Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rock Solid

Psalm 18: 1-6, 31-35, 46                                                          
Many years ago I took a seminary required course called Clinical Pastoral Education at Bridgeport Hospital.  It’s designed to teach you how to minister to those at bedside in, often, sad or dire situations.  And so I was on call one night and was called to the bedside of dying Alice.  Alice was in her 90’s and her son Martin, who called for a chaplain, was in his 70’s.  And they were Jewish.  And it was Shabbat, the Sabbath.  And no rabbi would come because it was Shabbat. 

So I took a deep breath and entered the room.  Alice’s breathing was slowed and labored and her son was standing next to her.  I explained that her rabbi was unavailable until after Shabbat but that I had some Jewish prayers for the dying that I could read with them.  Martin looked at me, he looked at the prayer book, he looked at his mother and then said quite abruptly, “No, 23rd Psalm”.   And so I shut the book and said, “Yes, that I can do.”  I closed my eyes and with my hand on Alice’s shoulder I prayed the 23rd Psalm.

When I finished there was a heavy silence in the room.  I turned around to look at her son; and this big old burly man had tears in his eyes.  Martin thanked me and then began to tell me about a particular time during WWII when he was in the Army.  He said, “I was in a foxhole and we weren’t sure if we would make it out.  Just when we were about to give up hope someone began praying the 23rd Psalm and it helped pull me, us through that night.” 

You see for Martin, this particular Psalm became the solid foundation upon which he could stand for the rest of his life.  For him God’s reliable presence was tangible in every way when he heard the 23rd Psalm.  For him witnessing his mother’s death was like being in a foxhole with all the uncertainty of the future and the loss of the present so palpable.  But God was there.  God was the foundation upon which he could carry on and make it through that night at Bridgeport Hospital and at other chaotic times in his life.  The Book of Psalms has a way of doing that, of soothing the soul.  

I believe that’s because the Psalmist pulls no punches.  Every human emotion or human experience is touched upon in the Psalms.  Nothing is too minor, too terrible, too egregious or too sweet that can’t be brought before the Lord.  The Psalmist, who is often thought of as David, beats his chest in anger in one Psalm and then belts out a love song in the next. 

Our Psalm for reflection this second Sunday in Lent is Psalm 18.  Not in its entirety because it is one of the longest and most literally complex Psalms out of the150 Psalms, so we will hear selected verses. It is a royal Psalm of thanksgiving and celebrates God’s deliverance of the King from dire military threat, who is traditionally understood as King David.  Now David was a praying man so let us now hear what he might have prayed on his day of deliverance from his enemies,
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
    my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
    so I shall be saved from my enemies.

The cords of death encompassed me;
    the torrents of perdition assailed me;  
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
    to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
    and my cry to him reached his ears.

For who is God except the Lord?
    And who is a rock besides our God?—
 the God who girded me with strength,
    and made my way safe.

 He made my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and set me secure on the heights.
 He trains my hands for war,
    so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

You have given me the shield of your salvation,
    and your right hand has supported me;
    your help has made me great.

The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock,
    and exalted be the God of my salvation,

I can just picture mighty King David coming back from the latest military campaign perhaps against those Philistines again.  He approaches the citadel victorious yet dusty and sweaty from the hot desert sun with the weaponry of war already being molded back into plowshares.  There is peace once again and he has time now to reflect upon his latest experience.  “The Lord lives,” he exclaims, “Blessed be my rock and exalted be the God of my salvation”.

The Lord is rock solid for David, that amidst all of the calamity, all of his misguided attempts at relationship, all of the victorious and not so victorious military campaigns God is great, God is sovereign, God is the rock upon which he girds ups his strength and so he offers his grateful heart in this Psalm. Psalm 18 is a powerful affirmation of the cosmic, universal reign of God and it is upon this foundation of faith that all hope is built.

One of my cherished childhood memories is going to church each Sunday and singing some wonderful hymns.  These hymns of faith still resonate with me now so many years later much like the 23rd Psalm did for Martin.  We are singing one today as the final hymn, ‘My Hope is Built on Nothing Less’. It is the refrain that echoes in my heart and mind over these many years ‘On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand’.

This is good news when we are having valley experiences, and I know we all do, when honestly, everything looks grim.  When the sand that our feet are planted upon is sinking around us, we can stand firm upon the rock of Christ and God is our salvation.  When we claim this, we claim God’s sovereignty, God’s authority and rule amidst powers that seek to deny and destroy it. In this claim, you claim God’s sovereignty for your own life when you feel as if the world, or people are against you, pounding you like a medieval battering ram battering a castle gate. In this claim, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” you cannot lose; you can only be stronger.

It is the Apostle Paul who reminds us in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Well most of us could probably make a long list in response to that question, right?  Like our government who on a whim seems to change things on us, the tax collector who is relentless each year about this time, our neighbor who just can’t remember your property line or theirs, our relatives who talk behind your back, even ourselves for heaven’s sake when we put roadblocks everywhere to healthy living and effective relationships.  There is a lot that can be against us.  But the victory has been won in Christ, ‘who in all things strengthens me.’  That is how we know that God is for us and not against us.

Christ is rock solid, loving us, forgiving us and shoring us up.  God is the rock of our salvation. And like King David and like Martin we too could write our own Psalm of deliverance that would be as effective as Psalm 18 or 23 because we have the ultimate assurance that we are not alone but have a strong foundation upon which to lean, and from which to walk confidently through our lives. Stone by stone we work our way through Lent.    

These rocks here today are smooth and shiny. They are hard and solid and I can imagine that if larger, the size of a bolder, we could stand on it as solid ground.  Last week 1 Peter’s message to us was that Jesus is the cornerstone of our spiritual homes and we are the living stones.  We blessed the stones that you brought in and then you took them home as a reminder that Jesus is the cornerstone of your unique and individual life.

Today’s message from Psalm 18 is that God is our rock and our salvation. The stones that we have here displayed are to be a reminder that God is YOUR rock and YOUR salvation.  You will be offered at rock as you leave today to keep in your purse or pocket or in a prominent place where you can see it.  It is a reminder of God’s covenant of everlasting love.

So be at peace now knowing that God through Jesus Christ is solid, that you have a firm foundation upon which to stand.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Stone by Stone

1 Peter 2:-2-9                                                                                   

Al Quads, Yerushalayim, Jerusalem.  She is one of the most troubled cities in the world and yet one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  The ancient Hebrews thought it was the Axis Mundi, the center of the world or where the connection between heaven and earth is so fine that it is rendered one of those thin places.

If you have not been there someday you must go.  You must visit the ruins of the Temple that was destroyed in 70 CE.  This temple, built by King Herod, was done so by using enormous limestone blocks now called Herodian stones and was quite an accomplishment to build.  They form the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, and are the base for Alaqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.  Some lie around randomly unmoved from when they fell.  In fact much of Jerusalem even to this day is either built or has the fa├žade of this meleke limestone.  Stone was important in the first century and the author of 1 Peter uses ancient images of stones to help these new believers identify as Disciples of Christ.

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

So with stones all around him the author of 1 Peter pens this Epistle well after Jesus’ resurrection to the early believers.   He praises God for their rebirth through the resurrection and gives them hope for salvation in a chaotic time.

The temple was where people presented offerings to be in fellowship with God you see they believed that this is where God resided.   But that had to change.  Now with Jerusalem destroyed and the temple gone, where were they supposed to find God?  Peter tells them they are to be the spiritual house of which Jesus is the cornerstone.  They have been converted to imitate Christ by doing good and not retaliating against those who wish to slander their community.   God is to reside within them.  Each one is now a temple for the divine.

Our Lenten sermon series for the next five weeks will employ the metaphor of stones to help us reflect upon this unique time in the liturgical year.  Lent is a forty day descent into the interior of your soul where we die to ourselves and we lament our loss so that we can live with Christ on that day of resurrection.  So that we are the spiritual house that is built upon the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ. 

The question for us today is, what does it mean to be a spiritual house?  But before that question you might ask what is it to be spiritual?  So many people today say ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’.  Well what does that mean?  How do you know that you are spiritual and how do you define your spirituality so that you are that spiritual house and holy priesthood as a Christian?

I think that is a good question for us to ponder this first week in Lent.   The word spiritual can, and has, taken on many meanings throughout the ages.  I think fundamentally being spiritual is a bit hard to define but it is weeding out the material distractions of life and focusing on your soul and what makes it sing to God in the heavens.  I think it is not something that we can achieve but something that is within us all along that we just can become more attuned to. 

After all it was Pierre Teilard de Chardin who said, “We are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  That is our soul, our psyche; our most intimate life lives in a world of facts and figures, profit and loss, assets and commodities.  So sometimes we can be at odds, often we are at odds when we try to pay attention to our spirit.  Materialistic ways and tendencies have drowned our spirit thus leaving us spiritually thirsty.

You know spirituality is not a thing.  It’s not something that you take a course in and say; well now I’m spiritual.  So stop trying to be spiritual and but let yourself be spirit, allow yourself the time and the space to see and experience all things in the light of Christ.  It is to be attuned to everything and everyone that is around you.  It is to pay attention with all of your senses, to see the Creator’s handprint on everything.  It is to be compassion living into divine purpose.  It is to do no harm and to open your heart.

When we are the living stones shaped into a spiritual house with Christ as our cornerstone then coming to Christ daily or even hourly to taste his kindness, to feed on his word and his promises, to engage in his ministry of justice is what is asked of us.  Our spiritual houses are in order when we live into the desires of our soul through Christ.  Here is where we find grace and blessing. 

You were asked to bring in a stone, which will be blessed at the benediction, and you may retrieve it after the service.  During this Lent put it in a prominent place, and let it represent Christ as your cornerstone and your foundation.  Let it be for you a reminder that he is with you during these forty days as you strengthen your spiritual house so that God and the light of Christ may reside within you.

Rev. Suzanne Wagner
Orange Congregational Church 2017  

Blessing of the Stones
That there may be blessing for us in this season of Lent
We bless these stones carried here today.

Like us, these stones are diverse;
Light and dark,
Tattered and smooth,
Large and small,
All seeking a place in Christ’s house,
as living stones.
We bless these stones carried here today.

May these stones be for us Christ;
The cornerstone of our living,
The foundation upon which our spiritual homes will be built,
And the center of our being.
We bless these stones carried here today.

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be and abide with you this day and all your days.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Now What?

Matthew 17: 1-9
Epiphany is finally coming to a close.  It’s been a longer Epiphany season because Easter is later this year than in most years all based on the lunar calendar.  The season of Epiphany 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 always ends with the transfiguration, another revelation about Jesus and a time when light plays a large factor in the story. Hear now the story of Jesus’ transfiguration 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.”

This is a real head shaking, eye rubbing moment in the lives of Peter, James and John!  Jesus takes them 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 just so that he could take some time to be at peace.  But this time was clearly different than the other times.  His purpose was more than just snooze and reflection time.  No sooner had they reached the top then something really very unusual happened, an epiphany!

Jesus transfigured; his appearance changed right before their very eyes into dazzling white clothes, whiter than any white possible than you can imagine and probably there was an aura around Jesus that simple words can’t even describe.  And if that wasn’t enough 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 when it was enveloped with thick smoke making the sound of trumpets blasting.  The Lord summoned Moses to the top and God gave to him strict commands to safeguard the Israelites as a people. This too was another sign of God’s benevolent grace.
So upon seeing this Peter tries to engage Jesus in conversation, saying that he would build three little huts for them.  One for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus.  As if they could contain 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.  I think we would be unnerved too, perhaps even rendered speechless, if such a vision happened to us, I know that I would be speechless.

And then, a familiar voice broke through this mystical experience much like when Jesus was baptized, ‘This is my Son the beloved, I am pleased with him so listen to him.”  And they fell to the ground, dumbstruck and afraid. God actually 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.  It is here that Jesus shows his most vulnerable self to his friends.  This is who I am!  I am God’s son.   

I am God’s beloved son and you must listen to me if you are to find a way to live into God’s realm.  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 and had seen an indescribable vision, and had been consoled by their friend, 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 trying to describe it is like trying to describe what existentialism is to a six year old.  It ain’t gonna happen folks!   

Now those moments are wonderful, don’t get me wrong and we try to describe them to the best of our ability.  It’s just that mountain top highs eventually come to and end.  And coming down the mountain is rough terrain.  It’s here that we realize life is not lived in the highlands but is really carefully played out in the wadi, the dry riverbeds of our living. And, so, now what?

It is here, this point of reference from high to low that 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 or have forgotten who they were.  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 too much of your waking day and so you choose sleep over wakefulness.

We know these circumstances all too well because it is here where our tents are pitched most of the time.  God mostly doesn’t appear to us in spectacular ways to razzle dazzle us; in fact it is sometimes difficult to see where God is lurking at all in these places.  The razzle has tarnished and the dazzle faded away.

And yet, Epiphany happens around us.  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 because that is the gift of the dazzling white of the transfiguration.  Christ’s light is now within you.  The key is to live into your faith, which is to live mindfully in the knowledge of God’s mercy and love amidst the disappointments and every day moments of our days.  To live mindfully is to each moment, open the gift of Christ revealed, remembering the dazzling light is within.

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.  This is our motivation.

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’s not scratching your head and saying ‘now what’?  It is confidently saying ‘bring it on’!

It is taking note of the quotidian moments of our days and recognizing them, not for what they are, but what they can be. There are plenty of mountain top experiences in the trenches if we have the eyes, heart and awareness 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.  What she is saying is be open to those times and places where the ‘divine traffic is heavy’.  Stop the frenetic activity of ‘making God happen’ and just ‘let God happen’.  “Bidden or not, God is present”.  That is so reassuring to me and I hope to you.  Transfiguration light happens!

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 are open.  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 light that each and every moment of your day affords you and then let me know how it was at the top!