Sunday, February 19, 2012

Discovering God in Silence

Mark 9:2-9
“Discovering God in Silence”

        In church language, we call the Sunday before Lent, The Transfiguration of our Lord.  This strange word comes from the mysterious story that I just told the children.  It is a story about the sudden appearance of two ancient heroes.  It is a story of a revelation concerning the identity of Jesus.  It is a story that leads to the phrase “mountain top experience”.  But first and foremost it is a story that reminds us that when we are in the presence of God, we are reduced to silence.
        The Ft. Davis Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America.  I have been told they are actually the southern tip of the Appalachians, which makes no sense to me but then I am not an archeologist.  The Ft. Davis Mountains are located in Texas, west of Ft. Stockton and south of I-10.  For about 10 days in the month of April the Ft. Davis Mountains are one of the prettiest places in the world.  The spring flowers of Texas shower those mountains with every color imaginable.  But for the other 355 days it is a stark reminder of how desolate this world can be.
        In the midst of the Ft. Davis Mountains there is a conference center called Prude Ranch.  It is a working ranch, complete with horses and cows.    Once in the spring and once in the fall, the Presbytery of Tres Rios would rent the ranch to hold week-end youth retreats.  Twice a year, I would pack our youth into the church bus and head for the Davis Mountains.
        Often I would be asked to either lead or write the program for those events.  One particular year I had written a program which was designated to help the youth grapple with issues of  trust and faith.  Behind the ranch was a well climbed hill called Little Round Top which offered a magnificent view of the mountains and valley.  On a clear day, which practically defined every day in West Texas, one could see McDonald’s Observatory which housed the second largest telescope in the United States.  Needless to say, at night in the Davis Mountains, the only light was provided by God.
        I got the idiotic idea that the climax of our Saturday night experience would be to escort 100 middle school kids up Little Round Top and hold a worship service.  Many of the adult leaders were not excited by this idea.  There were a thousand things that could wrong.  I promised the leaders the trail would be well lit and safety would be our highest priority.  But let’s be honest, when you combine the words mountain, darkness and middle school kids, anyone can understand the concerns.  After some discussion, we decided to proceed with the experience.
        At the end of our evening session, I sent members of the youth council ahead of us to mark the path with their flashlights.  When the last member reached the top we started out.  What normally was a 30 minute climb in daylight ended up taking over an hour.   Some of our more adventuresome youth broke from the lit trail and found their own way to the summit.  Tensions were a bit high by the time the entire group arrived intact.  Many of the kids had already been there for twenty minutes and were ready to go back down.  Others were exhausted from the effort and panting heavily.  In the midst of all this I tried to calm them down and lead worship.  I pulled out my notes turned on my flashlight and looked at what I had prepared.  Then I looked at my congregation.  There were 100 kids, many of them who had never been up Little Round Top.  The ones who had climbed it before wanted to hang off the rocks in the dark.  The new comers were worried about getting down in the dark.  And the adults had already formed a committee to hang me at dawn which by the way is still believed to be legal in Texas.
        I stuck my notes in my pocket, put my flashlight under my chin to reflect my face and said, “In order for us to worship we have to prepare ourselves.  Everyone sit down, turn off your flashlight when I turn mine off and silently reflect on the words I will share with you.”  I turned off my flashlight and paraphrased the opening words from Psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the moon and stars proclaim God’s handiwork.” At first there were the usual giggles and responses that always accompany 14 year olds.   But then they became silent.  And that is when worship began.  Not a word was said, for five, ten, nearly fifteen minutes.  100 plus kids and adults, sat silently gazing into the heavens, captured not by the stars, not by the moment, but by the Spirit of God.  Knowing that no words could describe what we had experienced I turned on my flash light, said “Amen” and declared it was time to go back down the hill.  The mob that climbed Little Round Top quietly, reverently, made their way down the hill and back to their cabins.  There was no evaluation at the end of the process; the traditional Saturday night gathering around the fire was cancelled.  The kids just returned to their cabins and went to bed.  Once you have seen God, what else is there to do?
        In the following years, I climbed Little Round Top many times.  Sometimes it was with others, sometimes it was by myself, often it was at night.  The breathtaking view was always the same, but not the experience. I quickly learned it was not the view, it was not the night air, it was not even the adrenalin. It was the silence, a silence so loud that it blocked every single thought from my mind and me to see God. 
        What would you give for that experience?  Should we jump in our cars and run up to Humpback for a view a thousand times more impressive than Little Round Top?  Should we volunteer to be a chaperon for the next Presbytery middle school retreat in hopes that you will discover the sound of silence?  Perhaps none of that is necessary.
        When Jesus and the disciples came down from the mountain they were met by a very noisy crowd demanding Jesus’ full attention.  A father shouted out, “Teacher, would you look at my child? He is possessed by a demon.”  As if on cue the child began to scream out all kinds unspeakable curses.    Jesus went to the boy, touched him, and the boy and every one around him fell silent as they were “Astounded by the greatness of God.”  It was a mountain top experience, without the mountain.
        How often we are aware of the power of God to quell the noise, the commotion, the disorder in our daily lives?  How often are we willing to embrace silence as a way of beckoning God?  How often do we practice silence as a daily discipline to discover God?  How often do we affirm that the God of silence is also the God who eternally walks beside us?
        We think of experiences like Ft. Davis come once in a lifetime. But for those willing to embrace the silence, the presence of God can be an everyday phenomenon.  Open eyes and closed mouths often lead to unexpected epiphanies of grace.
        The folks who put together the Christian calendar knew what they were doing when they placed the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  They are saying the Christ witnessed on the mountain is also the Christ you will find in the valley. The Christ who stands beside Elijah and Moses is also the Christ who stands beside the broken boy.  The Christ who was declared to be the Chosen is also the Christ who has chosen you. 
        Think about that…… silently.
Run that around in your soul……. Silently.
Remember, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple.  Let all the world keep silence”.  See with your hearts, and not just your eyes and you will regularly experience the glory of God.          Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Don't Tell Anyone

Mark 1:40-45
“Don’t Tell Anyone”

        It is so easy to get excited about miracles stories that we often make that the emphasis of the message.  I would like to suggest that miracles are secondary and unfortunately our fascination with them often keep us from discovering the real impact of the text.  In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has been confronted by demons and sick mother-in-laws.  He has healed headaches and backaches.  The ultimate test comes when he is confronted by a leper.  In the time of Jesus, in fact, until recently, leprosy was the most feared of all diseases.  It was thought to be highly contagious.  Only in the last century have we discovered that leprosy is not spread by contact and is in many cases curable.  But in the first century, anyone with any skin disease was sent to a colony where other lepers resided.  When the leper approached Jesus we can be fairly certain of two things.  First, the man had been rejected by his community and second, when he approached Jesus, no one else was around.
        What intrigues me is not the miracle, but the conversation.  The leper questioned Jesus in a rather unusual manner.  “If you want to, you can heal me.”  There was no doubt in the mind of this young man that Jesus had the power to change his life.  The question that puzzled the leper was, “Are you like everyone else?  Are you afraid of my appearance?  Do you want to risk contact with me?  Am I worth your time?”
        Sometimes we forget Jesus came to save humankind, not to pick favorites.  It didn’t matter if you were a leper or a centurion, Jesus responded to human need.  The leper had no reason to fear that he would be rejected by the Son of God.  Jesus came to save, not condemn.  But then comes the interesting part.  Once the healing takes place Jesus instructed the leper to inform no one who was responsible for the healing.
        As you read Mark, part of the intrigue of this particular gospel centers around discovering the identity of Jesus.  Scholars refer to this as the secrecy motif.  The identity of Jesus is not fully revealed until his death and the revelation is by a Roman soldier in charge of the death squad.  The identity of Jesus seemed obvious to people possessed by demons, or to blind folks such as Bartamaus.  But the followers of Jesus did not have a clue.  Their human eyes were not prepared to witness God’s revelation. So it would appear Jesus’ instructions were in keeping with this secrecy motif in Mark’s Gospel.  
But there was a second reason Jesus requested the leper’s silence.   Let’s look at the facts.  Before the disease appeared the man might have had a family. He certainly came from one of the neighboring villages.  Each week family or friends would bring food and clothing and drop them off near the leper colony.  Little of no contact took place.  It only makes sense that the first thing the leper wanted to do was   return home.  Can you imagine being married and going years without being able to hold the hand of your wife?  Can you imagine being a mother and not being able to lift your child to your breast?  The healed man had been given back his life.  He probably ran all the way to his home just to gaze upon the folks he loved.  When this incredible homecoming took place, don’t you think someone was going to ask, “What happened?”  How was he to respond?  “I got up this morning and suddenly my skin was better.”  Do you think he would be able to hide his joy?  Don’t you think he would be screaming at the top of his lungs, “Jesus healed me!”
            Jesus knew this.  He also knew the immediate results would be that everyone who heard the story of the leper would come to Jesus hoping to be cured.  Jesus was certainly capable of healing anyone who crossed his path.  But Jesus did not come to this world just to eliminate disease.  He came with a message and a gift.  The message was, “Repent”.  The gift was grace, the amazing fulfillment of God’s eternal covenant. 
          I suspect all of us would like to see the leprosy’s that exist in today’s world eradicated.   I imagine we all believe God has the power to heal any illness.  And if this is true, why doesn’t God start with Aids, or Muscular Dystrophy, or Alzheimer’s?  And why stop there?  Why doesn’t God eliminate cancer and heart disease?  I for one would want to include some of our less obvious deadly diseases.  Why doesn’t God eliminate poverty?  Why doesn’t God destroy racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” that poison our society?  Why doesn’t God wipe out greed?  Why doesn’t God abolish war? Why doesn’t God heal the ills of humanity?  Why doesn’t God cure the world of all disorders?
        Imagine what would happen if God snapped God’s holy fingers and disease disappeared?  Imagine God waving God’s holy hand and Israel and the Palestinians became allies?  Imagine Hindu, Moslems, Christians and Buddhist recognizing the validity of each others faith.  Imagine the New York Yankees going to Fenway and not being booed? If all that happened, would we love God more?  Would we worship God more?  Would we strive to insure the second chance God had given us?  Or would we continue doing what humanity does best and begin all over again making a mess of God’s perfection. 
        I remember listening to an interview on PBS a few years ago.  A Russian scientist who had participated in the clean up after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl was sharing her story.   For years since the accident she has tested the air, water and soil around the sight.  Thousands of acres south of the nuclear reactor had been quarantined and declared unhealthy for human habitation.  Her team had recently reentered this condemned area to review the results.  They did not find what they expected.  It was a virtual Garden of Eden.  Both plant and animal life were flourishing.  At first the scientists were amazed, but then their elation was subdued by the sobering reality of their discovery.  The one component eliminated from the area since the nuclear tragedy was human interaction.  Nature had flourished without us.  Their conclusion was the greatest danger to humanity ….. was humanity.  In other words,  it will never be enough for God to be just the great healer.  First and foremost God must be known as the Holy One who saves us from our sins.
        Therefore, Jesus did not come to the world just to heal; Jesus came to the world to save.  Remember the instructions he gave the leper.  “Don’t tell anyone what happened; don’t tell a soul how you were cured.  Go to the rabbi and offer a sacrifice.”
        Today, through the work and sacrifice of many men and women leprosy is curable.  In my lifetime, I look at the amazing advancements that have been made in the areas of cancer and heart disease.   When humans are selflessly willing to sacrifice together for the goodness of God’s creation, amazing miracles happen.  Of course as soon as we make headway in one direction we falter somewhere else.  For every sacrifice that is made, a thousand sins are committed.   The words that beg to be shouted from each of us that has been rescued from the leprosy of greed, or selfishness, or power, or arrogance, or hate is not Jesus cures but Jesus saves.    
        One century’s leprosy is another century’s Aids.  One generation’s Pearl Harbor is another generation’s 9-11. Illness of the body and mind will always plague the human adventure.  And yet God, for reasons beyond my comprehension, continues to love God’s flawed experiment. 
        Let us give thanks for the God-given opportunity to sacrifice our lives for the advancement of future generations.  Let us give thanks for Jesus who sacrificed his life that our salvation is more than a cure; it is an eternal gift.