after the man had been missing for two days. Although a bit dehydrated, the man was fine. I love to watch the two of them work together and am very proud of both of them.

In the photos: Breezy and Skye with my sister PiperGirl, Dunstan and Bramble on a summer hike, Munro with Skye on his last Christmas in 2003, and as a bonus, Shammy and Lucky our brother-and-sister cats, also a part of the family and great cuddle kitties!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

At Your Service - a sermon for Epiphany 5B

“I just can’t wait for spring” Manny told me when we met last Friday. Manny is a second grader in my daughter’s class, and last Friday I got to spend an hour with him, as we worked together on his reading skills. “I love the way the leaves sound when the wind blows through them. It gets inside me. I just can’t wait for the green leaves and the grass.”

How about you? Are you waiting for spring too? As you are all aware, spring is still a long way off…here in northeast Ohio I try not to count on warm weather until late May. Who can forget last Easter, March 23, when we had a foot of snow on the ground and the wind was blowing?

It’s hard to wait, isn’t it? I must admit to you that I am TERRIBLE at waiting for things – just ask my husband! He knows that if he wants to surprise me, he can’t give me any hints that something fun is coming my way, or I will torture him into telling me what to expect. I like to plan, I like to have everything laid out, and I HATE to WAIT! How about you?

As I read the Scripture passages for today, the idea of waiting wasn’t initially what came to my mind. I must admit that the Isaiah passage has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and not because of an image of waiting. In the last verse of the passage it says “and those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up on wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary and will walk and not faint.” What beautiful imagery! I know this passage is a favorite of many of you as well.

The psalm for today, which we used as our call to worship, brings us back, though, to the another focus of this passage. In verse 10 it says “His delight is not in the strength of a horse, or pleasure in the speed of a runner.” Hmmmm…that was enough to bring my fleet feet to a halt. If the passage is not about running fast, then what is the point? That is when I started to think about the idea of waiting.

Different versions of the Bible use different words for the beginning of verse 31, where we read today “those who wait for the Lord” The King James version says “They who wait upon the Lord” while the New International Version says “They who hope in the Lord” The Hebrew word used here can be translated as hope, or wait, or even “look for” I know when I am waiting for something, like spring, I do spend a lot of time “looking for” it – I heard on the radio the other day that a man is sure that spring is coming because he saw some ants in his house. And how many of you tuned in to see whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not on Monday? If he didn’t, winter was supposed to be over, but he did, so we are supposed to wait another six weeks until spring. Of course, we know here in northeast Ohio that winter never ends on February 2, but we keep looking, and waiting…and hoping!

The idea of waiting as hoping is something that resonates with me. Waiting as hoping is something that a lot of us do. When we wait to hear how a medical test has turned out, or wait to see someone we love, we are hoping. With a husband who travels a lot, I spend a lot of time waiting and hoping for his safe return. Probably the most difficult time I waited for Starman was when he left on what was supposed to be a four week trip to Australia back in 1989, yes, 20 years ago. He left on a cold winter day in February, and expected to be home in early April. His experiment was flying on a weather balloon, though, and we all know you can’t make plans based on the weather. Our wedding was scheduled for May 27, and in mid-May, he called and asked me “how many days before the wedding do I actually have to arrive in order for us to be able to get married?” Every day there seemed to be a new problem, either with the instrument, or with the weather, or with the computer program. He arrived home on May 18, just one day before it would be too late for us to get the blood tests needed to get our marriage license.

What have you waited for? Perhaps, like me, it was for your fiancé to return from far away so you could get married. Perhaps it was for your children to be born – I know from experience that can be a very long wait! Or perhaps you waited for your loved one to return from a war overseas, or for a job offer, or for a time when you could retire from your job. As you get older, there seems to be more waiting instead of less – waiting for someone to drive you somewhere when you have decided to give up your car, waiting for doctor’s appointments, waiting to hear from loved ones who are too busy to call. Even waiting here in the chapel (sanctuary) for worship to begin.

Waiting is hard work, don’t let anyone fool you. It makes sense to me that the ones who serve us in restaurants are called the “wait staff” – waiters and waitresses. They work very hard at the business of waiting, don’t they? For that reason, I also like the King James translation of the Isaiah passage, where it uses the phrase “wait upon the Lord” rather than “wait for the Lord.” That’s quite a different picture, isn’t it? If we can think of ourselves as waiting upon the Lord, the picture goes from one of passive sitting to active service.

My mentor pastor, Phil B, told me the story of John Milton when I stopped by to visit him one cold winter’s night, as I was working on this text. Phil recommended I read a poem by Milton called On Blindness. Milton wrote his poem back in the 17th century, when being blind meant many different things than it did today – without keyboards or Braille cards, it was difficult if not impossible for a poet to go on writing after he became blind. Milton was forced to dictate his later writings to a scribe. In his poem, he states that God does not need the work that a man may do, God wants us only to take the yoke God has given us. And in the last line, he speaks this truth: He also serves who only stands and waits.

He also serves who only stands and waits. Through our waiting, we can be serving God and others. So what are we supposed to do while we wait? Exactly how is waiting supposed to be helpful to anyone?

I think part of our answer can be found in the way we use that phrase, “to wait upon” – as a way of serving. In our Mark passage for today, we see that phrase again, in a different way. In one of the first acts of his ministry, Jesus heals the mother-in-law of Simon. She is ill in bed with a fever, and Jesus goes to her and takes her hand. As soon as Jesus touches her, her fever is gone – and she gets up and serves the visitors.

In this passage, the word used for serving is one that is close to my heart – the word “diakoneo” – from it comes our word Deacon. In Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, if you look up this word, the first definition is, again, “to wait upon” – there’s that idea of waiting again.

Here in the United Methodist Church, we have two “orders” of ordained ministry – two pathways for a person to enter into full connection with the church. People who are called to a ministry of elder commit themselves to serving as pastors of local congregations, to a ministry of service, word, sacrament and order. Roger made that commitment 36 years ago in June. Elders are assigned by the bishop to their appointments.

The ministry of a deacon is a little less clear cut. Deacons are called to a ministry of service and word – they act as the connection between the church and the world. Deacons are not assigned by the bishop but find their own positions, sometimes in a church as a minister of Christian Education or Youth Ministry, sometimes outside of the church as a chaplain in a hospital or even as a social worker in a secular organization. Deacons represent the church wherever they serve. They may be called to “wait upon” or wait with others in the hospital or at a clinic, or to wait with someone and assist them as they wade through the paperwork required for an adoption.

Paul could easily have been talking about deacons in the passage we read today from 1 Corinthians. When I first read this passage, where Paul says he has become “all things to all people,” I was a bit confused. Was Paul saying that he was changing who he was just to get people to agree with him? That didn’t seem right. Was I supposed to do things that I wouldn’t normally do, just to get people to come to Christ? What happened to being principled?

I think, though, that Paul is saying something different. Paul is not going to change who he is, a Jew by birth, a follower of Christ now. Paul is, however, going to do what it takes to communicate the gospel with all those around him. If it takes being weak, he is willing to become weak. If it takes remembering his Jewish heritage, he will remember his Jewish heritage.

When I was in high school I worked for three summers in the maintenance department of Charles River Breeding Labs, a company in my hometown that bred rats for laboratory experiments. I was the first female ever to work on the maintenance crew, and the rest of the workers had no idea what to make of me. At first, they all tried to avoid me – they told me I couldn’t eat lunch with them, because it made them feel uncomfortable. The first year I worked there, they actually had a pool to see how long I would last – at the end of the summer, the head of the department gave me two tickets to a Red Sox game – the winner of the pool was me.

I worked there for two more summers. It wasn’t an easy job. We spent any day that wasn’t raining outside – painting. We painted everything from cinder block walls to chain link fences. I showed up to work on time, wore the same green uniform everyone else wore, and tried to learn how to keep my paintbrushes as clean as my supervisor, Adrian, wanted me to. I didn’t change who I was – I didn’t pick up the swearing habits or start smoking like some of them did. But I also lost some of the superior attitude I had when I started there – I had thought these guys wouldn’t be as intelligent as I, a college bound high school student. I was wrong, and I figured that out pretty quickly. By the end of that second year, they asked me to eat lunch with them. And by the next summer, I was invited to their softball games and parties. I was able to be myself, and yet, be a maintenance worker like them. I never denied who I was, a churchgoing hardworking student, but I didn’t amplify the differences between us. Instead I focused, and they also focused after that first year, on what connected us – getting through the long hot summer days, getting our work done, sharing our brief lunch breaks and even our music.

There is a funny ending to this story. One of my coworkers was a fellow high school student named Larry. Larry and I worked together a lot, and talked together a lot. Larry actually helped me to feel better when I was down, and we both helped each other get through the long days and mandatory overtime. When we left after that last summer, I didn’t know what Larry was going to do next. But a couple of weeks ago, I found Larry on Facebook, one of those social networking sites on the internet where you can find all your old college and high school friends. It turns out Larry is a pastor too – after owning his own electrical company for a few years, he started working as the youth pastor at a growing church in a neighboring town. Now he is the campus pastor at a large church in South Carolina. I guess being a maintenance worker is good training for the ministry!

Has something like that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were called to do something, to be someone you didn’t really see yourself as, but found out that by doing that job, or being that person, you could connect with people you never thought you would connect to? That is service, and waiting as service – I was waiting to go to college, but instead I found out about the lives of those who never had a chance to go to college. And we served one another by being a community for one another.

The website for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship puts it this way:
It takes some practice to shift from “being the experts” to “coming alongside,” to shift from “giving the answers” to “becoming all things for all people”

So where are you waiting these days? Can you see your waiting as active service – waiting in a doctor’s office as a chance to pray for those who are waiting with you, waiting to hear some news from a loved one as a chance to serve that person by telling them you are praying with them, that you will be alongside them? As the church, we are called to all be servants of Christ, and therefore servants of one another. Let us go out to serve, to wait upon, those in this community, and around the world. Thanks be to God.