Monday, March 31, 2014

Then and Now

John 9:1-41
I don’t know why I think it is ironic that the Sunday when scripture is about Jesus spitting in the dirt, making mud and slathering it on a blind man’s eyes that that very same week in Oso, Washington 26 people are dead and 90 unaccounted for due to a massive mudslide.  I suppose I was thinking mostly about the curative effects of mud but now it doesn’t seem so relevant with this latest news in Washington State.  Mud doesn’t seem so curative now, in fact it’s shown it’s deadly face.  What once was homes and lives are no more.

I am not one to believe that things happen for a reason because things, particularly acts of nature like earthquakes, tsunami’s, hurricanes, tornados, mudslides, just happen due to very unfavorable weather conditions.  And while we might receive some insight in time from these horrific events, God didn’t make these things happen to teach us a lesson.  What kind of God would that be?  It just seems that this mudslide will be a defining moment certainly with the people’s whose life was lost and unaccounted for and those who will need to live into a new reality.  Once there were homes but now there are not, once there were lives but now there are not.

Living into a new reality is sometimes a good thing and sometimes an unpleasant and sad thing.  Sometimes we ask for it and often times we don’t.  But the fact is our realities can and sometimes change on a dime, which is what happens in today’s lectionary reading.     
Barbara Brown Taylor refers to this scripture from John about the man born blind as “a one act play in six scenes with a large cast of characters.”[i]  Indeed it is another lengthy piece of scripture with many twists and turns and people to keep track of.  The miracle of Jesus giving sight to a blind man with mud is told four times throughout this passage so I’m not going to read the entire passage today as you have printed in your bulletin but selected passages.     

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Let’s break here for a minute or two to digest what has happened.  By now Jesus is in Jerusalem and has just come from the temple and he’s walking along with his disciples who happen to see a blind beggar.  They’re curious, they want to know who sinned, the man who was born blind or his parents.  Back then sin was equated  with suffering, that if suffering happens it must be on account of some sort of sin or wrongdoing or wrong living that has occurred with the sufferer. 

But that’s old theology and we should be uncomfortable with it because we know we can produce a very accurate physiological explanation for this man’s blindness.  And blindness doesn’t necessarily produce suffering. However we do, I think, want to explain away suffering and give blame to some thing or some one, it relieves the bigger questions of why, why me? So sin cannot be the scapegoat for suffering. This is not the case here either.  Jesus says straight away that it wasn’t sin that caused his blindness but that he was born blind so that God’s works could be revealed in him.  

This, of course, is also a curious and dangerous statement for us to ponder.  What kind of God would promulgate natural disaster or blindness in order to reveal glory?  The Washington mudslide didn’t happen because they needed to have God’s glory revealed to them.  And blindness or any other sort of otherness is not an ethical deficit in one’s being, which needs God’s glory revealed to make it right or acceptable. God doesn’t need these things to disclose glory.  A simply sunset, a warm bowl of soup from a friend, a spring flower after a snowy winter shows us that God’s magnificent grace is with us.

Let’s move on picking up with verse 8….

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

Enter inquisitive neighbors, I’m sure you’ve known a few. They new him only as that blind man who used to sit and beg from them.  At least some of them did because they dispute between themselves as to whether it was really him, others didn’t think it was him but an imposter.  But he reassures them, “I’m your man!”  And again, a retelling of the miracle.  Mud was spread, he washed at Siloam and then received his sight.  His witness does not waver.  But somewhere between the first miracle and the retelling of it Jesus vanishes.  He’s gone for a while.  It’s been said that this is the longest passage or disappearance of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  So it gives the man time to tell his story yet another time.

Continuing in verse 13……

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
So the tides change in this part of the passage.  The sighted man was brought before the “Grand Jury” of Pharisees and he is assaulted with questions.[ii]  The who, what, where and why sorts of questions and the man sticks to his story, it never wavers.  Unfortunately the Pharisees could care less about this man seeing for the very first time in his life. Perhaps that sweltering middle eastern sun was harsh on these newly sighted eyes.  But they didn’t care how it felt or what he saw.  

The Pharisees go after Jesus.  He is the ‘greater’ sinner, public enemy numero uno.  His crime?…not keeping the Sabbath holy.  He couldn’t possibly be God’s representative because he healed on the Sabbath which was a BIG no-no.  They are out to get him.  But they still were hesitant in believing the man’s testimony even when he tells them that Jesus was a prophet so they call in the man’s parents.

And finally at verse 18

The people did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

And so the parents won’t answer for their son, he’s old enough to answer for himself.  He can’t answer their question of whether Jesus is a sinner, good for him, he’s not going down that slippery path.  All he does say is that he can testify to the best of his knowledge that though he was blind, now he sees.  They taunt this man’s knowledge and testimony and determine him to still be a sinner.  Eventally they drove him out. 

Then and now, though I was blind, now I see.  This is a defining moment in this man’s life; his former life ends and he had to embrace a new life that had been given him.  A life of sight, of vision, of beautiful landscapes, of color, of belief, of faith because he had been transformed through the grace of God manifest in the miracle of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ identity reveled that day.

This is quite a story.  The moment and act of conversion, or going from blind to sighted is not as important as the difference it made in this man’s life.  It wasn’t the miracle itself but the aftermath of the miracle.  He can’t explain this miracle to the Pharisees but he can tell the difference it makes in his life, all he knows is that he could see.  This man has the courage to tell his story four times, to say what he knows, to speak truth to the power of God’s healing grace in his life when, on a dime, his life changed.  The difference in his life was vision and a profound vision and hope for life itself and it’s infinite possibilities.

Have you ever had a crucial moment or a critical juncture in your life when you were lost, when you were metaphorically blind, when you no longer could see the light of day or feel the warmth of the sun and then all of a sudden something changed and you could see?  You could see a new reality; a wrong that is in need of righting, a hurt that is in need of reconciling, a way of life that is in dire need of correction?  That’s God’s miracle of grace working in you.  That’s what this text is all about.  Realizing that a life in Christ can give you vision, and hope to go on even when you, yourself cannot.  Blind to sighted.  Depressed to encouraged.  Mud-soaked to verdant. 

If you are in need of hope and vision, and you aren’t quite there yet, this story of grace and love is for you.  It is the story of our faith revealed to us as many times as it needs to take place, until it finds a place in your heart.

I once was blind, but now I see.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Tale of Two Heretics”, Home By Another Way, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 1999.
[ii] IBID. p. 741 Kindle edition.

 Pastoral Prayer

O holy one, full of grace and mercy, are days are filled with unmet expectations, hurt too deep for words, and sometimes darkness that defies light.   So we come to you with open hearts begging for your reassurance and love.   We sing out praises to you and seek your divine care and guidance for our lives.  Hear us, we pray, for our intentions are earnest and we place our trust and faith in your hands.  Send your holy spirit to be upon us now as we bring before you the joys and concerns or this, your gathered congregation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Water When You Need It

John 4: 1-42
Pastor Fred Phelps, founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas died this week.  If you don’t know who he is, Pastor Phelps and his flock, mostly family members are known for virulent anti-gay protests at events, funerals, and military funerals.  He preached hatred unbridled under the guise of Gospel, in my opinion.

He once told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “If I had nobody mad at me what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?" Under Phelps' leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God's punishment for the country's acceptance of homosexuality.[i]  That hits close to home. Really Pastor Phelps?  That is just not how I understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Your ministry did not reflect, in my opinion, the inclusive invitation of Jesus.

You don’t hear many prophetic, pushing the envelope sermons from me, I’m usually a bit more pastoral in my approach but today you will because it is what is on my mind and heart and it intersects with today’s proscribed text from the lectionary.  So here we go.
He Qi

We have for our consideration today a very long text.  I probably could have spent all of Lent on this beautiful text of restoration, witness and hope. Referred to often just as ‘The Samaritan Women at the Well’, it pours out redemption and love for us to consider.   I’m going to start at verse 1 because it really sets up why Jesus happened to wonder off the path and wind up in foreign territory and why this story is so important to the witness of Jesus Christ.  I’ll also be stopping with some explanation along the way to break up the reading.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

It’s notable that he stopped in Sychar because Sychar (today Hebron) was a Samaritan city and a Jew wouldn’t have been caught dead in Samaritan territory and especially in the middle of a hot day making a stop.  There was a long-standing hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans because of their differences in cultic and religious understanding and practice.  It would have been dangerous for Jesus to expose himself like that.  But he does and in doing so he cultivates a new witness that we will see.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Unlike Nicodemus from last week’s scripture who comes at midnight, this woman comes to Jesus in broad daylight which also could have gotten her in trouble.  Unlike Nicodemus who was religiously well bred, an insider and a male with a name, this woman was an outsider on several levels, a female without a name that has been recorded.  But this woman has chutzpah!  She challenges Jesus to a theological debate and ultimately his authority, she is not passive by any means yet she recognizes her limitations.  And yet Jesus, God bless him, he lets go of created social barriers that enforced human division in his day.

Unlike Nicodemus this woman recognizes what Jesus can provide her with, she see’s his identity.  What’s interesting is that Jesus comes to the well unprepared, he has no bucket, no visual aid to help us understand the difference between the water in the well and living water.  And yet she gets it, and hopefully we do too. The woman doesn’t need a bucket to fill with the living water that Jesus offers, she needs an open heart and a willingness to accept that which Jesus offers.  They both were thirsty that day and I believe both were quenched from their encounter.

This is one of the longest conversations that Jesus has that is recorded. And we see that the story hasn’t ended yet.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

It is here that his divine nature is really revealed, she knows he is a prophet with the things he has told her about herself, her former marriages, her current situation.  And we also see their differences- that her ancestors worshipped on Mt Gerizim in Samaria and Jesus ancestor’s worshipped on the mount in Jerusalem but those Jesus says, who worship the true God will neither worship on Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem but in true spirit and energy because God is spirit, and God is love.  She becomes a believer that blistering midday at the well.  Living water and spirit.  This divine aha moment however is interrupted…. 

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him….

…Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This woman, of insignificant beginnings, becomes a witness for Jesus’ miraculous mercy and healing.  She has been given a drink from the well of living water, Jesus Christ. What was her unquenchable thirst and her questionable status came to an end. Jesus met her in her most vulnerable state and took what she was offering which was an open heart and she in turn received acceptance, forgiveness and clean, refreshing, rehydrating, life giving and life informing water to drink.

This is a good text if you’ve ever doubted your identity, if you’ve ever doubted that you are worthy of God’s love because what this text shows is that everyone, EVERYONE, is worthy of that incredible love.  It shows us that we are acceptable in God’s sight just the way we are, warts and foibles invited!  We don’t have to be the best or the greatest or the smartest to earn God’s love.  We don’t have to be a certain color or a certain gender or sexual orientation to receive grace.  We just have to be who we are and, like Jesus meeting the woman at the well, we will be met with wide open acceptance.  All we have to do is show up and we too will be met at the metaphorical well and be filled with the living water of Christ.

But the woman takes it one step further and we need to as well.  She goes out and tells other people of this transformation of her life.  That she is no longer a nobody tossed of and swept away by society.  She is a somebody, included into the fabric of life rather than excluded. As theologian Brian Blount says, “This thirsty man (Jesus) who was the source of living water provided the model and the modus operandi for letting go of division”.[ii] Through his acceptance of this woman he shows us the way to inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.  Isn’t that the God we all want and desire?  Don’t we all want to be included in God’s merciful love?  And doesn’t God want union rather than separation?

Can’t we share this really great news with others, can’t we let others know that they too can come and be accepted and cared for just the way they are?  The church has that potential.  We have that potential as a community who loves one another.  There is no room for prejudice in the church.  The church can be that well, offering living water, offering hope and a place of acceptance to all people from whatever path they have taken to get here.  Let us not be even one iota like Pastor Phelps congregation spewing hatred.  The Samaritan woman was not turned away from the well and no one should be turned away and feel as if they can’t come to church because of who they are by nature and grace.  And no ones funeral, the final most sacred act in life that we can give to another should be tainted with hate.  

The well of God’s love is deep and you will be able to get water when you need it.  There is plenty for all.  The well never runs dry there is enough sustenance for everyone.  Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight. God’s love is unbelievably wide, non judgmental, sacred, and all encompassing.  May we emulate God’s love today so that all may drink from the well of salvation, and affirm each person’s living as a beloved child of God.

For God so loved this world.

[i], Daniel Burke.
[ii] Brian K. Blount, Living the Word in Christian Century Magazine, March 19, 2014 edition.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Gestating Christians Awaiting Rebirth

John 3: 1-17
What does Rollen Stewart and Tim Tebow have in common?
Well, Rollen “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, or the Rainbow Man, donned a rainbow colored wig and began showing up at sports games in the late 1970’s and 1980’s with a sign that read, 
“John 3:16”.  That was after he became a born again Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

And of course Tim Tebow was a quarterback who played for the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in the National Football League.  Quite a football player winning the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and quite the evangelist sporting the words and numerals, “John 3:16” on his eye-black. 

John 3:16 is iconic!  John 3:16 is a pulpit classic!  Even non Christians know John 3:16, let’s say it together the King James way, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  For as beloved as this verse is to Christians it also has the ability to divide us Christians because what precedes John 3:16 is John 3:1-15 with a lot of talk about being ‘born again’.  And you know that those two words, born again, are loaded like a baked potato from the Maine exhibit at the Big E.

Let us now listen to the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus from the Gospel of John from where the phrase born again is taken.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is a rich and provocative piece of scripture for our reflection this morning and has, as I  mentioned earlier, divided us Christians because, let’s face it this passage has been used to condemn others.  Born from above and born again are really synonymous. For some people being born again is a way to determine someone’s salvation.  “Are you born again?” is a question that is asked by some meaning really, “Have you been saved like me?”  It’s, in some minds, a way of separating the goats from the sheep, the real Christians from the fake ones, the Bible thumpers from the quazi religious, the ‘thems’ and ‘uses’.

For other people (let’s face it, us UCCer’s) being born again is a way to determine a religious fanatic and evangelical with a capital E.  Neither way is helpful because they just perpetuate stereotypes within our own community and I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended for his little village of believers.  The fact is this scripture is universal, it’s for all of us conservatives, moderates, and liberals; the truth that lies therein is for all Christians. 

There was a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who comes to Jesus at night.  Curious isn’t it?  He already believes to some extent that Jesus is not your usual Rabbi but one who was from God.  We’re not sure why he came at night but we do know that he was in that metaphorical state of darkness, of misunderstanding, of not being able to recognize what Jesus was really offering.  And yet we also know that he was a learned man born once into human form, into the traditions of Judaism, and into the Pharisaic life. 
So he wonders out loud, what would being born a second time look like?  He asks those rather silly questions for us.  How can you be born again, isn’t once is enough?  How can you really enter your mother’s womb again only to come through that birth canal another time?  I’m much larger now.  He’s trying to understand, to discern what Jesus was all about.  Nicodemus is in the gestational phase of his faith, his formational period where he is given a chance to understand life in a much different way – the Jesus way.  

It’s time for Nicodemus to come through the spiritual birth canal, through the waters of the womb and to be reborn to life once again.  ‘Jesus says that to be born from above is to be born of the Spirit and to be born of the Spirit is to believe in Jesus and in believing in him is to have eternal life.’[i]  John 3:16. Looks like Rollen Stewart and Tim Tebow have something on us here. 

They have been born again and they are telling us so.  They have come through the waters and have been birthed from above.  They are enthusiastic believers in Jesus Christ as the one who saves.  And don’t we all want to be saved?  Don’t we all want to be loved, accepted, forgiven and met with grace abundant, saved from our own aimlessness? 

The fact is we are all in our gestational phase of faith, we are seekers looking to have a better life, a larger understanding of God.  When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born again by water and the Spirit he is really asking Nicodemus to let God be in his life, to let the Spirit guide him and work through him.  To be born again from above is to leave the darkness and to come into the light of life in Christ.

It is to break through from unbelief to belief, from a life that is judgmental and closed to new beginnings and a life that is abundant with possibility.  Yes, it’s painful leaving the womb chasing after that new life but the birthing will be well worth it.  Being born yet again from above is to know there are certain truths by which we can live.

That when you are feeling inadequate with insufficient means and ways to accomplish what must get done in your life, Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

That when you are feeling alone and dejected and far, far away from God and home, Romans 8:39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels or rulers, things present or things to come…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

That when you suffer through those absolutely miserable moments in your life, Romans 8: 3-4 “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”  You see I can be a Bible thumper too!  Because it’s all true.

The fact is being born from above, living a life with God at its very core, is what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus.  When you have these truths within you then you live and see differently and this sets you free from these worldly worries to a life that is beautiful, both here and in the great beyond.

For God so loved….and loves you to the end.


[i] George W. Stone in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2

May the road rise to meet you,

may the wind be ever at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and the rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Despair and the Quick Fix

Matthew 4: 1-11
Jesus could have gone for the quick fix.  That’s what the devil was offering him when he tempted Jesus out in the dry and forbidden wilderness.  All of the testing and temptations spewing out of that devilish mouth were merely contrived remedies that offered immediate relief to Jesus.  They were ways that he could have alleviated all of his problems, and those of the entire world for that matter, if not forever, at least for the time being. 

We don’t know to what depth that the human Jesus had been tempted, there were no witnesses in Matthew’s Gospel account.  We do know that he was tested mightily and that he chose God.  He placed complete obedience and dependence on God at a time when he could have taken the path of least resistance and gotten so much more.

You see Jesus had just come up from the Jordan where he was baptized as God’s beloved son and filled with the Spirit.  Then, he was whisked away by the very same Spirit into the wilderness.  A test?  So soon?  But that’s what happens, living a faithful life means that there will be a wilderness or two and tests along the way, maybe not so blatant as in this Gospel but they are there.  Jesus was no exception.

Then, HaSatan, the Satan arrives in the wilderness too, alongside of Jesus.  He comes across as Jesus’ friend, so offering a bite to eat to a famished Jesus was the most natural and first thing that a friend, I mean, the Devil could conjure up.  “Food, glorious food”, as the boys and Oliver liked to sing in the play ‘Oliver Twist’.  All that if only Jesus you turn this stone into bread.  ‘Hot sausage and mustard!’ cries Oliver. 

Why Jesus you could turn all of these stones into plenty of loaves and alleviate hunger throughout the world!  Think about it.  Knowing Jesus’ heart and his penchant toward social and economic justice this would have pleased him.  But as it is written, Jesus says, bread is not the only thing that keeps us strong, God’s word gives us just as much sustenance for our living.

Then, from the wilderness Jesus was whisked to Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple.  Hundreds of people would have been milling around the temple, the temple is a large place and it was THE place to be.  Standing on the pinnacle Jesus would have been in sight of thousands of Jerusalemites and the devil says to Jesus, ‘If you really are the Son of God, like you claim to be, go ahead and jump, throw yourself to the wind!  There’s nothing to worry about, angels will come to your rescue and ever so gently catch you so that not even you foot will touch the ground.’ 

But the devil was no publicity agent and Jesus didn’t need a life defying stunt to prove anything.  Jesus said, ‘Don’t test God’. ’  The second quick fix that Satan offered was halted, but he had one more up his devilish little sleeve.

The final test was concerning his power and authority.  ‘Jesus,’ the devil calls out, ‘you can have it all; all the kingdoms of the world will bow down to you all you have to do is to worship me.’  Now honestly, this was a good offer.  I’m sure there were plenty of people, Jesus too, who wished the end and destruction of the Roman occupation of first century Palestine.  To live as an oppressed people only breeds despair and anger; a sense of helplessness that perpetuates itself from one generation to the next.  Jesus had a chance to change all that just by dropping to his knees and worshipping HaSatan.  But NO!  Jesus states, ‘I worship God and serve only God.

Dashed three times the devil, goes away and Jesus was ministered to by angels.

Jesus was offered some pretty hefty and substantial quick fixes to his very real and distressing problems.  He was in the wilderness and needed sustenance, the very thing that the devil was offering.  How easy it would have been to turn even just one little pebble into a morsel of bread.  But Jesus resisted and relied heavily on God for sustenance in this desolate place. 

Jesus could have come back a hero to all of Palestine vanquishing the Romans but he chose to worship only God.  Jesus yells out ‘Stop this testing….it’s God, it’s all about God, God will give me nourishment, God will give me power to overcome adversity, and it’s God who will be my advocate.  Don’t test God.’   

Extraordinary faith Jesus displays in the most despairing of situations.  He was not seduced by the devil’s offer to make it all better quickly.  And clearly, by now, we and the reader’s of Matthew’s Gospel know that Jesus is the son of God.

We know that quick fixes are tempting when we are living in despair and we are at our most vulnerable.  It’s always easier to take the path of least resistance when our defenses are down and anything bright and shiny beckons our eye towards our liberation from our place of desolation.  A plug in a deflated tire until you get to the garage.  A new washer in a very old faucet.  Duck tape holding the hem of your pants ups.  A get rich quick scheme in times of recession and so on and so on.  Tempting. Enticing. Testing.    

When we are at our lowest is when our faith in God has the greatest potential to be tested.  Because it’s here we have our doubts, fears and we begin to question our human faith.  We wonder, we worry, why does it hurt, when will I be able to see the light?  That’s when quick fixes look really good.  Quick fixes endeavor to overshadow our faith and block our vision and sight of God, the one who loves us tremendously and who has promised never to leave us. The Lord says in the Book of Hebrews, “Never will I leave, nor will I forsake you”.(Hebrews 13:5).  We are not alone.

Lent is now upon us.  It begins in the wilderness, a somber and a deserted place.  It is a place where the days are long and lonely, the sun beats down upon a parched earth.  The wilderness is a place where the nights get cold and there is no light, no fire to keep you warm, and no food to fill your belly. 

It is here that we are invited to join Jesus, to come out of the wilderness and be on our way to Jerusalem and the cross with him. You might be reluctant but it’s almost as if he is extending his hand to ours and gently pulling us onto the dusty path.  He’s saying, ‘I’ve been there too, still, come, it’ll be alright’.  He knows of our suffering and pain, our temptations and resistance.  But his grip is firmer because he is with us on this journey, he is after all, God’s beloved. 

What are the tests in your journey of faith?  What, in your story of life, is of greatest concern to you?  In which areas are you tempted to find a quick fix rather than relying on God to help you alleviate your distress and despair?  Lent is the time to examine it all. 

Walking the Lenten walk.  Talking the Lenten talk will take you on an expedition into and through the wilderness.  It will separate us from other people because it will jolt us from our comfortableness and world of quick fixes and into the unknown.  It will not be unknown for long though.  Relying on God doesn’t mean doing nothing.  It means putting your full faith in God that what you are doing will bring you up and into the light of joy and hope all the while being held closely and lead by Jesus.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

After the Dazzle

Matthew 17: 1-9
We are quite a few weeks into the New Year and the liturgical season of Epiphany is finally coming to a close.  It began with a bright star in the sky leading the magi to Jesus and the epiphany of who this tiny little guy was, and then we hear stories of healing and hope during Jesus’ ministry.  Epiphany also ends with the transfiguration, another revelation about Jesus and a time when light plays a large factor in the story. Hear now the transfiguration story from the Gospel of Matthew the 17th chapter.      

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain, apart, by themselves.  We so often see this, when Jesus wants to get a little R & R or some think time or to be in prayer, he’ll separate himself and a few of his disciples from the daily grind.  But this time was clearly different than the other times. No sooner had they reached the top than something really very unusual happened, an epiphany!

Jesus transfigured; his appearance changed right before their very eyes with dazzling white clothes, whiter than any white possible than you can imagine.  And with Jesus were the prophets Elijah and Moses from of old. Some scholars equate Jesus’ transfiguration to the revelation of the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, the text we heard earlier this morning. 

Then Peter tries to engage Jesus in conversation, saying that he would build three little huts for them.  Silly Peter, he just didn’t know what to do, how to act, what to say, he and the others were very afraid of what was happening in front of their very eyes.  We would be unnerved too, perhaps even rendered speechless, if such a vision happened to us.

And then, a familiar voice broke through this mystical experience, ‘This is my Son the beloved, I am pleased with him so listen to him.”  This happened once before at Jesus’ baptism, and they fell to the ground, dumbstruck and afraid. God spoke also to Peter, James and John.  God breaks into the world of human existence and reveals to them what had been hidden from them, or what they failed to understand about Jesus. 

Jesus is God’s beloved son and that we must listen to him if we are to find a way to live.  But you know the disciples still had questions, we know that because they continue to ask them throughout the Gospel.  Even though they had been to the mountaintop with Jesus, when they returned to the trenches of life, they had questions. 

I think for many of us who have been to the mountain top and have seen or experienced something beyond our wildest imagination, like our friend Peter, we just don’t know what to say.  Reasoned thought takes a vacation and speech goes on hiatus.  We just know that we have been dazzled by the divine light and things are different.  We’ve had a ‘God moment’, a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment. 

And those moments are wonderful, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just that they wind down and eventually come to and end.  And coming down the mountain is rough terrain.  It’s here that we realize that life is not lived in the highlands but is really carefully played out in the wadi, the dry riverbeds of our living.
It is here that the babies cry from colic, the bills pile up far too high, the dishes remain dirty in the sink, the homeless sleep in cardboard boxes under I 95 and the elderly are forgotten.  It is here that we feel we are in dead end jobs, or less than thrilling relationships, or stuck in a game of boredom that takes up way to much of your waking day.  We know these all too well because it is here where our tents are pitched most of the time.  God doesn’t appear to us in spectacular ways to razzle dazzle us; in fact it is sometimes difficult to see at all in these places.

When we are in the valley we are not void of light, we need not suffocate from the lack of spiritual air.  We have access to that light of Christ within us that is the gift of the dazzling white of the transfiguration.  The key is to live into your faith, that is to live mindfully in the knowledge of God’s mercy and love amidst the disappointments and quotidian moments of our days.  To live mindfully is to each moment open the gift of Christ revealed.

Just because we cannot feel that ‘Rocky Mountain High’ does not mean that we must stop from trying.  Trying is essential, it is what our faith is all about and we do that by living each moment intentionally so that we can remember the light that dazzled from before and the peace and assurance that was revealed to us.

To live mindfully is to live with the transfiguration message in your heart with the light guiding you step by step.  It is awareness of all that you are doing and for what and who’s purpose.  It is purposefully engaging each moment the highs and the lows, the lights and the darks, the razzle-dazzle and the dreary.  It is noticing the crocus’ pop their yellow and purple heads out (I promise it will happen); it is hearing a child sound out a word for the first time and the seeing the joy of victory on her face when she understands the words she has just sounded out. 

It is taking note of the quotidian moments of our days and recognizing them for what they can be. There are plenty of mountain top experiences in the trenches if we have the eyes with which to see them.

In her book, “An Altar in the World” Barbara Brown Taylor talks about her parish ministry, she was an Episcopal priest for 15 years in the parish and was named one of the 12 most effective preachers in 1996.  She talks about leaving this very effective ministry and becoming a professor at Piedmont College and how she had to find a different kind of joy in her work. 

She writes, “…I…set a little altar, in the world or in my heart.  I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.  I can flag one more gate to heaven – one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it – where the divine traffic is heavy when I notice it and even when I do not.  I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.”

Taylor had plenty mountaintop experiences while she was in the church but she chose to dwell somewhere else and look for God in unexpected places.  Be open to those times and places where the ‘divine traffic is heavy’ is what she is trying to say.  Stop the frenetic activity of ‘making God happen’ and just ‘let God happen’.

Changed and transformed by God in human encounters, that’s where we will find our greatest and highest highs, if we look. The summit of the mountain comes to us in small and unexpected ways, if we look.  God really is in the details of our life and not some nebulous entity hovering over us, if we look. 

Look and see the transfiguration and then transformation that each and every moment of your day affords you and then let me know how it was at the top!