Monday, February 23, 2009

By Dr. Richard Guentert

Two of our four lectionary passages this week spotlight the story of Noah and the flood: Genesis 9:8-17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22.

I can seldom approach this ancient story without being reminded of the cartoon which pictures Noah’s Ark beached on the ice of Antarctica. Stranded on the frosty lip of the continent! Marooned aground on this expanse of white ice! Noah’s wife is standing beside him complaining stridently: “I told you that you should have sent forth the dove instead of that stupid penguin!!!” Much humor and wisdom have found their source in this rich story from the Hebrew tradition.

As we approach the text this week, our homiletical consideration needs to move beyond the question of “Did it really happen?” to an affirmation about the “multiple meaty meanings” that are encapsulated in this remarkable tale.

I would quickly acknowledge that some of its wording demonstrates a deficiency of scale. The covenant, according to verse 13 is “between me and the earth.” This raises an intriguing issue. What does it mean to hear this passage in light of a God of the whole universe? Since people of earth will eventually move to populate the planets, does the covenant extend to the reaches of interplanetary space? In order to make application to a people who will ultimately be living in a larger frame of reference, if not actually pioneering new realms beyond planet earth, we 21st century Christians (who know little of existence beyond terra firma ) stand on the verge of having to re-articulate much of our “earth centered” testimony about the nature of faith and the message of Scripture for a new time.

As we re-read this oft-told narrative many other thoughts, questions and concerns come to mind (each of which will shape the way we deal with this foundational text).

>> Is the flood story an abrogation of “the good” of the original creation? Or is the flood story God’s “new strategy” for re-creating a people who are willing to live in an obedient faith relationship with their Creator? Or is it a story that encompasses both of these truths?

>> In the Noah epic God’s creative work appears to have moved from populating the earth afresh, to re-populating the earth all over again. And is there a sense in which the new circumstances of each generation re-present us with this task of re-populating the planet (so to speak) with a fresh incarnation/embodiment of new life and innovative experiences of reconciliation?

>> Whatever the real dimensions of the flood, it covered the whole known world, of its story-teller. The author’s intent was obviously to connote both the dimension of the catastrophe, and the breadth of God’s act of ultimate salvation in the 15th verse of today’s text: “and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

>> This week’s lectionary segment, only part of the larger story, emphasizes the Compassion of God for both the human and the non-human creation.

>> The quality of what occurred in the concluding promise of Noah’s epic is, in many ways, a foretaste of John 3:16 … a portrayal of the kind of God who “so loved the [entire] world.”

>> This passage is ultimately about “covenant.” And covenants, by their very nature, require fresh signs and repetitive affirmations of them.

>> It is not insignificant that this covenant is God-initiated. Verses 9 and 11 both say, “I am establishing my Covenant.”

>> Verse 13 says that it is when the bow is in the clouds that we will be reminded of this covenant promise. In other words, it is in the “stormy” times that remembrance re-occurs. (Parenthetically, I just purchased a new Blackberry Storm …. with a GPS navigator function. My Blackberry, along with this passage, remind me that it is in the midst of the “storm” that I most need navigational assistance.)

>> In this story God seems to be shaping God’s own divine identity around being “a God who remembers covenant.” This engenders the insight that “being created in the image of God carries with it the obligation to be a people who keep on rehearsing/remembering the Covenant Relationship.”

The second lectionary text (I Peter 3:18-22) also depends on knowing the Noah flood epic. It tells us that following Jesus’ crucifixion his resurrected spirit visited those sinful scoffers of Noah’s flood-time warnings. The resurrected Spirit of Jesus “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark” (verses 19-20).

Many centuries after the flood story, we have again in First Peter the portrayal of a pursuing God’s compassion. Noah’s God is unwilling to let the drowned-deny-ers and the ark-scoffers soak in their sinful consequences. No! With the resurrection of Jesus, our Christ’s Spirit reaches back to rescue and redeem them, each one.

In what seems to be a stretch of “comparative effort gone amuck,” the I Peter text then notes how “eight persons were saved through water” [verse 20], (i.e. riding out the flood in a vessel of salvation, populated by 8 humans and a passel of animals.) And this, says our author, is a “prefiguring” of the Baptism “which saves us” (verse 21).

The waters of Baptism put our minds at ease (i.e. "a good conscience" in verse 21) . . . even as Noah and kin had some peace of mind in riding out the storm and being rewarded by the covenant promises of God. And if such a good outcome came to Noah, how much more can we, who believe in the resurrected Christ, trust in the covenant relationship and look forward to composed minds – tranquil and serene – calm with shalom and benefiting from the serenity of the Spirit?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Transfiguration Sunday

My apologies for those looking for a discussion about the gospel text but after preaching the Transfiguration every year of my 25 years in ministry, I’m taking a year off and going to the 2 Kings 2:1-12 lesson. I will offer this note however on the Transfiguration which could be described as a “Thin Place.” Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity, says Celtic Christians t described as “Thin Places.” those occasions where the veil is lifted and the truth about God becomes apparent. God is with us and around us all the time, but there are moments when you sense it more fully. Times in worship, nature, community, retreat and service can all become “thin places” for us and have a transfigurative quality to our spiritual journey.

I’m drawn to the Elijah/Elisha story because of the chariot of fire. (All the gear-heads will appreciate it if you point out that God is their kindred spirit because God invented such a spectacular vehicle). But the story isn’t really about the chariot or even Elijah’s mystical departure that allows him to be an eschatological figure who returns as John the Baptist and on the mount of Transfiguration.

The story is about transition. Folks kept saying to Elisha, “Don’t you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” I hear echoes in the church halls. “Soon all the ladies who cook the funeral dinners will be gone, then what?” “Don’t you know that the financial resources to the region have nearly dried up?” “Don’t you know that we are we are in dire need of theologically educated younger clergy?

I love Elisha’s response. “Yes, I know; keep silent.” That is “shut up” about the losses we will experience. Turns out that God is still on the job. Be silent and trust that God will provide.

Before Elijah mounts his sweet ride home, Elisha asks him for a double share of his spirit. A bold request! The spirit of Elijah carries on in his successor—God provides! During the ordination service in the United Methodist Church, candidates about to be ordained ask the retiring pastors for a double share of their spirit. At that point the retirees present the new pastors with a clergy stole—just like Elijah handing off the mantle. It’s a powerful service.

I’m wondering if there might be a way to incorporate something of that service into a Transfiguration service where an older generation will give a symbol of blessing to the younger folks. Before you object and say that the older folks still have a ministry too, I say, “Yes I know; be silent.” All who remain on this side of glory have ministry to do—that is our inheritance from Christ.

David Clark
Ankeny Christian Church

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Smoke, Lights, and Simple Misunderstandings

2 Kings 5: 1-14

I've chosen the Hebrew Bible reading this week because it deals with some things we all struggle with from time to time, things that may be of particular importance to our congregations during our current societal struggles.

In this story, Na'aman, a military commander of the Aramean army, has had great success; success which is credited to the God of Israel interestingly enough. But Na'aman also develops a skin disease which bothers him terribly. He has at his disposal an Israelite slave girl who seeks the best of her master and her master's husband. The slave girl hints that the prophet in Samaria could heal him.

Na'aman seeks out this prophet. Thinking that he's a royal court prophet, Na'aman sends lavish gifts (which we find are later rejected). And he sends a letter to the (here) unnamed king of Israel. The king misunderstands the letter as provocation for war, and so the prophet Elisha has to step in and clear up the matter.

Na'aman goes to Elisha, who tells him simply to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Na'aman is insulted by such a simplistic prescription. (He also doesn't understand that Elisha's direction comes from Yahweh, not from himself.) And so he storms away. But his servants wisely calm him down, get him to follow Elisha's instructions, and he is healed.

Now there are a few different possible hermeneutical possibilities with this text. Let's explore two of them here:

The Power of the Word of Yahweh vs. The Established Human Power
It's important to note that the king of Israel is unnamed. (See note below) Further, he lacks wisdom and insight into critical problem-solving. When Elisha goes and presents a solution, it's almost done in an in-your-face way to the king..."Let him...learn that there is a prophet..." The writer of Kings is setting up a conflict between the Word of Yahweh and the established, but inneffective king. In preaching, this could be explored under our current national/global context. Many people are now looking to their government(s) for help and rescue. But just like the unnamed king, our government(s) are often inneffective and unhelpful. The direction and provision of Yahweh is what should be trusted.
Note: It is likely the king of Israel is either Jehoram or Jehosephat...or possibly even both as they reigned together as father and son for five years before Jehoram completely took the reigns. But it is certainly intentional that he is here only referred to as "the king of Israel."

The Human Desire For Dramatic Actions
Na'aman was desperate for healing. And his actions speak of his desperation. Although his military victories are attributed to Yahweh, he doesn't really know Yahweh's character or expectations. When he goes to Elisha he's expecting some kind of big, showy, dramatic miracle. He's expecting pyrotechnics and chants and all sorts of business. But Elisha's prescription is simple and uncomplicated. We often look to God for great miracles. Whether we've lost our job, broken up our marriage, or like Na'aman acquired a disease or illness, we often expect a big showy miracle, an all-at-once solution, fire and smoke and lights. But often our healing, our restoration, our transformation, our solution, comes in following God's word faithfully, even in the things that seem simple, ordinary, and uncomplicated.

Dan Mayes

Monday, February 2, 2009

From Jesus to Paul to Walle

Feb 8th, Mark 1:29-39 and perhaps 1 Cor. 9-16

Sometimes with texts like these this week I have to first note the things that bother me or get in the way of hearing the gospel in between the words. So I like Marks story that seems to continue the previous stories attempting to prove that Jesus really is of authority and worth listening to by all. He both wants to be known by the hearers but seemingly wants to keep the Demons quiet about who he really is in this world. I guess that is what bothers me in this text... both the mix message and the whole link to "these demons." What or who are the demons? Are they just metaphores for the evil in our world or do they refer to those people we know are negative and hate all good in this world. Whatever it is that is meant it seems in this story its just a forshadow for things to come. Almost to let us know that there is something else coming in the story that we should keep watching for or in this case keep reading.

However, if we allow this to be a forshadow of things to come, then the basic story is that of another tale in which Jesus touches someone and they are healed. Sounds like a simple message and hardly worth a sermon but perhaps there is more. One could see this as a Jesus healing story and that would be true but it seems that it is also about the fact that as Jesus connects, touches or just meets someone they want to touch, connect or serve others. I think this is the message worth preaching on this week.

However, I saw this sermon in a movie a few weeks back. The movie was WALLe. It was about a robot whose whole job was to clean up after the mess we human beings created on earth. You will have to see the movie but in the end Walle is Jesus. He is the savior for all humanity! However, the way the story and Walle weave in an out of other robot's and people's lives you can see those individuals change. As Walle touches them, talks to them, or sometimes just as they watch Walle interact with others around them these people/robots are changed. They are changed in that they see things and people/robots that they never saw! They are changed because now they want to help others as Walle does for them.

Sure this text from Mark may well be just a little story to prove that Jesus has authority and power but I think it is more. It is about the way he will be our savior and in turn I believe how we should help heal others as well through our connections and relationships with them.

As far as the 1 Cor passage I think there is a link here as well. Paul sometimes seems to like to hear himself talk in nice flowery confusing spiritual language. Im not even sure I would like Paul if I met him and in truth I have met some people like him who seem to be all spiritual in the way they talk to others about everyday things. You know the kind who when you ask them to pass the butter they spend 5 minutes telling you how butter is like God in that it... well you know. However, Paul reveals to the reader that he sees himself as one who has been changed and therefore can do nothing else but pass the change on to others. He expresses this in that he is willing to be anything and go anywhere just to bring the goodnews he experienced to others. He is simply passing on what he has learned to the next generation. Paul was one of those people touched by (even if it was not directly) by Christ and he is now changed to the point that whoever he comes in contact with he changes them for the better. Its a big game of dominoes or like the movie WALLe -- when we experience love and acceptance we simply and wholistically want to pass it on to the next person.

Those are my thoughts on two of our texts for Sunday I hope it helps in your reflections this week.

Bill Spangler-Dunning