Sermons

First Sunday of Lent

 

A Lent Sermon for Covenant

(Psalm 25:1-10, sort of)

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 26, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

When I write a sermon, I always, always start with the Bible. I ponder over a passage. I sit with it, think on it, pray over it, study it. I let a passage incubate, and, eventually, out pops a sermon. Some preachers begin with a topic (such as marriage or prayer), or they craft a series title and plug in appropriate Scripture passages later. But not me. I have this conviction that the task of the sermon is first and foremost to bring Scripture to life for the community, in hopes that God might make an appearance. This means my sermons don’t fit neatly into three points, and if it’s not always clear to you what my main lesson was, that’s probably because I didn’t have a main lesson to begin with. That is to say, I am a little “hands off” with sermons. I try to resurrect a biblical text, slap some flesh and skin on it, give a gentle push, and say, “Go.” But once I’ve given it legs, where that story chooses to walk inside of you is beyond my knowledge, my reach. It might take a stroll through your marriage, it might touch your prayer life, it might roll around in your identity or stir up your sense of vocation, it might stomp right through your finances, or it might make a tender appearance in that place where you store your hurts. But I never get to know where it’s been (I’m just sorta hoping it went somewhere worthwhile for somebody). My sermons rarely come back to me and give a report, and like a parent I have to find the grace to let them go, to give them their independence, to entrust them to God’s hands in the hopes that he’s a better steward of holy words than I am. Yes, my sermons are my babies, and like any mother, I am tempted to stifle them—to try and force them to grow a certain way, to accomplish a certain thing, and of course, to make me proud.

So whether my idea to do things differently this week was a heavenly inspiration or a maternal cry for control, I honestly don’t know. All I know is that after today, I’m going right back to the same ole’, same ole, because the regular pattern is easier, and I trust myself better when I start with the text.

This week I started with a topic, and tried to add the Bible later. If that offends you, please keep in my mind that I’ve already repented and come Tuesday morning, I’ll be back to the Holy Book with a renewed fervor to keep my own agenda out. But this week I have an agenda, to tell you the truth. It’s less of an agenda for you—what I, the Pastor, hope to teach You, the Congregation, and more of an agenda for myself and whoever else might want to listen in.

You see, I am on pilgrimage this Lenten season—I am seeking out the practice of confession—and if I had thought this over in advance, the first Sunday of Lent isn’t the best time to preach on the findings of my pilgrimage, seeing as how I’ve just begun. But here I am, standing before you, trying to give the missions trip report before I’ve left the country.

So, we’ll think of it more like this: I’m packing my bags for a pilgrimage, and you came over to help me pack (which you might regret later). Of course, the best way to pack for a theological journey is to start by unpacking, and words like sin and confession have a rather hefty set of baggage associated with them already. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. I suspect we won’t finish today.

I am on a pilgrimage looking for confession because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in others. And if it is missing, there is a reason, and I think the reason is that we got tired of the judgmental and legalistic talk in the church, so we threw that vulgar language out the door, but discarded the wholesome language of sin, confession, and forgiveness alongside it.

Madeleine L’Engle writes, “I do find the lack of penitence in our . . . liturgies extraordinary. Here the world’s in the worst mess we’ve been in for generations and we no longer get down on our knees and say, “I’m sorry. Help!”[1]  Another writer says, “It is not that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been tried and found wanting; it mostly hasn’t been tried.”[2]

There is, I confess, a lack of confession in my life, and it sounds as if I am not the only one. This Lenten season I am not so much hunting for a theology of confession; I desire a practice of it, and practice has more to do with the look and feel and sound and regularity of a thing than it has to do with the philosophy of it.

So instead of reading about why we confess, I’m trying to read about the mechanics, the how, the action verbs, the words we say and the words we hear, the things we feel. Sometimes when your own tradition seems to have muddied the waters for you, it helps to visit your neighbors and learn from them. For example, Catholics have what they call the sacrament of penance, recently renamed the sacrament of reconciliation, and I am wondering if the concrete practice of going to confession helps them grasp something about sin and forgiveness in a tangible way, in a way I missed growing up in a church where confession was always, always private and never corporate, always internal and never out loud, always subjective and never filtered by a community, always a monologue without a response. I just wonder, sometimes, what it would be like: the physical act of getting up and going to the booth. The hard ground beneath my knees when I kneel. The sound of my voice saying out loud that I have failed, and most importantly, to hear a human voice respond, “Your sins are forgiven.” What would it do for my soul if my body knew a practice called confession?

The best thing to do might be to try it out for myself, but until I work up the nerve, Dorothy Day is helping me out. In the opening of her book, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes confession in sensational detail, and I invite you to listen and experience with me, not by thinking about what confession means, but about how confession feels, sounds, smells.

 

. . . (lengthy insert from The Long Loneliness) . . .

 

What strikes me about Catholic confession is the earthiness of it, the awkwardness, the regularity, the difficulty, the submission, both the embarrassment and the comfort of having someone listen, the obligation to tell to your secrets on a set day whether or not you are ready, and, the way you just get up and go about the rest of your day when you are finished. There are, of course, biblical examples where people pull out the sackcloth and ashes and make a grand show of their repentance, but that strikes me as an exception more than the norm. When I read about the regular, weekly confessions of a woman like Dorothy Day or when I read the lines of confession in a biblical Psalm, side by side with thanksgiving and joy, it makes me think that confessing my “drab, monotonous” sins as Dorothy calls them is meant to be less of an emotional, tearful upheaval and more of repetitive but healthy habit.

I certainly find this to be true in marriage. When Nate and I are in the regular habit of apologizing, no matter how small the offense—“sorry, dear, I shouldn’t have snapped at you”—that is when our marriage makes the most sense. It is when we let the offenses build up that we end up estranged from one another and in need of a massive overhaul to bring us back together. When we are in the regular habit of confessing our offenses and asking forgiveness, it is no big deal. Common-place apologies rarely cause tears; there is very little angst. A regular confession creates very little splash in our daily lives, yet neglecting it is like building a dam that holds back all the pressure. Eventually it will overflow, with a wave of regrets bound to hurt us both.

I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to be a habit, almost mundane in its ordinariness, but if we neglect the habit, our sins will overwhelm us like a flood.

I wonder if confession is less about realizing how awful I am, and more about a simple honesty and authenticity. If confession first involves admitting that I was made in the Image of God and then admitting my complicity in the marring of that image? But if I haven’t learned the truth of the first—my God-given goodness—then how I can possibly discern my sins appropriately?

I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to involve the community—not because we can’t pray alone, but because we can’t always pray alone. The priesthood of the believer means that we are as priests to one another, and faith is not an isolated experience.

I wonder if Christian confession isn’t really Christian when we don’t conclude with the assurance of pardon. Is it all that “Christian” to confess your sins, if you leave out Christ’s response: “Your sins are forgiven”?

As you can see, I am wondering a lot of things. A sermon, I suppose, tries to give answers. But not this sermon. And not me. All I know is to invite you along for the journey. I am hunting for confession this Lenten season because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in some of yours.

Lent strikes me as the right time to bare my soul a little bit, to grow more honest, to be less afraid of who I am. I see Jesus’ diligent courage and his extravagant love on his way to the cross, and it gives me a bit of nerve to be myself. No matter what I find when I go to confession, it must be better to be myself, exposed to God’s love, than hidden and covered, lost in fear.

If it helps at all for me to say it out loud, when I look at all of you, I see something lovely. But just in case you’re worried that deeper honesty would reveal something ugly, it might be better if I quoted Jesus to you instead: “Beloved, your sins are forgiven.” Amen.



[1] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 57.

[2] Sandra DeGidio, O.S.M., Reconciliation: Sacrament with a Future, 4 (her paraphrase of G.K. Chesterson).

“Who Knows”: An Ash Wednesday Homily

“Who Knows?”

A Homily for Ash Wednesday:

Joel 2:12-15

Kyndall Renfro

February 22, 2012

The season of Lent is a pilgrimage.

For those who are familiar and comfortable and at home in our faith, Lent is the season where we enter unknown territory and become as foreigners. Lent is the friend who shows up on your doorstep and pulls you out of the house for a road trip when you’d rather just stay inside where it’s cozy. Lent interrupts your comfort and rattles your security. Perhaps it is the difficulty of a fast, perhaps it is the somber tone of the music, perhaps it is the feel of ashes on your forehead—but something about Lent is bound to invade your comfort.

Then again, for those of us who are already feeling out of place in the faith, Lent greets us like a fellow traveler, and says, “I’ve got a map if you’ve got some walking boots,” and suddenly we find ourselves with companionship on what we mistook for a lonely road. Perhaps it is the dusty colors, perhaps it is the stories about disciples who betray and misunderstand and mess-up, perhaps it is all the talk of death and suffering and confession—but something about Lent is bound to offer friendship to your brokenness.

This Scripture passage from Joel chapter 2 is a classic Ash Wednesday text, and I think that is because it speaks of a journey of repentance, a voyage of returning to God. This isn’t a one-time mental decision; it is a movement back towards. Joel 2 is a passage full of action words for the repentant.

But I find myself riveted to the seeming ambiguity of God’s activity. I hear an iffy-ness in the phrase: “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?” Is that really good motivation to repent—maybe, perhaps, possibly God will be merciful? Is this a worthy image of God with which to pack my bags for the journey home?

Perhaps it is. Just the image we need. “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?”

Of course, we do know. As people who confess the truth of Resurrection, we know the end of the story. We know all about mercy and forgiveness and redemption and salvation. We know God will respond to our confession. We know—at least conceptually—how endless grace really is.

But during Lent we suspend that knowledge—not entirely, but partially. We hold forgiveness at arm’s length because the rest of the year forgiveness comes so readily, we might be tempted to think we don’t really need it. We might forget we would be lost without it. We might forget we are broken and needy and we might forget that healing and help came to us at great cost. We might forget to start the journey at all, thinking we’re already where we need to be.

Lent is an attempt to live in and with the phrase, “Who Knows?” Lent is like living in the land of uncertainty all over again, sojourning through the wilderness with the hope of a Promise Land tucked in our hearts. Like the Israelites, we cannot see past the desert sands to the home that awaits us, but we faithfully eat our manna by day and dream of milk and honey by night. Lent is like journeying side-by-side with Jesus down the dusty road to Golgotha with increasing dread in our hearts, wishing to avoid death, but knowing we must face it. Like the disciples, we do not yet understand what Jesus meant when he said the Son of Man would rise again, but despite our lack of understanding and our uncertain hope, we refuse to leave our Lord.

In this day and time, we are so accustomed to the language of grace and forgiveness, Joy and Jesus, redemption and resurrection, that we could easily forget death and repentance came first, and how for that long and terrible span of three days, we did not know what would become of Jesus and his message about the coming Kingdom. For three long days, he waited in a grave and we waited in angst. We had to choose whether to huddle together in the room with the disciples, holding onto to one another in shaky faith and uncomfortable anticipation, or whether we would leave the faith altogether, bereft of hope.

To observe Lent it to huddle together, the uncertainty of the future helping us to take an honest look at our own lives. We face the reality of our own imminent death. We make confessions and take steps of repentance, hoping hoping that God will turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.

To take the mark of the ashes on our forehead is to remember with vividness our own smallness, our temporality, our limits, and rather than fight to deny them, we accept them without fear. We stop turning a blind eye to our lives, and we view our own selves with honesty and openness—neither covering our sins with arrogant justifications nor covering our gifts with misplaced modesty. We stop, for just a moment, being afraid of who we are, and we suspend our fear of death. We look death right in the face, knowing it is time to let go of our sick parts, knowing that the brave acceptance of our mortality helps us see the beauty of living, knowing that the road to resurrection is marked with hardship and courage, knowing that an empty tomb only comes after the prayer of surrender in the Garden.

May we, this Lenten season, have the courage to look honestly at ourselves and have the hope to ask forgiveness. May we embark on a journey, not knowing what hardships will befall us or what graces will find us. May we remember our Creator, who created us from dust, who created all things good, who forgives us when we mar the goodness, and who will welcome us home when we return to the ground. Amen.

Transfiguration Sunday

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 9:2-9

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Transfiguration Sunday

February 19, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Peter is always the rash one, the stick-his-foot-in-his-mouth one, the do-now-ask-forgiveness-later one. His bravery is a great quality, really, but it also gets him in a lot of trouble. He’s the only disciple to ever walk on water. He’s also the only disciple to nearly drown. He’s the only disciple to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he over does it and Jesus has to reattach a soldier’s ear. Peter is the only disciple to declare his loyalty loud and clear at the Last Supper, but before the rooster crows, Peter has already broken his promise three times. He is the first disciple to call Jesus Messiah, but that conversation takes a sharp turn for the worse, ending with Jesus calling Peter “Satan,” which, needless to say, snuffs out Peter’s short flame of glory in a hurry.

Peter is the guy in class who can’t sit still, who won’t shut up, who see-saws wildly from really high to really low, and yet he has these flashes of brilliance that amaze everyone. He probably needed Ritalin, but he met Jesus instead, and since we don’t know much about Peter pre-discipleship, it is not clear whether a large dose of the Messiah calmed him down or wound him up all the more. He certainly keeps the Gospel stories entertaining, but more than that, he keeps them human. He lives big and he falls hard, but whether he is standing tall preaching up a storm or on his knees begging for help and forgiveness, he is all about Jesus from either posture. He is the kind of friend you can barely live with, but you could never live without. His loyalty is of the ferocious, untamable sort—running to and fro ahead of the pack, convinced he knows the way. But when he strays too far, he’s never too proud to return.

And so it is no wonder—no wonder at all—that when Jesus is transfigured into a shimmering blaze of white and Moses and Elijah appear suddenly as if they hadn’t been hundreds of years in the grave, Peter is the one who opens his big mouth. The others are stunned speechless with terror, but of course, Peter tries to say something when things blow up too big for words before their eyes. Of course it is Peter.

“Rabbi! Uh . . . (clears throat) . . . . um, it is good for us to be here. Let us put us put up three shelters! One for you, of course, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”

Whoever recorded this story felt embarrassed for Peter, so they wrote in a parenthetical statement to explain: “He didn’t know what to say, poor guy, because they were so terrified.”

The other disciples were terrified too, but Peter is the only one who doesn’t know how to keep quiet when he is bewildered. Poor Peter. How embarrassing. He and James and John are privy to an epiphany, which is a fancy word for God’s glory on display, and all Peter can think to do is build tents as if Moses and Elijah had come back from the grave to roast s’mores with Jesus over a campfire.

But really, if you think it about, Peter’s suggestion isn’t all that unnatural. Way back when God’s presence showed up in the wilderness for the Israelites, for example, the people built God a tabernacle, which, really, was a giant tent in which God could dwell among them, and God’s people have more or less continued this tradition ever since. God makes his presence known; we build him a tabernacle, a temple, a synagogue, a church. It’s fairly standard practice, really.

So Peter’s suggestion may have been sensible after all. The text doesn’t really say why Peter wants to build the shelters, but I imagine Peter was familiar with the Old Testament and with the tabernacle. So when he uses the word “shelter,” I suspect he is not thinking about tents that would shelter the three holy men from the elements.

Because when I read the Old Testament, I get the sense that the people of Israel needed the Tabernacle to shelter them from God, whose glory was so great it would singe their very skin off if they got too close. God was among them, but proximity to God was not a thing to be played with.  The tent folds of the tabernacle enclosed the Holy of Holies like the glass at the zoo encloses the lion, as if to say, “You can look, not touch.” If you wanted to leave the tabernacle with your limbs intact, you didn’t dare stick a single appendage behind that big curtain where the ferocious glory of God resided.

I suspect the Transfiguration was a little like coming across a lion in the wild, no glass barrier between you. Up on the mountainside, Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of just how divine this human, Jesus, really is, and immediately Peter wants to cover the glory with a tent. Maybe he knows the shining whiteness is beautiful enough to burn him. Maybe he knows how dirty and unworthy he is. Maybe he realizes how dangerous it is that he should bear witness, like staring wide-eyed into direct sunlight. Maybe his suggestion to build tents is less of a foolish foible and more like an adrenaline rush of self-protective genius.

No one gives him time to start construction, but immediately, a cloud drops from heaven and shelters them all, like a fog to shield their eyesight and a vapory coat of armor to guard their bodies. The voice they hear confirms what their eyes have seen—this man, transfigured before them, is the very Son of God.

The disciples shake off their stupor and see that suddenly everything looks back to normal . . . and yet, nothing will ever be the same. The shine is no longer visible; the deceased prophets have disappeared; the mountain looks like a mountain; amazingly the grass is still green, not singed. But nothing at all is the same as it was before—not really.

Because the Son of God is now on earth as a human, and forever after the lines separating God from humanity are ripped asunder and the realms of heaven and earth are irrevocably mingled, such that earth will never be the same, and, I dare say, neither will heaven. God does not in anyway diminish as God, and we humans stay human, but something opens up between the two, such that the veil in the temple will rip in two on its own accord to dramatically express in symbol what cannot be captured with words.

You see, practical and sensible as it was, building tents would have been all wrong. The cloud eventually descends to protect them, but not before they see and survive what they see, as if God has made a way at last for people to handle fire. In his day, Moses had to hide in the cleft of a rock when God’s glory passed by. Peter, James, and John has been walking side by side with Jesus for months and it is not until now that they realize how precarious that might have been. The tabernacle-building people of God standing bare—not so much as a tent fold or even a fig leaf to hide their humanness and yet they are not consumed. James and John are too bewildered to move, but Peter thinks he knows what to do. He’s just about to scavenge the mountainside for sticks and leaves for a makeshift lean-to at the very least, until the very voice of God silences him. There on that mountainside, Peter’s impulse to act is stilled and his instinct to find some shelter is challenged; God’s voice begs him listen. A new communion between God and humanity has been opened, and the scurrying, hurrying, bustling Peter is brought to a halt. The loquacious disciple learns to listen. Something so magnificent as the outpouring of heaven is worthy of nothing less than our stillness.

No one else would really notice until later, at the Resurrection, that God had collided with the world in this awesome way. But Peter, James, and John have a sneak preview to carry in their hearts through the terrible season of suffering that is to follow. They walk down the mountain as if in a daze—how odd to think that the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down and altered forever, yet The Change remains imperceptible to the average passerby. The disciples have the urge to shout out an announcement to everyone they meet: “It’s all different now!! By God, it’s all different.” But Jesus tells them to keep silent for now, which is probably just as well, because how could they ever explain what happened?

In the days to come, they will start to doubt if it really even happened at all. That strange moment on the mountainside will feel like a dream. But even in the darkness, Peter feels certain there is still a glare in his eye, leftover from the Shining of God.

Feb 12: Mark 1:40-45

   

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:40-45

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 12, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

We might dismiss this story as a typical healing account . . . if it weren’t for the part where Jesus angrily warns the man to tell no one, and then thrusts him from his presence. [That’s right. Our English versions tame it down a bit, but in the Greek, Jesus angrily silences the man from sharing.] I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t jive with my understanding of what we are supposed to do after we’ve received the Good News. I learned back in Sunday School what to do once you’ve got it, and you are supposed to spread it. Tell the Good News, proclaim the Good News, share the Good News. You shout it from the rooftops.

But you do not keep it secret.

Hide it under bushel? NO! You don’t let Satan blow it out. (Of course not.) You let it shine; you let it shine! Let it shine ‘til Jesus comes! But under no circumstance, ever, do you keep quiet.

Where was Jesus during VBS? He must have snuck off to heal the lame because he obviously missed the lesson on evangelism.

 

“Don’t you tell anyone,” he says. Well, this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; maybe he’s still learning. Yet if you keep reading the book of Mark, Jesus keeps telling people not to tell. Frankly, this has never made much sense to me. Doesn’t he want people to know about him?

Of course, scholars offer up a whole host of explanations, but those aren’t always satisfying. In case you haven’t caught on to my preaching style yet, sometimes I like to use a little imagination, and see where that gets us.

Let’s put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes. Pretend for a moment that you’re somebody real special. You can do special things. You can heal people and help people, and you’ve got a special message from God tucked away in your heart, and you just know in your bones that you are meant to make that message known. You’ve got a way with words too; people like your stories. You’ve got a job to do, and you’ve got the gifts to do it.

But it’s not like it’s all about you and your gifts. It’s not like that at all! You care about people. You see how people suffer and hurt, and you know you’ve got some things that will help. You’ve got this power that flows through your fingers when you touch a needy person. You’ve got magical words that help people see God in their life.

And nearly as soon as you put your special gifts to work, people really like you. I mean, really like you. You’re aware of some ancient prophecies which predict things will get worse in the end, but for now, the people love you. Everywhere you go, they say what an amazing teacher you are, how gifted you are, how smart, how engaging, how inspirational. You couldn’t have asked for a better start to your ministry. Your message is catching—people are spreading it left and right. Your mission is booming—people are flocking to you.

But somehow, in the midst of the hype, you start to feel lonely, and you know about Loneliness. You know how Loneliness is a good teacher—that Loneliness will be honest with you, it won’t feed you flattery, it will draw you to God. And so you sneak away in the middle of the night to a secluded place and visit the Loneliness to hear what it has to say. While you’re there, you start praying, and you keep praying.

And when you emerge from prayer, you care about the suffering world just as much as ever, so much so that when a scaly-skinned leper with body odor and dirty bandages stumbles across your path, the only thing that moves inside your heart is pure compassion. The disciples back away from the mangy, smelly man who barely resembles a person, but you step towards him, reach out, and draw him to yourself like a long lost friend.

But now that you’ve prayed, you feel differently about his reaction to your healing. His gratitude and amazement and awe give you pause. His reaction doesn’t feed your ego; it makes you wonder if he really gets you; if he just worships you like you are a Magic Genie, or if he would really follow you to the end—the Great Suffering End—like you were his Friend. You look into his tear-filled eyes and you wonder. With a wiser grip on reality, you send him away. Not because you don’t like him. Why, you love him! But because you didn’t come here to start a fan club; you came here to be faithful, and truth be told, there just aren’t that many people who will still associate with you after you get drug off the shiny pedestal and onto a rugged cross.

You realize you were given a Message to share, but you don’t get to control how that Message gets used, abused, interpreted, mangled, or represented after it leaves it your mouth. You remember that people were created free, and that means they are free to misunderstand you, use you, fawn over you and then you drop you as soon as the going gets tough. This cannot be helped, so it must not discourage you from going forward, but it does make you wonder if all the publicity is working for you or against you.

You think back to that secluded place where you met your loneliness head on and discovered the fullness of the Father as well. What if you set up camp there for awhile? What would it be like, if people had to work a little to find you? You wouldn’t hide completely, but you would hide from the spotlight. What if it took a little bravery, a bit of curiosity, and a hint of desperation for the masses to discover you? Would that dissuade them from being too rash, from joining up too quickly, before they understood what they were signing up for? Would it be such a bad thing if you were concealed, yet accessible, secret yet approachable, mysterious yet knowable? After all, wasn’t that what Father was like?

In a sudden burst of inspiration, your eyes flash with intensity. You squeeze down hard on the leper’s hand, and you tell him, “Don’t tell anyone.” And you think to yourself, “Let them find me.” And then you walk away, leaving the man stunned-speechless—both on account of the healing and your rapid departure—but you just smile softly, knowing it won’t be long before his voice comes back to him and he tells the world anyway.

I’m just imagining of course, what it might feel like to be in Jesus’ shoes. I’ve read some comments about the leper’s disobedience—how he scoffed Jesus’ command and talked freely. But the way I imagine it, I don’t think Jesus would have been disappointed by this supposed disobedience.  I mean, maybe Jesus just had to make an effort to quiet things. If people got wind of him anyway, maybe that was okay. Maybe Jesus needed to try to distance himself from the popularity, but it’s not like he would reject anyone who showed up on account of the gossip about him. The Scriptures report that as a result of this ex-leper’s jabber-mouth, Jesus had to go into hiding and stay among the lonely places. But the people found their way to him anyway.

You know, we’ve mentioned before how our little church is tucked away in this cove behind the trees, almost as if we are hiding, but maybe we learned it from Jesus.

It’s not that we are trying to keep Good News secret. But we are trying to preserve it from the harmful affects of trendiness, popularity, and dominance. It’s not that we mind if people get a little excited and start sharing the good news, but we use caution when encouraging it because Jesus isn’t trying to win a popularity contest. This isn’t an election, and we are not his campaign managers. We don’t want hype and glamour and gossip distracting from who Jesus really is.

A lot of churches these days are trying real hard to get people to pay attention to them and their programs, and with church membership around the country declining by the minute, I kind of get that. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that fame and popularity serve our interests, but fame and popularity have their own interests, such that we better watch out if they follow us, trying to shove us forward to the spotlight, even if it appears to be for a good cause. We must push back a little from attention and sneak off to the lonely places and visit with the Loneliness to hear what it has to teach us. We can be accessible, without being showy. Available and approachable without being glamorous. We can make a real difference without making a big splash. And that type of modest discipleship, I think, is just the kind of thing we try to live out around here, and I like it. The crowds may or may not show—such things cannot be predicted—but people do get healed here. They’ve told me so.

My dear friends, may we be a community that sees and knows Jesus for who he really is. May we be willing to follow him to the very End, like we would a friend. May we be a community that shies away from the spotlight to find God in the dark and hidden and lonely places. May we offer a quiet healing for those who stumble across our path. May we be modest disciples—willing to go anywhere but needing no recognition. May we be hospitable, gentle, and full of grace. Amen.

Feb 5: Mark 1:29-39

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:29-39

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 5, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and it feels good. It’s one of his first miracles, you know.  Jesus is able to do something for one of his disciples, and that feels good.

It feels good for Simon too. This disciple had walked away from his family and his livelihood to follow Jesus, but now Jesus comes home with him. Simon’s wife and family are so relieved to see Simon back, and then Jesus ups and heals his mother-in-law from a terrible fever, like a casual thank-you for their hospitality.

Simon’s mother-in-law is so thoroughly recovered, she hops up and serves them dinner to express her gratitude. Jesus is “repaid” for his miracle, so to speak. Or, maybe, truth be told, he is being repaid for bringing Simon home. Either way, Jesus gets to relax. He gets to dine. It feels good.

But by nightfall, the whole entire town is gathered at the door, begging for favors from the Healer. I imagine this lasts well into the night. It feels good to Jesus for awhile, healing the masses, and it feels good to James, John, Andrew, and Simon too—for awhile. But eventually it gets weary. And then it gets downright grueling. They can hardly keep their eyes open or their heads upright. The four brand-spanking new disciples are dying to ask, “Are we done yet?” but somehow, that doesn’t seem like an appropriate thing to ask Jesus, so they just sigh a little, then plaster on smiles to greet the next batch of needy people, while secretly counting the hours. How long can they keep this up?

Simon’s family members are thrilled by the visitors at first, rushing to the door to greet each new person, proud to show off Jesus, their honored guest. But within minutes, it seems they’ve already run out of bread to offer, and within a few hours, the family retreats wearily to a less-trafficked corner and wring their hands. Maybe Simon’s return wasn’t such a good idea after all. They huddle together, afraid to complain but silently wondering if anyone would notice if they snuck out the back and slept at the neighbors, just for the night.

When finally the last person is ushered out, the door is closed, and the bed mats are unrolled, James, John, Andrew, Simon and family fall to the floor in a heap and are immediately asleep. Jesus shuts his eyes for a bit, but something deep within stirs him, and he wakes early. Early, when it was very much still night. He wipes the grogginess from his eyes, stretches his stiff muscles, silently yawns. He sneaks out quietly, stepping gently over blankets and bodies. Outside the crisp morning breeze hits his lungs and startles him alert.  The moon is bright, like it wants to be his lantern, and the stars twinkle laughingly down at him, as if they are whispering jokes. Jesus smiles back, as if he can hear them, and walks toward the edge of town, briskly at first to warm himself, then slowly to release the tension of a busy night. The quietness of the night air serves like a muffler to his fears and to the raging needs of the people, and in the quiet Jesus begins to hear his soul again. By the time he hunts down a hidden spot in which to sit, his skin is no longer cold and his heart is engaged with the Father.

He sits agaist a rock, reaches into his heart, and pulls out a jumble of thoughts. He lays them out, one by one, in front of his face and in front of the Father.  He had felt so . . . alive healing Simon’s mother, but then so much happened so fast after that he couldn’t quite think straight. Now, sitting in the darkness, communing with Father, he almost feels like himself again. He is worried, of course, about all the people who still need healing, just in this town alone, and he wonders how he will ever get to them all, in every town. The needs weigh heavy, and he wonders if it will always feel like this. No matter how many he heals, there will always be this knowing there were more who had missed out. How will he carry on? Maybe it is better not to even start. He speaks the doubts into the darkness and knows that Father is listening and thinking it over with him. Eventually, Jesus quits speaking. Father isn’t talking either. They just sit in the stillness and ponder. And then they stop even the pondering. They just sit, keeping each other company, and peace wraps them up like a quilt and it feels like time stands still, and Jesus tries to remember if this was what it felt like back home, in heaven, before he came here.

A sudden burst of shouting startles him, and Jesus opens his eyes to find that the moon has disappeared and the stars have left the sky. The sun is peeking out over the horizon. Jesus must have been sitting here for hours. For a split second, he feels annoyed by the sudden interruption, but then he focuses in on the sound, and recognizes the voice of Simon, and a smile breaks over Jesus’ face. Father smiles too and whispers, “Son, Morning is calling. Rise up like the sun and greet the day.” Jesus stands and turns toward Simon.

Simon, breathless, reaches Jesus’ side. It is obvious he was worried, but he doesn’t say so, at least, not directly. “Everyone is looking for you!” he says importantly. Jesus discerns that Simon’s family is looking because they are worried Jesus gave up on them, and the crowds are looking because they have heard the news and want more of him, and the disciples are looking because they do not want to disappoint the crowds, but the four of them aren’t much of a show without Jesus. Jesus puts him arm around Simon and grins. “Let’s say we get out of here.”

The other three catch up in time to overhear Jesus say they are going to move on to the next town. The grass where Jesus was sitting is all matted down, and the disciples wonder if Jesus has been praying the whole night, and if so, what kind of answers he got from God.

Jesus thinks it over and realizes he did not really get all that many answers, but he did get a glimpse of the Father, and that was enough. He found a resting place for questions and doubts that were weighing on him, and so he feels light, like he can float on to the next place God is calling without regret or worry.

He knows now, where to go next, and the disciples follow him. Of course, the lightness in Jesus’ heart and the spring in his step will not last. He will encounter more need, less gratitude, more opposition, less sleep. One day, he will be so weighted down, they will say he sweat drops of blood. But right at the very beginning of his ministry, he has found that secluded spot where surrender is made possible, and that will make all the difference. He will find such a place again, when his soul is heavier than can be imagined and the time is ripe, and he will pray those fated words that made World Salvation possible, “Thy will be done.” That Great and Final Surrender made possible by all the smaller surrenders before it.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if there was one miracle prayer that fixed everything for, once and for all as soon as we prayed it . . . but alas, no sooner have we found peace, then some threat, some blasted interruption elbows its way into our life and disrupts our sacred peace. I recently wrote in my journal that “I feel certain I could become a really great person, if only there were not so many bombardments on my peace of mind. If I were let alone, my potential would soar—I’m sure of it.” But Scripture reminds me that even Jesus needed frequent retreats and even for Jesus, things did not always go smoothly. In fact, they crucified him.

But even though I know, from Jesus’ own example, that regular time in prayer is needed, it is  easier said than done, is it not? It seems fairly universal that the modern person especially has no time for prayer. We are supposed to have more time-saving devices than any generation of history, ever, but all that really seems to mean is that we are never without a broken gadget, needing repair. And since we have all these handy machines, we are supposed to be able to produce more than ever, and since the invention of coffee, we are expected to sleep less than ever. And, we now must also squeeze Time-at-the-Gym into our already packed schedules to make up for the exercise we are not getting, because of the time-saving machines which do the manual labor for us. It is very hard to keep up. Who on earth actually has time to pray?

Perhaps all this is an indicator that something in our schedule needs to give, but alas, we do not even have the time and energy to decipher what thing in our schedule could be forfeited. So we must keep running this hamster wheel called Life, for it feels that if we stop to breathe, everything will crumble to pieces around us.

This lack of time for stillness is a societal epidemic, not just a Christian one. I recently read a New York Times article which reported that people are paying over $2000 a night for a resort where they can’t get online. They need a break from the busy-ness of technology so badly that they are willing to pay big bucks for it. Other people buy software that allows them to disable their internet connection for set amounts of time. But it’s no wonder. Researchers have found that the average office worker gets no more than three minutes at a time without interruption.

The article states, “The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen,” and so the author says he makes “time to do nothing at all, which is the only time when [he] can see what [he] should be doing the rest of the time. It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”[1]

Amazingly, Jesus models this for us way back in the first century. Life gets overwhelming, so he finds a secluded place to sit, even though he has to wake really, really early to do it. And he emerges from that place with genuine clarity about what to do next. Now, I am a strong believer in the fact that sleep is very much a spiritual discipline—as a college chaplain, I tried to remind students all the time that four hours of sleep a night was not acceptable, and that their stress and anxiety probably had less to do with the quality of their prayer life and more to do with their lack of sleep. But on occasion, it is absolutely vital that we forfeit something to make room for that secluded space.

The monks call it Vigils, or Matins. Some call it The Night Office; others, the Night Watch. Some monks rise at 4am for Vigils; others at 2am. I read about a mother who kept vigils as she rocked a colicky baby back to sleep, and I’ve also heard that Vigils can be any prayer of waiting, no matter what the hour. The important thing isn’t really when you have it or how you make it happen. The important thing is that you enter it with some degree of regularity—that secluded place where surrender and trust, vigilance and listening, mystery and silence greet you.

Macrina Wiederkehr describes it this way, “Rising from sleep in the heart of the night, I keep vigil with eternal questions . . . I become quiet. In the middle of the night I hold hands with trust and surrender . . . Night vigil is a time for deep listening. My prayer travels deep into my soul space, into the essence of my being. I go ‘down under’ where the Eternal One waits. I wait with the One who waits for me. Like Jesus, keeping watch the night before he died, I keep vigil with those who wait alone. The darkness has a special kind of soul. I lean into the darkness and grow wise . . . In the middle of the night I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep . . . I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[2]

There might be a thousand ways to keep vigil, but there are at least a billion things to keep you from it. But the Night Watch is very loyal friend, never judging, always hospitable, and he’ll be there waiting and waiting and waiting with open arms when next you meet him again. Amen.



[1] Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, January 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/opinion/sunday/the-joy-of-quiet.html?pagewanted=all

[2] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, 29, 31.

January 29: Mark 1:21-28

   

Mark 1:21-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 29, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

In high school, I visited the psychiatric ward at the hospital. My mother was visiting a woman from our church, I was too young to drive, and with Mom as my chauffeur, I was stuck tagging along wherever she wanted to make stops.

I remember toting my textbooks inside this foreign place, planning to retreat to some unnoticed corner and work on homework while I waited for Mom to finish her visit. But then, to my own shock and surprise, I struck up conversation with some patients on my own accord. As in, I initiated it. There we all were, sitting in the lounge area, and I just started talking, like I was some kind of friendly person. Which I most definitely was not.

I’ve always been the shy type, and I was especially so as a teenager, when there was so much pressure to sound cool every time you opened your mouth. But I guess the fact that I was surrounded by crazy people who were not likely to judge my coolness nor had the social status to do so anyway, drove some of my shyness away, and it occurred to me that maybe they needed a friend. Not a doctor who was paid to help them, or a family member who was sort of stuck with them, but just someone who wasn’t trying to “help” anything at all, but just talked to them because she recognized their humanity hidden behind the quirks.

If there had been psychiatric wards in Jesus’ day, I’m sure he would have paid them a visit. There was no such thing at the time, but Jesus did engage many a demon-possessed person. I’m not sure if a demon-possessed person is comparable to a patient in the ward or not, and theologians, scholars, and doctors aren’t really sure either. To be honest, this whole business of possession and exorcism has got a lot of enlightened intellectuals all fussed. How do you explain such extreme spiritualism and still maintain the credibility of Scripture in a modern culture? Frank Peretti novels aside, demons and possession don’t make much splash in the daily news. They are not a part of our daily conversations or awareness, except for occasional horror movies, which I avoid pretty religiously anyway. No matter what our take on the Bible and the reality of miracles, we have to admit that demonology just isn’t really a part of our atmosphere anymore, even in the church.

We read Gospel stories like the one today, and hooray for Jesus casting out demons Way Back Then, but what has it got to do with Now? We’ve got scientific labels for people who aren’t right in the head. And if we encounter someone crazy who doesn’t neatly fit an existing label, we’re more apt to find a new disorder than to chalk up their behavior to something so primitive-sounding as demon-possession.

Which potentially makes these Gospel stories problematic. Did Jesus really understand what he was up against? Was it mental illness, not really a demon? If it was a demon, what has become of demons in our day and age? Has medication replaced Jesus?

I am inclined to think that such debates miss the point. What every generation of history can agree on is that Evil—capital E—is wickedly real—it has a million faces, a horridly long reach, a tenacious grasp, a frighteningly quick pace, and a sickeningly sweet smile. It is fierce and aggressive, deceitful and subtle, violent and tricky, and we are tempted to believe there is no end to the havoc it can unleash in human lives.

The man in today’s text has collided with such Evil in a terrible way, and its havoc on him is so severe it has rendered the man useless and unfit for society. If we were reading in Greek, we would see that in verse 23, this man is described as being “in an unclean spirit,” which differs slightly from verse 25, Jesus casts the evil spirit out of the man. One commentator explains it this way: “These two beings [the man and the spirit] are conceived as somehow ensphering each other, and sometimes one, sometimes the other, is said to enclose the being identified with it. The demon is said to be in the man, or the man in the demon. In [v.23], the man is said to be in the unclean spirit, and v. 25, the unclean spirit it said to come out of him.”[1]

I find this to be a powerful image for those of us who have known some form of Evil—be it fear, rage, betrayal, addiction, violence, anxiety, depression—whatever face Evil displayed in your case, you could never quite tell whether the evil was inside of you, ravaging and plundering and tearing you to pieces from the inside out, or whether you were inside of it, swallowed and engulfed, lost inside its Dreadful Bigness, like a child in the dark. These two beings—the Great Evil and you—were somehow ensphering one another. Sometimes it was inside of you, like an awful burden you couldn’t seem to shed, and sometimes you were inside it, like a cage with no exits.

Sometimes this happens to you; sometimes you watch it happen to someone you love. In the case of loved ones, you don’t know whether you are trying to get something ugly and dark out of them, or whether you are trying to get them out of something ugly and dark. You don’t know whether to treat it more like an infectious disease, festering in their very soul or to think of it more like a cold steel trap in which they are stuck. It is a raging monster, no doubt, vicious and unrelenting, but it small enough to hide in the heart and huge enough to fight back.

And today’s story is a tale of when just such an entanglement gets unraveled in the blink of an eye, and The Evil inside the man shrieked as the jumbled mess came undone. I imagine The Evil was shrieking because it was essentially dying—there is no power in Evil without a human home in which to dwell, without a human soul on which to feed.

The Evil shrieked, and the man himself convulsed.  Convulsed—in Greek, a medical word that refers to the spastic action of the stomach when retching. Now I hate throwing-up more than any kind of sick, but even I admit throwing up can be a relief when it alleviates the nausea. Some people find themselves so soul-sick they would give anything to just vomit the horror out and be done with it.

Jesus had simply said, “Be quiet,” which, in the Greek, also means, “Be still.” And then he said, “Come out of him.” I suppose he could have been speaking to the demon, saying “Be quiet. Quit speaking your vicious lies and your poisoned truths. Get out of this man and stop terrorizing him!” Or maybe, Jesus was speaking to the man, “Be still, quit fighting this monster. Take my hand, and step out from him, get away from its shadow. My light will guide you home.” Maybe, Jesus was speaking to the both of them, and it was his attentiveness to the both that made all the difference. Most people were too uncomfortable to address a crazy man and too afraid to address a demon, but Jesus was unruffled by either, so he looked them straight in the faces, in a way that said, “I see you. I see you both. Other people have made you out to be One—one hideous, twisted, half-of-a-person, but I can still see you, untangled and separate. There is a whole person underneath the mess, crying to be free, and there is also a monster, who is no match for my power, and I say, Come out from each other.”

I don’t know that it matters too much how each generation defines satan, or how precisely we diagnose demons. We’ve made advances in science and medicine, and those are worthy achievements we can embrace as times change. But what stays the same, what every generation of Christians still declare, is that Jesus drives out Evil. We find a thousand ways to say the same thing to every era—that Jesus is Bigger than Evil. That Jesus has the authority to speak to Evil. That Jesus is Power and Evil is only a leech. That Jesus is Creator and Evil is only a manipulator of created goods. That Jesus is Risen and Evil is only a failed assassin.

What was true about Jesus Way Back Then is true about Jesus Now—that whatever their ailment, Jesus find ways to speak to hurting people, to see beneath the chaos to the person underneath, and to call them out into the Light.

There is a woman who tells about her stay in the mental hospital as a teenager struggling with bulimia. Her ailment was an eating disorder, but there were all kinds of ailing patients. She says, “There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.”[2]

If I were one of Jesus’ disciples, and he sent me out into the world to cast out demons in his name, I would protest, “What?! I don’t know how to do that.” But maybe Jesus would just smile at me and suggest, “Why don’t you start by really seeing people—the human being beneath the muddle. In your mind’s eye, separate the person from the monster that plagues them, and try to speak to them both, without fear. You won’t know how, but make your best guess, and be sure to speak my name into the midst. Your attentiveness alone will make a difference, and my name will cast out shadows. And if you can’t remember all of that, just look at people the same way I look at you, and you’ll do alright.”

 


[1] Rev. Ezra P. Gould, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark,” International Critical Commentary, 22.

[2] Momastery.com, January 10, 2012. http://momastery.com/blog/2012/01/10/fourteen

 

Download:  http://covenantbaptist.sermon.net/da/119817009

Jan 22: Mark 1:16-20

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:16-20

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 22, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

 

Life is messier with a dog than without one. So the Renfro household has discovered. Especially when she is a stray dog who goes into heat a week after you adopt her. But alas, it was love at first sight, so I can’t really complain. Some decisions just make life more complicated, but you choose them anyway and live with the consequences.

Following Jesus is certainly one of those complications. If you drop your livelihood to follow him, then how on earth will you eat? No one really knows, but some people follow anyway. They say he can take two fish and make a thousand, but let’s be honest—the fishing nets are more consistent. They say he can multiply loaves of bread, but that’s not really reliable enough to count on when you’re preparing your budget. The issue isn’t so much whether miracles are possible, but whether they are probable when you need them. The problem is that the bread loaf explosion in Scripture only occurred once, maybe twice, but people go hungry every day. You can’t just walk away from a sensible, practical approach to life in order to gallivant with Jesus across the countryside. Of course not. It’s simply not sensible.

And yet, Mark tells us that some people did it anyway. Simply dropped their nets, in the blink of an eye, and followed him. I want to know why.

Or maybe . . . How? How did they just rise up and run after him like that . . . ?

Or maybe what I really want to know is . . . What kept them from coming back home? Why didn’t they run back after they realized how difficult it would be or after they realized they were all gonna die and Jesus would be first?

I suppose, in a strange way, it was love at first sight. Some decisions just make life more complicated, but you choose them anyway and live with the consequences . . . and there’s nothing quite like love to inspire insanity.

But I do not suspect it was the gushy, heart-warming kind of love. I mean, when Jesus showed up at the fishermen’s boats, he had a strange look about him, his delivery was abrupt, and no one knew which rumors about him were true. But I imagine there was this sort of Spirit-love that hovered around him and reeked of something genuine and life-altering, mysterious and compelling. It drew them in and demanded that they trust him, before they had time to weigh the pros and cons.

This story always fascinates me—the way they drop their nets and follow without hesitation. Perhaps because it is so hard to believe. I never could have been a disciple—not because I don’t love Jesus, not because I wouldn’t have wanted to learn from Jesus like a Rabbi’s apprentice. I never could have been a disciple because I just don’t have the guts to be that spontaneous—to leave my whole livelihood and my home in a split second to try something I know nothing about. I am far too responsible to be a disciple.

Their behavior in this story is just so downright shocking I want to believe this is out-of-character—that the disciples prior to meeting Jesus were not irresponsible men. Imagine Jesus, picking irresponsible, irrational, home-abandoning, job-quitting people for his team? Certainly not. Something must have happened to make the disciples suddenly choose what made no sense from the surface. I mean, do they even know who Jesus is? We know from the rest of the book of Mark that it will take Jesus’ entire ministry for the disciples to even start to get it, so what did they possibly understand at the very beginning to cause this sudden and drastic leap of faith?

To my chagrin, either nothing special happened, or the Bible doesn’t tell us. Jesus merely said, “Follow me,” and they followed. The story takes up all of five verses. 2 ½, really, seeing as the same scenario is repeated twice and without a satisfying explanation in either case.

This story fascinates me and disturbs me all at once. Is the point that Jesus just might up and call me to something without giving me a proper explanation, not even so much as a promise that things will turn out okay? Or is the point that when the call comes, something unexplainable will make my following possible?

Let me add that if we make this story about two options only—stay a fisherman or follow Jesus—then we’ve reduced its power. There are a thousand ways to follow Jesus, and all that’s needed is the creative capacity to detect unusual calls:

This blogger I read is becoming hugely popular insanely fast. Advertisers have started contacting her, offering to pay her for advertising space on her blog. But she refuses any money, writing: “One of the purposes of this blog is to prove that things exist that are not for sale. That money and efficiency and publicity and popularity might not be the answers. Our goal is to go deep here, not wide. We are collecting hearts, not exposure, and certainly not cash.”*

This guy I know just took a part-time job, instead of full-time one, because he realized there are some things in life more important than making money, and a full-time job would have prohibited him from some of the Really Important Things he wants to do—of course, he has to live in a small house, sell his T.V., and give up some other pleasures to make it possible, but from what I hear, it’s worth it.

There are dads I know who play with their kids more than they watch sports; there are spouses who choose faithfulness even when they are afraid the spark may be lost forever. There are kids at school who choose kindness over bullying and moms at home who choose service over self-indulgence.

There are a thousand ways that people abandon nets and follow after that crazy prophet from Nazareth—in this room alone, dozens of calls are represented, and I’d venture at least half of you are right on the cusp of hearing something new and your grip on that net is already loosening.

The way I see it, most days I go quietly about my business, responsibly tending to life in the ways I know how. But on some occasions, Jesus will spot me and think that I am right for the task. He’ll tell me so, and it will put fear in my stomach and courage in my heart. If I waver too long, I’ll chalk the whole thing up to passing indigestion and turn back to my boat, like a responsible adult who has outgrown her proclivity for imagination and adventure. But if I take just one step forward, at the first hint of his voice, I might surprise myself by dropping my nets of sensibility altogether and embarking on a journey of wonders.

The way will be tough and the dangers will abound, but heck, something got me to go this far, that is, to leave the boat and that was pretty far to travel for a security-addicted girl like me, so I suppose, I might as well keep going and follow this man to the end. Amen.

 

*http://momastery.com/blog/2010/11/11/mo-money-mo-problems/#comments

Baptism of the Lord: Mark 1:9-11

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 1:9-11

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

January 15, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

In seminary, we practiced baptizing. Really. My class took a field trip to the Baylor Student Life Center. We brought our swimsuits, covered ourselves with white baptismal robes, and climbed in the swimming pool—all 20 of us, and practiced on each other. I imagine it looked as if some strange cult had arrived to occupy the campus swimming pool. I don’t know if the pool was reserved for us that morning, or if everyone just politely and fearfully cleared out when they saw us coming.

It was one of those rare days in seminary where what you learn is practical rather than abstract. For example, it was the first time it ever occurred to me that except in cases of small children, I will baptize people who are bigger than me 95% of the time, and I learned it takes a certain amount of artistic finesse to lower people into the water, especially when you are smaller than average.

Some people are scared to be baptized, even after they are ready to be Christian, and I can’t say I blame them. Giving someone the authority to purposely dunk your face under water is uncomfortable. What if the water is cold? What if the minister holds you under the surface while he prays a long-winded prayer? What if those white robes are see-through, or what if you swallow water and come up coughing? What if your pastor drops you because you’re bigger than she is? You don’t get to be in control during your baptism, and it’s not exactly comfortable. It looks weird, and it’s even weirder to try and explain to your nonChristian friends and family.

And I wonder if John the Baptist’s baptisms were all the stranger still. I mean, at least my class did their practicing on a Baptist campus. John was out in the wilderness dunking people in a river by the hoards, as if John’s wardrobe and diet weren’t enough to make people suspicious.

Baptism is a big deal if you’re Baptist—hence the name. Some people believe that one of founders of our denomination, John Smyth, believed so strongly in believer’s baptism, that he baptized himself, since there were not yet any other Baptist ministers who could do it for him. As a Baptist, I suppose today’s text should be one of my favorite Bible stories—Jesus getting himself baptized. What better biblical support could we Baptists ask for?

But if I were to be perfectly honest with you—there is a lot about baptism that I just don’t understand. Or, at least, baptism hasn’t always moved me in the way I would want it to.

There at least two reasons (that I know of) for my struggle to comprehend baptism. First, I grew up with a Christianity that exerted a lot of energy denying works-righteousness, which meant you had to be very careful when you talked about baptism, because baptism could easily be misconstrued as a “work” by which people thought they could be saved. We don’t want that, so it’s better to downplay baptism than have people mistakenly look to water and rituals to save them rather than God’s grace. I get that.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that in our very attempt to preserve grace, we may have crippled our means of dispensing it, kind of like a treasure that you lock away but never spend. We may have done so much to “protect” the treasure of grace, that we’ve made it hidden and inaccessible. What I mean is: Baptism has never been a way to earn salvation, but baptism has always been a mysterious and sacred gift through which we encounter grace in our very bodies in an inexplicable fashion. You see, we can talk about grace, we can think about grace, we can read about grace, we can sing about grace, but there is nothing in the whole Christian practice quite like the physical wave of grace that hits your very skin in the waters of baptism. The only thing I can think of that comes close is when we taste grace with our tongues in the bread of communion. There are so few things among our religious practices that help take grace beyond an abstract concept and make it tangible. God’s grace is so heavenly, so divine, so esoteric, so huge that we need something tactile, earthy, common, small—like the waters of baptism and the bread of communion—if grace is to be translated to our human flesh.

No, baptism is not a work that we do. It is a mystery that we enter. And if we downplay baptism for fear of missing true grace, well, we might just cut ourselves off from a God-ordained channel of communication.

The second reason I think the meaning of baptism got lost on me is that our brand of Protestantism tends to be anti-ritual. Of course, it’s generally troublesome when you define yourself by what you are not rather than what you are. But more to the point: rituals are good and wholesome. The problem is when we disconnect our rituals from the rest of our living, thinking, and being. Then it becomes an empty ritual, and an empty ritual ceases to be a ritual at all—it is more like the gesture of a clown, meant to entertain, or the wave of a magician, intended to deceive. But living rituals are an absolute necessity for anyone who hopes to get their faith past their heads into their hearts and out into their daily life. Rituals help engage our whole being, and not just our thoughts. Baptism is a ritual, and it’s a mighty good one for a Christian.

However, all that being clarified . . . it is still curious that Jesus shows up for baptism because he doesn’t need saving grace the way we do. He doesn’t need repentance in the way John’s followers needed it. And surely he doesn’t need a ritual to connect him to God, seeing as how he is God. So why, of all people, does Jesus get baptized?

Some say Jesus was baptized in order to an example to us. I kind of buy that . . . but I’ve already been baptized.  So what’s the point of reading about Jesus’ baptism year after year, if I’d already done the deed myself?

Maybe Jesus did it because baptism is messy and physical, and the symbolism is so real it slaps you in the face like a splash of cold water.

When we were growing up, my younger sister was notorious for sleeping in. She would turn her alarm on its loudest setting—loud enough to wake up everyone in the house, except for her, who would sleep right through it until it shut itself off. She kept setting her alarm earlier and earlier, to give herself “time” to wake up—which meant that the whole family was waking up earlier and earlier while she continued to snooze peacefully away. My mom tried everything to teach my sister to wake up, but nothing was working. One day, we had all had enough, so my mom tried a new trick. She took a tiny cup, filled with just a couple ounces of water, and when the alarm started blaring and my sister kept right on sleeping—surprise! My mom woke her up with a splash in the face.

We still laugh about that story today, and my sister claims that she woke up convinced that she was drowning. Just a few ounces of water and she thought she was drowning . . .

Committing to faith can feel like that, I think. Just dip your toes in, and you’ll fear for your life. Feel the sprinkle of a few drops, and you just might think you are drowning. But to put your whole head under? To let a whole new way of life rush over and around you like a flood, to place yourself wholly in the confidence of someone else’s arms, such that you will suffocate if they are not reliable, to hold your breath in the hopes that dying to self really does mean new life on the other side? That’s crazier than it looks from the sidelines. The riverbank spectators may mock, but they don’t even know how insane this business really is. No one knows, until they’ve already waded in up to their waist, and by then, there’s not much choice but to go under, and hope you come back out, alive and clean.

I think this story is supposed to be strange, and odd, and mysterious. I think we’re supposed to wonder why Jesus would get himself baptized, because we’re also going to wonder along the way why we let ourselves get baptized. All that is certain is that we did it, and that it changed us somehow, and that there’s not really a good way to go back to the safety of the sidelines, even if we wanted to. There’s the hope, of course, that the Spirit descended on us, just as it is descended on Him, and that God’s favor was spoken over us in some visible way, that grace was bestowed, and that we were called children of God.

So may we know somewhere in our hearts that even on the worst of days, we would still choose the icy waters of baptism over the numb existence of the sidelines. May Jesus, the beloved of God, beckon us to stand in the waters by his side, and look up, and see the heavens torn asunder, and the Spirit coming to meet us. May we choose the river, mysterious and torrential though it may be, because we’d rather be drenched in grace than remain dry and dehydrated on the riverbank. May we dive in, and meet Jesus. Amen.

Sunday after Christmas: Luke 2:22-40

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Luke 2:22-40

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

First Sunday After Christmas

January 1, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

I want to begin with an excerpt from a blog today. It’s a story you may have heard before, but even if you haven’t, I suspect it will start to sound familiar soon enough to some of you . . .

“When Philip Groning wanted to make the documentary ‘Into Great Silence,’ he asked the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France if he might spend a couple of years quietly filming their lives. They said they would think about it . . .

 . . . 16 years later [Philip] received a letter . . . [the monks] had considered his request and were now ready for him to begin filming.

 What kind of slow-moving world do these monks inhabit? 16 years in the modern world is time enough for two or even three careers. Why would these monks assume Philip Groning was still interested in this project or even interested in filming anything at all? How did they find his address after 16 years? Did someone write it on a scrap of paper and keep it in a box all that time?

 The monks of Grande Chartreuse mark time in their own way. Time in their world moves more slowly. Things unfold gradually. Nothing happens quickly, so when things do happen they are important things . . .

 [Did I mention this was written by a pastor? He continues . . . ]

While our church does not move as slowly as these ancient monks, we are a very slow church. When I am at our church I can hear the people of our world rushing by on the highway while I mark steps down the path to the labyrinth. A car that passes our church might travel a mile before I take another step. Five miles while I consider a painted rock left on the ground by a child. Which of us do you think is actually getting somewhere?

 We are a slow church. It is our nature. Many of us are tired [of high-energy churches] . . .  We are a church for people who feel their life speeding along like those moving sidewalks in airports, and they want to get off for a time. We’re strolling through life here, meandering along at our own spiritual pace . . .

You guessed it—this is an excerpt from Gordon’s writing a few years ago. There’s another line that made laugh, where he writes, “The average time it takes to get a project completed at Covenant Baptist Church is three years.”

When I read today’s text about the eight-day old baby Jesus, what stands out to me is that Anna and Simeon were really, really old, and they waited a long, long time.

No one knows whether the Greek is trying to say that Anna was 84 years old or that she had been a widow for 84 years, which would probably put her age closer to 103. Either way, the point is: Anna was old. Simeon too, scholars presume, since he is ready to die after seeing Jesus. One ancient source claims Simeon was 112. Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel; Anna had been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Between the two of them, if you add their ages together, that’s over two hundred years of waiting.

So can you imagine the scene—the joy on Simeon’s wrinkled face, the love in Anna’s wise old eyes? I can see Simeon’s aged, nearly crippled hands—bones and blood veins protruding—shaking mildly, half from excitement, half because he lost the ability to hold them steady over thirty years ago, and it is with those hands that he reaches for a baby so new that the skin is shiny and smells sweet. Imagine a widowed woman who’d never had the pleasure of motherhood caressing the child with a tenderness even Mary couldn’t match for Mary had waited nine months, but Anna had waited a lifetime.

Two elderly folks whom everyone else in the temple regarded as old cooks who’d lost their grip on reality.  If you saw one of them scuffling towards you, you darted off so as to avoid their gaze. If you listened, you could hear them muttering softly about the coming consolation of Israel . . .

but nobody listened. Those two had been around so long they were like permanent fixtures in the temple, easily ignored. Some of the younger priests secretly made bets on who would die first—Anna or Simeon. That was the most excitement either of them caused. They did attract some pity from the more compassionate priests, and those priests were a little worried Simeon and Anna would die from disappointment rather than natural causes. How tragic to wait your whole life and never be fulfilled . . .

Now the presentation of babies at the temple was a regular occurrence. But somehow it felt sacred every time—new life being brought before God in this old place, offering up what was young and human before a God so ancient and so divine. Simeon loved to greet the parents; Anna often asked if she could hold the baby. Decade after decade those two greeted babies and offered up silent words of blessing, but rarely did parents realize their children were being cradled by saints.

Anna and Simeon—the two old cooks who kept watch for the Messiah and blessed the babies. After a century of so, you would think they’d be done, ready to move on. You would think they would have given up on the Messiah. Neither Anna nor Simeon could explain it, but somehow, each baby brought them new inspiration to keep hoping.

They didn’t know they were waiting around for one baby in particular. The vision wasn’t that clear; the “consolation of Israel” was more of a fuzzy dream that you can’t quite remember than a well-defined treasure you could go searching for. A century of waiting, and they never knew how they would recognize it when it came. For all they knew, it could have come and gone, and they had missed it, but somehow, that just didn’t seem possible.

So they waited relentlessly, which is a funny way to describe waiting, but there was no other word for it: they were relentless in their waiting.

And then one day Mary entered the temple with a baby boy tucked in her arms, and the Spirit of God moved through Simeon like an Awakening and the heavens bust forth in a song that only very old ears can hear, and the two old cooks turned out to be prophets in disguise.

Fred Craddock describes Anna and Simeon as saints who were “at home in the temple.” The temple of God, the very presence of God was their home, their rest, their holding place.  And I wonder if we could be like them, or if we see the church as a mere building where we gather rather than a haven where we can hold tight to the wildest of hopes.

I often think about what worship should do to us week after week, if we do it right. I don’t really think that we should leave church every week feeling beat-up with conviction about our sins and shortcomings like all we ever are is screw-ups. But I also don’t think we should we leave feeling warm and fuzzy inside as if all is right and good in the world when in reality, the world is a pretty screwed-up place full of injustice and suffering. Nor should we leave church feeling gushy in-love with Jesus like religion is a teenage romance, or scary in-fear of God like church is the place to escape wrath.

I think we should leave the church building every week feeling as if we shall never give up. That no matter how screwy our world, our family, our habits, or our hearts might be, we keep coming back to the good old sanctuary because hope is palpable here. You can over-turn every rug, open every closet, and search every corner and you won’t find a single quick-fix or easy answer, nothing that feels like a sugar-high and no one who can be the perfect friend. But you will find love and the hope that a new world is possible.

Jesus meets us here. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes it is entirely secret. On rare occasions, it is obvious and overwhelming. But whether we know it or not, feel it or not, understand it or not, there occurs in this place, week after week the mysterious mingling of God with humanity that changes us little by little and never lets us alone.

That, I think, is the reality that sustained Anna and Simeon all those years in the temple and slowly gave their old, tired eyes a prophet’s vision.

The church’s mail comes across my desk every week, and inevitably there is always a flyer advertising the next greatest seminar on how to make our church relevant to the culture. But it seems to me that God and God’s holy places are always relevant, and that flashy seminars and homage to the latest cultural trends are more likely to obstruct rather than aid our capacity to mingle with the ancient wisdom of God. That’s my take on it anyway.

I believe that part of my calling as a pastor is to place a ferocious amount of trust in the church, no matter how crazy or outdated that might seem. Of course, I’m pretty new at this, so I might lose heart. I might get discouraged. I might get hurt. I’ve got a long ways to go before I can match Anna’s 84 years of faithfulness, and there’s no telling what might come along to threaten my commitment or challenge my faith. I’m not thinking only of the stuff that could happen to me, but all the stuff that might happen to the people I love, too. 84 years is a long, long time to wait for the consolation of God’s people, and the ground is ripe for disappointments all along the way.

But I guess I am willing to dive in anyway because I see you and your unlikely devotion to this place—in short, I can see that you’ve made the church your home, and it gave me the courage to join the family. Of course, you might lose heart too, you might get discouraged, you might get hurt.

But I was just thinking, maybe we could stick together and encourage one another. You know, grow old together. Slowly, but surely, go crazy and confound the world together. Keep watch for the Messiah and bless the babies. Keep hope and never give up. Together, like a bunch of old cooks who are quietly and surprisingly prophetic. Amen.

Advent #4: Luke 1:26-38

 

Advent Reflection

Luke 1:26-38

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2011

Kyndall Renfro

 

In light of recent news-breaking events, I’d like it to be known that I personally know RG3—i.e. Robert Griffin III, recent Heisman winner and Baylor University celebrity. At least he has spoken to me: once.

He was a freshman, and I was an employee for Student Athlete Services at Baylor. I have to admit, my first impression wasn’t a good one. It must have been a bad day for RG3 because that large grin was missing, and he wasn’t all that nice to me. He mumbled out a “sorry” to me, and that was that.

So when he started getting popular, I was skeptical at first. I warmed up though, and three years, two winning seasons, and one Heisman later, he’s completely forgiven. And, bonus: now that he’s a nationally-known figure, I have a claim to fame. Robert Griffin III once apologized to me.

Have you ever noticed how those of us who are not famous grope after breadcrumbs of renown? Hoping to touch the hem of the garment of a celebrity, as if it had the power to change our obscure lives?

Feeling like we’re near a celebrity creates such a buzz. Why do you think all the tabloids in the check-out line at the grocery store stay in business? Reading those juicy stories makes us feel close to people of influence—people who don’t have a clue who we are or what our names are.

Today’s passage lays out a bunch of details right from the beginning, and not a one of them sounds juicy. (Except maybe the virgin part, but we’re not even supposed to know that she’s pregnant yet.) All we read for starters is: The sixth month. The angel Gabriel. The region of Galilee. The town of Nazareth. A virgin, engaged to a man. A man named Joseph of the house of David. Her name was Mary.

None of these details make for an eye-catching headline. They are details we’ve heard a million times. It’s the part of the story I often skip. I don’t want to read about the boring set, the familiar scenery.

But imagine you are standing in line at the grocery store, glancing at the tabloids, greedy for the latest celebrity update. And that’s when you see it—your name and your picture right on the front of a magazine.

That’s what the Christmas story is like—someone perfectly ordinary, unknown, and unsuspecting gets noticed by God. That means the set and the scenery—the time, the place, the individuals, the details—make the story in this case, because every small and specific detail is a reminder that the God of the universe gets that intimate with the world—specific time, specific people, specific places. Galilee. Nazareth. Joseph. Mary. Someone Really Big knows our names.

Imagine Mary’s shock when the angel appeared to her.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly startling or threatening about Gabriel’s greeting. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be shocked if an angel showed up on my porch with a message from God, but the words themselves don’t sound all that alarming. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Some of us would give anything to hear a word from the Lord that He is with us.

But Mary is not comforted, amused, or pleased. Maybe it would be like wondering how on earth a picture of your face ended up plastered on the cover of People.  Only certain kinds of people end up in People, and you are not that kind of people. There must be some mistake.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel says in my NRSV translation.

“But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The TNIV says “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.” The Living Bible calls Mary “confused and disturbed.” The Message says she was “thoroughly shaken.”

“Do not be afraid, Mary!” Whew, what a relief, Gabriel stepped in to fix her. In the world of angels, I don’t know how they qualify gender, but Gabriel is most definitely a man. “Just don’t feel that way, Mary.”

Yeah right. That approach didn’t work, which doesn’t surprise us women, so Gabriel fumbled on . . . “you have found favor with God.”

Which is what he said the first time—the very thing that set Mary off in the first place, and Gabriel repeated it. I’m not thinking Gabriel’s such a genius at this messenger business, but you’ve got to give him credit for improving. When Zechariah expressed apprehension, Gabriel struck him mute for nine months.

With Mary, he simply continued, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”

And I imagine this is the part of the story where Mary went from anxious to terrified. Sure, bearing children in that culture was an honor. If. You. Were. Married. Bearing a child out of wedlock? Unthinkable, unbearable.

Gabriel couldn’t stand to look Mary in the eye for the rest of his delivery: “And (gulp) you will, you will name him, J-Jesus. He will be great! And will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of your ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end . . .” Gabriel peaked at Mary . . .

“How can this be . . .?” The strangeness was palpable. The confusion in the air was so thick that Mary and the angel were holding their breath.

“Well . . . the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Gabriel stopped, and there was a long and terrible silence. How could he bear to return to the heavens if Mary said no? The whole redemption of the world rested on the success of this message, and her response. Yes, he fully believed that nothing would be impossible with God if Mary said yes . . . but what if she didn’t? What if it was back to the drawing boards? She looked so scared, so distraught . . . or at least, that was how she had looked last, when Gabriel’s eyes were still open. What if all that God had planned and hoped for the world was not yet to be . . .

He heard Mary shift and clear her throat. He shielded his face with his hands and peeked.

Her voice came out like a whisper, but it was stronger than any human voice he ever heard: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Gabriel was so excited he forgot to reply, and he darted away without another a word to make the announcement to the heavens: “She said yes!”

The angels threw a loud and rambunctious party that night. Mary sat at home in the quiet and pondered these things in her heart.

It is a mystery to us and to the angels what happened inside of Mary on that day—not just the holy conception, but also what caused the shift from anxiety to bravery. She grew a baby, and she grew courage, and I suppose the Holy Spirit was culpable on both accounts.

Perhaps Mary quit thinking about what this would mean for her, and was able to get a glimpse of what this would mean for the world.

Perhaps the coming of God into the world is too big of a thing to say no to, no matter how ill-equipped you may feel for the task.

Perhaps the coming of God into you is too bizarre and well, delightful, of a thing to reject, no matter what people might say about you.

The whole thing is just crazy enough to keep getting our attention year after year. And no matter what kind of year it has been, we arrive at this season, and call it what you will but something like the Spirit of God comes to us and we grow courage. Amen.