Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mis-figured? (Luke 9:28-43)

Sometimes we tend to forget that Jesus came to Jewish people and as a member of Jewish society. So we can neglect the impact of some of the events of his ministry, and the impact they had on the people who first heard them.

The transfiguration can definitely be one of those events. We look on Moses and Elijah as two figures from the Old Testament, and often we don’t think about them much beyond that. But for a Jewish person, they represented something more than just ancient historical people.

Through Moses, God gave the Law to the people of Israel. He was so identified with it that people called it “the Law of Moses,” or talked about it by saying, “Well, Moses told us such-and-such.” If we saw George Washington, we might recognize his importance to our nation and be impressed at who he was. But Moses represented not just a person, but a concept. It would be more like us having a vision in which the Statue of Liberty was a real person, moving around and speaking.

Elijah had a similar impact. He was considered the greatest of prophets – in fact, according to our scripture, he was on of only two people to ever raise the dead before Jesus began his ministry. Like Moses, he represented a concept as much as he did an historical figure.

For a Jewish person, the Law and the Prophets represented the main portion of scripture. The other writings were important, but not in the same way, since the Law and the Prophets represented God’s words to the people. When Peter, James and John saw Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, conversing as an equal and even sharing the same glory they did, they saw their teacher on a level that they probably thought no one could reach. What he said, what he taught and what he did was as important to their people as what God had said in the Law and the Prophets.

So naturally they don’t get it.

Peter’s response shows he knows something amazing has happened, but rather than listen some more and be taught by what the three transfigured men are saying, he blurts out the first thing that comes into his mind. “

This is a good place to be!” is one way of understanding what he says. “Let’s build three tabernacles here to mark this!”

Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter – probably because he knows that Peter isn’t doing anything different than what a lot of us would do. We may never actually see Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, but many of us have had significant spiritual experiences in our lives.

And I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to want to somehow isolate such an experience, take it out of my regular flow of living and even cut it off from my everyday living. “This is important,” I want to say, “so I have to make sure it stays that way, and that means I don’t want to mess it up with my everyday life.”

The problem with that is that such experiences are meant to flow into our everyday lives, and transform them as well. Working with youth at camp, for example, we adult leaders are supposed to try to remind them (and ourselves) that any great experience they may have had, through worship or small group or whatever else, will lose its impact unless it's shared.

Those booths Peter wanted to build were his attempt to fit this magnificent vision into his frame of reference, so he could get a handle on it and deal with it. Unfortunately for that idea, the vision was a part of something that wanted to fit Peter into its frame of reference, rather than the other way around.

We can be pretty quick to try to push our spiritual experiences and our spiritual lives into the framework of the rest of the week. That’s that “Sunday stuff,” we might say. It doesn’t have anything to do with working Monday through Friday, and hey – it sure doesn’t have anything to do with Saturday night.

But neither our spiritual experiences nor the gospel itself were meant to be separated out like that. Doing so robs them of their true power. Notice how the very next day, these disciples who had seen this vision and heard God’s voice couldn’t cast out one lousy demon.

Our different transfiguration experiences are meant to be the beginning of our own transfigurations into what God has called us to be. Only when we understand that can we begin to make the difference in the world God calls us to make. Only then can we be the most effective bearers of God’s good news.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Rock Is The Hard Place (Luke 6:39-49)

I’ve met folks who think that if Jesus walked among us today like he did back in Galilee, we’d be so much better off in our Christianity. How could we ignore him, they ask, if he was right here in front of us?

Judging from the people who were right in front of him a couple thousand years ago, it doesn’t look all that hard to do. Jesus even mentions how people seem to hear him but never really listen to him, and ends this part of his message with the well-known parable of the two men building houses. One, we read, builds on sand and his house is destroyed in the storm. But the other built on a solid foundation and because he did, his house survived the storm.

Of course, we in Oklahoma would add that the second man was in an interior room on the lowest floor of his house, away from windows and doors, which is also why he survived.

Jesus divides his hearers from his listeners with this story. People who just hear his words and never much bother with them afterwards may have built themselves a house of sorts, but their “faith,” such as it is, is unlikely to survive any strong test. But people who listen to him will ground their new beliefs and actions in something solid, and are much more likely to survive when life tends to not go their way. Which life has been known to do now and again.

I got interested in how this story bears on our evangelism – on our sharing of faith. Many of us find it difficult to share our faith, and some folks never actually tell anyone else about what God has done for them. Ever.

I heard a statistic from the General Board of Discipleship about how they averaged together the number of times Methodists said they shared their faith with how many Methodists there are, and came up with the figure that the average Methodist shares his or her faith once every 127 years.

Not really, of course. Some share every day, some a little less often, and some every now and again. But there’s enough who say they never talk about their faith with someone else that we’re pretty well below average.

There are several reasons for doing that, and I’ve used as many as anyone else has, I suspect. We may not feel comfortable doing so. We may believe we don’t know enough about our faith to talk with someone else about it. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want our friends to think we’re those holy-rollin’ pushy churchy types who want to get in everyone’s business and stop anyone from having fun.

Some of those are good reasons. There are people who get pushy when they talk about religion, and people who get rude or who talk a whole lot about judgment and not a lot about grace. In short, there’s plenty of people who go about it the wrong way, and we should try not to do that ourselves.

But what kind of faith are we building if we never share it with anyone? After all, we’re in relationships with God because we believe it’s changed our lives, right? We wouldn’t be the people we are without God, and we might not have been able to handle some of the things that have come our way without knowing we could depend on God. If that’s really true, then can we really keep quiet about it? Can we really keep it to ourselves? I’m not certain, but I don’t think we can.

In this case, I’m suggesting that we each build something when we decide to share our faith or to not share it. We build a house of faith, so to speak, and I think our choice to share or not share represents what we’ve chosen as our foundation.

Not sharing is a decision we base on things like how other people see us or how we feel uncomfortable doing so, or how we don’t know enough and we might not be able to answer their questions. If I review the times I’ve used those things as my reasons, I can only come to the conclusion that I’ve built on sand.

See, I can learn what I don’t know. And I can share in a loving way. And sometimes whether or not people like me isn’t the most important thing going on in the relationship. All of those conditions can change, just like sand can shift in the wind and the storm. That’s not the sand’s fault, because it’s supposed to shift in the wind. But if I try to treat sand like it’s solid, well, that is my fault.

On the other hand, I have clear guidance from God about why I should share my faith. Like I mentioned, God changed my life and I want him to change other people’s lives, too, for the better. Also, there’s a couple of places where that’s what I’m told to do as a Christian.

It may be harder to step out and risk sharing faith. It may involve more work, and it sure looks easier to me to just look the other way and go on about my business.

Jesus never said building on rock was easy, though. He just said it was a better idea.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Holy Fisherman! (Luke 5:1-11)

Welcome to round 637 of “Fights over stuff that’s not as important as everyone thinks it is.” Older translations have Jesus telling Simon he will now be a “fisher of men,” while newer ones say he will catch or fish for people.

Folks who prefer the older version point to the rhythm of the words and the way the phrase sounds when read aloud – those versions were designed to be read that way, so the phrasing has a kind of majesty to it. Those who prefer the newer version point out that we don’t usually use the word “men” these days when we mean “people,” and Jesus was telling the disciples about their roles as evangelists to the whole world.

To both sides, I say, “You’re right,” as well as, “So what?” This story is about how these fishermen had an encounter with Jesus that showed them something about his nature as the Christ and Lord. There’s a lot more here than worrying about whose sensibilities will be scratched up because translating Greek into English isn’t an exact science. Do we want to overlook the impact of this encounter between the human and the divine in order to hash out our problems about gender and language?

Obviously, I don’t, so let’s look at what happens here. Jesus has drawn a crowd to the shores of Lake Galilee, and in order to teach them so they can see and hear him, he borrows a boat from Simon, a nearby fisherman he’s met before. Simon’s got little else to do, since the day’s fishing has been poor.

After he finishes teaching, Jesus tells Simon and his partners to put out into the lake for a catch. Sure, Mr. Carpenter, Simon may think, we’ll drop nets in the hottest part of the day when any sensible fish is asleep, but he agrees. The catch is tremendous, and Simon knows he’s encountered something fantastic, even miraculous.

He combines what he knows about Jesus with what Jesus has taught, as well as this miracle, and he understands that Jesus somehow represents the God he worships. That’s why Luke uses the word “Lord,” which Greek-speaking Jews used instead of risking blasphemy by actually saying God’s name. Remember, Luke, our writer, knows a lot about the Jewish faith and he knows which word would get Simon’s meaning across to his Greek-speaking audience.

Somehow, Simon has figured out who Jesus is – not all of it, because as we know, the whole crucified and risen part will escape him for awhile. What he does know is that he is in the presence of the sacred, the holy.

Well, his religion teaches him there’s only one possible outcome when something not-holy or profane meets the holy. Holiness can’t coexist with unholiness, and the power of God’s holiness is so great that it will destroy any unholiness it might meet. Even Moses could only see God after he passed by, because it was too dangerous otherwise.

Even if that won’t happen, Simon knows he’s not holy and he’s ashamed to be in the presence of someone who reminds him of that.

Now that I can relate to. Like Simon, I’m a part of this not-holy world, which makes me not-holy, or profane, to use another word. When I encounter the holy, my profane nature is all too clear, even to me. “Don’t touch me, Lord,” I might cry, as Simon did, not wanting the purity of God’s holiness stained by my sin.

And here comes the twist. Jesus has come to do exactly that, to take on the stain of our profane human sin – and make it clean. Contrary to the experience of mothers, Sunday clothes on young children and mud puddles everywhere, when Jesus’ unstained purity touches our stains, we become clean.

So he tells Simon not to be afraid. He’ll explain the whole thing as it goes, but it’s enough for him to know now that he’s in no danger, nor will Jesus’ holiness be somehow damaged by meeting a smelly fisherman’s sinfulness. In fact, that holiness will begin such a transformation in the smelly fisherman that one day he will stand in front of thousands, proclaiming to them that though they, too, are a part of this profane and stained word, they can be made a part of the sacred world of God.

For that sacred world, in the person of Jesus Christ, has broken through into our world and begun to transform it, one heart and one person at a time.

Good news.