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Naked Faith

Years ago my mother was driving my young family down to Amish country one hour south of their home in Akron. A mother of six, she never gave up having a station wagon. It was just too practical. So my two young sons were in the rear-facing seat in the way back and my mom drove through those Ohio hills with confidence—and speed! After a time, conversation between the two brothers lagged. One son leaned forward to me, in the middle seat, and told me he didn’t feel “vewy good.” Well, that’s not good, is it? Before I could think of what that meant and what to do, he vomited all over the back area of the car. Poor boy. We pulled over quickly and opened the back hatch. My mother was impressed with the volume my son produced as he sat there feeling sickly and looking very uncomfortable.

What do you do when you need new pants and you’re in Amish country? We were not optimistic but he clearly needed new pants. We stripped him down to his undies, mopped things up as best we could, and went on a search of a store that would offer a change of clothes. We imagined it might have to be cotton cloth in a solid color with a safety pin as a closure. Did the Amish folks in this area only sell their own style of clothing? To our amazement, we found an A&P store that stood as a gleaming oasis of modern products in a desert mirage. It carried, among other things, cheaply made sweat pants. We grabbed his favorite color, green, and headed back to the car. He could not have been more pleased! Virtually naked and defiled, he was transformed into a happy child in a new outfit. We enjoyed an afternoon wandering through Berlin, Ohio as if nothing had happened in that back seat of the station wagon. Those became my son’s favorite pants for the next year because of what they represented: a transfiguration from soiled to dignified and a chance at new life!

If you’ve ever taken a class in public speaking you’ve probably heard the tip for how to get rid of your fears: imagine you audience is naked. I’m not sure how much that would lower my anxiety actually! But this is the stuff of our nightmares: beings exposed, unready, or vulnerable before an aggressor. The enemy might take the form of an unexpected college exam or a bear chasing us through the woods in the dark of night. Our psyche processes our fears while we sleep, dreaming us into preposterous but gripping places of vulnerability.

In a story from 2 Kings we read about two prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Elijah has been the mighty spokesperson for God but his life is nearing an end. We look in on a story of leadership succession in which everyone is primarily concerned about their own well-being. As the pair travel from one town to another, almost like a presidential motorcade, prophets from each town line the street to watch this Godly man pass by. Just as pilgrims line up for miles to be in the holy presence of the Pope, these men of God want a glimpse of Elijah and maybe a piece of his spiritual mojo. They know that Elijah is on his last journey and they don’t hesitate to say this to poor Elisha. Perhaps they line the streets, wondering if God is still in charge as the leadership changes. Elisha is learning on this final journey that being a prophet is no privileged position. David Lose writes that prophets are completely vulnerable and utterly reliant on God’s grace. To be a good prophet is to love God’s people enough to tell them the truth about their condition. If they are naked and defiled, you tell them that then you set about to improve their lot. As Elisha doggedly follows after his beloved master, we witness a repeated cycle. At each stop on the final tour, the other prophets call out the news that Elijah is surely going to die. Elisha confirms their news but asks them to be quiet. He can’t bear to hear it. The journey continues and the same verbal exchange happens at the next stop.

But the third stopping point is different. The prophets have no words because God is at work. When God shows up, our language fails. The prophets stand in reverent silence as Elisha wails his grief. Being a prophet is no easy task. Elisha is separated from his teacher and left vulnerably staring up into the heavens. I wonder why Elijah tried to dissuade Elisha? Was he testing his devotion? Did he worry that the younger servant would be unable to endure an encounter with God? As the fiery chariot carries Elijah away, Elisha tears his clothes in anguish. He is left alone with his naked faith.

Our faith is tested by how we respond to the unknown. When we are stripped down to the essence of our being, are we thinking of God, of our neighbor, or of ourselves? I read an account of a rabbi’s treatment during the holocaust. He was struggling to survive in a concentration camp. The Nazis loved to denigrate the Jewish faith so they stripped the rabbi of all his clothing and commanded him to preach naked while they beat another prisoner in front of him. He was sickened and resistant but the soldiers prodded him to keep going. The rabbi realized that he could not stop them from the murderous violence they were bent on but he could preach. He could surround the dying man with the Word of God that assured him he was loved. In that moment the scene was transfigured from a heinous murder into an altar to Almighty God. Transfiguration happens in the least likely places.

Elisha cried out to Elijah, “Father, father!” When the elder prophet asks Elisha for a final wish, he asks to inherit a double share of the holy man’s spirit. He wants to be Elijah’s heir, his spiritual son. Elijah wisely reminds the younger that he cannot grant such a wish, only God can. It is a bold request. He had witnessed the hardships the seasoned prophet had faced. He had endured times of yawning solitude and religious persecution. He knew that his only chance at continuing Elijah’s ministry was to have an even deeper faith to draw from. He knew the risks that came with the position and wanted to arm himself with the word of God. It was a bold request he made.

I wonder if we’ve considered that vulnerability is intrinsic to our Christian faith? Are we able to see hardships as reminders of our complete reliance upon God? Or do we cry out that God has wronged or abandoned us? I wonder how vulnerable we are willing to be with each other as believers, how willing we are to stand in our community with a naked faith that won’t let us fall? It is in those unexpected moments, those times of change, that we show what we are made of. Do we believe in and serve a powerful God or do we rely on our own strength? Do we allow God’s grace to transfigure the ugly moments in our lives? Do we invite God to transform our vulnerability into strength, to clothe us with dignity in our humble state? Or do we settle for our mundane lives of predictable answers and waffling faith?

I read the account of a surgeon who was in the hospital room of a patient and her husband after surgery. He had removed a tumor from the woman’s cheek and, in the delicacy of the procedure, cut one of the facial nerves. Her smile drooped on one side. Her husband was with her, sitting on the side of her bed. Quietly she asked him if it would change. The husband shook his head. The woman vulnerably looked in a mirror at her new smile. The husband told her in the quiet of that room, “I sort of like it. It’s cute.” He turned his head and planted a tender kiss on her newly shaped mouth. The surgeon felt like he was looking in on a private moment of transfiguration. A surgical error was transformed into a new expression of their marriage vows. On the day of our wedding, we stand at the altar, young and innocent. We can’t know the road we will travel as a couple. But our faith assures us that God blesses us when we dare to stand naked for the sake of our faith. God makes something beautiful of it. David Lose states that “To be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom you are sent.” Transfiguration for one woman began by her choice of a seat on a creaky city bus. Rosa Parks changed the lives of her people. Who would guess that sitting down could transfigure a nation? We can’t walk the journey for others or force them to join our movement. But we can urge them to keep their eyes open and watch for God.

A couple of weeks ago two men were collecting trash on their usual route in a Louisiana neighborhood. They noticed a strange car parked out in the middle of a field. Its location aroused suspicion. One of the waste workers, Brandon, realized it looked like the car described in an Amber Alert the night before. These men acted fast, blocking the only exit from the field and calling the police. The kidnapper was apprehended and a 10-year-old girl restored to her grateful family. These men had their eyes open as they picked up folks’ trash that day. Both of them fathers, they put themselves in harm’s way to rescue someone else’s child. Merrick commented after hte girl was safe: “Thank God, man, because I got a little girl. I’m on the job doing what I got to do.” A forsaken field is transfigured into a place of redemption because two men stepped out in faith.

This was the gift the older prophet offered to Elisha and Elisha did not back away from the challenge. He made a daring request to follow in the example of Elijah at even greater cost to himself. As he stood there naked, his ripped clothing at his feet, he began to understand the source of his strength. It didn’t have to do with anything he could create or command. It had to do with obedience. His power would come from God. As he turned to make his journey home, he was a different man. The prophets who had spoken down to him on the journey in now stood back with reverence. It seems that transfiguration happens off the beaten track, by the grace of God.

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Living Lent

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our church building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold winter morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman with a tired expression. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to go upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.

Once settled into hard plastic chairs with two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. Her money had gone into an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her for a time had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

I asked her if she had children. Our congregations works with Family Promise, making sure homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her that Family Promise would house her and help her get back on track with her children, she shook her head. She told me that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. What she needed from our church was enough money for one more night at the Colonial Motel. Affter that her dad would receive a paycheck and he would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the checkbook for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. I could just write out a check or turn folks like her away. But I wanted to give her a chance to sit with someone who would listen. I sensed she needed to experience the unconditional love of Christ. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills directly through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again.

But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach through the way that we connected in the safety of a church gathering room, emptied by a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.

Our church joined a sister church in our community for an Ash Wednesday service tonight. When Pastor Dawn and I talked about the usual Lenten practices, she suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. It’s been an unimaginably challenging year. We’ve lived Lent for 11 months so sacrificing from our lives seems redundant. What I invite you to do this year is to lay down your burdens at the feet of the One who has sat with us, listened to us, and rescued us more times than we know.

The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole laying down a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your homes to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive this cold winter without a home or a friend.”

This is how we rebuild the ruins. This is how we restore the streets where people live. I have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens. This is how God is glorified! So I invite you to do the same this Lenten season. As we begin our Lenten journey I urge you to start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in–always! Entrust your burdens to Him because He will carry them!

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Ashes

Preaching Life

She came to me when the shadows of the past had started to eclipse her vision of the present. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma that was done to her had a way of surfacing every so often. She had spent years doing the hard work of therapy–and praying. After talking about the dark place in which she found herself, I suggested that we might meet in the sanctuary some evening to share communion. I’ve only done this a couple of times in more than thirty years of ministry. Communion, by its very nature, is communal so we typically celebrate the sacrament in the context of congregational worship. But something seemed right this time to offer an opportunity to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, seeking God’s nearness together. She thanked me but said that she wasn’t worthy. Self-doubt and guilt are some of the ashes that…

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Holiness Re-Invented

On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 the place where I most felt Christ’s presence was in Capernaum. Archaeological remains have revealed a city of about 1,000 to 1,500 residents in the time of Jesus. Situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it was an important city whose main industry was fishing. What impacted me powerfully was spending time sitting on a stone bench on a side wall of the remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century. It was not the same synagogue where Jesus performed the miracle described in Mark 1. But it most likely was built on the remains of the sanctuary that Jesus entered in order to teach simple people a new way to see God. So I’m delighted that I have a moment to live in that space through the lectionary passages in the next few weeks. I hope you will be able to feel, even to a small degree, the stunning reality that Jesus lived powerfully among us with obvious traces of His time in Capernaum.

The movement in this passage shifts from a shoreline recruiting excursion to a holy space where the traditions of the Jewish people were safeguarded. The synagogue was a place for teaching the Jewish Law and we read that Jesus entered that sanctuary to do precisely that. We must also note that the disciples, under Jesus leadership, were in the habit of going to the synagogue on a regular basis to worship. It was a place where people gathered in hopes of encountering the living God. Worship invited weary Jews who had suffered much persecution to be in prayerful conversation with the Divine so that they might better understand what God was doing among them.

It’s almost funny how Mark immediately contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the most respected Jewish leaders, the Scribes. Richard Swanson states that the authority of the Scribes lay in grammar and stature. He viewed them as “soulless bureaucrats with fat salaries.” It sounds a bit like some upper echelon management positions today! Jesus, in contrast to that, did not operate out of windowless board rooms paneled in dark, impenetrable wood. He mixed with real people in real life, extending loving care. Whereas the Scribes sought to preserve tradition at all cost, Jesus jumped onto the scene blazing a new trail and dusting off old truths to find how they might speak to a new generation.

In reference to these religious practices, Swanson writes this: “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.”  (Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B by Richard W. Swanson, p. 98.)

More than any other Gospel writer, Mark keeps the narrative moving. He uses phrases like, “and then” or “suddenly” or “immediately” to give us the feeling that Jesus is on the move. There’s a paradigm shift in the way that familiar religion was being re-interpreted. Their faith derived from a rich tradition that anchored people through difficult times. But Jesus wasn’t content to sit in the past, reciting outdated creeds. He was challenging the favorite notions of His people and breathing new life into them. That became frighteningly apparent with the eruption of a tortured soul at one of His Bible studies! If ever Jesus wanted a teaching moment to kick off His ministry, this was it!

The bad spirit in this man interrupts Jesus’ teaching and speaks to Him as if they’re old friends. It appears that the demon is accustomed to getting his way and throws a fit when he comes up against someone stronger! Mark’s description of this presence is an “unclean spirit.” It indicates something that has evaded control of God’s holiness and causes humans to be banished from God’s presence. This state of uncleanness came about by simply being involved in everyday life. Faithful Jews could be rendered unclean when dealing with birth, death and bodily cycles.  The unclean spirit in this man was strong and vocal, acting almost as a heckler as Jesus took the tradition of the Law and painted a new picture of freedom. He toys with Jesus and challenges the authority with which He taught.

Jesus is unfazed. I think of attorneys or politicians who have bolstered their reputations by the effective way in which they responded to an unexpected legal battle that landed in their lap. With calmness and efficiency they have navigated turbulent waters bringing justice. Folks look in on them with awe and they become an overnight sensation. When Jesus preached His words don’t hang in the air like a boring lecture series by a professor who always talks over your head. His words effect results. There is so much that is familiar for those sitting in their Capernaum sanctuary, hanging on every word of a visiting Rabbi. But whatever felt predictable for the students that day suddenly became new material. Jesus not only honors the Sabbath on a regular basis. He and His disciples habitually violate the rules of Sabbath. In this Capernaum launch party Jesus upbraids an unclean spirit with unequalled power. The lesson taught that day to wide-eyed students is clear: All that is against God, both in the religious institutions and beyond, will not survive the assault of Jesus of Nazareth. In this passage I can almost picture Jesus dressed in cowboy apparel and bursting through the half doors of the saloon where folks nurse their beers in a semi-alert state. What felt familiar just a moment before becomes foreign. Holiness shows up in unlikely places and is dramatically re-interpreted!

I wonder if we can relate to the sense of disorientation those believers felt in their holy space on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Many of us have been exiled from our beloved sanctuaries most of the past year. I am amazed and encouraged to see how many households from our congregation tune into our on-line worship each week. We are doing church in a new way! We are surviving and even growing (maybe in spite of ourselves) in the midst of a paradigm shift. We have learned to Zoom, Stream, breathe through heavy masks and look through fogged glasses! Whether doing ministry within the building or trying to keep up with each other in new ways, we often overlook those among us who suffer. Most congregations have unofficial assigned seating charts, right? But we might sit near the same family in worship for months and still not know about a grave diagnosis, marital struggles, or anguish over finances. We can faithfully attend to the business of our church but still miss the need for healing that sits among us. In this pandemic we have so anticipated “getting back to normal” that we’ve sometimes missed the ministry opportunities in the moment. Perhaps we have made an idol of the way we did things in the past. Truthfully, I don’t think we will ever go back to “normal”, whatever we might understand that to mean. We will be a changed people on the other side of the COVID 19 siege. How we live in the challenge of the NOW will greatly influence where we find ourselves when vaccinations have been widely dispersed. Looking for new ways to serve Jesus NOW will shape how we feel when we can finally sit next to someone in our familiar sanctuary again. Perhaps we need to pray for Jesus’ words to once again be powerful and performative as we re-interpret what it means to be holy both now and in the future?

This story of Jesus’ inaugural Bible Study tells us that His students were astounded by his teaching—and that’s even before He subdues a tormented believer! I wonder when you were last astonished or astounded by the work of the Holy Spirit? When have you seen the powers of wrong exiled from traditional forms of worship, city governments or national caucuses so that a new day can be celebrated? In the tension of the past months, when have you been an agent of grace to those around you who may have given up on hope? Our ministry in churches has, of necessity, been “out of the box” or out of the four walls of our sanctuary for months. So how have we channeled the power of Jesus to address wrong and bring healing?

Perhaps the upheaval in churches from COVID 19 is being used by the Spirit to remind us that our faith is not linked to geography but to hearts of service? Discipleship isn’t about space but is all about Spirit. I’ve been amazed that our on-line worship has broadened our congregation to include folks who have not previously and may not ever enter our lovely sanctuary. Yet together we walk with in the power of the Spirit each week, bringing that word of hope into our communities. In nontraditional ways, we are nourished by spending holy time together on the miracle called YouTube!

Just 28 verses into Mark’s fast-moving Gospel, Jesus’ fame is spreading throughout that whole region. As He enters their synagogue, the Spirit blows the dust off of their unexamined past and invites them to embrace a new way of holiness. The elements to their religious life that brought healing and hope continue to guide them. What no longer fits is left in the history books. A new teaching astounds them such that they no longer find themselves romanticizing the past. They face forward with anticipation.

Epiphany is the season of revelations. This text invites us to consider what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like. It invites us to expect action to come out of our favorite words of faith. This story confronts us with a Jesus who is more powerful than any other force around Him. He will not be silenced. He will not settle for the way things were. He will not overlook those who have sat quietly in the pews waiting to be noticed. He will guide us now and when we reconvene in person, to create spaces of freedom, places of healing, and a re-invented holiness that astounds!