Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012 Mark 1:9-15

What is Lent about? Is it about giving up chocolate or beer for the season? Is it about depressing hymns and no mention of the “A” word, no joy?

Or is it about something else? Is it about transformation? We talked about that last week, on Transfiguration Sunday, didn’t we? We talked about how we can be changed, how we can become more ourselves, and more deeply children of God.

And now that we are in Lent, it may well be that this is less a time of what we are giving up and more of a time of what we are becoming.

That is clearly what this gospel is about.

We have an incredibly compact version of the beginning of Jesus’ story. As the scholar Marilyn McCord Adams reminds us, this is a familiar story pattern in the Bible: “a candidate is singled out, then taken for a proverbial length of time into a [special space somewhere between earth and heaven] where old identities dissolve and new ones are forged, before being thrust back into society to occupy new roles.”[1]

And this is exactly what happens to Jesus here, isn’t it? The selected one has to go through something akin to a hazing before he is officially in his new role.

It is a violent transformation, this first series of events. It is not a warm and relaxed bath in the Jordan that Jesus experiences when John baptizes him. It is something that causes the heavens to rend open so that the Spirit, in the form of a dove, can come down upon him.

Perhaps we would feel the drama of the moment more if the Spirit came down like a hawk, intensely focused, single-minded on the task at hand, affirming Jesus’ unique mission as God’s Son. Certainly that is not a sweet little gray dove that pokes and prods at Jesus so that he will go out into the desert, that creature that “drove him out into the wilderness.” It is a creature with the intensity of a raptor, bringing Jesus to a place that is uncivilized, not outfitted with the comforts of home, without a 7-11 on the corner to pick up a snack.

No, Jesus is sent to that in-between space where nothing is familiar and everything seems vaguely threatening. He is sent into the wilderness for this preparatory event, a hazing by Satan, to see if he is really made of the right stuff to be who God intends him to be. He is to be tested. Now, Mark’s version of the story simply mentions who does the hazing, without specifying what this weird initiation rite might be. Jesus is there in this strange place, attended by angels and living with wild beasts. He is tempted, but he does not succumb to the temptation, and we don’t hear about Satan again for quite a while. And then it’s over and Jesus is on to the next part of the story.

When you go away for a period of time in the wilderness, in the wild places, you come back changed.

Mark gets that. What does he tell us? Jesus is baptized, and the heavens are torn asunder in that moment. Jesus goes into the wilderness, and Satan is dismissed. John the Baptizer is arrested, his reform movement stopped in its tracks, and Jesus, that guy who used to help out his dad in the carpenter’s shop, who would bring firewood for his mother to cook with, this changed Jesus takes up his new role as the one who brings God’s word, and proclaims that he has brought good news.

The heavens torn asunder, the hero challenged and transformed, a new message cried out in the land.

All in six verses.

But in six brief verses, there is more that goes on underneath the surface. It is always so when one moves through the end of one’s old life and into a new one.

Part of the change is about what happens in the baptism. When John the Baptizer came out of the wilderness and took Jesus into that water, I doubt that anyone there expected the dramatic thing that happened. But something did happen. We do not know if the onlookers heard the voice, saw the sky rent asunder, watched the dove descending. But we do know that Jesus certainly saw and heard and felt that he was being brought from his old world with all its comfortable normalcy, into a new wilderness, akin to the wilderness that his baptizer had resided in during John’s ministry. He was now in a place where little doves had the power to shove him into the wilderness and where God spoke out loud, tearing apart the clouds of heaven to make room for his voice. This was a traumatic event, not a gentle one, and perhaps it didn’t take all that much of a shove from the Spirit to send this shocked Jesus out into that space of wilderness, an empty space but for wild animals and the overshadowing presence of temptation and evil.

And so the next part of the change is about what happens in the wilderness. Mark gives us only the barest statement of what happened there: Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild animals, and Satan tempted him and the angels waited on him. So much left unsaid! But the image that remains in my mind is of Jesus sitting and thinking about what had happened in the baptism, with a couple of wild animals sitting there with him, and he’s thinking, “right now I feel like I have more in common with these wild animals than with my family back home. God has affirmed me, I’m out here alone. I’m something different now than when I started.”

Doesn’t wilderness always make us feel isolated, unlike any other, without the conventional touchpoints that make us feel safe? This was a dangerous place. If the wild animals weren’t going to eat you, the devil was going to try and get you to do something stupid. And yet, forty days later, Jesus walks out of the wilderness to assume his new role, and in doing so, he brings more of the wild animal with him and less of the domesticated pet religious leader…this is the man who will consort with lepers and Samarian women, who will eat with tax collectors and sinners, who will heal on the Sabbath, and who will decry a lukewarm tame faith. In some ways, the wild animals have transformed Jesus more than Satan ever could, since he is now an untamable power.

And if we forget what that time in the wilderness did to Jesus, we will have a reminder a few chapters later when Peter rebukes Jesus for predicting his own demise, and Jesus rebukes Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is Satan who would have us worry about what the everyday world thinks of what we do when we follow our Lord…it is this wild animal Jesus who reminds us who we are following, and what is expected of us as a result, something very different from that everyday world and its cares.

Time in the wilderness is transforming.

As I was meditating on this passage this week in preparation for this sermon, I found myself recalling the story of Aron Ralston, the young rock-climber whose story was made into the movie “127 Hours.” Ralston went alone into the wilderness of Canyonlands National Park for a day of solo mountaineering. This was, of course, the height of idiocy – smart people do not do these things alone, they go with a partner in case of emergencies.

And what an emergency Aron Ralston had! As he was climbing in one of the canyons, one of the boulders came loose, and pinned Ralston’s right arm, trapping him. He tried to call for help, but there was no one there. He would have to find a way to survive on his own. During this time, he recorded what was happening, and what he was thinking about, in a video diary on his little camera. As he weakened, he had visions of his family, and after five days had a vision of his future child. He found the wherewithal to make a tourniquet, break the bone in his arm, and hack off his pinned arm with the dull knife in his backpack, and then he walked out of the desert, covered in blood, to find people who could take him to the hospital.

The same pattern that Dr. McCord Adams described: a hero identified and separated out from the rest of the world, tested in a wilderness experience, and returned to the world transformed. Ralston, now with one arm, was physically transformed by what happened to him, but he also seems to have been transformed in other ways.

In an interview with National Geographic Magazine, Ralston was asked about the video diary, and his response may help us in understanding our gospel today: “It gave me a sense of completion. Not only did the camera let me tell my family and friends what had happened, but also it gave me the opportunity to tell them how I was feeling and that I loved them. I liked the thought that I wasn't going to leave an unexplained mess.”[2]

Ralston came out physically transformed, but the process of getting through his time in the wilderness demanded that he speak of it, that he connect with those who were part of his other world. And perhaps this is what happened to Jesus as well.

He spent his time with the wild animals, with the temptation of the Evil One, and he came out the other side. When he got back into the world, he found out that John was gone, locked away in prison. And he had to speak. He had to talk, not so much about what had happened when he walked into the Jordan or when he sat for forty days in that wilderness, but about the outcome of what happened: he had God’s good news to share with people in strange new ways, and they had better pay attention, repent and believe.

So what does this mean for us? Most of us don’t get prodded into the wilderness by a bird, or get our arms pinned under a boulder in a canyon.

But don’t we all have our own wildernesses that transform us as well, for good and for ill? Wildernesses of loneliness, of illness or loss or spiritual dryness, that leave us shaken and hollowed out like an old termite-ridden tree?

Lent is the time in the wilderness. It is the reminder that until the day we are with God at the heavenly banquet, we are all in the wilderness, being shaken, being changed. And our only right response to the time in the wilderness is to do what Aron Ralston attempted in that video diary, to do what Jesus did when he came back from the wilderness: tell people what it meant to us, what it continues to mean to us, that we have come through the time in the wilderness to a new understanding of who we are and who God is.

Take it as fact that you will be changed by your time in the wilderness. So what will you tell others about it, about what it did to you and what it continues to do to you, as you meditate on your life this Lenten season?


[1] Brown and Taylor, Editors. Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster Knox Press, 2008, pp. 44-46.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2012 Mark 9:2-9 “Come Down from the Mountain Transformed”

Climbing mountains is not my thing. I’m a little afraid of heights. To be honest, I’m a lot afraid of heights. Even the thought of going up Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park gives me a queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach.

But every now and again, I’m in a place where I’m up high, and even through my fear, I must admit that the view is amazing. I just wish I could look without feeling like I’m going to fall.

You know that feeling – it’s a sense that your stomach is dropping faster than fast, and you feel dizzy and disoriented.

Can you imagine how that feeling hit the disciples who accompanied Jesus up that high mountain, when suddenly Jesus was changed before their very eyes? His clothes as white as bleached linen, his face aglow…and beside him, the ancient patriarchs, Moses and Elijah.

Those disciples who went up, Peter, James and John, may have wondered why they went on this strenuous hike. Jesus probably did not say to them, “come on up this mountain and watch what happens, guys!” He probably didn’t say that he would be transformed before their eyes, blessed and affirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, with his divinity shining so brightly that they had to shield their eyes, his heavenly father’s blessing so absolute and clear that they were speechless...

…except for Peter, who, being Peter, had to say something. “Shall I build some shelters for you and Moses and Elijah?” he asked. A ridiculous question. A God and a patriarch and a prophet have no need of shelter. Dizzy with shock, unable to figure out how to understand what was going on, he tried to do something appropriate, although there are no guidebooks for hikes with this kind of view at the top. All Peter wanted to do was to create a way for them all to stay up there, to continue to feel the glow of this amazing thing, to be close to this transfigured Jesus, and perhaps even Moses and Elijah. He wanted to cling to the moment.

But the moment was not meant to continue indefinitely. Suffice to say, Peter never built those shelters. After God the Father spoke, the dramatic moment ended. Jesus was back to being their traveling companion and teacher. Moses and Elijah were nowhere to be found. There was nothing to do but to go back down the mountain, to the others. But Jesus was clear that they were not to share what happened with the others.

Difficult, that order, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to tell the others about this amazing thing? But these disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, kept their promise and said nothing.

But they were changed by what had happened. How could you not be changed after you saw what they saw?

What are your mountaintop moments? The moments when you are shocked into a different, deeper understanding of what it means to be in the presence of Our Lord?

I had the privilege of seeing this in action when I accompanied our young people on their mission trip last year. I watched them be transformed, learning new skills, learning compassion for people whose lives were very different from them. They were very different on Saturday when we came home from the kids who had left Richmond a week before. Their sensitivity, their willingness to see Christ in the people whom they served, their desire to do something concrete to assist people in need, was a beautiful thing to see. And when it was time to go, they, too, did not want to leave. They wanted to stay up on that mountain. They spoke of frustration that they hadn’t been able to finish everything that we had started. They wanted to continue in community with new friends and old, doing something that was meaningful and powerful. They wanted to continue to be the people that they had become on that particular mountaintop, people who had the skills and capacity to help others. And yet we knew that you cannot stay up on the mountaintop forever. You have to come down. The challenge is what you do with the way you have been transformed once you’ve come down from that mountain.

Mission has a way of doing that to you. It changes you. You may leave thinking you are going to help others, but it is you who is changed. The process of change is not without its challenges – fear and confusion, that vertigo in your head and stomach, are all a part of being transformed. We’d prefer simply staying unchanged, but who would miss a chance to feel closer to God?

This Sunday is not only the last Sunday in Epiphany, not only Transfiguration Sunday, it is also World Mission Sunday. It is a time when we raise up the possibility of helping others and sharing the Word of God by love in action.

Why would we link World Mission to the Transfiguration?

Take a look at the words that Jesus uses at the end of the passage: Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” We focus on the fact that Jesus told them to be quiet, but we forget the final phrase. They were ordered to keep quiet, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Reframe it in the positive rather than the negative, and it translates to “after I’m risen from the dead, tell people about what you saw. Affirm my divinity as you saw it affirmed.” Go and proclaim the word…and isn’t that the heart of mission?

But how do we proclaim Jesus Christ in his power and glory, as seen up on that mountaintop? Certainly proclaiming with words is a part of it…that’s what we saw Jesus do again and again. But what else did he do? He healed, he helped, he prayed. He acted in ways that demonstrated what he said. And that is the other part of mission, the other part that we are asked to do.

The mission of the church is to proclaim the risen Christ through words and through actions. We are asked to bring Christ, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, to those who need Christ.

But the thing that happens when we do that is not just that we help another human being, it is that we are more deeply connected to the Christ who bade us to do these things. We climb the mountain with Jesus Christ, not knowing what is going to happen when we get to the top. When we get up there, we see things – and the Jesus we climbed with – in a clearer, deeper way. We are transformed. When we come down from that mountain, or back from that mission trip, or home from helping at Lamb’s Basket, or back from driving our Caritas guests to take a shower or clean their clothes, we are changed. We help others, we show them Christ, but we also show ourselves we are the ones whom Christ told to share his message by our words and actions in the world.

When Peter and James and John went up that mountain, they saw Jesus transfigured. But those disciples were the ones who came down transformed.

This is what mission does – it shows us Christ in ways that we never saw him before. So on this day, be willing to climb the mountain, even if you are afraid of heights. Be willing to do mission, however you are called to do it, wherever you are called to do it. Be transformed, and transform the world.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our Annual Valentine's Day Letter

Valentine’s Day 2012

Beloved family and friends,

Where are the frogs? And the flies? And the locusts? After last August’s earthquake and hurricane we’ve been expecting more plagues to hit Richmond. So far, though, the best we’ve been able to muster, plague-wise, is last Saturday’s 30-minute blizzard. It was fun while it lasted, but one inch of rapidly melting snow hardly constitutes a Biblical plague. Maybe it’s time to relax…but not till we’ve put more gas in the emergency generator.

Our major accomplishment for 2011 was that we managed to paint two rooms in our house, wallpaper a third, and hang drapes or shades in three rooms without setting off a single argument, tantrum, or pouting fit and with no trips to the emergency room. (We’re pretty skilled at home first aid, though.) Doug did spend a fair amount of time complaining about crumbling plaster and crooked walls and mysterious wiring, but after 14+ years of marriage Mary has learned how to ignore him until he drives to Home Depot and comes back in a better mood. Doug has learned to simply say, “Wow!” when he’s got some doubts about Mary’s decorating projects.

While we were content with pretty modest accomplishments, Alex impressed us all by graduating from Columbia University in May. Way to go, Alex! We’re counting on our favorite Ivy Leaguer to bring fame and fortune to the family – or at least to be gainfully employed at some point. Meanwhile Alex is hard at work editing the third edition of Flaneur Foundry, the literary journal she founded three years ago.

Christopher has followed in the footsteps of his mother and his older brothers by becoming a serious home cook. The menu he tackled for Thanksgiving dinner sounded like something straight out of a five-star restaurant. With some long-distance coaching from his mom he managed to get everything on the table and impress his guests. Doug has volunteered to be the official taster whenever Chris and Mary cook together.

We gratefully enjoyed a visit from Sam and his fiancĂ©e, Shauna. Sam’s time off had to be squeezed in between the end of landscaping season in the fall and the start of snowboarding season. This year he is continuing to sell snowboards during the week while coaching private students on weekends. Shauna manages a shoe store in Stowe and has developed a knack for coping with snooty shoppers with more attitude than taste.

On the Thorpe side we enjoyed Hannah’s wedding to Corey B. outside of Pittsburgh. Mary contributed a Texas-shaped cake for the festivities and she and Doug sang “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” accompanied by Grandma Eileen and a strong wind. Everyone downwind of us seemed to hear fine. Anyone upwind enjoyed watching the wind blow out the candles. In the end, though, the event was an unqualified success.

Later in the summer Doug joined his parents and siblings in Kansas for the triennial Adell family reunion in Lindsborg, KS. It’s hard to imagine Swedish immigrants’ reactions to their first summer in Kansas, as the air warmed to temperatures only seen in Sweden inside ovens. The Adell humor and affection somehow make the heat tolerable, though. It’s also hard to imagine an entire pioneer family living in one of these dugouts, probably with a sod roof and one window at most. Our ancestors were made of stern stuff, indeed. But the therapist in Doug looks at this dugout and sees an incubator for depression.

Doug continues to love his work at the Virginia Institute for Pastoral Care, where he is now the Director of Clinical Services. At the end of April he will finish his term as president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. His four years as an officer in AAPC have taken him all across the country and exposed him to many creative, devoted pastoral counselors. He’s ready to give up the conference calls and travel for a while, though. He loves his time on his bicycle, and is grateful that Richmond is flat.

Mary’s second year at Church of the Epiphany extended many of the ministries in which she was engaged her first year there. She was very pleased to be asked to change her status from temporary priest-in-charge to permanent rector near the end of 2011. This winter her bishop asked her to serve as dean of Region XI, coordinating the joint ministries of the parishes on the north side of Richmond and offering the first line of pastoral care to the clergy of the region. She is also the president of the Lakeside Clergy Association, an interfaith group that shares outreach ministry and ecumenical worship, and an active member of the Committee on the Diaconate for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. She still has time to cook (although she isn’t posting as many menus on FaceBook) and to knit (it passes the time in meetings).

We are excited about celebrating our 15th anniversary this year by taking a walking tour of western Ireland with the poet David Whyte. Mary will get back to her Irish roots and Doug will explore the wonders of Irish culture (and beer).

We keep you in our hearts and prayers – we hope this Valentine’s Day reminds you of the power of divine and human love in all of our lives.

Be blessed-

Doug and Mary

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2012 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45 “Healed or Transformed?”

Our readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel are linked together by a disease: leprosy.

It’s important to understand a little bit about the disease, because this is a little complicated.

When we think of leprosy, we think of folks who just a few decades ago would have been isolated in leper colonies. We would imagine people who would lose body parts – fingers, lips, noses, toes – whose disease would be highly contagious. Nowadays there are multi-drug treatments that render a person’s disease non-communicable within a couple of weeks of starting treatment, and transmission is generally more difficult than we originally thought.

But leprosy was a blanket term in the ancient world that covered a broad range of skin disorders. Some were as aggressive and contagious as what we now call Hansen’s disease, some were simply eczema. What we call leprosy wasn’t introduced into the Middle East until 300 BC, when Alexander’s army brought it back from India.

But this thing that was called leprosy then was a frightening disease because it could be disfiguring, and in a religious tradition that prized ritual purity, a visible skin disorder was viewed as a sign of uncleanliness, of impurity. The Book of Leviticus has a whole chapter, chapter 13, about the diagnosis of and ritual response to what the ancient Jews called “tzaarath” or a skin disease that they called leprosy. Only a priest could diagnose. Only a priest could order confinement. Only a priest could say someone was cured of his disease. And over it all was this sense that this was a physical manifestation of something spiritually wrong within a person.

It was this kind of leprosy, rough patches of whitened skin, that affected Naaman, the powerful commander in our first reading. Naaman didn’t want to be disfigured – he believed it lessened his ability to exert his power over those around him. He wanted a solution. And remarkably, Naaman’s wife just happened to have a Israelite servant girl who knew of the prophet Elisha, and of Elisha’s power in calling for God’s healing.

But Naaman was the kind of guy who wouldn’t speak to some odd religious nut in a subjugated county…he went to his boss, the king of Aram, who then wrote directly to the king of Israel, in an exchange that is both funny and sad at the same time. The king of Aram, who, we recall, had subjugated the Israelites, sent a letter to the king of Israel to get Elisha to fix Naaman’s problem. He sent it with Naaman, and with some pretty amazing gifts – ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and a rich wardrobe of fine garments.

Now put yourself in the place of the king of Israel. His conqueror sends him this letter, with all the rich gifts, and he knows he has to deliver the cure. But even though the king of Israel may not be an effective warrior, he knows his theology. “Who am I? God? I can’t cure this guy. This conquering king is trying to pick a fight with me by giving me an impossible request.”

Somehow Elisha gets a message that this drama is going on in the palace, and he sends his own message – poor king of the Israelites is caught in the middle again – saying “don’t fret. Send him to me, and I’ll show him what a prophet does.” I’d bet that the king of Israel breathes a sigh of relief, getting Naaman out of town. The passage from 2 Kings doesn’t say anything, though, about sending all the goodies from the king of Aram with him.

Naaman goes off in his chariot to Elisha’s house. And then Elisha does something very interesting. He doesn’t go out to meet him. Major insult, that! He sends out an assistant, like spending a small fortune to see Dr. Oz and him sending out a little nursing assistant with a message. “Just go wash up in the river, then go to the priest so they can certify you as cured.”

Naaman isn’t used to being treated this way. He’s used to snapping his fingers and having everyone say “Yes, sir!” And he is furious. He stomps off, saying that if this was all he was going to get from Elisha, he could have stayed home. But his servants, those patient and wise people, convince him to give it a try. And he does, and he is healed.

Contrast this with what happens with the leper in the gospel. He’s just a beggar by the side of the road. If you asked him why he had leprosy, he’d probably have said, “I don’t know. Maybe I did something bad, or my father did something bad. It doesn’t much matter. All that matters is that I have it, and I can’t be with anyone, and all I can do is beg for a few coins to survive.” Naaman never thought he was responsible, he just wanted the problem fixed, and he would do what it took to fix it.

He sees Jesus approaching. We don’t know how he knows that Jesus is the person to go to for healing, but he does. He is unclean. He shouldn’t approach anyone. But he takes the risk, and goes directly to the one who can help him. No kings as intermediaries, as Naaman did. Just a sick man taking a risk. And Jesus is no doubt surprised by his approach. In that place, a leper keeps his distance. But Jesus shouldn’t be. This is the third in a close series of healing stories in the Gospel of Mark. Word is spreading of his power to heal. But here is this unclean man, and he says “if you choose, you can heal me.” A clear recognition of Jesus’ power. Jesus looks at him, shocked by the leper’s boldness. He responds almost without thinking…”I do choose. Go, you are healed. Make an offering at the temple and present yourself to the priests, but say nothing about what has happened here.” A direct healing, no prophetic intermediary. A risky request, without the protection of being a powerful commander in service to the King. A humble man expecting nothing, unlike the proud military man demanding results and attention by the healer. They are both healed – God is more merciful than any of us deserve – but are they changed by their healing?

We might think that these stories are about miraculous healings. On one level they are. Both men are healed.

But on a deeper level, it is not about the miracle, it is about what happens before and after the encounter. How do we approach God and ask for something? Do we act like Naaman, swaggering and insisting? Or are we like the man approaching Jesus, humbly requesting, braced for a “no” but hoping for a “yes?”

And after we have that encounter with the divine, whatever the results, how are we changed? Our skin may be clear, like both these men, but are our hearts transformed? Do we head back to our homes tempted to share the miracle we have been given, or do we simply march back as if we expected what we got all along?

Healing, that miraculous gift, takes many different forms. God touches us and tries to fix what is broken in us, whether it is patchy skin or cancer or depression or anger. Do we accept his healing grace and rejoice in his ability to reshape us, or do we simply say that we are better because of something that we did, or some doctor did, or a medicine did? Do we brag about how smart we were to read up on what we needed on the Internet. Or do we simply quietly thank God for his willingness to keep with us, regardless of whether we are physically healed or spiritually transformed.

Healing is a complicated thing. We are changed. But more important than a change is how we respond to it, how we then use it to be witnesses to Christ’s love in us and in the world.

We can be Naaman. We can be the poor soul in Mark’s gospel, whose name we do not know. Which one do you think reacted as our God would want? When you are changed, when you are healed, when you are lifted up, which one will you be?