Friday, February 27, 2009

Revgals Friday Five: Forks in the Road

I don't often 'play' Friday Five, but given my own current state of transition, and my own recent thoughts about "What Might Have Been," this "fork in the road" Friday Five caught my attention. Over at RevGalBlogPals, Singing Owl writes: I am at a life-changing juncture. I do not know which way I will go, but I have been thinking about the times, people and events that changed my life (for good or ill) in significant ways. For today's Friday Five, share with us five "fork-in-the-road" events, or persons, or choices. And how did life change after these forks in the road?

1. My path into ordained ministry was like my own faith journey - marked not by a 'conversion' moment, but by what I would describe more as a 'strainer' experience. The jumbled pieces of what I thought constituted a call from God into first camping ministry and then youth ministry were all poured into a strainer, and what was left behind was a clear calling into pastoral ministry. That's the best why I can describe it. A critical decision for ordained ministry happened in my college-search process. I just couldn't find a school that fit my hope: to major in youth ministry. The schools I looked at were all Christian colleges with an orientation that was much too conservative theologically for me, even in my high-school days. I finally visited and applied to Gordon College. My visit was awful. I attended chapel, and found myself so upset by what I was hearing in worship that I sobbed as soon as it was over. I had no idea where to go or what to do. My pastor suggested some UMC-affiliated schools, including Ohio Wesleyan, which seemed the best fit of the four he mentioned. I applied without visiting (although I visited later,) and found out they had a pre-theology major. Somehow, by the time I started my first semester, I was planning on ordained ministry, without even realizing how it quite happened.

2. Like my friend Amy, I strayed from the 'typical' pattern of education. I didn't skip a year in elementary school - I graduated a year early from Ohio Wesleyan, completing my BA in three instead of four years. I'm not really sure what even started me on this path - I had the plan to try it before I even arrived for my first semester. I looked at the course catalog and the requirements, and I realized how easy it would be to do, with my semester of credits I would start with thanks to high-school/college level classes. Just before my third year, I began to have doubts about my decision. I was really enjoying my time at OWU, and I knew I would miss my friends. If I stuck around a fourth year, I could add a second major. It was actually at Exploration '98 that I wrestled with a lot of these questions thanks to a workshop on discernment I almost didn't go to. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision - I was ready to move on from OWU. But I still wonder sometimes!

3. Choosing my seminary was another fork-in-the-road decision. I visited Drew, Wesley, and Boston. I loved the city of Boston. I loved the emphasis on religion and the arts at Wesley, and their program with religion and politics. But as soon as I visited Drew, I knew I would go there. It didn't have any particular program that compelled me. It was just a feeling. A widow of a pastor in my home congregation said to me, after I told her I was going to Drew, "I prophesied you would go there." She'd never said this kind of thing to me before, and never did after, but if there's anyone I would totally believe, it was her. I knew I'd made the right choice, and never wished I'd gone elsewhere.

4. In my last year of seminary, my childhood pastor invited me to commute to Drew and serve as his assistant pastor at his new(ish) appointment. We'd worked together with me as an intern when I was in college, and we worked well together. I agreed to take the position. And then - it just didn't sit right with me. I did not have any peace in my decision. So I sheepishly changed my mind. That spring, the then-pastor at my childhood church fell very ill. Because I wasn't working elsewhere, I was able to fill in at my home church almost every Sunday, preaching, teaching, visiting, etc., during an extremely difficult time for the congregation. I was so thankful I was available, and knew my difficult decision had been the right one.

5. Both coming to this appointment in New Jersey and leaving it are fork-in-the-road times. I struggled with the decision to come here, and I struggled with the decision to move back to NCNY. For me, making appointment decisions is so complicated because you ask questions not just about how the transition will affect yourself, but about how it will affect entire congregations, the one you serve and the one you might begin to serve. I've been blessed with congregations that have been particularly supportive and affirming in the midst of transition.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 2/25/09, Mark 8:27-38)

Who Do You Say that I Am?

Today, Lent begins with this service of Ashes, as we pause to think about our own mortality, our own finite nature, and as we consider what it means to repent and turn back towards God. This year, we’ll use music from Jesus Christ Superstar at our 10am service to help us think about this Lenten journey, to help us think about how and why and if we are willing to follow Jesus on the path to the cross. You know already that Superstar is my favorite musical. I started going to see a local annual production of Superstar when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have seen Superstar on stage in various settings about 30 times. I’ve worn out multiple cassette tapes and CDs from overuse. I could probably perform a one-woman version of the show all by myself. And when I wrote my senior religion paper in undergrad, Jesus Christ Superstar figured heavily into my project. So you know I love Superstar. But you don’t know why I love it. I’ll tell you more about it on Sunday when we focus in on Judas in particular. But the main thing is this: Jesus Christ Superstar makes me want to be part of the story. Watching and listening, I just want to be part of it. As a teenager, nothing drew me in to the gospel story quite like Superstar. I wanted to know what made each character tick – what motivated them and what did they see in Jesus, I wondered? I asked myself where I would be in the story. Would I be a disciple? Would I be on the sideline? Would I be one who wanted Jesus put to death? Superstar simply drew me in, and my fascination with the musical led me to a love of the season of Lent, a curiosity about the passion story, and a deeper faith. I hope, through the next several weeks, to convey some of that to you.

For me, the heart of the story of Superstar is an identity question in two parts. Who is Jesus? And who am I? Superstar focuses on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, but it is less about the events and more about the people. Each song we will hear over the next weeks will give us an inside look at what the people closest to Jesus might have been thinking in the week leading up to the crucifixion. Why did some choose to become disciples? Why would some give up everything to follow him? Why would Judas betray Jesus? Why was Mary so devoted? Why did Peter’s faith waver? Why did the priests want him dead? Why did Pilate cede his authority? Why? These are the questions I wonder about when I read the scriptures, and for me, this music we’ll hear helps me discover, wonder, imagine. Tonight’s song is just a glimpse, as we see Mary and Judas both have vastly different reactions to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about.

Tonight we skip back in the gospel of Mark to the scene I mentioned on Sunday that happens just before the Transfiguration. Jesus has been travelling and teaching and healing, with his disciples accompanying him. And on their way to Caesarea Philippi, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer “John the Baptist,” and “Elijah,” and “one of the prophets.” But Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers boldly, and for the first time, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus begins to tell them that the Son of Man will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before a resurrection three days later. Peter, who has just made such a bold proclamation, rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Peter could see who Jesus was – the Messiah. But he hadn’t yet learned what that meant – couldn’t see what being the Messiah would mean for Jesus – or perhaps, more accurately, couldn’t accept it.

Jesus calls the crowds together, along with the disciples, and makes things very clear: “If any want to become my followers, than let them deny themselves, and take up the cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Very simply, you can’t claim Jesus is the Messiah without knowing what that means, without consequences. For Jesus, it’s a simple if-then logic statement. If who Jesus is is the Messiah, then it follows that there will be a certain response from us. If we believe he is the Messiah, then we will deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. And in reverse, if we aren’t denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus, how can we claim him as the Messiah?

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what difference has that made in your life? Who are you? And how is who you are related to who Jesus is, or who you say he is? In the next weeks, we’ll look at Mary, and Peter, Judas and Simon, Pilate and the Priests. We’ll find out who they though they were. Did they change who they were because of who they thought Jesus was? Did who Jesus was change who they were? Some, we’ll see, try to make Jesus into who they wanted him to be. Some knew exactly who Jesus was, and feared him for it. Some were plagued by doubts and questions, and could never figure out who they were without understanding who Jesus was. Some knew who Jesus was, and learned how it had to change their lives, their very identities, knowing who Jesus was.

Who do you say that Jesus is? A prophet? A teacher? A healer? A miracle-worker? A work of fiction? A historical figure to admire? The Messiah? And who are you? A student? A skeptic? A believer? A questioner? An enemy? A child of God? A disciple? This Lent, this season, these forty days, the questions before us are the most important we can ask, about our very identity. Every day, we’re asked to define ourselves, to identify ourselves. We give proof in Driver’s Licenses and social security numbers and ID cards. We answer the question: I’m a mother. I’m a doctor. I’m his brother. I’m a banker. But this Lent, this season, these forty days, we only have one person to answer to. Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” And who do that make you?

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lenten Disciplines

I've been giving some consideration to what Lenten Discipline I might take up for the season, or what I might 'give up' for Lent. 'Giving up' something is not a task I always take. My most 'successful' year was the year I gave up Diet Coke for Lent. Giving up soda provided, actually, some unexpected theological reflections. Other years I've tried (and failed) to go vegan for the season, or just skipped giving something up at all. I've been successful in 'taking up' something like a more disciplined devotional time, etc. I have vivid memories of my friend Marianne in high-school who gave up chocolate for Lent. One day in Sunday School, we had Girl Scout cookies - Tagalongs, the best of all Girl Scout cookies. She scraped off all the chocolate and ate the peanut butter inside. Dedication. Around the blogosphere/facebook this year, I've seen people giving up facebook (not gonna happen for me), eating out (intriguing - would be sadly tough for me to do,) blogging (I feel like it would be more of a discipline for me to blog more during Lent these days.) I'm just not quite sure what I want to do. I've also seen people try to combine some sort of weight loss program with Lenten Disciplines, and that just never seems quite right to me - like the order is wrong. Using Lent in order to lose weight, instead of doing something in order to deepen the Lenten experience.

Do you give something up, or take something up, for Lent? What? And why? What do you hope to get out of your discipline? What has deepened your Lenten experience in the past?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

(Sermon 2/22/09, Mark 9:2-9)


Today is Transfiguration Sunday. I’m betting most of you are not even sure what Transfiguration Sunday is, and that’s hardly a surprise – it’s not really ‘up there’ with Advent and Lent, and it isn’t really part of any season, just the last Sunday in this ambiguous time that we call the Season after the Epiphany. It’s a last stop before Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. That’s where it falls in the calendar. But what is Transfiguration Sunday about exactly? What does it celebrate? Well, the answer to this question you might not find particularly compelling either – at first. But I hope to change that, at least a little, by the end of this sermon!

Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experience – and I think that’s what’s key for us.

Just before our passage today, Peter made an important declaration. Jesus asked who people were saying Jesus was – and the disciples told Jesus – a prophet, John the Baptist resurrected, Elijah come again. But then Jesus asked who Peter said Jesus was. Who do we say Jesus is? That will become an important question for us in the season of Lent. Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and it is the first time he makes that claim. But then Jesus goes on to start talking about the suffering and death he must undergo, and challenges the disciples that to truly be named disciples, we have to take up a cross and follow the same path. This is no doubt a tense conversation – Jesus is laying it on the line, and letting the disciples know exactly what is required to follow him – which is simply everything. And so our text opens today, not even quite a week after he’s said these things, and apparently, none of the disciples have decided to leave Jesus. Jesus takes three who have been so close to him – and goes up a mountain with them, and is transfigured – changed, unveiled – before them. Elijah and Moses appear and speak with Jesus – they represent the prophets and the law – the two pieces of God’s revelation thus far – and Jesus with them seems to represent a fulfillment of things. Peter, who sometimes has the bad luck of being portrayed as a bumbling fool of a disciple, doesn’t know what to do or say, and the three disciples are simply terrified by what they see. So Peter for some reason offers to build three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. He says it is good for them to be there. Peter’s ready to make it possible to stay – just remain there on the mountaintop, settle in, and stay in this very holy, if also very scary, place. But then a cloud overshadows them, and they hear God’s voice as was heard at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the moment is over, and they are alone with Jesus again, and he orders them, as they come down the mountain, not to tell what they experienced until after the resurrection.

This whole passage is no doubt strange to us. But to me, a few things here are important for us to take away: first, the disciples experienced this as an extremely holy moment, where they felt like they were closer to God, and seeing more of God in Jesus, than perhaps they ever had before. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God, and it is from these encounters that we develop the phrase “mountaintop experiences” when we’re trying to describe an overwhelmingly awesome experience. This, even if we don’t understand it, is what the disciples have had at the Transfiguration. And second, they want to try to stay there, remain there in that moment, prolong that time on the mountain, rather than returning to life on the ground.

We can probably relate to both of those pieces of the Transfiguration. We’ve had mountaintop experiences in our lives, I hope. Spiritual peaks or highs, moments where things seem to fall into place and we understand or experience God in a way we normally don’t, times where everything seems so good and right and meaningful. And we’ve also experienced, I’m betting, wanting to stay in that place – stay on the mountaintop, prolong an experience where we knew the time was limited, where we knew we simply could not stay forever.

For me, when I was younger, going to church camp every summer at Camp Aldersgate was my mountaintop place. I used to say that there were just a two seasons that mapped out the year for me. The Christmas season, and camping season. As soon as Christmas was over, I would begin to wait anxiously for the arrival of the camping brochure, the list of all the camps available at Aldersgate that coming summer. Once the brochure arrived, and camps were selected, waiting ‘til summer and camp week was the difficult task at hand. I even used to start packing ridiculously early - making lists of what to bring, what shirt to wear with what shorts, and tucking things away in the back of my closet, all ready for the week of camp to arrive.

And then, in a flash, it would be time - time to take the trip to Aldersgate, a trip that seemed a million hours long at the time, instead of a short hour away. During one short week at camp, it seemed so much could happen. You would meet so many people, experience so many new things, and think about and talk about your faith in a way that rarely happened in other settings, especially as a young person. And then, in another flash, it was all over. The week ended, camp ended, and being in that special place, set apart, was over for another whole year.

At first coming home from a week of camp, it was so hard to get back into things, into the normal routine, and so hard to think about waiting a whole long year to be able to go to camp again. When I was a little older, I got to work on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and I got to prolong that feeling I got from camp for a whole summer. In fact, I enjoyed that special time, that special place, that special connection with other people and with God so much that for some time I confused God's call to ordained ministry for a call to the camping ministry. When I got home from my summer on staff, I had an extremely hard time adjusting back to high-school life, to the point that I seriously looked into how I could graduate early so I could move on and be doing what I thought God was calling me to. I didn't want my mountaintop time to end. I wanted it to be camping season all the time. I wanted to hold on to the connection I felt with God, to the wholeness I could feel at camp, to the connectedness to the world around me.

I felt some of these same things at the Youth Retreat I led this weekend – young people who feel so close to God during the three days we spend together, who find themselves seeing God in new ways, and find that they’re afraid they won’t ever feel so close to God when they return home, and continue on with their lives. For young people who find high school to be an increasingly hostile environment for young Christians trying to express their faith, a retreat time can be a precious and rare space. Added on to this usual feeling of being on the mountaintop is an extra layer this year – this retreat was probably the last one of its kind. As some of you have heard me talk about before, my home conference, NCNY, is merging with three other annual conferences, so that soon the conferences will include all of New York State except the downstate area. This means youth events are about to become much larger, less intimate, and include hundreds of more young people. There are some real opportunities for new ministry with youth – but the youth I’ve worked with also know they’re letting something precious and special go – the event they love will never be quite the same again, and they wanted to stay in that place just as long as they could.

Our keynote speaker at the event shared with us a video clip from Dan Kimball, a pastor who authored a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church. In the book, Kimball writes about research results that show people outside of the church have a great opinion of Jesus, his life, and his message. They just have a bad opinion – a very bad opinion – of Christians, finding them to be: hypocritical, homophobic, judgmental, and sheltered. Kimball theorizes about why this is – why do people see Christians so negatively? He concludes that without even meaning to, Christians are like pretty scenes trapped in a beautiful snow globe – we live in a bubble, and we like it there, and want to stay there. We tend to mostly interact with, live near, and spend time with people who are like us and share our beliefs. Instead of being the church, the body of Christ, we focus on the church as a place, where we might invite people to come, but we’re unlikely to bring church – to bring Christ – to them. And so it is hard to reach others or be reached from inside the bubble.

Can you relate to this image at all? I found it helpful and challenging. When we think about the Transfiguration, we can see that Peter’s immediate impulse was to create a bubble – to take this extremely holy experience and trap it, keep it, stay there and dwell in it. And we can hardly blame him. Why would he want such a profound experience to end, even if he couldn’t understand it completely? But at the same time, we have to wonder: what if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain with the disciples? What if Moses couldn’t stop basking in the wonder of the burning bush? What if Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb with Jesus and never went to share the news? What if the shepherds and the Magi couldn’t tear themselves away from the Christ-child? What if I’d never been able to move on from summer camp? What if my youth couldn’t ever handle the merging conferences, and couldn’t handle going back to school? The holy places in our lives are so precious. But we’re not called to bottle them up, or put ourselves in a bubble with them – we’re called to take the holy with us as we go. That’s why when we talk about our faith lives, we usually talk not about a static place, but about faith as a journey. Faith doesn’t stand still, but moves and grows, or our faith is dead. And we worship a God who is named I AM – a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing. And that’s why when Jesus calls us to a path of discipleship, he calls us using a word of movement – we’re to take up a cross and follow – being a disciple is an active job, that never leaves us where we are.

Perhaps, in the midst of this time of transition for us – for me and for us – we can particularly relate to this text, to this idea of wanting to stay in one place, but being called, or being compelled to move to another. Certainly I’m not saying the time of me being here as your pastor is necessarily a mountaintop experience for you! But I can agree that it is so much easier sometimes to stay in the same place than it is to move – literally and figuratively. What we know is this: God isn’t leaving us where we are. The question we have to answer is what we will do about it, and where we will go, and whether or not we will follow. Today we receive the gift of seeing Christ transfigured, dazzling white, with God's clear voice speaking to us from the mountain, a holy place. But even this week, we come down from the mountain, into the valley, and begin to walk with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death. What happens, then, after the Transfiguration? That is the journey of faith that we take, the unfolding of our lives, as we take up a cross, and follow.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama & The Sunny Side

Sorry for the lack of posting - I just got home from back to back retreats - a CCYM Retreat, and a Young Clergy Retreat, both of which I may write about later in the week.

In the meantime, I'm busy working on a short article for a peace council newsletter about positive steps in the Obama Administration so far. I have some things I definitely plan to include. What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Using Third Epiphany Text)

Sermon 2/8/09 (Epiphany 3B text, preached out of turn), Mark 1:14-20


You might think it a mundane word, an insignificant word in the scriptures. But actually, the word immediately, euthus in Ancient Greek, is one of my favorite Greek words in the Bible. It occurs frequently in the scriptures, twice in today’s passage alone, but its commonality shouldn’t make us overlook it, thinking it is only as important as other common throw-away words like “and” and “the”. “Immediately” – it’s a word with scriptural power. Immediately.

Immediately is word with a sense of urgency. It has a sense of purpose – something important is at stake with “immediately.” It is a hurried word. Think for a moment about what does and doesn’t happen with immediacy in our world. We’re a very time-conscious world. On the one hand, we are a people that want everything right now. We have a desire, as a society, for quick, easy, faster, and more convenient things. There’s Kraft Cheese Crumbles, for example – cheese that comes in a bag already crumbled so that you don’t have to take the extra 60 seconds to crumble it ourselves. We value our time and so we like to get unimportant things done as quickly as possible. We like to make things that serve our needs as quickly and as efficiently as possible – technology being a prime example. Faster is always better. But our love of the quick and efficient has spilled into our decision-making processes as well. In today’s world of television, new shows may be cancelled after one or two episodes air, if the viewership isn’t high enough. You can apply for a credit card with the promise of a 30-second decision on your application. Of course, these days, that decision is likely to be ‘no’ – but they’ll still answer you quickly! We like our decision-making to be careful – but quick.

On the other hand, some things in our lives just don’t seem to move any more quickly no matter how fast the rest of the world is going. The church usually falls into this category. How many times have you heard of the church making a decision too quickly? Probably not very many. Usually, to make a decision in the church, we have to form a committee, study the idea, check with other churches about how they made the decision, vote on it in a small committee, vote on it in a bigger committee, and then talk about it in the whole body. And that’s when everything goes smoothly in the process! At its worst and slowest, the church has sometimes lagged behind the rest of the world in extending justice and making decisions that would help our neighbors. Today, we heard an anthem Roy wrote with the words of the Gettysburg address. The issue of racial justice divided the church for over a hundred years. People in the church were afraid to take a definite stand. And in fact, in the civil rights era, the church was often a vocal defender of racist practices. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were most critical of churches that wouldn’t move forward for justice. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote,

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities "unwise and untimely." . . . Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed", according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never” . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights . . . I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." but when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, . . . when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

It wasn’t until the Methodist Church and the United Evangelical Brethren Church merged in 1968 that our denomination finally acted in writing to eliminate many of the practices of segregation in the structure of the church and not until the year 2000 that our denomination officially apologized for its history of racism. Immediately isn’t perhaps our favorite word in the church. We’re not very good at immediately.

Today, our gospel lesson is full of a sense of immediacy and urgency. Our lesson opens still in the first chapter of Mark. John the Baptist has just been arrested – aside from his unwelcome words to the religious leaders about repentance and them being a brood of vipers, John had also managed to upset King Herod by calling him out publicly on his immoral actions. So John wound up in prison. The time was ripe for Jesus to step in and continue and expand the work John had begun. He arrives in Galilee and beings to proclaim the good news. As he is passing by the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and Andrew, fishermen, casting their nets. Jesus greets them with provocative words: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And, we read, “immediately” they left their nets and followed Jesus. Farther down the shore, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee. And “immediately” he calls them, and they leave their father and the other workers, and follow him.

So what’s all the rush about? What’s the significance of the “immediately” in these texts? I think our answer has two parts. An immediate message and an immediate response. Remember, our passage begins with Jesus talking about the good news. And what is the good news? As Christians we often think of the good news as this: Jesus came and died for our sins so that we might be saved. In fact, we might sum up the “good news” of the gospel as found in the most-memorized verse John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” But our lesson from Mark today leads us in another direction.

Last Saturday, I met with our confirmation class for one of our sessions that supplements the one-on-one work they are doing with their mentors. Our session this weekend focused on United Methodist history, structure, and beliefs, and the Bible, what’s in it, and how to use it. When we were talking about the Bible, I told the kids that Gospel, means literally, “Good News.” And the Ancient Greek work for “Good News” is euangelos, or, transliterated, euangelos – Good/message. I asked them what word they could see there – and they rightly answered, “angel.” An angel in the scriptures is a messenger, specifically, a messenger from God. The Gospels are Good Messages. What Jesus came to share was the good news – the gospel – the good message that God’s kingdom was here, and here now.

We read in Mark that Jesus began teaching and preaching right after John’s arrest, and here was his message, which Mark calls the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come hear; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus’ message of good news is that God is immediately present in our lives. Instead of coming at a later time, instead of something we have to wait for, the time is already fulfilled – God is here, God is present – God’s reign, God’s will, is right here and right now. An immediate message.

Likewise, because of Jesus’ immediate message, there is a need for an immediate response. “Repent, and believe the news,” Jesus insists. Repent – change the direction of your life. And when? Now. Right now. And so when Jesus calls the disciples, he doesn’t tell them to think it over. He doesn’t ask them to meet him later. He doesn’t ask for applications which he’ll review. He doesn’t negotiate terms with them, or revise his message to something they’re more willing to support. He says, “follow me.” And they do – immediately.

An immediate message and an immediate response. Jesus tries to instill in us the sense that the news he shares is so good, so life-changing, so wonderful, that we can be immediately moved to repent, respond, react. Our impulse is to think it over. Our impulse is to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of making such a big decision. After all, what Jesus ask of us is to basically turn over our lives to him. To follow him instead of following our own motivations. To completely change the direction we’ve been going, and to go with him instead. And he doesn’t promise much in the way of perks that we’re used to. No free t-shirts. No gift cards. No bonuses. Instead, the way Jesus goes and asks us to follow is a way that we know leads to a cross – to humiliation, betrayal, denial. Can’t we have some time to make a decision? Can’t we think it over? Can’t we commit by degrees and follow a few steps a day?

But Jesus has a message that’s too immediate – too urgent – for us to wait. In a world with so much need for love – the kind of unconditional love that God offers – who wants to wait for that love for one more minute? Jesus wanted the disciples to come and fish his way – fish for people – catch them with the message of God’s already-present grace. It’s been two-thousand years, and still, there are some who have yet to experience God’s transforming love in their lives. How much longer must Jesus wait for us to respond?

What are we waiting for? If we wait because we’re afraid, Jesus promises to go with us. If we wait because we’re looking for a better offer, we’re in trouble. What more do we want than the only offer of unconditional love we’ve yet to find in this world? Jesus has been waiting, been calling us. There’s no time better than right now to leave our things – our baggage, our fears, our worries – to leave them, turn a new way and follow Jesus.

Immediately he called them, and immediately they left their nets and followed him. Amen.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Harder Things

A couple of years ago, I wrote that the hardest thing in ministry was announcing to a congregation that you were moving on to a new appointment. I can now add a little bit to that: it's even harder to do when you're leaving quite a bit sooner than anyone (including yourself) anticipated, and when you have to share that you've requested the move yourself.

Today, it was announced at FLUMC that I will be moving back to the North Central New York Annual Conference, where I have maintained my membership while serving here in New Jersey. This move comes as a result of a lot of struggle, prayer, and discernment on my part. When I came to this appointment, I felt like I was being appointed to just the right place at just the right time, and I certainly don't think I was wrong about that. I've just been surprised to discover that my journey here will be much shorter than I first thought it would be, and that perhaps the plans I've had in mind for myself weren't the things God had planned for me. (Go figure! As a pastor, you'd think this part wouldn't be so surprising all the time....)

I've told folks here what I want to make very clear: my asking to move home is about just that - home and feeling a sense of homesickness for my family and conference. You don't have to know me for long to know that my family is extremely close-knit. For all our different interests and paths, we mostly live close together, and spend a lot of time together. New Jersey and Central New York aren't that far apart, but I very much miss, for example, getting to see my gorgeous nephew all the time:
What has been particularly wonderful is the graciousness that people show in the situations when you most need it. I've been dreading making this announcement. I knew it would be shocking to announce a move after just two years of ministry in an appointment. I knew people would be shocked, and expected that some people would be hurt by my news. But what I encountered today was just grace and understanding, which I needed very much. I guess everybody understands what it's like to want to go home, and I was greeted by so many kind words and wishes today, such a gift to me. As my SPRC chair was announcing the news (brand new in her role, poor woman!), I was thinking: "Hey, I'm holding myself together pretty well. Maybe I'll say a few words myself too." So I got up to speak after she was done, and immediately realized it was a bad move on my part, as a instantly started crying. Ah well. I'm still glad I added my own words from the heart. I've invited my folks here to relocate to CNY with me, but so far no takers.... ;)

So, in July, I will become the pastor at The First United Church of East Syracuse. This congregation is a blended United Methodist and Presbyterian Congregation, a congregation that came together because of a fire that burned the Methodist Church to the ground in the late 60s. Three days after the fire, the two congregation began worshipping together at the Presbyterian Church, and they've never gone back! When a new church home was built in the 1973, it was home to a united congregation. I have some learning ahead of me for sure, as I explore how blended congregations work and brush up on some Presbyterian history and polity, things we might have touched on in Church History in seminary but are sadly now forgotten! In a "small world" situation, Rev. Matt Labriola, a retired pastor here in my congregation in Franklin Lakes, co-officiated a wedding at First United a couple of years ago, so he and his wife have already been to my new appointment and even brought me a bulletin today from there time there. How strange!

Now that I've been through a pastoral transition, I think I have some better ideas about what to expect and a better sense of what I want to and can accomplish here before I go. I'm looking forward to my new appointment, and I'm looking forward to enjoying everything about my next months here in Franklin Lakes.