Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hike to Glory

Sermon on Hebrews 2, cf. Psalm 8

"Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
  or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;  you have crowned them with glory and honour,  subjecting all things under their feet.’
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father."

To begin this morning, let us envision a hiking trail. This is not a National Park service, all-handicap accessible kind of trail. Oh no! This is a trail for an adventurer, no path paved off, no rocks blocking off the wild terrain from the sandy, previously tread way. This trail will require equipment, good footwear, lots of trail mix and a healthy love of risk.
Oh, it could also use a really good leader who is not afraid to make the cuts necessary in the thick brush or to take the initial step in the thick tundra where the ground cannot be seen, a good leader who can look up as needed and see far ahead, who can read a map and a compass, who knows when people are tired and cranky and need a rest. In short, this hiking trip needs a Captain Kirk, explorer of the Final Frontier, boldly going where no human has gone before.

Our Hebrews passage today tells us of this kind of trail- specifically the trail to the crown of honor and glory, eternal life with the Triune God. The chapter begins with encouragement that there is in fact, a trail in existence that we must not drift away from lest we roll our ankles on rocks or stray so far that we can no longer see it, the trail is kept clear by those mothers and fathers of the faith who have traveled ahead of us and surrounded us with their miracle stories of walking this trail with God. The Holy Spirit enables us to walk the trail, by shedding light, bringing people to the trailhead and revitalizing them along the way. This trail is tamed by Jesus Christ, the trailblazer, or pioneer, of our salvation, as verse 10 says. This is the main focus of the passage.

(Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. 2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, 4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.)

First, let's explore the nature of the trail of glory. The author of Hebrews borrows from the words of the Psalm reading for today.

"What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals,
that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet."

Do you realize that God has made you and all humans for glory and honor and victory?

Let's not excuse that but just let it sit really sink in.

It is clear that this is mind-boggling from the Psalmist's question about how God could possibly care for us mortals. So, we are in good company if it also blows our minds. CS Lewis solved this dilemma by saying, as he is now famous for, that none of us has ever met a mere mortal. But, what the Psalmist realizes is that God has actually created us for good and for life with Him. This is the whole object of our lives: to receive the crown of glory and honor that He has prepared for us. That is the reason for the journey, the sight of that beautifully clear and roaring waterfall that is at the end of the trail, of which we drink forever: where we behold and know God as He is and we are fully known.
The author to the Hebrews knows that this vision is key to the hike on the trail and so begins there that we might follow it all the way through to the end. Let us keep this in mind as we go through the rest of the passage.
For very shortly, obstacles begin to appear.

Now in subjecting all things to them,
God left nothing outside their control.
As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to God or to us

The author of Hebrews is not out of touch with their own audience, nor apparently, with ours. The newly birthed church was facing shame, some even unto death, for the sake of being Christian, an awfully high price to pay in that time. And don't we also think that well, it's a great thing to be called to glory and honor, but where on earth is this glory and honor and subjection of the world to God and us??? I am sure we come up with numerous things a day that evidence to us that things are not as they should be, let alone that we are crowned with glory and honor. I think you all know what I mean, it could be anything- ranging from running late for work to car accidents to chronic pain to starvation to our sin struggles. The trail looks overgrown and it just rained last night and now I'm being stung by mosquitoes and that made me look away from the trail so then I slipped and then the person behind me also slipped?! No thanks, many of us say. The author of Hebrews provides an answer that is an oldie, but also a goodie.

They say, we may not see the trail clearly but we do see Jesus!
He, like the Psalmist said of us, for a little while was made lower than the angels, but is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death
Though what we see around us leads us to give up on the end of the hike, we see Jesus, our guide, already crowned with glory and honor, already having that which we, too, are promised.

In what way can he be said to be a trailblazer? It's a little weird that Jesus is crowned because He suffered and died. This part of His trailblazing meant that He had to step out first, be the one to suffer injury and distress but to plunge forward confidently, always steadfast to the vision. So, Christ was made like us, a little lower than the angels, in His Incarnation, so that He could take up in Himself our human nature which Gregory of Nyssa points out is “thorny because of sin”, transform it in Himself, through a life of suffering and faithfulness, into a crown of thorns in order to weave a crown of glory and honor for us, to get us to the end of the trail.

It was fitting that God, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. He led the way in suffering and showed that there really is an end to the trail, a good and glorious end. It was exactly through death, as a portal, that Jesus, fully human and fully God, was perfected, and through death he brought human nature up to its proper glory by bringing us into contact with His own divine nature. He showed in this way, the manner of hiker we are to be, one who follows literally in the way that He has already put in subjection under His own feet, united to Him, our hope of glory.

We also learn that Jesus is the trailblazer because he is not only a lantern of hope to the hikers who look up and see Him, but He suffered because He was on the lookout for those things that would slow us down and keep us from God. So, Jesus tastes death for everyone. He shared our flesh and blood and became exactly like us so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

He clears away from the path those things that really make us stumble: doubt, fear of death, and bondage. Even death is now just a trail marker, the last sign on the way to the crown of glory and honor.

In the same way, Jesus became a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for our sins. Sin, as we said earlier, was overgrown in us and paralyzed us, keeping us from God. Even still, it can slow us down on the trail. But, we know that Jesus sacrificed Himself for us to destroy this as an obstacle—and in His example, He shows that actually sin and death have been made foreign to us now, no longer that which is most familiar to us because we are part of God's family, but the shedding of this will likely cause suffering. And in a world to whom sin and death are most familiar, we will suffer as those who are on a different path.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is completely aware of our weakness and the ways of this world, having become just like us, and because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. He is completely aware of the difficulties found on the trail because He has already hiked it. He is asking us to follow, to look like Himself. He knows thoroughly who we are as humans and He holds in Himself the image of the human fully alive, crowned in glory and honor.

So, we're now back to the original vision, laid out here in Hebrews by way of Psalm 8. Jesus bore the weight and burden of our glory through His perfect humility and suffering, all the way down the trail. He was not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. He has set the trail ablaze for us to follow and is readily available to renew the vision through the Holy Spirit.

Do you really know that you, and every human you meet, are made to be crowned with honor and glory? Take hold of this promise!

Jesus, our brother and trailblazer, please help us to continue in courage and joy on the path of salvation you have already tread for us and to love one another as creatures bound for glory.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Cross-Cultural Experience Requirement

"This course will be a three-week cross-cultural immersion designed to take advantage of the specific geographical, social, economic, and demographic situation of the region studied."  That is what our Academic Handbook says about this "class" that we are required to take for Graduation.  We think simply living in Southwestern Pennsylvania should be enough, given all our time spent in the workforce and dealing with the infamous Pittsburgh Left.  But, alas, TSM disagrees.  On top of paying for Seminary, we thought this would be a ridiculously difficult burden to bear and one that we have spent much time contemplating how to get out of....

That is, until we saw there was a trip to Turkey....

This may not be sufficient reason to go...but then again....

Of course, seeing the Hagia Sophia will be a highlight

We will be visiting the Cappadocian caves where the monks used to
hang out and pray and read and make baskets (?)

 Hang out with some Brothers and Sisters in this beautiful city:

Gettin' to know some of the Turkish people and visiting their markets for the color and the smells!!!!

 Getting a lesson in architecture at the Hagia Eirene...

These are just a few of the feasts that have been prepared for us as we travel across the ocean for a couple of weeks.  We ask that you would be lifting us up and that we would have eyes to see, ears to hear those things that God has for us to learn and the encouragement we can bring to the Turkish people that we meet.
We will be the Journey of Nine Companions (yes! we are "The Fellowship") and we are all so excited to be on our way and to get to adventure together.  We will not be able to update the blog while in Turkey, but be prepared to behold some photos when we get back and hopefully a few words once we are over jet lag.

"Turkish delight on a moonlit night!"

If you wouldn't mind lifting us up this Wednesday when we leave, we'd really appreciate it!

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole
creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: Preserve
those who travel in particular the Nine Companions; surround
them with your loving care; protect them from every danger;
and bring them in safety to their journey's end;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reflections on Water

Sermon preached at Trinity Beaver on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany:

This feels SO much better, I was in such pain but now it is so much better.” I hear this day in and day out as I lifeguard in the therapy pool at the Beaver County YMCA. I am constantly reminded of the healing properties of water and sometimes I wonder about the significance of water to God and how He shows forth His goodness through it. So, I was quite excited when I read the Old Testament lesson for today, which is at least in part, about a healing by way of washing in water.

As we dive into the leprosy healing stories, I want us to be thinking about the season of Epiphany as well and ask, “who is Jesus revealed to be in these stories?” For this is the season in which a spotlight is put on Jesus, in whom we see God.

Though Jesus does not, obviously appear in the Old Testament lesson, I think we can start there since the editors of the lectionary saw in good wisdom that these two stories fit together. So, by way of comparing and contrasting, we'll go through the stories together.

We see that Naaman is a Gentile, an Aramite. The leper healed in Mark's story is a Jew of whom we know little else. Naaman is considered a mighty man, who has had several successess in battle. The narrator reminds us that this comes from the Lord, though Naaman doesn't get it. But, Naaman is also a leper, apparently in Aram lepers did not carry the same stigma as in Israel. We get the first clue as to this cross-cultural difference when Naaman appears before the King of Israel. He responds in grief asking, how they think he can heal leprosy, a miracle that he equates with “raising the dead to life.” And there, we find the state of the leper in Mark's gospel—considered to be dead because he is outcast, friendless and dirty on account of his leprosy. He literally needed rehabilitation, a healing from God.

Because the Law declared those with leprosy unclean, they had to live away from everyone else and were not allowed to worship with everyone else in the same space. So, Naaman may not have been aware of this but the King of Israel and Elisha certainly were. Elisha saw it as an opportunity for witness, to declare the glory of the Lord.

The attitudes of the two lepers varied. Naaman goes in all his earthly splendor, “chariots and horses” before the prophet Elisha, the narrator suggests, seeking to impress him. The other leper comes before Jesus pleading and on his knees. The leper in Mark's story simply asks Jesus to heal him, he does not have any pretense as to how he will do so, he just knows he has come to the right place. The leper must have been startled when Jesus reached out and touched him, as the man could not have been touched since whenever he first had the disease. Naaman is upset that Elisha does not touch him and call on the power of the Lord. I see a difference in some of the people at the pool that is similar, those who are so thankful to see another day, and that water is there to help them move their aching limbs, but some walk in like they own it, complain the water is not hot enough, complain that it's cold outside, complain that Dancing with the Stars is no longer on TV, all their expectations dashed.

Naaman is really really ticked when he hears Elisha's instructions. Naaman thinks that Elisha is just trying to tell him to wash as part of a ritual that will declare him “clean” and he doubts the power that God wields in the Jordan River. Naaman wants his leprosy completely gone. His servants say to him, “Don't you get it? He just said something awesome to you!” because they understood that when Elisha said, “Your flesh shall be restored AND you shall be clean” he meant that he would be both cleansed and also healed of the leprosy, so he is healed before God and also in his body. When Naaman does what Elisha prescribes, he is restored, to flesh like a child.
An early church father remarked on this that “Naaman, an adult, became like a boy by washing seven times.” At the pool, I have often seen both old and middle aged alike become like kids when they enter the water. They smile, they splash and they move as they can't anywhere else.

The leper with Jesus sees that his leprosy is immediately gone and thus knows that he has been declared religiously clean simultaneously. The Levitical code called for examination by a priest, washing in the river, and atonement, sin and thank offerings once cleansed. Jesus, the true great high priest, is able to heal the man of both impurity and of the physical ailment by a touch of His hand and further, Jesus is unafraid to touch him because he will not be defiled by being with the unclean and He wields the power to forgive and to dispense healing. Jesus, like Elisha, recognized the healing of the leper as an opportunity for testimony, directed toward the leaders of the Jewish people, that the Messiah had come, not just as a prophet, but as the life-giver, raiser and restorer even rehabilitating the least among them, declaring clean what used to be unclean by His touch. It should be clear from both of these passages, that God wants to freely heal and give life. In this, I hope you can see, at least a beginning of an answer to the question I asked at the beginning, “who is Jesus revealed to be?”

So, my next question is: Have you been touched by the life giver, has He said to you, “you shall be restored and you shall be clean”? Does this jive with the Jesus you know? Can others here testify to this? I hope that we can all answer “yes” to this one. It may be a little early in the morning for an “amen” but if you've got one, now would be a good time. :)

These stories should remind us of our baptism, where one church father says, our souls were cured of their leprosy, the disease of bondage to sin was taken away. I pray that we can all soak in that truth, that we have been cured of that leprosy, able to confess God as the only Lord, true and living. One of the miraculous things I see at the pool is that many people come in hunched, limping, stiff, and disheartened but when they enter the pool, they are quite literally transformed, they are able to stand upright, walk from one end to the other with little effort, stretch, laugh and move without fear of falling down. Just as the water moves them to be able to do this, this is a good portrait of the Holy Spirit raising us up to new life.

Have you forgotten the great power of the Lord to raise you up and heal you? Have you been doubting His work in your life recently? No matter which of these you are experiencing, I urge you, brothers and sisters to testify to one another and to yourselves as a reminder of the healing God has worked in and through you. The leper left Jesus and disobeyed His order to go to the high priest to tell him first of the healing, and to offer proper sacrifices of thanksgiving and so robbed those who should have been first to know of the opportunity to hear that the leper was no longer diseased. In sharing with one another, you might be able to offer hope to one another through doing this and you may allow someone else to share your burden perhaps over a lack of healing. One simple way you may do this is to visit the prayer team at the back of the sanctuary after receiving Communion, and have them join with you in thanking and praying for healing.

If you would like a different starting place, maybe try thinking about water- notice this week how often it is in your life, a cooling balm when thirsty, a heating agent when in pain, infiltrating every system in your living body, falling from the sky to provide drink, showers and a good harvest, at least here in Pennsylvania, that's the case.
If you need a visible reminder, come on by the YMCA and visit me at the pool. I'm sure Fr. Scott would like for me to add here that we could also offer up prayers when thinking about water, for our brothers and sisters in Kajire who do not have enough and pray that we might work together to help them receive it that they might experience more healing joy as well.

Though I didn't get a chance to speak about the 1 Corinthians passage from Paul today, I think that his metaphor is a good one. He says, “Let us run that we may obtain the imperishable wreath of life!” Some here may have received the cure for their soul's leprosy long ago. But, I daresay that there have been times of refreshing and healing along the way that help us hope to see more of it in this life. Let us not become out of practice with turning to the Lord for healing and restoration even up until the very day when our race is finished and we are with Him, the Fountain of Life.