God spoke once. God spoke decisively in the flesh. And God continues to speak, continues to reach out and change lives today. This is the message of Christmas, message of the incarnation. That God still speaks.
This past Sunday (traditionally known as "Good Shepherd Sunday"), we hosted John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23 as our worship texts. John's gospel is where Jesus' title of "The Good Shepherd" comes from, whereas the King James version of the 23rd Psalm is one of the best known biblical passages in the West:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
As I mentioned in my sermon, it's almost impossible to say anything new about this text. Yet, while reading it, I was reminded of a story the author Anne Lamott wrote about in her book Traveling Mercies. Lamott recounts in this book a time of her life that was particularly hard--a time of struggle, cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse. At this time, Lamott became pregnant with the child of a married man, and chose to have an abortion. Lamott's story, while also heartbreaking, seemed like the 23rd Psalm in action on the ground.
The sermon was essentially about how the Psalm is a summary of the good news of the Christian Story: that God is with us and for us. The final line of the Psalm that says "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" might be better translated (as Eugene Peterson does in the Message translation) "goodness and mercy shall track me down. As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes in the Message of the Psalms: "It is God's companionship that transforms every situation. It does not mean that there are no deathly valleys, no enemies, but they are not capable of hurt. Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of a life of peace and joy." It is God's goodness that comes to us where ever we are. God's presence matters--and can transform even the worst of situations.
Here's the longer passage from the Lamott book:
“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.
[After going to church that weekend...], I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘Fuck it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’
This week, I pray that goodness and mercy will track you down--where ever you may find yourself.
February 15, 2015
"It's Good to be Here"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Here we are… continuing on through the gospel of Mark. Which we’ll be hanging around in until Easter. The transfiguration story. Probably the strangest story in Mark’s gospel. We’ve seen plenty of strange things up to this point—the Spirit descending like a dove, miraculous healings, demons confronted and cast out. But here things are at their strangest. And maybe this is kind of the point. This isn’t something you see every day. There’s a lot happening in this story. It’s all very mysterious. Not even the most confident of scholars can exactly pin down what it means. But what’s most clear about this story is that this is a unique encounter with the divine. Jesus takes the disciples up a mountain—a place where heaven and earth are thought to intersect. He transforms from regular old Jesus in to shimmering whiter-than-bleach Jesus. Showing his divine identity and character. And then two long-gone figures from biblical history appear. Moses—who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. And Elijah. Both figures who are believed to have been taken directly to heaven following their deaths. And these two folks are just chatting with Jesus, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. And the sight of these strange things, it says, leaves the disciples “terrified.” Which is fair enough. Because this isn’t something you see every day. It’s what the Christian tradition has called a “theophany”—the appearance of God. Where God, usually hidden from our eyes, somehow shines through. This is as close to heaven as anyone can get in our world.
But the fascinating part here is how one of the disciples, Peter, reacts to this heavenly encounter. “Rabbi,” Peter says to Jesus, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” A house for Elijah… a house for Moses… and then one for you, Jesus. He’s suggesting that they set up camp on the mountain. He’s suggesting they stay up there on the mountain. And who could blame him, really? Because just a chapter before Jesus is telling his disciples that he’s going to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And be crucified, and after three days rise again. And what’s even worse is that he says that his followers are supposed to deny themselves and take up their own crosses to follow him, and that those who lose their lives for his sake with save them. In the face of a future wrought with suffering. “It is good for us to be here.” It’s an oasis, a welcome escape from the troubles at hand. In the face of all the trials ahead, and all the suffering down on earth. Up on the mountain makes more sense. Heaven is the place to be. A welcome retreat from the cross. A welcome retreat from suffering.
When I was wrestling with this story this past week, I was reminded of an encounter I had about a year ago at the University of British Columbia. With a student who described himself as an atheist. Without actually saying it, his problem with Christianity, even religion in general—was Peter from this story! I was seated at a table with three university students at the University of British Columbia for orientation day. He was a younger guy, maybe at the end of his degree, and introduced himself. As I said, he described himself as an atheist. But not one of those atheists, he said. He told me that he’d met plenty of religious people who were some of the kindest, most generous, reasonable, and intelligent people he knew. He didn’t think religion was necessarily a bad thing. Like some atheists do. We talked a little bit more, and I asked him, if religion wasn’t such a bad thing, why atheism? He thought for a moment. “Atheism is just more realistic,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great comfort for people who are suffering in life. I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to ease their suffering with the thought of an afterlife. But we have so many problems in the world to deal with. Religion just seems like an escape from dealing with the world’s real problems.” His problem wasn’t the existence of God, the Bible, or the church. But that, like Peter, religious people seem to be so preoccupied with setting up camps in heaven that we end up avoiding the inevitable suffering on earth below. Faith is, to paraphrase Johnny Cash “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good.” That, while providing necessary relief from the world’s suffering, it does nothing to actually face it.
I didn’t really have a good one-liner to send back his way that time. But I knew that wasn’t the end of the story. But maybe I should have told him the whole story of the transfiguration. Because, as much as Peter wants to stick around on the mountain, it’s Jesus that leads him back down to earth. Just as this scene is ending, a cloud overshadows them. And from the cloud a voice booms “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” And then all this stuff seems to disappear. The amazing encounter on the mountaintop is over. And they are left alone with plain old Jesus. And a divine order to listen to him—to follow him. To follow him back in to the suffering world down on earth.
But the most remarkable thing in my mind isn’t just that Jesus sends his disciples back in to the world of suffering. But that Jesus goes with them. Jesus goes with them in to the world of conflict. He heads down in to the world of suffering. He heads down in to the world ultimately rejects him. He heads down in to his life that ultimately ends with his own suffering, and his death. One that Jesus faces head on—is killed and is raised. This encounter on the mountain is not an escape, but a sneak preview of what is to come. And this is the message at the heart of the Christian story. At the heart of the gospel message is not us going up to the heavenly mountain to set up camp to leave the world’s troubles behind. It’s about God coming down, and bringing heaven to us. It’s about God coming down with us in to our world of suffering to make all things new. Our ordinary, everyday mundane lives. Our world filled with hurt and trouble. It seems to me that faith—or at least the Way of Jesus Christ—is not a retreat from the troubles of the world. But a divine summons to face them head on. With courage. With mercy. And with grace. Knowing that it is Christ who walks with us. And makes it possible. That’s the good news in a nutshell.
To end the sermon, we’re going to have a moment of silent prayer. During this time of prayer, I am going to ask you to stop and think of one person who you know who is struggling here on earth. It could be anything. And I want you to think about how you might be able to minister to them. How you might be able to bring heaven to them--Christ’s peace to them—and share their load. And think about what you need from God to make it possible. Let us pray.
Why go through this same script? Year after year after year? Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Shepherds. Angels. Maybe it’s because Christmas is one of our favorite and most treasured holidays. It could be warm childhood memories. It could be the gathering of family and friends all in one place. And/or it could be that this story is often paired with a stiff serving of eggnog on the side.