The Things We Do
2009-02-23 by Dee Dee Haines
My name is Dee Dee Haines and I am a U.C.C. minister serving with the Methodists in the Isle of Man, a little bit of paradise in the middle of the Irish Sea. The Island is rich in Celtic heritage, with rolling green hills, dramatic sea cliffs and a wind that blows like no place else on earth!
This Sunday when Emma Crystal Kermeen is brought forward for baptism, I will stand behind the font and pour out the words of the promise: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:12b-13, NRSV) Falling from the lip of a simple clear glass pitcher, the waters of life will stream from three feet above the ancient font, echoing dramatically into the collecting basin below, creating an auditory and visual experience.
We will also speak of other promises and the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) The children will be sitting on the floor near the font, listening to the story. Wide eyed and captivated by the words and corresponding actions, I will remind them that they are very important witnesses with a job to do. Emma will not remember her baptism, but they will. And they can tell her the story. Who was there? What did we do? What did we say? And a question for us all: How did this “doing and saying” shape us as Christians?
Both texts, the covenant story from Genesis and the baptism of Jesus, are the kinds of stories that come alive in the rituals we practice in Christian community. They are stories that are tied to memories and promises. Words of covenant are offered at the threshold moments of our lives: births and baptisms, funerals, weddings, confirmation and communion. They remind us of our distinct place in the world.
According to many anthropologists, our consumer culture is beginning to lack meaningful ritual. Author John O’Donohue describes it this way: “The commercial edge of so-called “progress” has cut away a huge region of human tissue and webbing that held us in communion with one another. We have fallen out of belonging.” (John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday 2008, xxxi-xiv).
On this first Sunday of Lent, many of us will have already begun a particular practice or discipline, marking the forty days as special, significant, different than those on either side. Some people will forfeit chocolate, or some other food item from their diets. Others may add a time of meditation or prayer to their regular daily routine. Churches have their own ritualized behaviours during this time of preparation. Preachers may want to consider asking questions about what we are "doing" when we add or subtract something as part of the rituals surrounding Lent. And what does it mean?
Whilst one reply that says we are remembering the sacrifice of Christ is correct, it does not help us to understand what that means in our life together? How do our practices form us in ways that are carried out into the wider world in the many places where we work and play? How does the season of Lent shape us as Christians who now live in a world where many do not recognise the season as significant? How do the other rituals in our life together, the official ones and the un-official ones, form us? How does what we do, and the way that we do it, shape the practices themselves?
Did the baptism and blessing Jesus received shape him in some way that shaped his experience in the wilderness? Does our memory of the rituals of baptism and communion form us in ways that will help us in making choices that are life-giving for all?
This is, I think, at least one place to begin.
Thanks to Holly
2009-02-23 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to Holly Hearon, our guest blogger from last week, for her postings. Also, I thank Steve Schuette for his contribution. I would have contributed myself but was sick with the flu.
I look forward to more people entering the tub. Also, be sure to register for the Festival.
Yours with coughing and congestion,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
When Encountering Wonder: Stillness
2009-02-20 by Stephen Schuette
Peter did not know what to say. So he did not keep quiet. He gave directions. He gave himself and his friends a task, perhaps to mask whatthey didn’t know and couldn’t handle.
A lot happens because we don’t know what to say or do. Ever listen to a news analysis show? The more that is unknown, about the economy for instance, the more there is to be said.
Ever take an essay test where this applied? We all know what that’s called.
In a letter to Lincoln written the day following the Gettysburg dedication, Edward Everett praised the President for his eloquent and
concise speech, saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Ever hear anyone say, “Don’t just do something, stand there?” But could that be what the voice from the cloud suggests in the command “.listen to him?”
Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself? -Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
(From Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting by Holly W. Whitcomb, p. 15)
God with us
2009-02-19 by Holly Hearon
Because 2 Kings and Mark both offer dramatic and engaging narratives I want to let the two texts do the storytelling. However, I want to frame the sermon with strong connections to our own context. Since the sermon focuses on a challenging question (where is God when all the good around us seems to be disappearing?) I want to begin with a personal example that lets me laugh at myself. As it happens, a good illustration arose this week: I was playing a board game with my sister. Her first move resulted in a double score, compounded by bonus points. Despite my best efforts, I trailed behind throughout the game; that is, until the second to last move. By the luck of the draw, I was able to pull my score just beyond that of my sister, and win the game, at which point I shouted ‘there is a god’!
Now, I don’t actually believe that God had anything to do with my winning the game. But my spontaneous remark was a reminder of how often we use the circumstances of our lives as the basis for answering the question “Where is God?” if I win, there is a God; if I don’t win, God has rejected me. If my life is secure, things are going well, and I’m feeling happy, there is a God; if I experience a disappointment, receive devastating news, or face difficult challenges, my relationship to God comes into question.
At this point I would transition to the experiences of loss that have recently devastated the congregation, recognizing that for many this may leave them feeling that God has abandoned them. Conversely, those of us who are doing well in hard times can develop a false sense of ‘God with us’. How are we to hold onto a sense of God’s presence when all the good that we have experienced seems to be disappearing? How do we develop an understanding of God’s presence that is not tied to our own personal circumstances? (A good novel that addresses these questions is Dwelling Places by Vinita Hampton Wright [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006]).
The texts for the day speak to both of these experiences. Since I’ve already outlined the stories and the connections I find between them in my second blog I won’t repeat that material here. In reflecting on the two stories, however, I would observe that, just as we cannot expect to always live on the mountaintop, neither are we allowed to remain forever in our grief. God meets us in both places, but if we let those experiences define our relationship to God, then we will miss where God is leading us. Peter comes down off the mountain; Elisha returns to the Jordan and takes up Elisha’s mantle. Neither experience, however painful or powerful, should become the sum total of our understanding of God or ourselves, although they can give us important insights into God, ourselves, and our relationship to God. Here I might adapt a quote that hangs on my wall from Daniel Berrigan, S.J.: “These many beautiful [and sad] days cannot be lived again but they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit and I take them in full measure toward whatever lies ahead.” What lies immediately ahead is Lent: the texts for the day remind us that God journeys with us, even when those things most dear to us are going away.
Bringing Text and Context Together
2009-02-17 by Holly Hearon
As I reflect on the situation of my community I find the deepest connection with the text through the question posed in 2 Kings 2:3: “Do you not know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” Change the words around a little and you can hear them echoed as people watch the economy disintegrate and their jobs evaporate – something I am seeing daily among my colleagues and friends. The pressure this situation places on families can result in breakdowns in relationships, and the pressure it places on mental and physical health can lead to crises no longer covered by health insurance that has vanished. In the midst of this, people begin to question whether God is present in their lives. These texts don’t address every angle of this question, but I want to explore them in relation to the question.
2 Kings 2 describes the departure of Elijah from his disciple Elisha. The call of Elisha is described in 1 Kings 19:19-21, but we do not hear of him again until 2:1. The earlier call of Elisha has established that Elisha will succeed Elijah; nonetheless, the story in 2 Kings 2, at least as I hear it, is full of pathos. Three times Elijah tells Elisha to “stay here” and three times Elisha refuses to leave the side of Elijah (v. 2, 4, 6). When Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha cries out “Father!” The use of this kinship term describes the close relationship between Elijah and Elisha (i.e. of father and son or master and disciple). This relationship is underscored by v. 10 where Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit: i.e., the double portion due to the firstborn son (Deut 21:15-17). Elisha then rends his clothes as a sign of his deep mourning. What is intriguing to me is the question twice asked by the company of the prophets (vv. 3, 5). Are they taunting Elisha? Are they asking him if he is prepared for the eventuality of Elijah’s departure? Are they wondering why Elisha is still following Elijah and not ‘staying here’? It reminds me of all the tactless questions people ask without knowing it when we are in grief.
Despites all urging to turn back, Elisha stays with Elijah to the end; he does not take his eyes off of him (v. 12). I am struck by two things in this: 1) Elisha’s determination to stay with Elijah – even though he knows Elijah is going away. 2) Elisha genuinely mourns Elijah. There is no avoidance of grief. To hear this text in relation to my question, I think it is necessary to include vv. 13-14, where Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle and goes back to the Jordan. This adds a third impression: 3) Elisha does not see Elijah’s departure as an end to the relationship, but recognizes that the relationship has changed and that this change requires agency on his part (i.e. he takes up Elijah’s mantle). Elisha’s request in v. 9 anticipates this. When he strikes the Jordan in v. 14 and the waters part, we know that God, who has taken away Elijah’s master, is still present with him.
Mark presents a kind of counter-narrative to 2 Kings. In chapter 8, the disciples have learned that Jesus is going away – to die in Jerusalem. This ominous news is followed by the glorious vision of Jesus on the mountain in the company of Moses and Elijah. Peter, having already rejected the idea of Jesus’ death (8:32-33), chooses this scene as the vision he wants to hold onto. This is what I might call the ‘good time god’ image: we not only want to hold onto the image of a powerful and glorious Jesus, but want that vision to be reflected in our own lives by security, health, and stability. It is not wrong to want these things, but we run into difficulty if we count on these things as the assurance of God’s presence with us. The voice from the cloud offers a corrective to Peter’s vision. A few verses earlier, Jesus has declared to the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by religious leaders, and killed, only to rise on the third day (8:31). To listen to Jesus means that we must be prepared to accept Jesus’ suffering (and our own). That Peter is unable to do so is brought home painfully as the story unfolds and Peter denies Jesus three times (in contrast to Elisha who three times chooses to follow Elijah), and flees with the disciples, unable to watch to the bitter end (again, in contrast to Elisha). I think the voice from the cloud, which calls our attention to Jesus’ impending death, also calls our attention to God’s presence not only on the mountain, but also at Jesus’ moment of suffering – that is, a God who is present in every place.
If I were to try and tie in the passage from 2 Corinthians I might suggest that it is our desire for a ‘good time god’ (the god of the world) that prevents us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ. If God is the one whose light shines in the midst of darkness, then God’s presence can be known even when we feel farthest removed from God. I’m not sure yet whether this adds or distracts. It seems to me that, together, the passages from 2 Kings and the Gospel of Mark warn against holding on to only one image of God, to tie that image too closely with the condition of our own lives, and the need to be willing to embrace endings so that we can also experience new beginnings.
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