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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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“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.

 

 

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“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.

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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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Bob Diehl was on his way up the corporate ladder in New York City. He knew where he wanted to go and how he was going to get there.

“I was determined,” he said, “to make a lot of money and be president of a corporation.” He saw his future clearly. Knew every step to take along the path he was walking. He clearly knew who he was, what he thought about himself and his family, his place in the world, and the way life was supposed to be.

Then, as that wonderful theologian John Lennon said, “real life got in the way while he was making other plans” because suddenly and unexpectedly he was caught by the challenge of the mysterious and uncertain call to “drop his nets and follow Jesus.”

“I was a good Catholic,” he said, “which meant I went to mass on Sunday mornings.” But as he got closer to the top of the corporate ladder, “the more I realized that to play the corporate game I had to play meant giving up my faith. It was then; I realized God was calling me to change the direction of my life.”

Calling he and his wife to leave their suburban lifestyle with all the trappings of big and expensive house, two cars, the technological gadgets and recreational toys to begin a journey like the one Peter, Andrew, James and John began one early morning on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The mist of the early morning had dissolved in the brightness of the early morning and Zebedee, a fisherman of no great importance, sat on the deck of his boat with his two sons James and John. The fishing was done for the day. The catch of fish had been taken to market. Now, they were sitting on the deck of the boat that was resting at ease on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and they were tending to the busyness of mending their nets, planning the next morning’s fishing when a voice from the shore calls.

“James! John! Sons of Zebedee! Come. Follow me! And, I will make you fishers of men and woman.”

Without a word, James and John drop their nets to join Jesus and Peter and Andrew.

Now, I wonder what Zebedee thought about this because when I finally realized God was calling me to pastoral ministry and I was about to enter seminary, I called my Dad, who was living in California. I said, “Dad, I am going to seminary to become a minister.” Silence. Absolute silence. It had taken me forty-six years, but I finally made the old man speechless. So, I wonder what Zebedee felt when his two sons dropped their nets. What did he think? What would he have said?

Might he have said, “You know, I heard the voice calling, “James! John!” but, I didn’t know who it was. I just saw a young man accompanied by two other men I recognized as the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. I only later learned his name is Jesus. Well, John and James dropped their nets in mid-mend. Just like that. They drop their mending hooks, hemp strands, climb off the boat to join that young man. No good-bye. No, “Shalom, Poppa.” They do not even ask if they could leave. They just drop their work. I was stunned. Of course, my sons are known to be hot heads, the kind of men who act first and think later, but never had they just left in the middle of doing their work. Yet, this Jesus summons them to follow him and they obey immediately. I was stunned. They never obeyed me like that. Later, I heard Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were in the midst of fishing when this Jesus called them, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men and women.”

They, too, just dropped their nets and left their boat. They did not even stop to fold their nets or give their boat to someone for safekeeping. No! Jesus calls; they drop their nets, and go off to who knows where and doing who knows what. He just barges into their lives like with my sons. My sons were not thinking about following this Jesus. They were not thinking about changing their lives all around.  That was the farthest thing from their minds. We were talking about the fishing, the nets, our family, and when they would inherit the boat when Jesus intrudes into our lives, disrupting everything, and changing everything with his, “Come follow me.”

Of course, that’s how God calls people. He intrudes in people’s lives without asking their permission. He disrupts their neatly laid plans and the way they think the world works. Think about Abraham and Sarah. I doubt they were planning to leave Ur and everything including their family to wander around until God told them to stop. Moses wasn’t planning to return to Egypt. David was a child watching his father’s sheep. Every Prophet from Elisha to Malachi was just living their lives when God showed up to call them to prophetic ministry. Mary was doing household chores like the good Jewish girl she was when Gabriel showed up saying, “Greetings, favored one!” Even Joseph was simply sleeping when he received the call to name Jesus.

So, it really makes perfect sense for Jesus to just show up with his” come follow me” not as a question or a request, rather as an invitation to begin a journey without really knowing exactly the destination or all that will be required of a person. After all, Jesus is God with us. Why wouldn’t he do a very God kind of thing?

Now, Peter, Andrew, John and James had no idea where they were going or what exactly they were going to be doing by following Jesus. They probably didn’t know any better than we do what being a fisher of men really meant. However, they would soon learn what Jesus was calling them to do as they followed him throughout Galilee. Going to Capernaum by the sea then down to Mt. Carmel and then around Gilead. Tracing the outline of the ancient tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali, lands lost and people lost when Assyria conquered the land and scattered the people in exile like blades of grass blown far and wide by the wind, they would witness words of the prophet Isaiah coming true, “In the former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. A people who lived in deep darkness on them light has shined.”  These first disciples of Jesus they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were part of those people who lived in darkness until the light of Christ came to shine upon them and that light was calling them to choose to change by following Jesus.

You see, as they witnessed with their eyes Jesus’ healing and witnessed with their ears Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, they were experiencing directly all of God’s promises that Isaiah prophesied, “You have multiplied the nation, and you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you with joy at the harvest, for the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. See, a child has been born to us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

As they saw Jesus healing every disease, every sickness and every affliction what they were experiencing was a foretaste of the pouring out of God’s steadfast love and mercy that all people of the world would receive on the day of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the resurrection.

And, what they would learn on the journey with Jesus was that Jesus was calling them to not only drop their nets and be eye witnesses and ear witnesses to the coming reality of what Isaiah said, “Once a people walked in darkness, dwelled in a land of deep darkness, but the people have seen a great light;” the great light of God’s endless peace, justice and righteousness, but Jesus was calling them to participate in this new thing God was doing. Calling them to cast out their nets woven together of the good news of God’s grace and be part of God’s gathering all people of the world into the new life of God’s kingdom through Jesus the Christ because it is in God’s kingdom where the whole community of humanity’s life would be sustained, where every human community would discover its well-being. That’s what Jesus meant when he said and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men and women because God’s gathering of people into the community of God’s people would come through their discipleship and through actions as God’s servants. They left their nets behind them along with families and friends and their settled seemingly predictable lives to learn from Jesus how to serve God’s plans for humanity and not their own plans, their own ambitions, their own bias or their own desires.

As a matter of fact, one of the most important lessons they had to learn was to trust God and not to look back about all the changes that were happening to them. It was a little like climbing a mountain. One of the first things experienced mountain climbers tell people is” don’t look down” as Kari Myers writes it,” because when you have a long way to fall then your attention is focused on falling and fear grasps hold of you and all you can think about are all the problems and barriers to climbing the mountain. That happens to individuals and it happens to congregations. We can always come up with a list of substantial reasons why we cannot overcome the challenges God sets before us. Sometimes it’s too hard, too big, too complicated, too unmanageable, too new, and uncertain, unproven. Yet, it really isn’t about how high the mountain is or how weak the climber is. Rather, it is about God and it is about the disciples realizing that when they focus on God and going where Jesus is leading then they could do whatever God in Christ is calling them to do.

The second lesson they had to learn was that being God’s servant meant serving others and recognizing that, “as Barbara De Grote Sorenson and David Allen Sorenson tells us, “that servant hood is a gift of grace God gives to those who are givers to heal us of our sinfulness, our self-centeredness, our self-preoccupation, and selfishness” so we might sustain and promote the well-being of others without worrying about rewards or what we get out of it. Because, we know as lesson one reminds us that we trust God’s generosity. After all God is the one who gave us life in the first place.

Finally, the disciples had to learn that in every generation God is calling men, women, old and young alike to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.

Indeed, Jesus called all of us. Oh, it may sound like a tiny voice calling you to get up out of bed  and go to worship or shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk after a snowfall or maybe it was a deep, unnamed feeling that told you that you needed to be focused on God’s agenda for humanity; or it may have been Jesus calling you through the voice of your mother, your father, your wife, your husband, your child, or simply the rhythm of life telling you today is the Sabbath, the resting time of God’s Kairos time, but it was Jesus calling you.

And, just to be clear, Jesus will be continuing to call all of you. Intruding into your life. Disrupting your neatly laid plans. Calling each of you to take a journey whose destination is not exactly known, to participate in a ministry that is the new thing God is doing now in your midst, which in this moment remains a mystery, somewhat uncertain and may when it is known make you or others speechless.

It might be as advocates for food justice or immigration justice for farm workers and farmers alike. It might be becoming a healing center for those suffering from moral injury and Post Traumatic Stress or being advocates for better access to mental health treatments.

It might be…. anything. But, it will be a ministry that will gather people together in community to sustain and promote the well being of this community and the whole community of God’s people around the world.

The only real question all of us need answer is, will we drop our nets and follow Christ?

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“I’ve heard your anguish, I’ve heard your hearts cry out,

’ we are tired, we are weary and we are torn out,’

set down your chains until only faith remains,

set down your chains and lend your voices only to the sounds of freedom,

no longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Fill your lives with love and bravery and we shall lead a life uncommon,” these song lyrics written by Jewell remind us God calls us to an expansive, deep, commitment in a life where humanity’s imagination is beckoned to embrace a vision of the possibilities for a vibrant, thriving community life far different than the fear based life so many people feel trapped within,

This life begins with the risen Christ coming to quicken, to bring alive, a festival of eternal springtime in the innermost heart of humanity,” Brother Roger of Taize wrote in 1970, “Christ is preparing for us a springtime of the Church-a Church devoid of the means of power, ready to share with all persons a place of visible communion. Christ is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation, of unity. Christ is going to prepare us to give our lives so that one person will no longer be the victim of another person.”

A life uncommon is the vision Paul is writing the house churches of Corinth to embrace as God’s call filled with immense possibilities that go beyond the little, trivial status seeking, having arrived self assured, individualistic salvation sometimes articulated as ”I have my Jesus, my salvation, my ticket to heaven is punched, so don’t bother me about some commitment to the world, to other people.” This was, of course, part of the Corinthian church’s conflict fueled by spiritual arrogance, attachment to a charismatic-celebrity teacher, wanting everyone to be like minded, and the misconceptions about why they existed as a community of faith in the first place.

Now, private faith in a personal future is more comforting and marketable as so many television preachers from Tammy Faye Bakker to Joel Osteen have discovered, however such faith has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn’t really spell good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the left out. Not only that, but such individualism is unbiblical because God is not focused on saving one person, God aims to save all the people, to transform the whole of humanity. But more importantly, such a private faith is simply too small, too shallow to be the call of the God, who makes mountains rise up from the seas, who makes deserts into an oasis, who turns the cries of mourning into giggling laughter, whose way of creating human life is the image for how creation itself was created in the beginning and is being created even in this very moment.

Which is why, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians toward this life uncommon by beginning this letter with his call to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul asserts his call to this ministry is not by his choosing. This wasn’t his desire. Remember Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was a persecutor of the church because his understanding of who God was, and is as well as how God intended the life of God’s people to be lived did not include Jesus as messiah. However, God had other plans for Paul, plans that began on the road to Damascus. Plans sending Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and a church planter in places like Thessalonica and Corinth. This wasn’t Paul’s plan for his life, it was God’s plan for Paul’s life and, by the way, it wasn’t so Paul could be rich and famous, a celebrity of the church because if you sent Paul’s resume out to any church, including this one he’d never get called to be a pastor. Indeed, there is a story about a church that received Paul’s resume when they were searching for a pastor and they even rejected Paul. I know Paul is telling the truth because if you asked anyone I went to high school with if they thought I’d be a pastor; they’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Indeed, it took me years before I really thought God might be calling me to ministry.

The point is that Paul was called by God to be Christ’s apostle just as the house congregations of Corinth were gathered together by God and called by God to witness by their lives to God’s grace in Christ-together with ALL those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. The ALL are not simply those in Corinth, they are every Christian community from Jerusalem to Ethiopia to India to Pakistan to Rome to Spain to the Slavic tribes of Central Asia to China and Korea. God’s community of faith is not limited to any one congregation in any one place, rather God’s community stretches north, south, east, west and all the way to the ends of the earth and every community of faith has all the knowledge, the ability to speak and witness to the gospel, all the spiritual gifts it needs to be God’s people. It is by God’s acts in Jesus Christ that the Christian church exists at all.

Which is the reason, the church of Jesus Christ is so much larger than just one congregation in one city or town or village or denomination, which ought to make us more aware that American Christianity is growing in amazing, yet hidden ways. For decades, we have heard that Christian churches in America are declining, so we need to work to get stores to have Christmas sales, we need the ten commandments carved into the stones of our public buildings, and we need have government sanctioned prayer in schools otherwise we’ll stop being a predominately Christian nation-if we ever really were one in the first place. What nonsense!

Yes the mainline Protestant churches’ membership have been declining, however the truth is captured in this tidbit of information. There were 200 churches in the city of Boston in 1970, but thirty years later there were 412 churches. From 2001 to 2006, 98 new churches were planted in Boston. Does this sound like decline? Of course not, but here is the important part of the story. Most of these “new” churches were immigrant or multiethnic congregations of Asian, Haitian Creole, Hispanic and other immigrant peoples. It is true that mainline, ethnically northern European congregations declined, but God’s church, the church of Jesus Christ wasn’t declining. It was growing!!! It is becoming more diverse because it is reaching to the ends of the earth and ALL those who call on the name of Jesus are called to be Christ’s body because as Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, wrote her Carmelite sisters, “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours, no hands, but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing well; yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless men and women now.”  This is what some call an incarnational theology-the idea we are to be Christ to the world by fully embracing  and embodying God’s love for the world, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies,” as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian churches.

This is the life uncommon God calls every person to embrace, yet it is a life that can at times make one feel tired and worn out as the prophet Isaiah speaks about. This servant experiences this call from God beginning when God was creating and forming this person in the womb to the moment when the servant was tired and worn out as though he has done everything he could do, everything God called him to do, and still his efforts have not borne the fruit he desired. This servant in whom God was to be glorified had momentarily forgotten one thing, it wasn’t up to him to make his efforts bear fruit, God would do that.

Quite honestly, this is a common mistake. It is made every time church folks say, “we’re bringing the kingdom of God to fulfillment or we’re bringing God to this city” as if God’s kingdom weren’t already here, as if God was late because JetBlue grounded the flight due to weather. However, it is a serious concern as one young, high school woman told Rodger Nishioka several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do campaign was at peak. She had been given a bracelet with the WWJD on it, as Rodger tells the story, and she fully understood it was to be reminder that we follow Jesus and that we are to be guided by Jesus’ actions in every facet of our lives. Her problem, she said, was that she didn’t see how it was possible to know what Jesus would actually do, let alone do it faithfully because as she said, somewhat exasperated by being reminded that we have scriptures and a wide community of believers to help us, “yeah, but don’t you see! I’m not Jesus I am fully human, but I am not fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to even assume that I could imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God.”

And, she has a point. None of us are God. None of us are Jesus and for sure, even those of us we have received Master of Divinity degrees are not really Masters of the Divine. Yes, what we are really to be doing is living lives that embody Christ and to love the world as God loves the world, but we must understand the world will not be saved by what I do or what you do.

Rather, it will be saved by what God has done, is doing and continues to do in the world around us and for the world through us by being present with us, strengthening us when we need the strength to, like the servant in Isaiah, keep on keeping on being those whose lives point other people to Christ like John the Baptist, who calls people to see Jesus Christ, to see God at work in the world by saying, “Hey look, God is alive, God is in our midst. Behold the Lamb of God .Behold, the Holy Spirit is weaving among us and within us, transforming circumstance and people,” for a life uncommon.

A life that is a festival of eternal springtime here and now lived in the visible communion of the whole humanity, whose voices sing songs of freedom and who lend their strength only to living into the expansive possibilities of God’s call setting them free to live lives filled with love and bravery.

 

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