Sermons

Fifth Sunday of Lent

*Unfortunately, due to a recording glitch, no audio of this week’s sermon is available. The manuscript is below. 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 12:23-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 25, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Unless you die, you will not live. If you love your life, you will lose it. But if you hate your life, you get to keep it, which begs the question, why do you want to keep something you hate?

If you ask me, Jesus is shooting himself in the foot here. No one is going to buy into this flip-flopped philosophy where you lose what you love and gain what you hate. But that’s just the thing about Jesus—he’s not a bit perturbed if no one buys, because he isn’t selling. The Gospel isn’t a product up for purchase, and that frees Jesus from having to sprinkle it with glitter so it catches your attention. He just says it like it is, so that nothing short of the Spirit of God can move you towards it.

Nobody in their right mind buys into an outlook like this one. In the first place, it doesn’t make sense. In the second place, it doesn’t sound like a bit of fun. And while Jesus’ disciples were surely squirming uncomfortably at the sound of Jesus’ words, I reckon that what he said is even stranger for us 21st century Americans.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed the patch of dying cactus by the entrance to our labyrinth—white and gray and withering—but after the recent rains, there are now all sorts of other plant life pushing up through the rot—death being transformed to life right at our feet. But for the most part, this type of natural renewal stays in the peripheral for us modern folk, such that it is not only a challenge to relate to Jesus’ sayings about death; it is near impossible to relate to a kernel of wheat at all. What do we know of planting and harvesting? Jesus’ analogy isn’t helpful for people who buy their bread and veggies at HEB.

In our automobiles and air-conditioned buildings, we stay pretty far removed from nature’s cycle of life. We have buildings to shield us from the seasons. We have grocery stores to cushion us from agriculture. There are conveniences galore to absorb the shock of real life and hard labor, so we don’t have to feel things so acutely as our ancestors. We have machines and medications to artificially prolong life. And even in the face of death, we have gobs of entertainment to distract us from grief and make us feel invincible all over again.

What if all this self-imposed distance from pain and death cuts us off from knowing resurrection? What if we’ve blocked our view of regeneration? My friend Brett visited a primitive village in Southeast Asia where the native people don’t have trashcans, which is to say, they don’t have trash. At all. No waste. We would call that uncivilized—no technology, no gadgets, no appliances, no stuff. But no garbage either. That means nothing gets dumped forever. Nothing is discarded. Even dead bodies, I suppose, return to the ground and nourish it. Every single thing contributing to the cycle of life, nourishing the world even as it dies. Nothing pollutes life; everything feeds life.

Such a way of life is so entirely foreign to ours.  Resurrection has become scarce in modernity. We’ve nearly obliterated it from our line of vision. Jesus’ words about life coming out of death make little sense to us in our pell-mell, fast-food, factory-run world where we no longer plant our own seed and patiently watch for the life that slowly emerges from death. Ours is a world where we throw out our trash rather than reuse it; where we hide things in the attic rather than give them a second life. I am not saying our modern conveniences are evil, but I am suggesting they have stunted our capacity for imagining and believing in the power of resurrection. Sometimes I wonder if we do so much shopping in this country because our imaginations have been dulled—we’ve lost the capacity to create something new out of something old. So we throw out the old and rake in the new, and the overflow in our garbage cans and storage units wail in protest that our actual lives are, in fact, empty.

Resistance to death is, in part, due to a fear of time itself. If you are anything like me, time is often a tyrant that rules me and squeezes me dry, demanding my servitude and punctuality, wearing me thin. Of course we’ve nearly solved the problem of time. We have artificial light to prevent the coming of night, and caffeine to prolong the onset of sleep. All we lack is a machine that could delay the arrival of Monday morning, and we’d be set.

But if the sun never seems to set because the lamp is on, then we won’t notice the sunrise either, and once again, we have obscured our vision. Nature has its ways of reminding us that night brings morning, that winter turns to spring, that death results in rebirth. But I bought a lamp, an alarm clock, an iphone, and a bag of coffee so I am well on my way to defying the constructs of Time. I can beat this thing, I just know it. Unless, of course, Time wasn’t meant to be a problem to conquer but a gift to unwrap, surrendering myself to a Rhythm wiser than I.

Macrina Wiederkehr explains, “The ancients had a different relationship with time than most of us have. Time was not an enemy with which to do battle. For the elders of our historic past, time was more of a loving companion . . .They didn’t spend their lives trying to look eternally youthful. There was no such thing as anti-aging cream . . . dying was a celebration of life.”[1]

There are benefits to modern advances, to be sure, but there is also a dark side. We’ve little vision left for resurrection, and Jesus’ challenge to fall into the ground and die like a seed is a tall order for withered imaginations like ours.

When Jesus says we must hate “life in this world,” I think he is referring to what Charles Foster calls “the complex raft of support mechanisms we wrongly call our lives and think we need.”[2] We have schedules and planners that define us; gadgets, toys, and possessions that own us. There are the coping strategies behind which we hide from the truth about ourselves. There are the vanities and the violences we can’t seem to live without. None of these things are the “life” we gain if we follow Jesus. It will feel like death, pulling ourselves away from our treasures and crutches, but the end result is resurrection.

Easier said than done. We can’t just quit our jobs and walk away from all that is urgent. But we can die, bit by bit, day by day and find more of life along the way. Don’t ask me to explain it. I hardly understand it, but I trust it to be true. The only hope we have is that it worked for Jesus.

There is an age-old wisdom in Jesus words, but more than that, this is his testimony. Jesus is one who died like a kernel of wheat, and out of whom shot forth many seeds of righteousness. The one who gave up his life in order to gain life for himself and for the world. The one who was rejected by many but glorified by the Father.

The mystics tell us that we must be prepared to die if we want to live well. Someone once said, “It’s too bad dying is the last thing we do, because it could teach us so much about life.”[3] The poets tell us there is an art to dying; “we are dying to live,” said one, “all things are passing, moment by moment, birth to death. Take off that cloak of fear, the divine strength you seek is here.”[4] The Rule of St. Benedict instructs monks to keep death daily before their eyes. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “And if tonight my soul may find her peace, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”

But what about us normal folks who still fear death and suffer grief and are not capable of producing poetry as a way to age gracefully? Is this talk of preparing to die something for the artists and the mystics, but not for us? If it all sounds too morbid, if it makes you queasy, you are not alone. Jesus himself admits to a troubled soul when facing his death, and he says, the logical thing would be to beg for deliverance, to ask God to save him from this hour. But he defies the logical response to death, and instead faces it with willingness, with clarity, with bravery. Death is an enemy, yet it is the gateway to life. If the mystics learned this about death from anybody, they learned it from Jesus.

It is not that death can be magically transformed into something cheery and rosy, warm and bright. Death is as scary and ugly and painful and disorienting as ever, but we recognize that avoidance does nothing to help us to gain life. All the constructs we erect to pad ourselves from harm only insulate us from life, and Jesus says we are stone cold dead inside our beautifully maintained shells. The only way to find life is to stare death right in the face, and tell it straight, “Death, you are ugly, but you cannot obliterate beauty. You are strong, but you have no power. You bring pain, but you can’t eliminate joy. You are only a shadow, and the Light is bigger than you are. You will come one day, and I will surrender peacefully, but even still, you will not have the final word. I accept you, and that only makes Life all the sweeter.”

As a Wise One once prayed, Lord, “Robe me with wisdom. Enable me to be at home with impermanence. Teach me the dance of surrender. O make of me a great letting go. May the sacred emptiness of my life help others to know fullness. May I never fear a death that brings me life. Let me rejoice in the harvest of each dying day.”[5]

 


[1] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (Sorin Books 2008), 121-122.

[2] Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, The Ancient Practices Series, ed. Phyllis Tickle (Nelson 2010), 70.

[3] Robert Herford, quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr, 132.

[4] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, 125.

[5] Wiederkehr, 178.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 3:1-21

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 18, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

This text isn’t an easy nut to crack. The longer Jesus talks, the more confused Nicodemus feels. The more confused Nicodemus feels, the longer Jesus talks.  Honestly, this wobbly dialogue is a familiar pattern in the Gospel of John.

Jesus is always talking to someone, and the someones are often confused by his talking—be it the woman at the well, the disciples, the Pharisees. Nicodemus, however, is the guinea pig of John’s Gospel—the first one to approach Jesus and to hear those fateful words, “Very truly, I tell you . . .” followed by some strange sayings. Whatever Nicodemus was expecting. . . what he got was probably a surprise. But let’s not get ahead of the story just yet . . .

First off, can you imagine, Nicodemus—Pharisee, strict follower of the Law, a guy who has probably never done a rebellious thing in his life—sneaking off in the middle of the night to visit Jesus? He knows there are some in his rank who are suspicious of Jesus and some who downright fear Jesus is a threat to Judaism. But Nicodemus has a theory that this wonder-worker is from God. In fact, he must meet this Jesus for himself. Face to face. Man to man. He must go, not as an authority to question Jesus but as a true seeker. Of course, the other religious leaders would hardly agree with Nicodemus’ approach, so he decides to go secretly, quietly, cloaked by the cover of night. He sneaks through the city in the dark, trying not to be seen. “Good grief, I’m not committing a crime,” he whispers to his pounding heart, trying to no avail to reason with his fears. He practices his opening lines to distract himself from his growing anxiety.

When he is finally in front of Jesus, he delivers his lines without a hitch, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” To say this feels good, feels right. Nicodemus has been thinking and praying in turmoil about Jesus’ identity for weeks now, but as the confession exits his troubled mind, past his lips, and out into the open, he knows he has arrived at his conclusion. He half-expects to see a look of pleasant surprise in Jesus’ eye, maybe even a glint of pride.

Instead, he glances into Jesus’ eyes and detects sadness, and the reply is solemn: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God, without being born again.”

Nicodemus hadn’t really given much thought to what Jesus would say back, but somehow this feels all wrong. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even fit.

And this is the start of a messy dialogue in which Nicodemus never really gets answers, and Jesus, frankly, never makes a whole lot of sense. It begins to feel like a classroom with a teacher who is too smart for his own good. The perplexed pupil struggles to understand. The clever teacher thinks of just the analogy, but the analogy is equally complex, well over the pupil’s head. The longer the teacher talks, the more lost the pupil feels.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Jesus wants to communicate that knowledge about Jesus isn’t enough. Knowledge alone will not cut it, and I imagine that is why Jesus’ answer is so mysterious. If Jesus had explained things all straightforward and simple like, Nicodemus might have been tempted to think Jesus was just offering a bit of information—one more line for Nicodemus to add to his confession of faith, and then he’d have it.

But instead of explaining things, Jesus requires something so extraordinary that is seems literally impossible, entirely incomprehensible: to be born of the water and the Spirit, to be born again, to be born from above. Why, it is almost as if Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into an entirely different life, where the language is strange to your ears and the wind in your face is the very Spirit of God and everything is as new as when you emerged from your mother’s womb and the sheer mystery of utter newness is frightening. Nicodemus had come for a bit of understanding from the up and rising new Teacher—he hadn’t planned to enter a whole new world fraught with startling discoveries and upside-down logic.

“How can this be????” he stutters. This is the second time he has asked, and you can hear the frustration and bewilderment mounting in his voice.

“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Jesus shakes Nicodemus’ self-confidence in his position to the core.

Of course, Nicodemus doesn’t know it, but he is about to hear first-hand what will become perhaps Jesus’ most famous words—the line about how God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life . . . but, Jesus adds, “those who do not believe stand condemned.” And here is the kicker, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people have loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

Perhaps “people who love darkness” is only a general term Jesus uses for those who resist him. It seems more likely that Jesus is also referring specifically to Nicodemus’ own preference for darkness. Jesus noticed to the way Nicodemus snuck in to see him under the cover of night. Not only does Jesus suspect that Nicodemus fails to get it, Jesus thinks his arrival by night is proof. Nicodemus is curious about the Light, but he still prefers the dark.

Notice that nowhere in the story does Nicodemus repent. Nowhere does it say Nicodemus became a disciple. Nowhere does it say that Nicodemus dropped his baggage, abandoned his status, left his fears behind him, and followed Jesus. We are left to assume that he skulked right back home, heavy beneath the weight of Jesus’ words, but probably grateful for the cover of darkness to hide his shame.

I can relate to Nicodemus’ love for the cover of darkness. I too, am equally intrigued by Jesus. I find him engaging, I want to know more, I think he is obviously from God, someone I ought to know. But I would sort of prefer to hide my confession from the crowds. It is not Jesus who embarrasses me. It is some of the people who claim to love him too. There are those who are terribly misguided about what Jesus is actually like and those who are just downright frauds, and I don’t really want to associated with a one of them. Don’t get me wrong. If it were only Jesus and Jesus’ true followers that I would be associated with, I could handle the scandal. I could befriend Mary, the pregnant virgin, John the Baptist, the locust-eating desert-dweller, Mary-Magdalene who’d been healed of seven demons, Zacchaeus, who robbed the people but then gave it all back fourfold. If I befriend them, and people think I’m crazy, so be it. I can swallow my pride, knowing in my heart I’ve befriended some true disciples.

But then there’s everybody else—the fakes, the real kooks, the con-artists, the religious bigots, the politicians, the hate-mongers, the money-snatchers, the misogynists, the militant fundamentalists. I don’t know which group gets under your skin—if it’s the overly-emotional sort or the intellectually snobbish type, if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats or those truly outlandish Christians who object to voting altogether. There is some “Christian” group with whom we would like to avoid association.

It is not that we cannot strive for a distinctive faith that stands out from the general crowd of Jesus-fans, but saying that no matter how much we want to be entirely separate from the masses of supposed devotees and establish ourselves as the irrefutably genuine ones, we can’t. This is the mess we find ourselves in, and it is just the kind of mess that Jesus graciously wades through day in and day out. He walks among this whole motley swarm of confused, half-hearted, messed-up, wanna-be disciples, and to every last one of us, Jesus keeps offering grace and extending the invitation, “Come, follow me, step into the light.”

Personally, this drives me nuts. I want Jesus to give up on the frauds, at the very least. Also, I wish he’d abandon the hateful types altogether and perhaps send a blinding revelation to the uninformed type, something they couldn’t possibly miss or misunderstand. When it comes to faith, I want in, I really do, but I want them out. I don’t want us to share the same title of Christ-follower when I feel their lifestyle, their philosophy, and frankly, their status before God is so different from mine. But Jesus says I must step out into the light and throw myself in with the worst of ‘em, and I don’t like that. I’d rather skulk back into the night and nurse my faith in private. Of course, when I am my most honest, I know that there is always a bit of fraud, a bit of hate, a bit of ignorance inside me too . . . (but surely not on that scale. Surely not.)

The Jewish situation, of course, was quite different from our current American one, but still, I find Nicodemus to be a kindred spirit to my elitism. Nicodemus just cannot bear that he must emerge fully into the light. Leave the cover of darkness and thus risk his status, his position, his power. He wasn’t willing to throw himself in with the whole lot of uneducated sinners and so he sneaks back off into the cover of the night, not willing, not believing—at least, not believing enough to enter a second birth from above. Nicodemus passes up the chance for new life and heads back home, where people still respect him. However, the story doesn’t end here.

This isn’t the last that we hear of Nicodemus. He shows up twice more in the Gospel of John.

In chapter 7, the Pharisees send the temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards return dazed and empty-handed, saying of Jesus, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”

“You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retort in righteous anger. “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

Nicodemus is in the room. He hears his peers claim with confidence that not a one of them have believed Jesus. He hears the way they mock the ignorant crowd and call them cursed. His colleagues have drawn a line in the sand, but Nicodemus isn’t sure he wants to be on their side anymore, even if the other side is an uneducated mob. He ventures a defense, albeit a weak one, of the man Jesus, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” Of course, the rest of the room doesn’t know it, but Nicodemus has been to his own private hearing, and though he walked away, he apparently didn’t walk away with a sense of Jesus’ guilt. In fact, his own guilt has been weighing on him since that night, and perhaps it was there among his peers that he starts to feel fed up with his darkness and his hiding.

But we don’t hear about Nicodemus again until the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has just breathed his last. He hangs lifeless from a cross. The religious leaders have won. The mobs have been silenced and scattered. Even the disciples are huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders.

And who do you suppose shows up to care for the beaten, bloody, lifeless body? Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. And Nicodemus, who also believed in secret and who we thought never really became a disciple at all. The two scaredy-cats, who loved the secrecy of darkness, are the ones who come forward at the hour of greatest danger to do something for Jesus. Jesus, who is not even alive to thank them, reward them, bless them, or affirm their courage. It is not the people who loudly confessed their discipleship that show up here. Not the people who waved the palm branches and cried Hosanna. Besides for the women, it is just these two men who show up—two men who had been hiding all this time.

That means there is profound hope for the cowardly, for the uncertain, and for the hesitant.

Perhaps it was not until Jesus was raised up on the cross that Nicodemus finally fully believed, finally saw the Kingdom of God. In other words, respectable Nicodemus was born again, from above. Precisely at the moment in the story where things were as bleak and as incomprehensible as possible, Nicodemus finds his courage and enters the light. Most everyone thought the light had just been snuffed out, but Nicodemus didn’t care what they thought or worry about what they would do, and the new sensation of not-caring filled him with light during the world’s darkest hour.

When Nicodemus first paid Jesus a visit, Jesus had made the world sound pretty black and white: there is light and there is dark, there is condemnation and there is salvation, there is belief and there is unbelief, there is evil and there is truth. But Nicodemus walked away a mixed jumble of all those things, like a big mass of gray, indecisive and unclear, disbelieving his own belief. I don’t know if Jesus knew, right at that moment, that it would be Nicodemus who buried him, but I think Jesus knew Nicodemus would be back, that the darkness couldn’t keep him indefinitely. I think Jesus was sad to see him to go, but he believed, the same way Jesus believes it for all of us, that Nicodemus’ story wasn’t over.

I am utterly persuaded that identifying with Jesus is something we live into, bit by small bit. Sometimes we hide away in fear. Sometimes we swallow our fear and come out into the light, only to dart right back into the shadows. Sometimes our love for Jesus wins the day; other days our inner sense of superiority wins instead. Sometimes the light of revelation finally dawns on our wearied souls, and sometimes we are more confused than we can bear. But someday, somewhere, everyone around us will think the light has been snuffed out for good, and somehow we will be the ones who see Light all ‘round and we will say to ourselves, “Why, the world looks brand-new, like I’ve just been born, and this wind feels like God’s spirit against my flesh, and I am filled with Light.”

May the hope of Christ keep its hold on you until Light has dawned in every dark corner of your troubled soul. Amen.

Second Sunday of Lent

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 8:31-38

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 19, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

I once read about a woman whose nose had been cut off. She lived in a country where her husband belonged to a group the government considered subversive, so naturally, the government cut off her nose and she became a walking billboard, which read, “Don’t mess with us. Sincerely and emphatically, your government.”

In a similar way, during the year 6 CE, the Jews watched the Romans crucify two thousand Galilean insurrectionists—crosses lining the highway like graphic billboards announcing the fate of those who dared to defy the powers that be.

So when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” his disciples had seen such billboards with their very own eyes. The realities of violence and injustice hit close to home.

But how do we even begin to translate Jesus’ message when our noses are entirely safe? When a cross is something we find in the jewelry store, not in a torture chamber?

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” But if you’ve never been a prisoner, a conquered nation, or a spoil of war it is difficult to translate this saying from Jesus.

Still, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

For centuries, we’ve been mishandling this text. In our confusion, we’ve abused its meaning in all manner of ways. A battered woman is told to return to her abusive husband in the name of “bearing her cross.” One country takes up arms against another country, and on their banner of war, they put the sign of the cross. Other religions infringe on the dominance of Christendom, and the church claims it is being persecuted, rather than purified.

This little line from Jesus—“take up your cross”—is more troublesome than we like to admit.

It is confusing because our political situation is so different from the Jewish one. It is confusing because instruments of torture make for disconcerting religious symbols.

Peter wasn’t so happy about this cross business when he found out. Jesus announced that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and Peter wasn’t at all pleased. In fact, the news made his stomach churn with such anxiety, that he just knew this was all wrong and needed to be corrected. He had the audacity to rebuke Jesus—just imagine, scolding Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Peter’s arrogance and more to do with Peter’s gut-wrenching concern for the man he’d come to love. If Jesus died, all would be lost, surely.

Jesus rebuked Peter right back—just imagine, being called Satan by Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Jesus’ anger at Peter and more to do with Jesus’ gut-wrenching determination to stay the course and resist any temptation that would dissuade him from the work of redemption. Lest we get confused about what it means to live sacrificially, let us note this is not a picture of someone who loses self in order to meet the whims and pleasures of another. Jesus is one who clings tenaciously to his purpose, to his identity, to his calling, to his soul and releases with abandon his grip on life, on comfort, on personal gain. A sacrifice he chooses in strength, not a sacrifice he succumbs to in helplessness.

Which is all well and good for Jesus, but then he continues the call to us as well. “If any of you wants to be my disciple, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Peter has been silenced, I suppose, after the rather sharp rebuke from Jesus, but I wish he would speak up again and voice what we are all thinking, “What on earth does that mean???” By this point in Christian history, Jesus’ words may be so familiar that they don’t disturb anymore, but if you had seen with your own eyes the thousands of crosses stretched along the highway, positioned there by the Romans to put fear in your heart, these lines from Jesus would not be lyrics you put to music, singing along with your hands raised, drunk on devotion. These are the kind of words that sober you right up, punch you in the gut, knock the breath out, make you vomit.

I tried, this week, to face the reality of what Jesus’ words were really saying, and I have to admit, it didn’t go so well. Let me explain.

First of all, I have a strange bond with Scripture. The intrigue and the mystery of the Holy Book captivate me. Whereas some people shy away, the confusing parts compel me to explore further. I probe the depths of Scripture, and she digs around in my soul. I am playful with her, but my imaginings lead me to life-altering discoveries. I am also quite serious with her—I am not afraid to ask her my most difficult questions. I trust her to take the heat. I expect her to respond. I depend on her faithfulness, that she will not reject me no matter what I bring to the text.

But like any relationship, the passion is hardly consistent. Some days the fire fuels me with life, and I think my collision with Scripture is the best thing that ever happened to me. Some days the fire burns me, and I think there’s no way this relationship is going to last. Sometimes we fight. She makes me angry—she demands something I don’t want to give, or, even worse, she refuses to make herself clear. I become convinced she is playing games with me and I have played the fool. Sometimes I just know that she has betrayed me.

God knows I have betrayed her. At times, I leave her. Eventually, I always return, because I don’t know where else I’d go. Sometimes the reunion is sweet and tender, like a blooming garden after the rains. Sometimes I return and everything around us feels flat and lifeless, like a shriveled up plant after the drought, and we just hold hands and weather the rest of the dry spell together.

This whole affair got all the more intense when two of us decided to take up preaching. We made a pact together to create sermons for the people, and I said, “Look. No more funny business from you. It’s not just me getting burned anymore when you decide to be all ambiguous. There’s a whole group of people who need us to work.” And Scripture retorted, “No more funny business from you either. It’s not just me who will feel rejected if you wander off. There’s a whole group of people who need us to stay faithful.” I said, “Oh dear! Maybe we shouldn’t even try . . .” She rolled her eyes, “Don’t be such a wimp.”

Jesus, apparently, had been eavesdropping, because he piped in out of nowhere, “I would have used a nicer word than wimp, but I am calling you to this, and the only way this tumultuous relationship is going to work is if you let me help.”

“Why is that man always right?” we grumbled and then we sighed, “Okay, okay. Sign us up. We’re going to be a preacher.”

We’ve been getting along rather nicely ever since, to tell you the truth. Until this week, and I don’t know if was her fault or mine, but when we sat down to sermonize, there was no chemistry. I opened her up and read Christ’s words and Peter’s rebuke over and over, and suddenly felt as if I had no idea what it meant to carry your cross. It was in no way an unfamiliar text, but it was as if all the meaning had drained away and I was looking at something foreign. I stared at Scripture, unblinking, for a very long time, “Say something already.” She stared right back in defiance, “I already did. My words have been right here for centuries.” I gritted my teeth. “You know what I mean. Come alive. Move me. Change me. Show off a little so I can catch hold of something preachable.” She gave me the silent treatment.

Finally I gave up on her and sent a text message to a preacher friend of mine. “I am numb to the text this week,” I confessed, “And I don’t know how to snap out of the numbness.”

My preacher friend was more sympathetic to me than Scripture had been, that’s for sure. She was compassionate, and then she said, “The goal isn’t to snap out of the numbness.”

“Okay,” I replied, “can you remind me what the goal is then?”

She said, “You are being taken to a place you don’t want to go, like Peter, and that is where you are being asked to preach from.”

I reread her response about five times. “How did you know that was the text I was preaching on, the one about Peter?”

She didn’t know.

Also, she added, “Your goal is to be carried.”

This whole time I am trying to figure out what it means to carry my cross when I don’t live under Roman occupation, what it means to lose my life but find my soul, what it means to forfeit the world and gain Christ, what it means to take up my cross when there are so many swirling ideologies of what it means to be Christian in a country like this one. And the point, the real point, all along was that Jesus carried a cross first, and in carrying his cross, he carries me. The road through pain or numbness, suffering or death is no longer a lonely one or an impossible one. It is pain defined by the hope of resurrection. Jesus can say, “Follow me,” because he went first and made it possible.

 

I went back to the Scriptures. She had a wry grin. “You’re ornery,” I said.

“Jesus put me up to it,” she protested, but I could tell she was pleased with herself.

“Yeah, but He probably didn’t tell you to be so stubborn about it.”

“Oh, never mind that. You still wanna be a preacher?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“Me too.”

“Well, looks like we’re stuck with each other for a good long while then.”

“Looks like it. Welcome back.”

Beloved of God, the season of Lent is a rude awakening the knocks the breath out of us year after year. Like a glaring billboard, reminding us that the way of Christ is riddled with more sorrows than we have the courage to face and the roadway is littered with ugly scenes that will hurt. But Christ is up ahead, and his determination is all we need. When we protest that this cannot be the way, Jesus will call us out for our devilish notions, and then gently remind us that our job isn’t to trudge along but to be carried. He went first, so that we could make it. Our responsibility is to resist running off and to wait for the rescue. To deny ourselves that urge to run and hide but to look ahead instead to where Jesus is paving a course. We are not alone.

The Son of Man must suffer and die. The Son of Man will rise again, and we will rise with Him. Praise be to God. Amen.

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