Signs of Covenant

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38 Second Sunday of Lent March 1, 2015 

 “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” God told Abram. “’So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord.[1]’“ Two chapters, and many years later, God promises Abram once again to make his descendants a great nation and blessing to the earth. This time, God renames Abram Abraham. This time, God specifically includes Sarai, and renames her Sarah.

Promises, or covenants, are one way that God maintains relationship with human kind. A covenant is when two parties have a set of promises that are agreed upon and there is a sign to testify to it. A rainbow in the sky is the sign of the covenant God made with Noah promising God would never again destroy the earth by a flood. God initiates and upholds covenants, and we humans, well… thank goodness God keeps God’s promises.

The sign for God’s covenant with Abraham is omitted from our reading this morning. God tells Abraham that the sign of the covenant will be circumcision for every male throughout the generations. God says, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.[2]”  God’s covenant will literally be embodied and become part of who Abraham is.

The first time God promised descendants to Abram, Abram was 75 years old. God told him to leave his home and his family. God instructed him to leave behind his life, and all that he knew, – his neighbors, the best place to get his car fixed, an honest accountant, his family doctor- all those people and things that make one feel secure and autonomous. Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his nephew Lot, and he left.

In Egypt, this family experiences famine, the Pharaoh has a thing with Sarai (that’s a more complicated story for another time…), and Lot and Abram part ways. There is the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Ishmael is born from Hagar. The scars Abraham bore from all this are not visible. Through all of his journeys in this wilderness of sorts, God re-affirms his promises to Abram. Now at age 99, God renews his promises with his covenant. As for Sarah, God says, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Living all those years longing for a child, in a culture that placed a high value on male heirs, must have been difficult for both Abraham and Sarah.

Then Isaac is born, “not of normal human circumstance, but of the power and fidelity of God,” writes Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann continues:

This birth is an event defying explanation, resisting reason. Abraham and Sarah and all of us are thrown back from reason and understanding to the more elemental responses of wonder, astonishment, amazement, gratitude, praise, and laughter. In that moment of birth and thanksgiving, Israel has broken free from all the bonds of reasonable control and technical prediction….The God who can work this new life can work all new life in every circumstance. The bounds of possibility are broken. This is not confidence in human, technical capacity or ingenuity or wisdom, but amazement about the power of life at work beyond our management[3].

The world in Jesus’ time was not much different than ours is. We witness through Jesus’ healing ministries that people were hurting. Mark’s gospel introduces us to lepers, a paralyzed man, unclean spirits that drove people to mental illness, a woman with 12 years of hemorrhaging, ears that can’t hear and eyes that can’t see. There are hungry people. After encountering so many suffering people, Jesus tells Peter and the others that he will suffer, too. He says that the religious leadership will reject him. Jesus will be mocked, endure physical pain, emotional torment, abandonment and ultimately death.

The method of execution comes on a cross, –public, humiliating, slow and agonizing. The flesh of Jesus’ hands and his feet rip apart when he is nailed to it. The tearing leaves scars, a permanent and visible reminder. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the scars are proof of who he is and what he has endured. You see, our God is not content to simply stand at a distance but comes to us in flesh that will be broken. God’s ultimate affirmation of God’s covenant of love is literally embodied in Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death. Jesus bears the scars of that covenant.

The scars of our surgeries, broken hearts, and wounded ego are all somehow joined to Jesus’ scars. In our baptism, our suffering and death from fear, shame, grief and illness are joined with Jesus’. Just as Jesus does, we still bear scars from our battle experiences. Our scars, visible and invisible never leave us, but God helps us find a way to live with them differently. God brings new life out of death. God turns the cross, this method of torture and death, into unexpected victory. We are so used to hearing this, that I wonder if we can truly grasp the miracle in it. The cross, in Brueggemann’s words, breaks us free from all the bonds of reasonable control and technical prediction. Life is and can be different. Jesus tells us that in our reading today. Listen again to Mark’s gospel.

‘[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” [4]‘ Maybe Jesus was saying, “Those scars you have do not have to define who you are. Who you are is my beloved. Follow me, and I will turn your scars into your strengths. Follow me, and I will show you how to love yourself and how to love others.” When we are not paralyzed by or drowning in our own pain and disappointments we can focus on others, engage ourselves in community and carry out God’s mission. We can turn our scars into compassion so that we can help others live with theirs. Maybe Jesus was telling his people to take up their shame, their fear, their failures and follow him, follow him from death into life.

We who have been drowned in the waters of baptism gather today around the scarred body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine at the table with the community of saints to hear God’s story of a scarred 99- year old man and a 90 year old woman laughing when they discover the pregnancy strip turned blue. During the silence that follows, I invite you to reflect on your own stories of scars God has turned into victory.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Genesis 15:5

[2] Genesis 17:13

[3] The Threat of Life. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996. p. 4. Print.

[4] Mark 8:34

On Being Driven Into the Wilderness

 

Mark 1:9-15     First Sunday in Lent     February 22, 2015

 

Here’s something disquieting, in this morning’s story in Mark: And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.  This is more disturbing than what we read the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  They tell us that the Spirit “led” Jesus out into the wilderness.  Here, in Mark, what’s it say?  “[T]he Spirit immediately drove him out.”  What stories can you tell, about being in the wilderness?  What role has God the Holy Spirit played?

If you’ve ever been to Israel, to see the wilderness where Jesus endured his temptation, you know it’s a rocky desert.  Nothing visible is growing.  What a hostile environment for human life!  [Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  That’s all Mark tells us!

Of course, the number, 40, is important in the Bible and in our faith practice.  How many days and nights did it rain, in the story of Noah and the ark?  How many years did Moses and the people wander in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land?  How many days long is this season of Lent?  (As an aside: these 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays, technically, because we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday!  However, we do make some alterations to the liturgy on Sundays because not everyone gathers during our Lenten services, on Wednesday nights.)

Think of what Mark tells us, and how we have experienced all of this.  [Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn away from his identify in God.  (What about you: how are you tempted to turn away from the person God has created you to be?)  Jesus was with the “wild beasts” – which is code for all sorts of frightening danger, and even evil.  (What about you: when have you faced the “wild beasts?”)  Jesus was not abandoned by God.  He was sustained by God!  “The angels waited on him.”  (What about you: who were the angels who ministered to you, last time you were driven out into the wilderness?)

Then comes this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near [or, is at hand]; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Here Jesus is bringing a wonderful message!  This call to repentance is good news of great possibility and freedom!  To repent means to be drawn by the Spirit who re-orients us in God’s salvation, and re-centers us in God’s grace.  When the Spirit turns us away from our attempts to save ourselves, when the Spirit re-turns and re-orients and re-centers us in God, then we have a chance to actually believe the good news that God has saved us in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to respond in joy!

What are your stories of wilderness – when you have been driven to the edge of survival, physically, emotionally, spiritually?  Has it been a life-threatening medical crisis?  Being blindsided by unemployment?  By your spouse leaving you?  By a sudden death?  Has the wilderness for you been while keeping the vigil for a loved one in the hospital?  Caring for a loved one with mental illness?  Struggling to know how to care for a loved one with an addiction?  Perhaps you’re in the wilderness this morning.

How does your story, of finding yourself driven out into the wilderness, intersect with this morning’s story of Jesus?

Let me tell you a story that includes details some of you knew better than I did at the time.  In 2006, I was sick.  I had actually had a cough for a couple of years.  Various allergists hadn’t been able to diagnose anything.  In August or September of 2006, a chest x-ray revealed small masses of pneumonia in my lungs.  The doctor put me on antibiotics that did no good.  He referred me to a pulmonologist who did a bronchoscopy and then misdiagnosed what was in my lungs.  He and his partners determined that it was something called sarcoidosis.  The treatment for that is Prednisone, a steroid.  He started me on that and, within days I was dramatically worse, in our Sentara hospital here in Williamsburg, in the ICU, on a ventilator.

If I had stayed there, I would have died.  Fortunately, a pulmonologist at the Eastern Virginia Medical School who was monitoring Sentara ICUs saw my struggle and asked my pulmonologist’s permission to transfer me to Norfolk General Hospital.  (Of course, I didn’t know any of this was going on.  It was weeks later that I could hear Patty tell me what it was like for her to watch the ambulance pull away in the middle of the night, in a raging rainstorm, headed to Norfolk.  The ICU staff in Williamsburg was so concerned that they actually sent one of their nurses to tend to me during the ambulance ride.)

The ICU staff at Norfolk General got me plugged in.  The doctors of pulmonology and infectious disease at the medical school started working with each other, trying to figure out what was going on.  There was no diagnosis at this point.  They were filling me with drugs that would fight any possibility they could think of – for pneumonia, for tuberculosis; they had ruled out AIDS, they were checking for some sort of cancer.  On October 31, it looked like I would die.  That was the day the ventilator was turned up to 100% oxygen (which can’t be sustained without causing damage to the lungs) – but my blood oxygen would not get above 90%.

I did not die.  That is because of at least two things, I learned later.  One of the infectious disease docs had thought to test for something called histoplasmosis – a fungal infection that is rare in this part of the country, but is fairly common in the Ohio River Valley, and that can be treated once it’s diagnosed.  (Do you know what steroids does for a fungal infection?  It’s like giving plant food to a weed!  That’s why I got so much worse, so quickly, on the Prednisone.)  And, I also learned later that many of you had gathered in this space for a prayer vigil, and that you were keeping the vigil daily in your homes and offices.  (What I felt at the time was an occasional, weird sensation of being lifted and supported, in that hospital bed.)

When I came back to consciousness, I began fighting against the breathing tube down my throat, so a surgeon inserted a tracheostomy, and also a feeding tube.  The drugs caused me to hallucinate: awful, terrifying perceptions of what I thought was reality.  At one point my heart stopped beating for 12 seconds.  They called the code and were readying the crash cart and, then, my heart just started again.  (They never could figure out why that happened.)  What wild beasts there were, in the wilderness!

And what angels there were, waiting on me in the wilderness!  There was the pulmonologist who asked to have me sent to Norfolk.  There was the infectious disease doc who thought to test for histoplasmosis.  There were the respiratory therapists who kept me alive until a diagnosis could be reached.  Later, there was the respiratory therapist who finally said the right words to get through to me so I would have courage, during the terrifying experience of being weaned off the ventilator.  He said this: “Do you feel like you’re drowning?”  I said, “Yes!”  He said, “That’s perfect!  That’s what you’re supposed to be feeling.  Keep going!  Keep breathing through that.”

Let me tell you about two more angels.  They were  both nurses in the Progressive Ventilator Care Unit, the first step of progress, when I was not about to die, so I could be moved out of the ICU, but I was still on the ventilator.  Once these two nurses found out I was a pastor, it was as if I was in a religious hospital!  They loved it when I wrote them notes, asking about church.  They would tell me all about what the preacher had said.  Each day, they would talk openly about how God was blessing me.  They talked about how it was a blessing to them, to be taking care of me!  Those of you who have been an acute care room: you know how it’s never dark?  There’s always light.  But at night, these nurses would point to the clock, say it was “bedtime,” and give me my evening shot of Ativan to make me sleep.  And then, each night, after they gave me the shot, they sang a hymn to me!  (I knew every hymn they sang because I worked for two years in an African-American congregation in Chicago during my seminary years!)  Wow.

Of course I haven’t even told you about the way Pastor Griffin took care of me all those years ago, long before we had the idea to work together.  I haven’t mentioned the role my wife, Patty, played.  You can imagine her wilderness story.  I haven’t mentioned my children’s visits.  But, here’s the thing.  In that wilderness, even with all those angels, I was still tempted to turn away from the person God has created me to be.  I felt despair most days.  I came home with what I now know to be feelings of post-traumatic stress.  My recovery at home took two more months.

Let me tell you about one more significant experience that helped me return from the wilderness.  I met with friends who are Spiritual Directors like me, in a monthly peer group that I’m in, and they asked me to present my experiences to them.  So I told them about all of this, and how much despair I had suffered through, how hard I was finding it, still, to identify where God had been.  They just stared at me in disbelief.  Finally, one of them said, “Wait.  You’ve been telling us about that pulmonologist, that infectious disease doc, that respiratory therapist, those nurses – and you can’t see where God was?!”  (He didn’t add, “What’s the matter with you?” but I picked up the obvious question!)

And with that, the Spirit used others in the church to turn me back to God.  In that question, the Spirit began to re-orient me in God’s salvation, to re-center me in God’s grace.  The Spirit began to turn me away from my self-centeredness, my self-absorption, and to re-turn and re-orient and re-center me in God, so the Spirit could draw me again to actually believe the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which happened in the flesh and blood of Jesus – which means that God is present in our flesh, too, in our wilderness experiences.

[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  And then, this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What are your experiences?  That’s subject for your prayer.  And, if you’re here this Wednesday night, in the midst of Holden Evening Prayer, we’ll be able to talk about your stories.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

Between the Altar and the Door

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17     Ash Wednesday     February 19, 2015

Our liturgical year recalls the stages in the life of Christ, and Ash Wednesday, liturgically speaking, is an unexpected interruption. It is not something that Jesus did, or that happened to him. It is an unexpected interruption. Death can be like that, too. Tonight, we are reminded of our mortality. Pastor Ballentine and I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead and pronounce these words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Tonight, we begin 40 days of Lent, which does not include Sundays. Sundays are always the day of resurrection, and, if you want to get technical, are exempt from Lenten disciplines. Sundays would be the chance to have the chocolate or coffee you have given up for Lent. I’ve given up giving up things for Lent, especially dark chocolate. I need all of my vices to get me through this season of extra worship services and sermons. More on Lenten disciplines later.

Despite the increase in activity, Lent is one of my favorite seasons of the church year, and Ash Wednesday is particularly meaningful for me. Remembering that we are dust, and that we shall die and return to dust may seem like an odd day to be one of my favorites, but it is one of the best days of the year! You may remember that last year I lamented that I could not find the Ash Wednesday cards at Hallmark. I’ve checked at Target this year. They don’t sell them, either. Please keep your eyes out for me!

If you value freedom and truth, today may be one of your favorite days, too. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Ash Wednesday is about truth – the truth of who we are, and the truth of who God is, and the truth of who we are in Christ. The black cross drawn on our foreheads reminds us that we cannot save ourselves. New life comes to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Love and life brought out of death and ashes are tangible signs of God’s reversals. Black ashes on our foreheads are signs of hope – hope that things can be different. Black ashes formed into a cross on our foreheads are a sign of these truths.

The truth of which we speak tonight is that we are not immortal. Hair dye and those lotions that promise to ward off wrinkles and those tell-tale brown age spots cannot stop our bodies from slowing down. There will be a day when our blood stops flowing, and our breathing will cease.   The truth of which we speak tonight is that we will die.

There is another truth that we speak tonight. We are sinners in bondage. We help others and practice generosity, but eventually we find it hard to forgive someone, or are haunted by self-doubt, or any those things that come with being human. We are sinners, unable to save ourselves. We may be sorry and have regret. But if we view these things as other than sin, and respond in a way that does not include repentance, turning again to God, then we are in danger of thinking we have the power to save ourselves, that we can, on our own, make things right without God’s grace, without God’s mercy and forgiveness. We can talk ourselves into believing that we can always act without self-interest and self-benefit. The truth is that we are in bondage to sin. We cannot accomplish what only God can. We cannot save ourselves. Ash Wednesday is about the truth of that, and the hope of that. Tonight we admit our mortality and our sinfulness and return to our God of promise and hope. Tonight we confess these things, and we are set free from all those things that weigh us down. We are free from all that separates us from God. We are free to love God with our whole being.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about Christian truth. She says, “There’s a popular misconception that religion. Christianity specifically, is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good. But being good has never set me free the way the truth has. Knowing all of this makes me love and hate Jesus at the same time. Because, when instead of contrasting good and evil, he contrasted truth and evil, I have to think about all the times I’ve substituted being good (or appearing to be good) for truth[1].”

Hear these words from Joel again.   “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” The prophet Joel did not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. Marking the sign of the cross with ashes began in the Middle Ages. But what Joel knew is that there is a connection between genuine repentance and relationship with God. Joel also knew that rituals help keep our focus on God, on God’s desires for us, and God’s blessings to us. “Rend your heart and not your clothing” is admonition to us not to worry about the appearance of remorse, but to attend to the business of repentance. Joel emphasized repentance not as turning away from evil, but rather as turning toward God.

Though I might joke about giving things up for Lent, there are disciplines that foster our openness to God and help us to be receptive to the Holy Spirit. What works best for one person is different than for another. The goal of spiritual discipline is to draw closer to God. Fasting and prayer, intentional quiet time with God, devotional reading, and daily self-examination all contribute to deepening our relationship with God through Christ. If you want to give something up for Lent, try giving up blame, guilt, pride and worry. In the giving up of those things, you will find yourself depending on God’s grace and mercy and love.

Lent is the time to recognize our sin and our mortality. Ash Wednesday is our reminder of God’s promise that our sin will not define us. God’s love for us made alive in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, does that. We are set free from our sin so that we are free to serve God and others.

Tonight, the cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads, right where the cross was marked on us in our baptism. We are reminded of our brokenness and our mortality, knowing that sin and death do not have the final word. Jesus’ dying and rising has the final word.

[1] Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix. New York: Jericho Books, 2013,p. 73. Print.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

 

 

Recognizing, Naming, and Receiving God’s Grace

 Mark 9:2-9     Transfiguration Sunday      February 15, 2015

 

Imagine being there.  Imagine how your leg muscles would be aching from the climb up the high mountain; how your breathing would be ragged.  Imagine having to shield your eyes: And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Imagine your confusion: And there appeared to them Elijah(the great prophet some expected to return just before the Messiah appeared!)with Moses(the great giver of God’s law!), who were talking with Jesus.  Peter speaks out of his confusion.  (He’s such an extrovert that every thought he has comes out of his mouth.)  He’s thinking this is holy ground, and that they need to worship.  He wants to construct three worship shelters.   Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Then, imagine the cloud!  Imagine this: Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  Only Jesus!  Do you mean Jesus is greater than even Elijah and Moses?!

Then there is this: As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  Is this because, otherwise, they would jump to conclusions – expecting Jesus’ glorification without his having to suffer and die?  In the verse just after this morning’s passage, we read this: So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

In other words, they are asking each other: What is going on?!

In other words: Isn’t it hard to recognize, name, and receive God’s grace?

That’s been a theme during this season of Epiphany.  An “epiphany” is an instance of clarity, of understanding, of illumination.  (That’s why we’ve had stars hanging in our worship space over these past five weeks – to remind us that light is an important image during Epiphany.)

As God moves among us in our worship and in our daily prayer, the Spirit beings illumination.  Who is this Jesus, this Savior, this Messiah born into our human flesh?  In this morning’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we get the answer.  (It is the answer of God the Father, no less!)  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  (If your memory is good, you’ll remember hearing something similar on the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany.  It was the Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, and in that story, as Jesus is coming up out of the water, we read, And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[1]  Again, the answer of God the Father!)

Here’s a great mystery in the gospel of Mark: Why do so few recognize, name, and receive God’s grace in Jesus the Christ?  This morning’s story is only the most dramatic example of that.  Throughout Mark, the religious leaders – the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees – don’t get it.  The local king, Herod, doesn’t get it.  The local Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, doesn’t get it.  Here’s the most shocking thing: even Jesus’ disciples don’t get it!

Why has the ancient gospel writer made this confusion so important in his stories of Jesus?  I think it is to pose the question to us: Do you get it?  Do you recognize, name, and receive God’s grace?

I will confess: I often do not.  (Is that true for some of you, too?)  It’s not often that we have dramatic experiences of God.  We don’t often climb a mountain to see Elijah and Moses.  We’re not often enveloped by a mysterious cloud, hearing a voice coming out of the cloud!  Instead, it’s recognizing, naming, and receiving God’s grace in what we experience each day, even in the small things of each day.  For instance, when you wake up each morning, do you recognize, name, and receive God’s grace: remembering that this new day is a gift from God’s grace?  In the daily prayer book I use, here is a prayer for Tuesday mornings: “Eternal God, we rejoice this morning in the gift of life, which we have received by your grace, and the new life you give in Jesus Christ.”[2]  A prayer such as that reminds me to recognize, name, and receive even a sleepy morning as a gift of God’s grace!  When I practice that prayer, the Spirit has space to come into my consciousness.

A couple of months ago, Terry Hinders skyped into our Congregation Council meeting with devotions, and one of her thoughts has stuck with me.  She suggested that we make this the first item of our daily “to do” list:

  1. Love God.

Terry asked us to think about how that might transform everything we do for the rest of the day.  If you first remember to love God, wouldn’t you be more likely to recognize, name and receive God’s grace?  To recognize: because God’s grace comes to us so often in ways that we’ll miss if we’re not alert: that breath you just took; the squeeze of a spouse’s hand; the smile from a friend.  To name: because that cheerful bird song and that smell of freshly-baked bread and the refreshment of a good night’s sleep is, indeed, grace from God!  And to receive: because it is not up to us!  It is all gift.  (What freedom and joy there is in that.  We don’t have to save ourselves!)

How do you recognize, name, and receive God’s grace?  What’s been your experience?

I’m more likely to live in this joy-filled way when I am practicing the faith.  What are some of those practices?  Humility is fundamental.  (It is one of the gifts of the Spirit, according to Paul’s lists).  I am most likely to practice humility when I remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.  We will remind each other of that, with ashes this coming Wednesday, and with the book study that begins tomorrow night.[3]  Then, when I am practicing humility I am able to confess my sins and receive forgiveness from others, and I can receive others’ confession of their sins to me, so I can offer forgiveness.  When I’m engaging in the practices of the faith, I am more likely to recognize, name, and receive God’s grace as it comes to me.

In the practice of Morning Prayer, the Holy Spirit forms my faith, so I can recognize, name, and receive God’s grace.  In the practice of pausing for Noontime prayer – so I can remember that it is God’s work; that it is not up to me – the Holy Spirit forms my faith, so I can recognize, name, and receive God’s grace.  Then, there is the practice of Evening Prayer at the end of the day, and of Night Prayer just before bed: allowing space for God the Holy Spirit to form our faith as we stop, to be conscious of God’s grace.

In the practice that we’re engaging in right now – of gathering here each Sunday and receiving Holy Communion – the Holy Spirit forms our faith so I can recognize, name, and receive the grace of God’s physical presence in my body!

In the practice of reading, studying and praying over the stories in the Bible, the Holy Spirit forms our faith so we can recognize, name, and receive the grace of how God is acting in our own stories and experiences, in the same way as in those stories in the Bible.

When we practice Sabbath as not only a day off, but a day dedicated to God, the Holy Spirit forms our faith so we can recognize, name, and receive the grace of nurture, refreshment and deep rest in God.  I love what Walter Brueggemann writes about Sabbath practice: “‘Sabbath is an antidote to anxiety that both derives from our craving and in turn feeds those cravings for more.’  Sabbath breaks the pattern of endless work, study, and organized sports.  It allows us to resist society’s relentless economic pressures and live in an altogether different way. … ‘In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative.’”[4]  What joy there is in the practice of Sabbath!

There are many other practices of faith formation that I could name.  None of them yield experiences as dramatic as what our three predecessors – Peter, James and John – saw and heard on top of the mountain of Transfiguration.  That could be to our advantage!  We don’t have to work through being totally overwhelmed, as those three were!  Instead, we can simply allow the Spirit to open us, as we practice the faith, recognizing, naming, and receiving grace from God, day by day along the journey.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Mark 1:11

[2] Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer (Presbyterian Church USA)

[3] We’ll be reading and discussing Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.

[4] From Dennis Di Mauro’s review of Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance, in the journal, “Lutheran Forum.”

And then…

Mark 1:29-39   Fifth Sunday after Epiphany   February 8, 2015

On Epiphany, the wise men were led by a bright star to find the baby Jesus in the manger. We are still in the season of Epiphany, and the season calls us to see signs that point to Jesus, and to follow them so that we, too, can encounter Christ. For us, the question, “Where do we see God at work?” is the question of the day, as it should be every day. We are in year B of our Revised Common Lectionary readings, which means that we are reading from Mark.

Mark’s sense of urgency continues. As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. Jesus’ rushing to Simon’s house and the disciples’ rush to tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick convey the seriousness of her illness. She had been at the edge of death, and Jesus brought her back to life.

Notice that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is not mentioned by name, but rather by relationship. When I had my first child, I was no longer Cheryl, but rather, “Michael’s mom.” Women in the Bible are often not talked about by name. There’s Noah’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, the woman at the well, Pontius Pilate’s wife, and others. We can only speculate as to why, but people without a name are often people whom others overlook. It is also true that, without a name, we can slip ourselves into the story. We can more easily recognize Simon Peter’s mother-in-law’s story as our story, too.

She had been ill with a fever. Suffering from illness places us in a devalued state of being. Social networks are disrupted. Life’s meaning becomes sketchy. This was true in Jesus’ time, and in ours. It’s also true for suffering in general, not just pain from a physical illness that you can see, but also from illnesses that are not so obvious. Emotional and physical trauma impact take their toll as well.

One thing is for certain, being on the brink of death changes a person. Death can be defined loosely as the state of being in which we cease to be. Divorce, addiction, financial difficulties and other extreme challenges all can bring us to the brink of a kind of death where we cease to be who we were and our ability to function as we had been comes to a halt. Maybe you have even uttered the phrase, “It nearly killed me” when we talk about experiencing something difficult.

What was going through a severe illness like for this woman with no name? I’ve had conversations with people who have gone to the edge of death. I’ve experienced many of these things when I journeyed with cancer. Commonalities exist among those whose future is in question. It is interesting to see which friends stay, and which ones don’t. Perhaps even more fascinating are those who seem to come out from the background to the forefront, and to encounter those whom you didn’t expect to come close during a time of difficulty.

Those who have been through crisis have a keen awareness that tomorrow is not guaranteed.   They look for God’s blessings in each day, and sometimes in each moment. They strive to live in the here and now, becoming fully present with others. Living in the now, we become aware of the fear, shame and pain that underlies the heavy baggage and burdens we carry with us. We have a chance to let go of those negative things from the past to which we cling, and cling to the promise of new life we find in Christ.

There’s much we don’t know about Simon’s unnamed mother-in-law, and the details of both her illness and her recovery are scarce. We do know that her healing happened in community. She was in her home, a place where relatives and friends gather. She was among people who cared about her wellbeing. We know that Jesus touched her. We read, “Jesus came, and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” The Greek verb used is a form of the verb, “to get up,” the same Greek verb that the angel used to tell the women who first came to the empty tomb that Jesus had been raised[1].

After our unnamed woman had experienced a death and resurrection, the first thing that she did was to serve others. Being close to death has a way of reordering priorities. What becomes valuable to us after our world is turned upside down? Maybe feeding the homeless becomes more important than shopping. Maybe having dinner with family becomes a priority rather than working extra hours.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit and engage in conversation with Regina Root. With her permission, I share some of her journey with you. Regina developed bleeding in her brain stem. Her chances of surviving surgery were 30 percent. Although she has made great progress, her physical ordeal is evident. Nerves on one side of her face leave it droopy. Walking and reading are laborious. She has walked through the valley of death. In her resurrection, Regina has found herself truly present with her daughter Audrey while they work through craft construction, and fallen in love with her husband Michael all over again. She has discovered joy in making a cup of hot tea, and has found a community of people all over the world who have been praying for her. Through her suffering, near death and recovery, what Regina has found, sometimes in retrospect, is God’s presence through it all. Healing and wholeness comes in unexpected ways, and it does not always look like what we would envision. It is not always the kind of healing that we would seek, but it always involves Christ’s presence with us.

It is God’s desire to bring us to wholeness, wholeness found in relationship with God, and, in that desire, God came in human flesh, and his name is Jesus. He came that, through our relationship with the risen Christ, we might have life, and have it abundantly. The ironic thing is that our wholeness is never found by avoiding pain, but rather by going through it. We have not found a way around it. Jesus went before us in his suffering and death hanging on a wooden cross. New life comes from descending into the darkness of death and rising with Christ in resurrection. It comes in the healing love of God poured out in the body and blood of Christ, poured out for us, poured out to us, and then poured out through us.

[1] Mark 16.6

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)