Monthly Archives: March 2011

Saving the world, one adventure at a time

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Saving the world, one adventure at a time. That’s my motto for today’s readings. Since coming to this parish almost two years ago, I have often referred to the mission we share as “the Saint David’s adventure.” Adventure is an important concept in the life of faith—as Christians on a mission living in a post-Christian society, we’re always on an adventure.

The adventure begins with today’s reading from Genesis.

God invites Abram on an adventure. (In case you’re wondering, part of the adventure is that as God’s purpose unfolds, Abram gets a new name and becomes Abraham.) When we meet him today, he’s still Abram. God says: pack up everything you own, leave your extended family and the land you’ve been settled in for generations, and go to another land. What land would that be? God doesn’t give Abram a clue. He just says Go to the land that I will show you. How would you respond to this? How does Abram respond? So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

Abram’s journey is a complete and total leap of faith. He leaves not only a place and a family, but also a whole culture. In the world Abraham knew in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, everything was based on the cycle of the seasons, on the determinism of what people knew about nature. During planting season, the people prayed and sacrificed to the local fertility gods. During the harvest season, they prayed and sacrificed to the gods of the harvest. Then they did it all over again. Life—including the life of the spirit—was a predictable and repeating cycle: spring, summer, fall, winter. Spring, summer, fall, winter. In responding to God’s call, Abram breaks away from that cyclical worldview and steps out. Because of the way that God comes to him in relationship, he is able to imagine a world with a future, a life that is not just a repeat of last year. The words “Abram went” have been called “two of the boldest words of all literature.” God didn’t even tell Abram that his act of stepping out in faith was going to change the world.

Neither did God tell Nicodemus that his act of stepping into the night for a conversation with the subversive guy Jesus behind the backs of his Pharisee buddies, might also change the world. Nicodemus’ leap of faith is not packing up his whole life and moving across a continent. Nicodemus is here to remind us that there are different adventures for different people. Rather than a leap of faith, Nicodemus does more of a “tiptoe of faith.”

I have to say I’m more enamored of the Abraham story than the Nicodemus story. I sometimes have Abraham-envy. Why can’t God come to me, or—even better—someone I know, maybe one of you, perhaps, and say: go to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. You’ll live to a ripe old age, your descendants will number more than the stars in the heaven, in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed, and I’ll be your best friend forever. Can you imagine?

The truth is that most of us are probably more like Nicodemus than Abram. Nicodemus puts only a toe into the water of discipleship. This is not to say that he is not a person of faith, but rather that he compartmentalizes his faith, and is pretty identified with a particular institution. Unlike some of the disciples we met during Epiphany, and will meet again, he’s not ready to change his whole life. He’s not ready to literally or metaphorically abandon his community or his standing in society, in order to follow Jesus.

Nicodemus comes under the cover of night, as a representative of the established religion. He probably brings with him preconceived notions of the Kingdom of God.  It’s likely that he has just seen Jesus overturn the tables in the temple, which would’ve been as confusing to him as it was to all the other temple officials who witnessed it. Isn’t the definition of the Kingdom of God to keep building up and extending God’s temple in a particular time and place? Apparently not. Jesus’ invitation in this late-night conversation about the Spirit is an invitation to see and enter the kingdom of God, not as something we build or preserve or expand, but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

The world is saved, one adventure at a time, when we see the kingdom of God as God sees it. This is what enables Abram to simply go. He is able to imagine the future God imagines for him.  Like the people of ancient Mesopotamia, we have our own cycles and seasons: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost….Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost…. The difference is that in each of these seasons we are called, as God called our ancestor Abram, to step out, to go on an adventure with God. Even if we think we know the end of the Lent and the Holy Week story—(pssst….after all that talk about death, Jesus is raised from the dead)—we don’t know how the adventure is going to turn out for each one of us, or what opportunities God will place in our path to save the world.

How does Nicodemus’ timid, late-night adventure save the world? Or, to put it another way, how do we see and enter the kingdom of God?

One way is to so love the world as God loves the world. Preacher and pastor Anthony Smith reminds us that as humans created in the image and likeness of God we are “genetically predisposed toward loving-kindness.” When we so love our enemies, our neighbors, strangers, and all of creation as God loves, when we see the world as the place where God’s will, God’s loving-kindness, is being lived out in us and through us, people like you and me and even Nicodemus can see the kingdom of God and rejoice in it.

Get up and do not be afraid

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we regularly heard voices from the clouds telling us whom to listen to? A big question, of course, is would we listen? Another question is what, exactly, does God want Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, and the rest of us, to listen to?

Obviously, we’re supposed to listen to every word that comes from Jesus’ lips, but it’s worth exploring what prompts the Holy One to make his voice heard in this particular moment. Peter has just said “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings.” The mountaintop experience provides a wonderful context for Peter to do what he does best: be fully human. Peter’s longing to freeze-frame a spectacular moment in time is something most of us can probably relate to.

We can understand Peter even better if we have the whole gospel of Matthew in front of us. Listen to what comes just before this morning’s reading:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised…. [And] Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

No wonder Peter wants to build three booths!

Perhaps God is saying “don’t listen to Peter, listen to him.” Listen to what Jesus has been saying about the cross and about being followers. No wonder the disciples are cowering with fear. Conveniently enough, the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are Get up and do not be afraid.

This message, which we hear over and over again throughout scripture out of the mouths of prophets, angels, and saints, is one we love to hear and need to hear. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to get down off the mountain.

The Transfiguration story is one of my favorite scenes in scripture. It’s short, and at the same time packed with special effects and high drama. You could probably tell the whole story in a 2-3-minute YouTube video, which seems to be the magic length that people will actually watch and share with their social networks.

The Transfiguration gives the disciples a visual for the dramatic transformation that Jesus calls for in each one of us. The transformation Jesus calls for in us is what we’ve been hearing about all through Epiphany, Sunday after Sunday. It’s about becoming transfigured into people who love our enemies, who pray for those who persecute us, who give to those who steal from us, who are generous beyond any expectation.

The irony of the Transfiguration story is that while the transfiguration happens in such a mystical, dramatic way with lots of special effects, we can’t experience our own transfiguration into followers of Jesus until we get down off the mountain. Get up, and do not be afraid.

Coming down off the mountain means being willing to follow Jesus to the cross. It means being willing to follow Jesus to places of pain, loss, betrayal, and self-emptying. Coming down off the mountain means being willing to follow Jesus to places of desolation. It means following Jesus into the unknown. Again, no wonder Peter wants to build three dwellings and keep Jesus up there!

What does it mean for the Church, as a body, to come down from the mountaintop? Is Peter perhaps a stand-in for the whole institutional church, and for all the people longing to preserve the Church exactly as it has always been? What if saving our inheritance is not the most important thing about being a gathered community of Christians? What if, instead, we are called, as a community, to leave all that we hold dear, and instead venture into the unknown? What would that look like?

* * *

IToday is what some call “Alleluia Sunday.” This Sunday is the last time we say “Alleluia” until the great alleluia, when we proclaim the resurrection at the Easter Vigil (8 pm, Saturday night, April 23). Before we get to that place, we go on the journey with Jesus to the cross, that frightening, self-emptying, mysterious journey called Lent, which in her wisdom the Church provides for us every year.  But first, let us take our alleluias with us as we join the first disciples in going down the mountain, letting go of structure and predictability and safety, turning instead to the new thing to which God is always calling us. Get up, and do not be afraid.