1.29.2008

The Transfiguration

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 99
II Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Have you ever had a "Mountain Top Experience"? Is that term even familiar for you? Having hung around churches most of our lives we have heard several people share their own stories around their "Mountain Top Experiences". Most of the time it goes something like this...

"And so we were all there together, and we had been praying and singing, and I really felt God show up" or "I had been on retreat by myself for the weekend and as I was walking along the lake I saw an egret gliding across the water as the sun was coming up and I knew in that moment that I was in the presence of God."

Without having done any official research, anecdotal evidence tells us that there are a few common characteristics of a "Mountain Top Experience"
• intentional time away from normal pace / events / people / surroundings of life
• a different physical / geographic setting (not necessarily on a mountain top)
• some sort of experience of / meeting with / different understanding of God

This week we are looking at two of the original and archetypical "Mountain Top Experiences" in the stories of Moses going up Mount Sinai and Jesus going up an unnamed high mountain.

Preceding this week’s Exodus passage, Moses has been on the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel. There on the mountain, they find themselves in the presence of God, whom they see and then in whose presence they eat and drink. In this week’s reading, Moses has been summoned by God back up the mountain to receive the tablets. He takes with him his assistant, Joshua. We don’t know much about Joshua – only that he is referred to earlier in the Exodus and that he ultimately leads the Israelites into the Promised Land after Moses’ death. Up on the mountain, a cloud descends and Moses spends 42 days and nights (code for a long, long time) in the presence of God.

The Psalmist writes about the experience of Moses and Aaron and the elders. The verses echo many experiences with God throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. God is praised for his responsiveness, his mercy and might.

In Matthew, we encounter Jesus with James, John and Peter. They have been traveling and teaching and healing. These men have been through a lot. In particular, Peter seems to be marked. He has walked on water and saved in his moment of doubt by Jesus’ hand. In an infamous exchange, Peter has declared that Jesus is the Son of Man – the Messiah, much awaited in the Jewish tradition. In response, Jesus has proclaimed that Peter is the rock on which the church will be built. In the next breath, Jesus scolds Peter for his lack of faith. We know a lot about Peter’s experiences with Jesus.

So here they are on the mountain. They must have been weary, drained by all that they have seen and done. In a scene that echoes the literature of the Hebrew scripture, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, his face and clothing shine, and a voice speaks from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” As Jesus comforts his companions in their understandable awe, he asks that they tell no one of this vision until after he is raised from the dead. Hmmm.

What would you do?

2 Peter was written as the apostle Peter’s testament. There is debate about the actual author, but clearly, the letter was written to pass along Peter’s experiences and his teachings, perhaps by one of his own disciples. In a way, the testament is a fulfillment of the command Peter received when Jesus appears after the resurrection. Even after Peter has denied Christ in the shadow of the cross, days later Jesus affirms him and commands him three times…if you love me, feed my sheep. In this week’s reading, the author of 2 Peter is witnessing not just to the experience on the mountain, but to the reality of personal experiences with God and the obligation that comes with these experiences.

  • If we have some sort of “Mountaintop Experience”, whether we seek it out or have one imposed on us, are we obligated to respond in some way?
  • What must we do to prepare ourselves for these types of Experiences? Is there anything we can do, or must we simply wait for God to initiate the meeting?
  • Can we orchestrate, or ‘force’, communication with God?
  • In what ways do you prepare for or invite encounters with God?
  • Who do we expect to validate the prophecies we hear or the experiences that we have?

"Great God, humble us so that we will be capable of hearing your Word. We thank you for the gift of yourself in the Scripture. We rejoice in its complexity. Give us the simplicity to be confounded by your Word. Amen"

Stanley Hauerwas
Prayers Plainly Spoken

1.22.2008

Third Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 9.1-4
Psalm 27.1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Matthew 4.12-23

Have you ever been called to do something you did not think you would be able to do? Have you ever felt pulled toward a lifestyle change that you were afraid you would not capable of living? Have you ever turned away from something because you were afraid of how it might change who you are or that it might cause you to stand out from your neighbors or peers?

This week we continue in the season of Epiphany. It is a season that calls to mind the basic creation realities of Light and Dark, and this week is no different. We see people who are brought from the Darkness in to the Light of God because of their obedience to (their maintenance of relationship with) God. We see examples of people who had the courage to stay true to their commitment to God rather than follow along with what conventional / popular wisdom might call them toward.

In Isaiah we see the prophet singing the praises of God in reference to the just ruling of a King. Isaiah was in favor of having a King because he believed that the Davidic line was instituted by God, and in this case (as best as we can discern) he is excited by what King Hezekiah has done, and will do, to keep the people of Judah safe. There were even hopes Hezekiah might be the one to reunite Judah and Israel. Isaiah is assuming that because Hezekiah has / will remain faithful to God then they will find themselves in wonderful places and no longer in places of Darkness.

The Psalmist talks of God being his Light and Salvation. God is strength, a lifegiver, a protector. Even when there are enemies all around, the writer talks of sacrifices with joy and singing to God. In this Psalm we get to see in to the head and heart of the writer as he convinces himself that staying faithful to God is the right thing to do.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is trying to take some of the confusion from the people. He is calling this community to a new level of humility. Because of its location and status within the Roman Empire, we can assume that the community in Corinth was accustomed to a highly defined social structure. The message Paul is delivering is not just monumental for this church, but for the society in which this church community existed. Evidently there has been some in-fighting in their young community because some folks feel that there was a hierarchy within the community related to who Baptized them. Paul reminds them that their salvation is not related to social status. He re-focuses them toward the truth that the message of Christ is literally the power of God for those who hear / accept it…no matter from whom they received it. Those from whom they receive the gospel message or by whom they were baptized are humble disciples, obediently responding to a call for which they may or may not have been prepared.

It might be helpful to remember that 1 Corinthians was written to an early (first generation) community of Christians. It was penned to a community of Gentile Christians prior to the writing of the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. The gospel message as we read it today was actually shaped by the experiences of early Christian communities like this one to which Paul writes. The gospels were written in response to needs observed as these early communities struggled to understand how to function through the events that followed Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, the ensuing period of waiting for a second coming, and the eventual fall of the Temple. These early churches were caught in the midst of discerning what Jesus’ message meant to their political and social circumstances day by day.

Matthew gives us his version of the calling of the first disciples. (There is plenty to guess about why Matthew’s version is different from John’s, for today we will simply remind every one that Matthew and John were written after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, probably both to Jewish Christian audiences). Being a disciple of a rabbi was not a hobby. Rabbis only called disciples they believed had the intellect and the ability to teach their yoke (teachings / interpretations of the Torah specific to each rabbi).

So we see Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and he sees two fishermen doing their daily work. They were fishermen. They were certainly important to the economy, they were certainly important to the markets, they were certainly important in keeping their families alive. These were men that worked hard with their hands and their bodies with boats and fish every day. However, we can assume they did not spend a lot of time in the temple or the synagogue studying Torah. We do not know if they “applied” to be the disciples of any particular rabbi or not. What we do know is at that moment, they were not out looking to become students of anyone. They were working. They were fishing. But when their call to follow a teacher came, they dropped what they were doing with obedience and followed. The text says “immediately” - “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Much like the early community of Corinth, we read these words with our own experience of hierarchies, prerequisites to authority and status ascribed to certain roles, certifications and offices or positions. We also read these words sometimes feeling called to do work that we feel woefully unprepared to do. Like Simon and Peter, we are happily mending our nets and preparing our boats for the next day of fishing. Call comes at unexpected times and in unexpected places. If we are truly disciples, how do we respond?

+How does your Christian community understand its call? What levels of authority or status exist within that community?
+How do you let go of the work in front of you to respond to the call of one who needs you?
+How do you understand the call placed on your life? What do you think you need in order to be prepared to respond to that call? Can you respond with obedience without preparation, authority, expertise?
+What gives a person the authority to build the Kingdom of God?

Blessings On Each One of Us, Lord
Blessings on every creature as we attempt to make sense of our lives,
to find the meaning in them, and to praise you,
Our creator, for all that you lay before us.
Form our words. Shape our lives.
Open our hearts and mouths to share our words and our lives
with those who hunger for your words and your life.
Thank you that our gifts can touch others.
Thank you for the ways others bless us.
Open our eyes to see, our ears to hear
Our spirits to witness those gifts, those blessings.
You who created sun and moon and stars;
You who can see the scope of infinity, guide us,
so that we wander not in the wilderness, alone,
but toward your oasis with a camel
and a community traveling beside us.

Cathy Warner, in Courageous Spirit: Voices from Women in Ministry

1.15.2008

Second Sunday of Epiphany

Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm: Psalm 40:1-11
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
New Testament: John 1:29-42

Do you ever worry that you’ll miss the boat? That the perfect opportunity will come along--the Thing you’ve hoped for--and you will be too afraid, too distracted or too vain to walk away from what you Have and Risk achieving What You Have Waited For? Or do you ever feel like you have all that you need, and in that Space of Satisfaction, do you think that you might have missed something that you should have seen?

Whether it is a vocation, a relationship, a house, a trip or an item on the clearance rack, you’ve probably passed up an opportunity without knowing or perhaps even considering the opportunity cost. Or maybe you boldly moved toward the unknown, not passing up the newly presented opportunity. But what did you leave behind? What might you miss?

This week Epiphany continues, and the readings shed more and more light on who this Jesus is and the possibilities he represents. Last week, Jesus was consecrated and set apart. This week, John testifies about the meaning of this consecration and Jesus begins to gather his disciples. We get to watch the disciples ask what it means to take a risk.

In the Isaiah passage, a first-person voice paints a picture of what God desires of a certain chosen servant. God’s charge is to do something bigger than merely save Israel: God says to Isaiah, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Wow. In the context of the early Christian church, that was probably read in light of the expansion of Christ’s teaching beyond Judaism toward Christianity; but in our context today, what does it mean to ponder God empowering a servant to shed light in dark corners so that salvation might reach the End of the Earth? There is a chance our own call is not all that different from Isaiah’s or Israel’s call.

The Psalmist reflects on a God that is steadfast. These words are obviously written by someone that was confident of God’s faithfulness. She (or he) was certain of his/her calling to be in relationship with God. Over time, God has proven faithfulness to the people. This is a God who has drawn the people out of one bad spot after another in spite of how they adhered to written laws and the observance of sacrifices and offerings. Psalms were the prayers and the hymns for Jews in Jesus’ day. As you stretch your mind around these words, think about Jesus learning from these same words in his community. How would that shape a teacher? A prophet? A leader?

The Epistle reading is the greeting from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. There is a lot packed into these few lines. Paul is reminding this community that they are “called” to be saints. He reminds them that grace has been given to them…not earned. He reminds them that God is faithful. While they wait, while they grow together, called into community because of their fellowship in Christ’s teachings, they cannot earn this love from God. It is faithfully offered to them with Grace.

It seems that encouraging someone to accept Grace is tantamount to asking them to risk that God’s Love and Forgiveness actually exist and might even trump one’s own guilt-driven flagellation. Trusting what God tells us is a difficult thing to live in to some times.

Two really important things happen in the gospel lesson this week. One is that John testifies to his own disciples that the spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism, revealing to John Jesus’ place as “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” By naming Jesus the “Lamb of God,” John references the Passover lamb and makes a direct connection between Jesus’s coming and the deliverance of Israel. John believes that this Lamb of God has come to take away the “sin of the world.” He does not reference the sin of this person or that person or the sin of those who don’t follow the law or of those who trip and fall over some social expectation. No, this Jesus was sent to take away the sin of the world.

This raises an important question about what we might be missing today. In Brian McLaren’s book, The Secret Message of Jesus, he wonders with his readers if we have maybe been asking the wrong question for thousands of years. He marvels at the complexity of parables, wondering if they are puzzles that call us to struggle with words to find deeper meaning.

What if Jesus wasn’t here to save us individually, but to save us collectively, to take away the Sin of the World? Certainly John read the prophets and the Psalms and would have picked up on the visions of salvation that reaches the end of the earth or of a God that did not require burnt offerings or blind obedience to a law.

Another question brought up in this week’s reading is found in the movement of Peter and Andrew from being John’s disciples to being followers of Jesus. After John’s testimony, Andrew, who has been following John to this point, goes to find his brother. He nudges him, “Hey, this is The One. This is the Messiah.” Jesus now has his first two disciples--Peter and Andrew. It is a new beginning. They felt The Pull or The Drawing or The Calling inside of them so deeply that they knew they needed to attach their entire livelihood to Jesus (we will do more thinking about what it means to be a disciple another day).

But what if Andrew hadn’t quite grasped what John was saying? Were there those with John who heard him and looked the other way? In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Ciaphas the High Priest comforts Judas by telling him he has “backed the right horse” by turning Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. How many heard John’s message and later Jesus’ message and didn’t “get” it. How many of us have read these same passages and “backed the wrong horse” intentionally or otherwise.

In Christian community, each of us in called into the fellowship of Jesus. Even if we don’t recognize the circumstances of the call, we choose daily in our choices and actions whether to heed that call. Without question, all of us occasionally back the wrong horse. And there is Grace when we make the wrong choices or move past a chance to shed Light in Dark Spaces. We get a chance tomorrow and the next day and the next. God is faithful and by Him, you were called into the fellowship of his Son.

+Where do you feel called?
+Do you sense that opportunities have passed you by? If so, what do you do differently because of that?
+Is it risky to accept Grace?
+What is the difference between your sin and the sin of the world?
+What is the difference between your love and the love of the world?

The eyes of my heart, O God,
are clouded over by daily cares and fears.
By the power of your Holy Spirit,
restore my sight.
Cause the scales to fall from my eyes,
through the study of your holy Scriptures,
that I may suffer no confusion
but walk forth in confidence,
with your word being a lamp to my feet
and a light to my pathway;
through Christ who is true light and vision. Amen.

Laurence Hull Stookey, This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer

1.08.2008

Baptism of Jesus

This second week of Epiphany week we remember the Baptism of Jesus. It is difficult (maybe impossible) to try and apply any sort of chronological coherence to the lectionary readings—last week Jesus was a toddler and in three weeks he begins his journey toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion! Nevertheless, this week we find John Baptizing Jesus.

Now, you don’t need us to emphasize that this is an Important Moment. As we read the scripture in Matthew (and even if we compare it to how the story unfolds in the other gospels) we can see that this is the event that propels Jesus in to his official public ministry. Before this all we really know of him through the scripture is that (assuming you were listening to Heather’s Story for All Ages last Sunday) Jesus was growing up and had been found in the temple impressing rabbis. His Baptism is the moment that it all begins. Before there was a lot of rumor and assumption and conjecture, but this is where Jesus is Affirmed and Named and Ordained by God.

There is a lot of potency in this moment.

Even within this scene of Baptism expectation continues to mount as the water rushes by John and Jesus (and whomever else might be standing around).

John had been publicly talking and dreaming about Jesus. He had been laying the path for Jesus--Preparing the Way. Today the Eastern Orthodox Church still refers to John as St. John the Forerunner —he was the one who came before the One who was to come. We do not know from this text if Jesus and John knew one another before hand. It is fun to assume that they did since their mothers were relatives and both boys were the result of some Divine Intervetion. It is fun to assume they grew up together and learned Torah together and knew which one ran the fastest and which one sung the best.

But when Jesus shows up at the Jordan where crowds from Jerusalem have gathered for Baptism John protests. John is Baptizing for Repentance, an important concept in the return to covenant relationship with Yahweh. John seems to believe he is not worthy to Baptize Jesus or that Jesus does not need this Baptism of Repentence. He seems to believe there is something in Jesus that is more holy or more worthy or more important than he is and he (John) should not participate and need not facilitate it.

Why would he think this? What was he expecting? Well, as we look at the passages this week in Isaiah and the Psalm we are reminded of the high standards and expectations folks had for what qualities and abilities the messiah would possess.

In Isaiah, we see described a leader that brings justice to the nations, has great endurance to accomplish these tasks, and is gentle and humble as he accomplishes these things.

In response to John’s protest, Jesus even answers, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness (NRSV).” Isaiah describes a just leader, one whom God has called in righteousness.

And what else is special about this moment in the river? After the Baptism the Heavens Opened and the Spirit of God descended on him and a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Again, this is not a Small Moment.

In our culture it is easy for us to become calloused to hearing accounts of people with whom God has spoken. Any of us can quickly find a book or a television show where someone relates a personal interaction with God. And this causes a primary difficulty in our understanding of scripture today. In our view, we have become too familiar and friendly and flippant about God and our possible interaction with the Creator of All that Is.

In Matthew it says the Spirit of God descended on Jesus and a Voice from Heaven claimed Jesus as The Beloved.

Wow.

Look at the respect for God that is shown in Isaiah. Look at the respect for God shown in the Psalm this week. We see the Lord described as powerful and glorious and full of majesty and ruling over the waters and breaking the cedars and flashing forth fire and shaking the wilderness and stripping the forest bare and ruling over the flood and ruling as king forever. Throughout the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, God’s appearances are accompanied by lighting, thunder, wind, and earthquakes.

This is no Small God.

The Acts passage reinforces the importance of God’s presence and intention in Jesus’ ministry. Because God ordained Jesus, because God chose certain people to witness the resurrection, those people are charged with going and teaching about Jesus’ purpose, “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This sort of turns John’s Baptism of Repentance on its ear…forgiveness is through Jesus and his teachings and is available to anyone (not just the Jews) who believe in him--covenant is recovered and restored and made whole through Jesus.

Those who stood in the river and witnessed this Baptism Witnessed a Sea Change.

Jesus was called, responded, was baptized, was blessed / ordained, and then went forward with his ministry from that place. To our knowledge, he did not have to finish a class or fill out a workbook to qualify to be Baptized. To our knowledge, he did not have to fill out any sort of form guaranteeing what he would accomplish after his Baptism. He was Called and he Responded.

At his response he was affirmed in who he was and what he was doing. Then he launched out in to the world to do the work that he felt called to do. Did he know that after this he would be sent in to the wilderness and tempted? Did he know at this time that it would all end up in brutal death and crucifixion? According to scripture there is no way we can be certain. However, we do know that he felt a Calling on his life, he Responded, and his Response was met with Love and Affirmation.

+As Ada asked us in worship this past Sunday, what event or moment in time did you know you were Loved by God?

+What call has God placed on your life? How have you received that call?

+Where are you met with love and affirmation? How do you respond?

“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

- Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude"
© Abbey of Gethsemani

1.01.2008

Epiphany








Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

We don'€™t know about the rest of you, but we have both experienced darkness in our lives that seemed like it might not end. For both of us 2007 began by ending marriages that were doing more damage than good, finding different places to work, and beginning the struggle of finding a new community. 2007 began with four or five months of Inky Darkness.

Have you known Darkness? It sits heavy on your chest and makes it tough to breathe, it pins you down in your bed (in a bad way), it causes tastes and smells and colors to not have depth and vibrance. Sometimes life goes so Dark it is difficult to remember what light looks like.

However, the great thing about being God'€™s creation is that there are also moments when everything is full of Life and Light and blue streams and green pastures and the world is full of Potential.

This week we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. On the twelfth day after Christmas the ancient church celebrated the Incarnation of Christ (bringing light to the world), the Baptism of Jesus (washing away darkness), the Visitation of the Wise Men (following the Light in the sky), and the miracle of the Wedding at Cana (making a potentially dark evening a night full of joy). Epiphany was a big day in the early church. Still today we look toward this festival with excitement and expectation as we recognize and remember the Life and Light that bubbles in each of us. The questions of how and why are not as important on this day - the focus is on the Excitement of Potential.

Even among the darkness this year contained for both of us new jobs, the development and growth of relationship, finding a new community, and understanding in new ways (possibly for the first time) the meaning of compassion, love, forgiveness, grace, and commitment.

There are days when, after spending a Great While in a Deep Darkness, a Light Shines and drives the darkness away. Some days, after spending time in a Heavy Thirst, there is a Cool Drink of Water that offers greater refreshment that could have imagined. Every once in a while, after breathing nothing but Polluted Air, a Fresh Clean Breeze blows and the green leaves sing.

This week the writers are all dreaming of and living toward the place of All Light. They are dreaming of how wonderful the world could be when everything is Just Right. They are appreciating...they are wallowing around in the Presence of God. They are dreaming of the potential of the Kingdom.

It continues to be important to look at the context of scripture so we can understand the magnitude of what is being said, felt, and experienced in order to consider the same magnitude in our own context.

This week's reading from Isaiah continues to wax poetic about what Jerusalem will look like when everything is restored. The prophet is envisioning a time and space when the Temple is restored and surrounding nations honor Jerusalem. These verses depict a vision of Jerusalem as the victor and the dominant power within its cultural sphere.

The Psalmist asks God to bestow every good thing on their King. Again, it is a beautiful picture that is painted of what the perfect leader could or might look like. The writer also envisions the society built and maintained by this ideal leader - one where justice reigns and the poor and needy are lifted up. Like the prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist writes from a place and time where there is little division between faith, economics and politics. And, also like Isaiah, the Psalmist dreams of a day when Light will again reign over Darkness.

A world with no divisions among people is Paul'€™s Dream of Light. He proclaims that God, through Jesus Christ, reaches out to all people--Jews and Gentiles together. He expands the vision past faith, economic and political spheres. He is not talking about the Temple in Jerusalem - he is talking about a nation without the drag of ethnic or political boundaries.

And specifically in Matthew 2.10 we see the Magi, the Wise Men, overwhelmed with joy because they are experiencing God in flesh and they see nothing but potential. These men are not Jews, and they are paying homage to the new "King." The context of Israel's historic expectation is being redefined, stretched and expanded.

The word €chiaroscuro refers to the use of light and dark in art. Many people who have spent time painting have learned that sometimes to make a light space really bright, it has to be placed right next to a dark space. Sometimes we need the darkness to appreciate and see and understand the light.

In our lives, the dark times not only make the light seem brighter - time in darkness draws out details and offers changed perspective. The times we feel all alone and separated from God give us the chance to appreciate the times of light and joy. The moments of light help us have a different understanding of the dark days.

Times of darkness make us able to appreciate subtle moments of joy when they are present. Because light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it, we can live confidently knowing that our lives (individually and as a community of followers) are made up of both.

This past year, we've walked at times in deep, seemingly Impenetrable Darkness; and, this past year, we've seen a Great Light.

+What do you know/observe/remember/experience during dark times?
+What do you know/observe/remember/experience during light times?
+How is God present in your light times and your dark times?
+What do you learn from times of lightness and darkness?

"Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you."