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The summer after I graduated from high school, a friend of mine told me about a trail off Highway one that led to an awesome beach and some of the best surfing around. He asked if I was interested in seeing it. Of course, I said. When we got to Highway 1 along the coast just north of Santa Cruz, he began slowing down then pulling off the side of the road, but never stopping. After a half hour of this I finally asked him, “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Well, sort of,” he said, “Rachel said it was next to a big rock.”  Just for the record, along the northern California coast there are lots of big rocks.

“What else did she say?” I asked.

“She said there was a big sign before the rock that said, “Danninger’s Rest.”

“How big?” I asked. He shrugged. “Where on the highway is it? I mean this Highway goes the entire length of the coast.” He looked at me, smiled and shrugged again.  He had no idea where sign, the rock or the trail was. “Now, what?” I asked him. He shrugged.

He had directions in his hands, but he didn’t know what do to do them or how to use them.

Similarly, Saul, also, had what he had been given in his hands, but he did not know what to do with them or how to use them. He just thought he did. Standing on the sidelines watching the enraged crowd throwing stones at Stephen, Saul thought he knew what he was doing was right. He is firm in knowing exactly who he is and knowing what he believes and trusts and he was just as firm in defending his faith. Saul tells anyone who will listen, “I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee.”  Saul is an Israelite who traces his ancestry back to the tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His parents were honorable and observant members of the house Israel circumcising him on the right day and socializing him in the customs of his family, clan, and people. He was firmly educated in the strict tradition of Pharisaic study of the law, both written and oral as well as the tradition of rabbinic interpretation of Scripture. He will also tell you he is blameless under the law. That his loyalty is to God and he strictly adheres to his duties to God. Saul is so supremely confident in what he is doing that he doesn’t question or express any concern that what the enraged mob is doing by stoning Stephen might be wrong. He watches the mob pick up their stones and rocks in their hands, seeing in their rocks and stones the marker showing him what do with what has in his hands.

The disciples aren’t so sure. They have question upon question. Jesus tells them he is going to a place where they cannot go, but it is a place they know and they know the way to the place where Jesus is going. Thomas asks his question first, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?

Thomas asks the question, but he is expressing all the disciples’ confusion and bewilderment that Thursday evening when they ate the Passover meal. Jesus was speaking of leaving them. They wanted directions. They needed answers. Some specific ones. Jesus spoke about where he was going. And that they would know the way. However, all the disciples knew were their questions. They simply don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. Yes, he spent three years teaching them through sermons and parables, even stopping to explain the meaning of the parables in clear and concise language, and he taught them by his actions, so they might put two and two together and come up with the answer. But, they didn’t understand. He even told them exactly why they were going to Jerusalem and what was going to happen to him. But they when they look at what as in their hands they simply didn’t understand what to do with it.

In seminary, we often jokingly referred to the disciples, “as the twelve guys who just don’t get it.” Yet, we are just like them. We, too, look at what we have in or hands, what we have been given and we want directions about how to use all we have received. Perhaps, a map laid out in black and white or better yet, in living color. A map, which can be read and studied and understood. Thomas’ question is a good one not just for the disciples, but for us, too. We are in the same boat they are in. The stormy sea of questions threatening to swamp them is the same stormy sea threatening to swamp us. Our questions cause us to worry about what we are supposed to be doing. This is the reason there is so much spiritual emptiness in the world today and why so many people seek answers anywhere they can get them.

However, too often we fail to ask the most significant and simplest question of all, “What is in your hand?”

For the mob of people enraged at Stephen and afraid of what Stephen has said, they have rocks in their hands to use as weapons of intolerance. Now, if you asked them why they were doing what they were doing they could give an answer, the answer that would reveal their worldview. The same could be said of Saul. Every answer he would give would define his worldview. Even Stephen and the rest of Christ’s followers’ answers would define their worldview because everybody has a worldview. “Everybody,” to quote Rick Warren,” is betting on something.” And, he is right. Everybody is betting on something. You and I, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, liberals, conservatives, supply side economists, Keynesian economists, free market economists or mercantile economists, doctors. Lawyers, accountants, adherents of non-violence and those who think violence is answer to every problem, white-supremacists, democrats, republicans, Neo-Paganists, and neo-Nazis are all betting our lives on something. That something is our world view which influences all our decisions, our relationships, our behaviors, our level of confidence and everything that becomes our life that we reveal in telling the stories of our life. And, the real test of whether our worldview gives us peace is not how we act in the good times, but how we act at the funeral because you can’t fake it at the end of your life.

This is the reason the critical question I think we ought to ask ourselves is, “what do we have in our hands?” The reason this is, I believe, the critical question is because it is God’s question as Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church mentioned during a 2009 talk. Going back to the Exodus story and Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush, God asks Moses what he has in his hands. Moses says, “A staff.” God tells Moses to throw his staff down, so Moses does that and the staff becomes a snake, then God tells Moses to pick up the snake and Moses does and the snake becomes his staff again. This staff will be the vehicle for every one of miracles or plagues to happen in Egypt. What is important about the staff is that it contains Moses’ identity. Moses is a shepherd and the staff is a symbol of his identity. The staff is also a symbol of his wealth, which are the flock of sheep he and his family depends upon for food and clothing. Finally, the staff is a symbol of his influence because he uses to move the sheep either by pulling or poking. So, what Moses has in his hands- his identity, his wealth and his influence-God will use what Moses has in his hands to benefit the Hebrews by sending Moses and his staff to Egypt to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and genocide.

That is what God intends for us to do and that message becomes clear in reading Psalm 72, a prayer of Solomon, who asks for wealth, wisdom, power, prestige, for nations to bow down to him, which sounds pretty self-involved, but Solomon asks for these gifts to be given to him so he can care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the migrant or immigrant, the prisoner because none of these folks have the wealth, the prestige or influence or power to speak up or care for themselves and make the community a better place for everyone. They need the king to stand up and speak for them because no one else will listen if Solomon doesn’t.  They need Solomon to provide justice and well-being for them because they cannot do it for themselves. This is what leadership is by the way.

Leadership is about serving others and the stewardship of resources to be used for the benefit of the well-being of the entire community, not to benefit a few folks at the top at the expense of everyone else. Leaders, like Solomon, are to act as God’s representatives by treating people the way God treats people with loving kindness, restorative and equal justice, persuasion, patience so the community will be whole. Leaders, like Solomon, are to look at what they have been given into their hands-their identity, background, family, income, abilities, influence, network, creativity, opportunities, education, intelligence, then they need to decide how they will use them? Will they use them like rocks to destroy life? Will they use them to watch passively as life is destroyed? Will they use them to make the world a better place?

But, it’s not just leaders who need to answer that question because we all are holding what we have been given in our hands, so we might be use all of them to make the world a better place either as an engineer, a doctor, lawyer, accountant, teacher or whatever we have been created to be. We just need to look at what we have in our hands, then decide to use what we have been given to make the community and world a better place for everyone. I pray, we choose well according to God’s way.

(Rick Warren’s talk in 2009 provided some direction for this post and I think his suggestions about what we have received and how we use those gifts is important as is an understanding that followers of Christ are to be both good stewards as well as servant leaders whose aim is the well being of the entire creation.)

 

 

 

On the Emmaus Road

Welcome back! I see you have returned here to the Emmaus Road. No doubt you have noticed how busy this road gets in the spring as those pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem for the Passover Festival celebration travel on this short, but challenging road.

We are not more than one hundred sixty stadia, seven miles, as you would say, from Jerusalem however the journey along this road has really little to do with geographic distance. The journey along this road is a much different journey for it is a journey from blindness to sight, from brokenness to wholeness, from what is hidden to what is released, from doubt to faith.

Perhaps I should explain, or better yet, do you see those two men walking along the road ahead of us? Yes? Well, those two men are blind. They are broken. They are like a rough block of marble whose grain seems to be going in all the wrong directions and is capable of splitting in unpredictable ways whenever the sculptor’s chisel is applied to it.  Alas, they do not realize any of this. You see, they thought they knew what was happening in their lives. They thought it was all under control. They thought they were on the right path, they were on the cutting edge of something wonderful, but that all changed for them.

These two, Cleopas and the other man, were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and buried and whose tomb was discovered empty on this day by the women who were also following Jesus. Many of the other disciples are still in Jerusalem, but not these two.

No, Cleopas and his companion decided to leave Jerusalem and walk to Emmaus. Perhaps they are giving up? Perhaps they are simply walking to clear their heads by discussing all that has happened, so they might comprehend it more clearly? Or, perhaps they have without realizing it are continuing the journey they began years ago when Jesus first invited them to follow him. How will we tell which is which?

By watching as this stranger who has been following them and listening to them talk. See the stranger approaches them. Listen…ah yes, he has asked them what they are talking about. At first, they can’t believe he has been Jerusalem and has no idea what has happened. Ah, now they’ve given themselves away. “We had hoped,” they say to the stranger, “that Jesus, who was a prophet mighty in deed and wonders before God and all the people, was the one to redeem Israel.” Can’t you just hear the “but, they crucified him and he died and was buried and now his tomb is empty and…” This is where they are blind. They had hoped Jesus was the redeemer, but now they don’t really believe he was the one to redeem Israel. All they saw earlier is a tomb of death. They failed to see that the empty tomb is where life has been born anew. They are blinded by what they expect because they are not open to the unexpected. They are blinded by their recitation of who they thought Jesus was because they did not see who Jesus really is. They heard Jesus teach the Kingdom of God is a place of hospitality because Jesus feeds all whom hunger and thirst. Indeed, Jesus’ mother Mary sang of this before Jesus was born while she was still visiting her cousin Elizabeth, “he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” They witnessed this truth when Jesus was sitting at table and sharing food with sinners and outcasts-people nobody else cared about or even wanted near them. They witnessed this truth when they saw Jesus serve food to the multitudes in the desert saving them from hunger. They listened as Jesus said the invited guests to the great messianic banquet are the poor, the lame, blind, and maimed. The ones who are discounted and shoved aside by those in the know, the celebrated, the wealthy, and the ones who own the gold, but who are the very ones whom God continually asks about as in “how are you treating the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, the poor, and the sick.”

They heard Jesus say he came not to abolish the Torah and the prophets, but to fulfill them, but they were blinded by all they thought they knew of scripture without realizing all they knew was never woven together into a whole piece, so they could see how it all fit together. They are like Augustine who confesses to God that, “look you were within me and I was outside. You were with me and I was not with you.” Put another way, these two disciples are still centered upon themselves. They are still attached to themselves-their way of seeing, their expectations, their knowledge, their understanding of the way the world works. They have not become detached from themselves, so they cannot see and use all things in and for Jesus Christ, in and for God.

You see, that is why the stranger is saying to them, “how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets declared!” Now, the stranger starts with Moses and goes through all of the scriptures pointing to Jesus. From the Word that creates life in the beginning, the bread that gives life, the liberating of the Israelites from slavery for a new life, and the suffering servant Isaiah proclaims is coming, the suffering servant who preaches good news for the poor, sight for the blind, who suffers for our iniquities, even as he brings into being God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness, and new life for all. This stranger is patiently chiseling away at scripture revealing to them all that has been hidden by their little pieces of scattered knowledge, so he releases God’s Word of truth and light. He is weaving together for them this wonderful tapestry of God’s self- revealing presence, love, commitment and intention for humanity and creation that is ultimately expressed on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus. Doing this as they walk along the Emmaus Road.

But, now they have come to the inn. Evening is approaching. Cleopas and his companion stop to go into the inn as the stranger continues to walk down the road. But, Cleopas and his companion turn and invite the stranger to share a meal with them. Can you see how the stranger sits at the table and picks up the bread? Now, he is blessing it, giving thanks to God for this bread that nourishes life. Ah, see he has broken the bread and hands to the disciples. Wait for it. See what happens just as their hands touch the bread. Their eyes are alight! They can now see! Seeing not only that the stranger is Jesus, but coming to the wisdom that the burning in their hearts is the Holy Spirit dwelling within them revealing to them all about God and the full meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus, the one crucified, the one raised to life that all of God’s scriptural promises for creation and humanity come to fruition in Jesus as the conqueror of sin and death. They now see through the grace of the eyes of faith-trust in Christ-that the kingdom of God comes not through political-military might of world powers, but comes from opening oneself to the unexpected and mysterious presence of Christ in the person of a stranger, the weaving together all of scripture into a whole tapestry of God’s steadfast love, mercy, and commitment ultimately expressed in Christ, by extending the open hand of hospitality to the person one meets along the road, and receiving God’s gift of grace given by way of a rough hewn cross and an empty tomb that gives life.

These two disciples are like the rough marble that was presented to Michelangelo one day. This marble had certain attractiveness, but it was not easy to carve. For this marble’s grain was going in all the wrong directions and was prone to splitting in unpredictable ways whenever the sculptor’s chisel was applied to it. Michelangelo patiently worked on the stone day after day. Passers-by would stop and ask, “Michelangelo, why are you wasting your time with such unpromising material?” Michelangelo simply replied, “I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this block of stone.”

Being the creative artist of life, Jesus was patiently chiseling away the rough marble hiding the angelic messengers within these two disciples by his presence, his word, and God’s truth and light burning within them, so he could release these two angels from the unpromising material of their lives so he could send them running back to the others with the message that the Kingdom of God has come, Christ is risen and alive. Sin and death are defeated. The Lord of life has prevailed and because he lives, so will all who answer his call. They are sent to witness about how they experienced Jesus in their burning hearts and in the broken bread.

All over the world today, there are people whose lives are shattered and broken, whose relationships have cracked in unpredictable ways and lie in pieces, whose best hopes have ended in tragedy, and whose life conflicts seem to have no resolution-and they are hearing Jesus’ call to take up the cross and to follow him, they are open to the unexpected presence of Christ in a person they meet walking along the road with them, their hearts are burning with Christ’s light illuminating scripture as the whole cloth of God’s truth and light, and every time bread is broken they see Christ and experience grace and they are the most remarkable angels released from the most unlikely of materials sent by Christ to proclaim Christ is risen, the kingdom of God has come. The Lord of life prevails. Perhaps one such angel is sitting next to you.

Perhaps you are one such angel.

Doubt and Peace

Fear and doubt was everywhere. In each look. In each locked door. In each word barely spoken. Fear was in their memories of denying they even knew Jesus and in their desertion of him when he carried the cross of death through Jerusalem streets. Fear and doubt drenched and flooded their lives. And, we know this same fear and doubt because we are told and taught to fear and doubt everything as one writer has stated, ”from crime rates, to unemployment, terrorism to isolation to news media to climate change we are a people living in fear and doubt.

We’re told to fear Isis. We’re reminded that we’re on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea and Iran. We’re told to be afraid of immigrants. 

We’re afraid of sickness.

We’re afraid of loss.

We’re told to be afraid of the wealthy. 
We’re afraid of what we lack.

We’re afraid of our failures. 

We’re afraid of our past.
We’re afraid of each other and we doubt we will ever know joy and peace.

We’re a people afraid, and that fear has trapped us. Like the disciples in those early moments after Jesus’ death, we’ve locked ourselves in an upper room, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “

Aung San Suu Kyi, political activist, prisoner, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize said it plainly and truly when she said, “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”

Like the early disciples, we are fully aware of the prisons built from fear, doubt and uncertainty.

          Yet, into these fear and doubt constructed prisons steps Jesus with the simplicity of the blessing, “Peace be with you” recalling the words of comfort he spoke at the Last Supper, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The peace Jesus gives comes from the knowledge that, in spite of all the hurt, the violence, the destruction and harm the world can and does inflict, God’s compassion and care, embodied in Jesus standing in our midst, applies at every point where we experience fear, doubt and uncertainty to reassure us that we are not left to be imprisoned by our fears or doubts because as the psalmist reminds us God is our refuge, our sanctuary, or chosen portion and with God is the path of life where fullness of joy and pleasures forever are ours.

          A life, Jesus reminds them, that comes from God when he breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. Empowering life comes from God now just as it did in the beginning of life when God breathed over the watery, dark chaos where life did not exist, just as it did when God breathed life into the man and the woman and just as it did when God breathed life into the dry bones while Ezekiel watched. This empowering life will not only send God’s people out into the world to teach everything Jesus has been teaching about forgiveness, reconciliation, mutuality, compassion and servant leadership, which are all part of living God’s way, but it is also the continuing presence of Christ with his disciples, sustaining their lives and their ministry and, as one commentator says, it is also the creative power of God always at work to enliven creation itself.

Intertwined within the peace and power of the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ response to doubt. Now, Thomas seems to be singled out for his doubt, however all of the disciples had their doubts until the risen Christ comes to them. Thomas is simply seeking, a bit more graphically said, the same assurance the other disciples experienced. But, what is important about this doubt is that Jesus does not condemn nor disparage Thomas for expressing his doubts and questions. Faith that cannot tolerate doubt or questions fails to reach deep down into the hidden places of our minds and our hearts where doubt and questions too often dwell unspoken or acknowledged, especially in those moments when faith is tested by experiences of suffering or pain. Jesus is essentially saying to Thomas, “okay you need something more than a secondhand encounter. You need to touch, to see, to experience fully resurrection, so go ahead touch, see, and believe.”

Thomas was blessed even in the midst of his doubts and questions and so are those who gather for worship on Easter morning and who did not go to the empty tomb or see the risen Christ for themselves. Jesus meets people where they are. He is like a good doctor who sees each person as an individual with different experiences and different approaches to life and whose needs are all different. He does not give the same prescription to everyone, as though the life of faithfulness is a one size fits all baseball cap.

Jesus comes to us, giving us what we need day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year using the common elements of water, wine and bread within a creation filled with reminders of God’s empowering life surrounding us because he does not want anyone to miss out on the empowering life of grace and peace promised to us in the resurrection.

 

 

 

 

 

Rooting Or Lives in Hope

An 8.2 earthquake nearly flattened Armenia in 1989. Over 300,000 people were killed in less than four minutes. In the midst of this destruction and chaos, a father left his wife safe at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be. The school building was as flat as a pancake.

He was so shocked all he could do was stare at the pile of debris that had need a school building minutes earlier. Finding any survivors seemed hopeless. However, the father remembered a promise he made to his son, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” tears ran down his cheeks.

Slowly, he began to concentrate on where he had walked his son to class each morning. His son’s classroom would be in the rear right corner of the building. He rushed over there and started digging through the rubble. As he was digging other forlorn parents came to the school, crying and wailing, “My son! My daughter!” Some well- meaning parents tried pulling the man away from the rubble declaring, “It’s too late. They’re dead! Go, home! Face reality, there’s nothing you can do! You’re just going to make things worse.

To each parent, he asked, “Are you going to help me?” Then he went back to dig for his son, stone by stone. Eventually, the fire chief showed up and tried pulling him off the debris saying, “Fire are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Go, home!” But the father asked, “Are you going to help me?”

The police came and said, “You’re angry. Distraught. It’s over. Go, home. We’ll handle it.” He asked them, “Are you going to help me?” No one helped.

He continued to dig alone remembering his promise and commitment, “no matter what, I’ll always be there for you.” He dug for eight hours…12 hours…24 hours…then at the 38th hour when he pulled back a boulder, he heard his son’s voice; “Armand!” the father screamed his son’s name.

“Dad? Dad! It’s me! I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you’d save me. And when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised ’No matter what, I’ll always be there for you! You did it, Dad! You did it!”

“What going on in there? How is it? The father asked.

“There are 14 of us left out of 33. We’re scared, hungry, thirsty and thankful you’re here. When the building collapsed, it made a wedge, like a triangle, and it saved us.”

“Come on out, son.”

“No, dad! Let the other kids come out first, because I know you’ll get me! No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me!”

I tell this story because I have for too long listened to people in congregations and presbyteries tell me their situation is hopeless. They can do nothing to change their circumstance, so why bother trying to change it? It doesn’t matter if it’s about not enough money, a building in disrepair, or a congregation that had a thousand members, but has now dwindled down to about a hundred folks. Each one of them has expressed their sadness about their situation as hopeless. To tell you the truth I used to wonder, “How can Christians, who celebrate Easter, who celebrate resurrection-life rising out death-be hopeless? How can people exclaim they have no future when every week they read and hear about how God time after time has made a way for life to flourish when it seemed impossible for life to even exist? How God has always made a way out of no way.

One hears it in the psalms of lament such as Psalm 130 that begins ”Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” and ends with “O Israel hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Every psalm of lament begins with the honest exclamation of pain and grief like those rising from the devastation of Israel’s exile speaking hard, brutal words about how the Israelites were trapped in the rubble of their despair and the debris of their despondency just like the children trapped in the rubble of a building, because Israelites had been forcible taken off their land and dragged in chains to a strange land where they would live as strangers, cut off from family and friends and from the central symbol of their faith-the Temple. One can almost hear the lamenting wail of the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?” as the cry of people who feel as dead as dry bones.

Yet in all, but two of the psalms of lament there is the declaration that God has changed the situation from death to new life. Nearly, all the psalms of lament bear a strong unequivocal witness to God’s compassion enacting a new creation of life sustaining hope.

This is, of course, the message God is telling the prophet Ezekiel to tell the Israelites in Babylon. It is not surprising that God would bring the prophet Ezekiel out to this parched ancient battlefield littered with dry bones, and then ask him, “Ben Adam-son of man-can these bones live?”

Probably Ezekiel could have been a bit cheeky and answered, “Well, yeah sure if I had some steel plates and wires to connect them together. Or, maybe if I had some DNA from the bones, went to the lab, made some synthetic flesh, I might be able to make some semblance of life here given enough time.” However, Ezekiel gives a faithful answer, “Lord, you are the only one who knows the answer.”

That’s when God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to those bleached bones, “dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, God to these bones….” Ezekiel speaks the words that God gives him to speak that stirs the bones from lifelessness to life. God’s life creating word gets those old bones to rattling around and coming back together again. The same life creating word covers them with sinew and muscle and flesh. The same life creating word brings the breath of life within them restoring them to life. It isn’t surprising God would go to all this trouble because God intends Ezekiel to experience for himself the prophetic word God will give him to speak to the Israelite exiles coming to reality, so that when Ezekiel speaks this word, which will be a word of comfort and possibility, telling the Israelite exiles God will lift off the rubble of despair from them; God will sift through the debris of despondency to bring them to life; God will breathe new life into them; God will raise up new faithful leaders and they will live once again in their homeland the Israelites will hear the truth and certainty of hope in Ezekiel’s voice and trust that no matter what, the Lord their God will always be there for them.

And, they did trust because they were hopers, as Walter Brueggemann describes them. They were, he said, a people whose life story is a partisan, polemical narrative. It is concerned to build a counter community–counter to the oppression of Egypt, counter to the seduction of Canaan, counter to every cultural alternative and every imperial pretense. There is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another epistemology. To such persons, Israel’s narratives are silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. The narrative form of the Torah intends to nurture insiders who are willing to risk a specific universe of discourse and cast their lot there.” Make their lives from that narrative.

The way the Israelites interpreted the events of their life was rooted squarely in the stories of their ancestors’ experiences of God’s presence and compassion and steadfast love and in their own lived experiences in this deep, abiding relationship with God, who is compassionate, steadfast in love and kindness and mercy and who is to be trusted to make a way for life to exist even when it appears there is no way for life to exist.

Jesus demonstrates this same quality of God’s life creating power when he is bringing Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus does with Martha what God had done with Ezekiel by declaring that even though her brother had been dead for four days he will live again because Jesus is the resurrection and the life and everyone who believes in him –trusts in God- will live even though they may die and everyone who lives and trusts in me,” says Jesus, “will never die. Do you believe me?”

“Yes,” Martha answers before declaring she knows he is the Messiah, the Son of God. God’s life creating Word, who is sent to restore life.”

Then, as they enter the village Mary is weeping and lamenting Lazarus’ death with all the other villagers and Jesus joins them in their distress and grief by weeping before he speaks a word of life, commanding, “Lazarus, come out!”

Of course, Lazarus does come out. Does live again. In this tiny Judean village, God’s life creating word comes, so these villagers might experience for themselves God restoring life and out of this experience trust God will restore their lives, will sustain their lives out of compassion and love for them no matter what their circumstances, even in the face of the seeming certainty of death and become those people who live a partisan, polemical life story that is aimed at building a counter community-counter to oppression, to conventional wisdom and counter to every cultural alternative. And like Israel’s narrative, there is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another way of knowing and comprehending the world. To such persons, the narratives of the followers of Christ will be silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. Yet, Jesus intends to nurture and sustain people who are willing to risk this specific universe of proclamation and who are willing to root their lives in that life story and proclamation.

Just like those who dared to rescue their Jewish neighbors during World War II. These were not extraordinary people, leaders, larger than life heroes. They were ordinary people, teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs, factory workers, rich and poor, single people and parents. They had done nothing extraordinary before or after their acts of rescue. What set them apart, according to studies, is their connections with others in relationships of commitment and care learned from parents, friends, and importantly from the faith tradition of Protestant and Roman Catholicism. These teachings led them to refuse to see Jews as guilty or beyond hope and themselves as helpless or hopeless, despite all the evidence that could be marshaled to the contrary. Instead, they made choices affirming the value and meaningfulness of each life in the middle of a diabolical social order that repeatedly denied it. In doing so, they saved lives and lived compassionately, loving and kind just as Jesus showed them was possible.

This is why both Ezekiel’s story and Lazarus’ story are important for Christians at this time and place because we are called to root our lives not in doctrinal statements, propositional truths, or systematic theologies based on Neo-Platonic-Aristotelian modes of discourse, but to root our lives, our life story, in the God who is compassionate, who is merciful, who is steadfast in love and kindness, who is life, who will be with us to create life, sustain life and nurture life no matter what.

Open to Grace

“To journey without being changed is to be a nomad. To change without journeying is to be a chameleon. To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”

Mark Nebo reminds us with these few words that we, who choose to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, are all pilgrims. We are sojourners on a transformative journey whose final destination is far off into an eternity that stretches well beyond these Lenten days and weeks to the foot of Christ’s cross where we will weep our hosannas and to the empty tomb of resurrection where we will shout or joyous hallelujahs.

Now, you may not feel you are sojourners after all we haven’t physically traveled away from Irondequoit toward some distant place, however the truth is we are all pilgrims in the same way that all Christians are pilgrims because the Greek word “paroika” means sojourner and is the root of the English word “parish” meaning a “congregation of pilgrims or sojourners” and second,  because the life of faith is a continuing journey with and to God that is not limited by geography, but rather is both an outward and an inward journey.

Indeed, you traveled outward this morning when you left your homes to come here to worship and in doing so you have continued your sojourning, your pilgrimage to deepen your inward spiritual journey. Even our sanctuary, like many other sanctuaries, is a place for traveling whether one walks up the aisles to find a place to sit and rest and to listen or one is invited to walk up the aisle to participate in the Lord’s Supper or to bring an offering to God’s table. Classic cathedrals have ambulatories, which are simply a rounded corridor at the very front of the church that is literally, “a place for walking.” I suppose we could make one here if we did some major renovations. Of course, that might be a risky thing to do.

Yet, risk is part of every pilgrim’s journey. My favorite psalm, Psalm 121 speaks to us of the risks of sojourning in its very first line, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” Here is the affirmation that every pilgrim knows, the world is a dangerous place. The psalmist wrote those words to describe the foreboding sense of danger from nomadic bands of bandits or armies as well as the wild beasts of the wilderness taking refuge in the crags and crevices of the hills. However, in our time the world is still a dangerous place shrouded in the darkness of seeking hidden answers to big and important questions such as, “how did life begin?” How do I find the purpose for my life? Where will I belong? Where can I be safe and find good food and safe shelter?

The world is, also, a place shrouded in the darkness of death from physical violence, emotional turmoil, unremitting and destructive chaotic change, disease, and fearful anxiousness leading to conflict. Think about how the survivors of an 8.9 earthquake and all the other 350 earthquakes, the tornadoes in Kansas, or the tsunami and the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan must have felt after more than a week of complete darkness and bitter cold with very little heat,  little water and food while saturated with grief and despair? How can they not be lifting their eyes to the hills and wondering, pleading, crying out, “from where will our help come?”

I imagine Abram asked that same question as he and Sarah and his nephew Lot began their journey from Haran to the place God would show them. Their sojourn comes as a response to God’s call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” but this was not an easy call to hear because it meant leaving everything behind that was familiar, that was safe, that was secure, everything that defined who Abram and Sarah were at a time in their lives when life should have been settled. At a time when their lives had become routine and when the shape of their lives must have seemed complete. Instead, they leave all of this behind them to begin a journey solely based upon God’s promises. This is very much like what the Irish monk Columba did around 563 CE when he set out in a coracle, a circular dish boat without anchor or oars, praying God’s wind would carry him to a new life.

What makes this extraordinary journey possible is Abram and Sarah’s being like open cups ready to receive what God was offering them. And, they had to be open. As Joyce Rupp writes, “Most everything needs to be opened, so it serve its purpose. Clothes need to be opened before we can put them on and receive their warmth and protection. A book requires opening before the contents can be shared. A house has to have a door or window opened before we can enter inside of it for shelter.”

It is the same with a cup. If a cup is full to the brim, nothing more can be added to it. If a lid is placed over it, nothing can be poured into it. The same is true for the cup that is our being and our life. God needs an opening to get our attention, to have a conversation with us, to nourish us and to stretch us toward greater growth, to revitalize and renew us as Rupp has said. This means we need to let go of some of the stuff filling up and cluttering our lives. I must say this is very much on my mind because my wife and I are using this Lent to begin a 46-day decluttering project. Each day we give away something we own whether a bowl, a teapot, or some clothing we don’t wear any longer and don’t need any longer.  So, each day we must decide which of our possessions to let go.

Letting go, emptying ourselves of all that clutters our lives physically and spiritually is one of the demands sojourners with God need to do. We can’t take everything with us on our journey because if we try to hang onto everything we won’t get very far. We won’t be open to the new direction God may be calling us to go. As a matter of fact, we may not be able to hear God speaking to us for all the clanging and banging of the stuff we are trying to carry with us. In addition, we need to willingly take the lid off of our resistance to change and the new thing God is calling us to embrace, so we can be open to what God is offering to pour into us.

Certainly, that might have been part of Nicodemus’ problem that night when he couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying to him. “You mean I have to born a second time? How is that even possible?”

“No, Nicodemus, I said be born from above. Above! By water and the Spirit, Nicodemus. By God’s actions.” Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruling elder in the Sanhedrin, had a quite a bit of emptying out to do before he could finally be open to receive what God was offering him and all of humanity through Jesus, the Word of life. Nicodemus would have to let go of a lifetime of theology and learning about who God is and what God does and how God’s love is made manifest in the world. Not to mention a lifetime of learning what it means to be faithful to God because his spiritual life and physical life was cluttered up with well over 485 purity rules that dominated the way he lived every moment of his life and that dominated how he understood, who was right with God and who wasn’t, and who was his neighbor and who wasn’t.

While we look at Nicodemus and his need to empty out the clutter of his life, so he could be open to receiving what Jesus was trying to pour into him, we need to begin asking ourselves what clutter do we need to let go before we are open to receiving the future God is offering us?  What do we, as communities of faith, need to empty out to be ready to receive what God is offering us?  Are there ways things got done in the past, which are no longer working? Are we ready to welcome and receive new persons to become part of this community regardless of how old they are, how experienced in the Christian faith they are?  Are we ready to receive the persons’ gifts and abilities by valuing them intrinsically without comparing them to other people?

Answering these questions isn’t an academic exercise or simply a rhetorical device for a sermon because what God is offering is a new life. Not just an extension of the  same old life, but one that will be transformative for each person’s life, for this entire congregation’s life, for this entire community’s life and, for the life of all humanity and creation.

That is what is significant about the promises God makes to Abram and Sarah. Yes, God promises to show them the land that God intends to give them, but more importantly God intends to give them children and grandchildren who will be the foundation of a whole people who will be a blessing to the world. Abram and Sarah have no children. They have been barren for all of their married life and in their old age this translates into them not having much of a future. Indeed, this family’s barrenness had become a metaphor for human hopelessness because there is nothing Abram and Sarah can do to create their own future. Until God speaks a powerful word of life directly into their situation of barrenness with the promises for the blessing of new life through children, who are brought into being by the sheer grace they can only receive as a gift. Abram and Sarah did nothing to earn or deserve this grace, nor will they do anything on their journey to earn and deserve this grace. God does not depend upon the potentiality or actions of this family to bring the blessing of a new and transformed life into being because God’s word of life carries within itself all the power it needs to create life, to create a new people defined, shaped and molded like a clay cup by God’s summoning and life creating word. God’s Word on its own asserts the freedom and power of God to work God’s will to bring life out of death like situations or even death itself.

Here in this beginning of Abram and Sarah’s journey with God is the resurrection paradigm of a call to sojourn to a transformed life by being open to receive, to be filled with God’s presence in the willingness to trust God alone in a journey away from the status quo, away from the predictable toward the mystery that we like Nicodemus will only comprehend in the light of hindsight after we taste the providential fruits of grace, which have been with us every step of the way. As the psalmist assures, our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth and it is the Lord who is with us always, in all our going out and all our coming in, today and for all our days.

Pray with me this prayer of Richard Chichester, “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly.” Amen.

 

 

Choices and Consequences

“My mother,” Bill Moyers said, “used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence? Genesis confronts us with many tempting questions.”

Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch? Why did God put the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the garden? And, why did God draw attention to it by telling the man not to eat the fruit because on the day that he did, he would die? Who was the serpent anyway? Why did the woman eat the fruit then give it to the man. Why did the man accept it so passively? Finally, is this a lesson about the choices we make and their consequences?

So many questions to ask. Seemingly, so few answers to receive. However, I think there is a fundamental lesson resting, simply and plainly in this scripture, which becomes clear only when we compare the man and woman’s story with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You recall, the man and the woman are in the garden God has created as part of the whole of creation. God created the man and the woman for a purpose- a vocation. They are to keep and till the garden. They are to be God’s stewards of creation and exercise care and concern in preserving creation as God created and ordered it. God, also, created them to be companions for each other. They were to live together in a relationship of mutuality; helping each other, caring for the other and working with the other person. They will be a community together. There is no hierarchy or relationship of superior to inferior. Neither is more important than the other. They stand together as one. This is the vision of community no matter how many people reside in the community. All are to be one. Now, God gave them gifts for this vocation- food for their physical nourishment. They could eat the fruit of any tree of the garden. And, pleasure in their work. God, also empowered them for this task with the freedom to carry it out, and with authority over the rest of creation.

But there was a limit to their freedom and authority. For God told the man, “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat because on the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will die.”

Well, one day as the woman and the man are busy working in the garden, the serpent comes to the woman. Now the serpent is characterized as the craftiest of wild animals God created. However, being crafty does not necessarily only mean being sneaky, conniving, or diabolical. It does mean those things, yet it also means skillful, ingenious, or dexterous. So, the serpent can be deceitful or the serpent can be ingenious depending upon how the serpent chooses to use its crafty character.

On this particular day, the serpent asks, “Did God really say, ’you shall not from any tree in the garden?” A simple question. No hint of untoward motive on the part of the serpent. Just asking what God’s word was regarding the fruit of the trees. Actually, the serpent is really wondering how much freedom God has given to humans. What choices do they get to make if indeed they get to make any choices at all. A clever question because a yes or no response is impossible. By the way, just for the record, the serpent is asking both the man and the woman the question. The “You” in Hebrew is a plural, so both of them are asked the question. The man remains silent while the woman answers the question.

“We, “said the woman, “can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, except God said ‘you shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you will die.”

Fairly straightforward answer. She does add a prohibition God did not give the man earlier, but the man may have added that to God’s word when he re-told the command. “Nope, can’t eat it or you’ll die. As a matter of fact you can’t even touch it. Touch it and you’ll die too.” We really don’t know where the extra bit of the command comes from, but the woman is pretty sure about the command and what it means and the man is too, since he remains silent.

“Did God really say that to you?” the serpent asks. “C’mon, you want the truth. You won’t die. God just said that because God knows when you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God. You’ll know what God knows. You’ll know about good and evil.”

Well, the serpent’s response jolts the man and woman’s reality. The seeds of doubt are sown just by the serpent’s words. The serpent doesn’t “do” anything, but ask a question and offer a different version of why God doesn’t want them to eat the fruit of that tree. I can almost hear the questions going back and forth between them. “We won’t die if we eat it? Can the serpent be telling us the truth? Why would God say such a thing if it wasn’t true? And, what’s this stuff about being like God. It’d be good to be like God. Look, at all that God can do! Does it just come from knowing good and evil? Will we see the world and ourselves as God does?  Does God not want us to be like God? Is God holding us back from realizing our true potential?”

The serpent seems to be telling the truth. Yet, is he? Is death only about physical death or is there a broader definition of death that they don’t know about? Has the serpent held out the possibility of something more for them? Something that will enable them to transcend who they are, where they are, and their limitations. “The serpent calls God a liar,” says Leon Kass, a professor of ethics, “and the serpent undermines God’s authority and offers what seems to be an exciting new possibility.”

While the woman and the man do not voice their questions or their ponderings out loud, we get an inkling of their thinking as the woman judges the fruits beauty, its goodness as food, and its desirability to make one wise. All of which combine to tell us they have decided to trust the serpent and their own decision making abilities rather than trusting God’s word and the boundaries and limitations God placed upon them.

Compare the woman and the man’s actions with Jesus’ actions in the wilderness. Just as with the man and woman, God had a purpose for Jesus. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to be Emanuel, “God with us.” And, God empowered Jesus for this vocation with the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  Then, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit before he begins his ministry. For forty days and nights Jesus fasts- a real Lent- and he is famished. Can you imagine fasting for forty days and nights? It’s tough just to go a few hours without eating! But, Jesus does it for forty days and nights. He is famished and, perhaps, weak.

Enter the devil, in Greek the word is diabolos and comes from the verb to separate or to cause conflict. This is what diabolos, or Satan in Hebrew, is about doing. The goal is to separate human beings from God. So, here comes diabolos aka the Tempter with what Henri Nouwen calls the three compulsions of this world.

The first, to be relevant. “Hey, if you’re the Son of God turn these stones into loaves a bread. That’s what the people are expecting from the Messiah. C’mon, if you’re relay the Son of God it’ll be easy. C’mon, I dare ya. I double dog dare ya. C’mon turn the stones into loaves of bread. It’ll remind people about how God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. C’mon.”

Jesus simply says, “bread is not that important to life. One does not live only by eating bread and food, but has life by every word that comes from God’s mouth. God creates life by God’s word and I’m not here to do miracles for the sake of proving who I am. That’s not God’s purpose or plan for me.”

The Tempter comes back with the second compulsion, to be spectacular. “Okay! Well, lets see if you really trust God. Jump off the pinnacle here of the Temple and see if God sends down angels to catch you.  Remember scripture says, “He will command his angels concerning you, on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

“Yes,” Jesus said, “But it is also written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Don’t see if God really will do what God promises to do. Realize that God’s promises are real promises and that God always does what God promises to do. That is what trusting God is about. And, God has given me a path to walk and I will be walking that path. I am to be obedient only to God’s will. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s. Only God’s.

Then, the Tempter retorts with the third compulsion, to be powerful. “Yeah, yeah. Look, I will give you all the power, wealth, and kingdoms on the entire earth. Everything you see here. All you have to do is bow down and worship me. That’s all. Do it and you get everything. Power. Wealth. Tower bildings made of gold. Kingdoms. Servants. The whole enchilada. Huh. Huh. Huh What d’ya say?”

“Away with you Satan!” Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only God.”

Jesus is tempted with the same temptation as the woman and the man, to be like God. “if you are the Son of God, “ says the devil, “then act like it. Use your power to create food, orchestrate a spectacular miracle, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world.” But, Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptations. Rather, he chooses to live as God has created him to live, doing what God has planned for him to do, and trusting God completely.  The man and the woman do not.

“You ask what did Adam and Eve do wrong in the garden, “said Marianne Thompson a professor of New Testament, “they fail to trust God-that what God says will happen, will happen, or that what God prohibits is for their own good.”

The man and woman try to reach beyond the limits of their creatureliness, to transcend creation, but they cannot. They have knowledge of good and evil, but it is knowledge limited by the contingency of human life. All we can know is the past and the present. We cannot accurately see into the future, nor do we completely comprehend the impact down the road for the choices we make today. The woman and the man didn’t know that their choice would lead to a death that is defined in Scripture as separation of persons from God. The breaking of their relationship with and their separation from God becomes a physical reality when they are expelled from the garden. Yet, they broke not only their relationship with God, but with each other as well. When God asks the man how he knows he is naked then tells him what he has done and God asks why he did it. The man blames the woman. “It’s not my fault, She gave it to me!” Then, the woman blames the serpent in turn. Both fail to take responsibility for their own choices and actions. As they blame each other, conflict ensues and their relationship is damaged. I doubt they saw all of these consequences coming from that one choice. But, how many of us do?

Test this out by any choice you have made at any point in your life. Look at the impact of choices you’ve made have had on your life. Look at the impact of choices made fifty years ago by chemical companies to dump waste into rivers and land such as at Love Canal in Niagara Falls or coal mining waste dumped into rivers and streams. We can’t know what God knows because we do not have God’s perspective on the entire created order. We can’t be like God, exercising God’s authority or claiming God’s wisdom because we are not God.

In resisting the temptation to be like God, Jesus countered every word of the tempter with a word of God. By doing this, he proved himself to be the Son of God and accepted the limitations of power and authority imposed upon him. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “though Jesus was in form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The good news is Jesus’ victory over temptation provides us with hope that we, too can resist if we trust God and God’s word. Jesus’ example shows us the power of God’s word. The woman and the man’s downfall was trusting the tempter’s word as the basis for their choice and, thus, not trusting God’s word. But we must rely on the truth, the faithfulness of the word of God no matter what other voices declare it absurd or invalid. No matter what experiences urges us to doubt or presume on it.

Jesus’ victory over temptation gives us life beyond our bondage to sin and death. Because Jesus, Son of God, resisted the temptation to be like God, because he accepted being a servant, taking on himself our full humanity including all the burden of our sin and guilt, we are saved.

We still experience temptations and we still may sin. But through Christ we have the strength and the courage to be the people God created us to be, the people who are truly ourselves when we live in an intimate relationship with God and as a community of mutuality with each other.

As John Calvin writes, “We are God’s people; let us therefore live for God. We are God’s people; let God’s wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s people; let all parts of our life strive toward God as our only goal.” We are God’s people let us find our life and rest in God alone.

Words for the Wise

The light was so radiant and so bright it overwhelmed everything. No longer were the tops of the other mountains or the valleys stretching out from the mountain visible. Even the dark brown ground and rocks and crags were hidden from sight as the entire mountaintop was bathed in warm radiance.

The light shone with an intensity the three of them had never known before in their lives transforming the dull cloth of Jesus’ clothing a dazzling white that was sparkling like diamonds sending shoots of light all around him. Even transforming his face into an iridescent glow.

Then, in the middle of this wondrous light Moses and Elijah appeared! And, they were speaking with Jesus! Here were the two advocates for Torah and the covenant. Here were the two prophets from old. The prophets the people rejected, but whom God vindicated. The prophets who performed miracles and who had been taken up into the transcendent glory of God! Here were Moses and Elijah who had both spoken to God on Mountaintops. Who had been in the presence of the Lord of the universe, the creator of life and had spoken to God directly just as they were now speaking to Jesus directly. This was not simply an echo of the Exodus and the still small voice on the mountain; it was the continuing conversation with God.

“It is true,” they thought. “Jesus is God with us. He is the fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. He really did not come to abolish Torah and the prophets, but he came to bring all of scripture to fulfillment.” He is the Messiah just as Peter had blurted out six days before on a mountaintop outside of Caesarea Philippi, the ancient city twenty miles or so north of the Sea of Galilee that is ringed by idols in the hills and grottos. It was there Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” And, Peter got it right, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Peter was excited when Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer and said Peter was the rock upon whom Jesus was going to build his community of followers. But, when Jesus said he must go to suffer and die and be raised on the third day all Peter heard was suffer and die. “No, you can’t. May God not allow that to happen!” Peter said as he took Jesus aside. “It really was,” as one theologian notes, “only human that the disciples in their minds thought what Peter blurted out. They began looking for alternatives to what Jesus said was going to happen. They became desperate for a second opinion, a way to stop time,” a way to stop the journey to Jerusalem. But, Jesus had rebuked Peter sharply calling him “Satan.” The name of one who had tried tempting Jesus in the wilderness to turn away from God. Satan came to Jesus after Jesus had fasted for forty days in the wilderness-an echo of the flood and the exodus- and at the time Satan thought Jesus might be ripe for the temptation of turning away from God for food, for power and wealth, or at least being willing to doubt God’s faithfulness and promises of salvation and life by putting God to the test in the act of jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple. But at the Caesarea Philippi grotto it was Peter who was tempting Jesus to be unfaithful to God by refusing to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die and be raised on the third day. The inevitability of the cross at the end of Lent weighs heavily on the disciples just as it does on us. The cross seems too horrific, too difficult, too harsh to be part of theirs’ and our deep reflection on our relationship with God.

Except, that now in this moment when the radiant light was washing over him and the two other disciples, Peter thinks he has finally gotten it. Now, is the age of God’s glory, the kingdom of God has now come! The life of toil, sin, pain and death has passed. “Lord,” Peter exclaims,” it is good for us to be here, if you wish I will make three booths, three tabernacles, here. One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” The words declaring the desire to build a sanctuary away from the world, away from the heartache, the stories of loss in mundane human lives, the suffering friends,  the child who is ill, the career that has fallen apart, the relationship that seems beyond healing and the pondering about whether we dare risk the price of weeping and suffering, celebration and surprise when life is somehow redeemed or choose distance and an emotional fortress designed to keep sorrow at bay by also keeping joy at bay.

The words were no sooner off his lips than a great cloud of light and rumbling sounds overshadowed them like the Shekinah, the presence of the Lord, resting on the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, and the great cloud that enveloped Moses on Sinai. Then, they heard the same voice Moses had heard and the same voice Elijah had heard on their mountaintop experiences. It is the same voice repeating now, as at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Filled with awe and fear Peter, James, and John fell to the ground. Maybe Peter’s excitement had gotten the best of him again. Maybe he had tried to confine God’s kingdom to the narrow thirty feet of this mountaintop. Maybe Peter is a reminder to us to be wary of those who tell us being a follower Christ is easy and care free. Those who are like the Rev. Terry Cole Whittaker, the fifty something former Mrs. California, who preaches every Sunday in front of thousands of people in huge convention center in San Diego and to thousands more on television stations around the country the gospel of prosperity based upon her book, “How to have more in a have-not world.” “You can have exactly what you want, when you want it, all the time,” she teaches. “Affluence is your right!” For a donation of $25 or more she will send you a “prosperity kit” consisting of a cassette tape, booklet, and a bumper sticker, all designed to enhance your awareness of abundance. “I consider myself, “she declares, “the spokesman for the spirituality of the New Age. Heaven is a cinch! You can have it all, now!”

Whatever it was, the words of the Lord were still ringing in their ears “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

They were the words Isaiah spoke about God’s servant who was going to suffer because he faithfully and obediently lived God’s justice, kindness, and love. Because he will take upon himself all our iniquities, the consequences of all our sins, suffering for us to redeem us.  Perhaps, that was what Jesus was telling them six days before. He is God’s suffering servant. Maybe that’s what God meant by saying, Listen to him!” Listen to him because as C. S. Lewis writes the final word from Aslan in the “Silver Chair,” Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly, I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear, as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Perhaps, God is preparing them to for the time when they will go back down the mountain into the valley where life is lived each day and where Jesus will walk to Jerusalem and to the cross. Maybe that is why we need to remember that the word “listen” in Hebrew is “Shema” and means not only to hear the words being spoken, but it also means “obey the words you hear being spoken.” Live those words every day! Let them be words to the wise, words for the wise.

So, what had Jesus been saying? Blessed are those who are poor-who admit they are dependent upon God for their life and are grateful to God for life. Blessed are those who work for peace-not just to end violence, but who strive to eradicate violence and hatred like the dread disease smallpox that no longer exists. Blessed are those who mourn-who share in and lament the suffering of others. Blessed are those who are humble and who are gentle-who seek to influence without coercion, rather influencing others through self-giving love. Blessed are those who are as persecuted and reviled as Jesus himself is because they are being as faithful and obedient to God as Jesus.

But, that is not all Jesus had said. For Jesus also said, that the one who is great will be servant of all. That the first will be last. That any person who wants to follow Jesus will deny themselves-will not be ego and self-centered, but will be God-centered. They will pick up a cross and follow Jesus. That the one who seeks to save their life as the wisdom of the world says is the way to save your life through owning all the latest toys, by engaging in the latest fad, by going after wealth, success, power, status, celebrity will lose their life in the desert of emptiness and meaninglessness. While those who lose their life for the sake of God, will have life because just as God vindicated the prophets, so too will God vindicate Jesus in his resurrection and vindicate all of us in ours.

What else was Jesus saying? Welcome the little children. From the street children of Buenos Ares or the migrant children living in Livingston, Monroe, Wayne and Ontario Counties to the street gangs in some 4800 American cities, towns, and villages. From the children kidnapped and trained to kill other children in Zambia or those who are sold into slavery by poverty-stricken parents to those orphaned by tsunamis, the AIDS pandemic, or by earthquakes in Haiti, Africa, New Zealand, or Australia. From those who had used alcohol and drugs to blot out years of abuse to those who live in abundance, but who still do self-destructive acts. Welcome all the children. No matter whom they are, where they are from, what they look like, dress like, or talk like. Feed them, clothe them, care for them when you see them lying on the side of the road bruised and bleeding. Be compassionate, be forgiving, be patient, and be loving. For there are no barriers, there are no walls; there are no distinctions that can possibly separate God’s children from each other because God loves all equally and unconditionally.

What else will Jesus be saying? More and more about being students learning to be faithful and obedient to God by learning to serve each other as they follow Jesus. Jesus who is the focus of their faith.  Jesus who offers the new model of faith that is, “the circle where God lives in full solidarity with people and people with one another.” Jesus who comes to give us all a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, and a new body.” Shema! Hear him! Listen to him! Obey him! Let Jesus transform you into a wondrous light shining so brightly it makes the incarnate God real in the everyday, ordinary, mundane lives of all humanity for that is where God is truly with us, within us.

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