“Better Call Saul!”

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 7.13.43 PM.png
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,
9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

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David and I are not big TV-watchers most of the time, but a few years back when our son, Patrick, was still in high school, we got hooked on a show he and his friends and teachers were all watching because we wanted to know what they were talking about. So I think in Season 3, we started watching Season 1 of “Breaking Bad.” Any fellow fans? Getting such a late start meant we had to binge watch to catch up, which we did with great enjoyment, and then we finished out Seasons 4-5 of the series in “real time.” Without going into detail, it is a story in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist – a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer turns to making meth to secure his family’s finances. He’s phenomenally successful at it – but it comes with a huge price that leaves nobody in its wake unscathed. One of the recurring characters in the show was a crooked lawyer who generally “knew someone who knew someone” and could get “things” done, taken care of. His name? better-call-saul_review_under_the_Radar.jpgSaul Goodman, and after Breaking Bad ended, rumors surfaced that there would be a spin-off called “Better Call Saul” – one of his trademark lines. That show began last year, filling in the backstory of how little Jimmy McGill became first Slippin’ Jimmy and then Jimmy, or James McGill, and finally evolves (or devolves) into Saul Goodman – as in “It’S all good, man” and the season finale cliff-hanger of Season 2 is tomorrow night.

“Breaking Bad” wasn’t a “Christian” TV show or story, but it is a story of colossal transformation. “Better Call Saul” the TV show is not a “Christian” story, but it is a tale of transformation of a different sort. Today’s scripture passage about another Saul story is another kind of transformation – a conversion experience that has everything to do with being Christian.   But these stories have more in common than you might think at first glance.

In today’s setting for Saul of Tarsus, heading toward Damasacus, he has just left the stoning of Stephen, which he essentially authorized, and is fully engaged in his role as Public Enemy No.1 as far as Christians and Christianity are concerned.

Saul was already a high profile person. Born in Tarsus, in modern day Eastern Turkey, he was a tent maker by trade, was an avid student under the top Jewish teacher in Jerusalem and was also a Roman citizen. Here is a man who worked with his hands but wrote with the grace of a Greek philosopher; a passionate Jewish zealot who nevertheless enjoyed the rights of citizenship in the world’s greatest empire.

When God wants to get your attention, though…He can certainly do so in whatever fashion he deems fitting, and nobody is off limits.

A literally blinding light from heaven, a voice, that only Saul could understand claiming to be Jesus, and some life-changing, game-changing instructions to HIM to go to Damascus and await further instruction, and then instructions via vision to the disciple Ananias, already in Damasacus, that Saul has already had a vision of Ananias coming to Saul right there in the house he’s about to be in, and restore his sight so that Saul can be filled by the Holy Spirit. When Ananias responds with “Um, are you sure he’s the one you want?” God tells him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

How very like God to call Saul, THIS Saul, to be such a kingpin in the spread of Christianity.

God is forever calling the least likely to carry out God’s plans.

Maybe there’s some correlation between the magnitude of how good or bad you are and the degree of the conversion experience you have — sort of like the bigger they are the harder they fall….I don’t know, but Saul’s experience was probably about a 8.9 on the Richter scale.

Saul wasn’t LOOKING to make a change. He was just fine, thriving, actually — passionately, fervently wiping out Christians – he was going places. He didn’t have a change of heart because he was looking for something else. God intervened and said, HEY- STOP THAT. Do this instead.

Have YOU had a conversion experience like that?   Maybe you have – I’m not here to discount anyone’s experience of God. I would expect that if we took a poll of the congregation this morning, most of us would relay experiences with God that were less dramatic, and that we sort of drift into or along with faith, by comparison. Doesn’t mean what we experience matters less or is less meaningful. But I’d bet that most of us WERE looking to make a change, somehow, someway. I’ve felt at times that I’m like a teabag – I’ve always been steeped in church stuff. Doesn’t mean I haven’t dropped the ball and had to come BACK to it from time to time, but I wasn’t ever very far away. Not like Paul.

But it’s not about comparisons, is it ? Blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet still believe. Regardless of how personal or private that experience was for you, what matters is what you do with it afterwards, how you live your life for God. That’s not private at all. How you live is how you let your Christ-light shine.

There are tons of things to quibble over in this passage; details in the different records of the story vary – did anyone else hear a voice? Did they hear but not understand? Were they really on the road to Damascus? How this word and that word were translated from the Greek one way in this version and differently in another version….

But all of those things are beside the point of what I think is significant about this story, which is that God makes a habit of calling the least likely, the least fit, the most sinful, the most despicable to carry out his work. Over and over again.

7a16576b272460878d117c8960549db4.jpgWe worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God chose Abraham to be the father of Israel and of Isaac when he was way too old to become a father; Jacob was a shrewd liar, trickster, and thief. Moses stuttered. Noah drank too much. David was little kid who slew a giant warrior, then grew up to be an adulterer king and a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute—Saul hunted down and imprisoned Christians all over the place, executing them when he could.

Why God calls each of us to different things in different ways, I don’t know, but thank God he does. Has to do with grace, I guess. With God, it’s never too late. There’s nothing you can have done that God can’t somehow reconcile and make new. And there’s nothing God ever calls you to that you and God can’t do together.

The least of us. The most broken of us. The least deserving of us. The most flawed and screwed up of us. We are the people Christ died for. So when God calls us to live for him, may our answer be a resounding YES, Lord.

That’s the element that’s missing from the popular TV shows I was talking about. They’re great stories that accurately portray how regular people with regular, ordinary lives can make choices with the intention of helping others that instead cause the very fibers of their lives to unravel. Why do they get so off-track? Why do things fall apart for them SO colossally? ………

In these TV shows at least, they are doing it all on their own. The characters are all on their own. They have no hope. No Hope with a capital H. There’s nobody saying, hey, there’s a better way, a different way – or Way with a capital W. The TV characters that reflect our day to day realities so well are godless people. So of course they get lost along the way.

We all do; we are fallible, imperfect human beings, prone to wander, prone to make mistakes. Our lives can implode and fall apart, too. But the difference is, with God, if you DO hit bottom, it is solid. And even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time, God is good, all the time, and God has each one of us right here in the palm of his hand.

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It’s our job, as Christians, to offer hope, to help show people they don’t have to go it alone. That’s being fishermen. That’s feeding the sheep. That’s what we’re called to do.

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“Breakfast With Jesus”

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.resurrection-breakfast-sm2.jpg

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”

He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.

Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Very truly, I tell you, when you DP800295.jpgwere younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)

After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The Sea of Tiberius in today’s scripture is also known as Lake Geneserat, aka the Sea of Galilee. It’s a freshwater lake about 33 miles in circumference — 33 miles longs, a bit over 8 miles wide, right at 64 square miles, which is about the size of Washington D.C. I have never been there, nor anywhere in the Middle East, although it seems to me to be among the prettiest spots there, based on pictures I’ve seen.  In Jesus’ day, there were 10 cities scattered around the shores of the lake – if you were to go out into the middle of it in a boat, a tour guide could point out the locations while a sound system blasted “Put Your Hand in the Hand” in the background.  Much of the Holy Land, like most anyplace that is riddled with tourism, has approximations of where actual events occurred; after all, a lot changes in 2,000 years. But the lake is the lake. There’s an honesty about that that speaks to me. Somewhere along it’s shores, Jesus fixed breakfast on the beach.

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There IS a church there marking this scripture: the Church of the Primacy of Peter was built in 1933 over ruins of 2 chapels, one from the 5th century and one from the 4th. It’s an oddly shaped but beautifully charming, small, weathered gray stone chapel with a tile roof, right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

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Inside is a reeeeally big rock that is supposedly the rock on which Jesus and the disciples had their post-Easter breakfast — the original breakfast bar. It wasn’t moved there; it belongs there. And whether it was THAT selfsame rock or another one similar to it, its authenticity and truth to the story is anchored.

 

Several things jumped out at me in this scripture that seemed relevant for our time together here this morning.

First, an observation: this amazing, incredible thing of Jesus’ resurrection has happened. And he has appeared to them since then, several times – even Thomas has seen and believes. Sooooo, what are they DOING with that? How are they using this incredible event to spread the Good News? What are they doing?

Fishing. They’ve gone fishing. It’s what they do ! Peter started it – ever the disciple who speaks when silence would be better, jumps to the defense when the time has past, denies Christ when the going gets really tough, and doesn’t know what to do with the empty tomb. Well, he IS a fisherman from way back. It’s what he DOES and has always done! It’s what he knows! So, hey guys, I’m going fishing – wanna come? They don’t know what else to do, so they’ve gone fishing. An attempt at normalcy. Who of us hasn’t done that same thing after a life changing event? Particularly the death of a loved one, a dear friend. At some point, you revert back to old ways. Whether or not they fit anymore may depend on a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s fair to give Peter too hard a time about reverting to what he knows is familiar ground, or familiar waters.

So, they’re out there on the water all night without catching a thing. Probably they dozed some, for sure they would have talked, don’t you think? Maybe drunk some wine, maybe eaten something. Just speculation. But it’s been a long, unfishfilled night.

Then a voice breaks in, a man on the shore, yelling to them try throwing the net on the other side of the boat, which of course, once they do, becomes full of fish. The Disciple whom Jesus loved (John) recognizes that it’s Jesus, (AND HERE’S THE SECOND THING) which causes Peter — who was NAKED – to put on his clothes and then jump in.   – OK wait. So, why is he fishing naked ? Well maybe he’s stripped of his out cloak because of its bulk – I’ve heard that fishing naked wasn’t unusual in biblical times, so maybe so. But regardless, why throw on all your clothes and THEN jump in? He’s excited it’s Jesus, and he’s always bolting off in the wrong direction….. or maybe he’s excited it’s Jesus but doesn’t want to appear naked in front of him, or vulnerable, — is he ashamed, like Adam who was found naked by the Lord in the garden? Or is that reading too much into the text?

THIRD:   Jesus already has a fire going and fish on it. He’s already there and ready. Just like always. The scripture even says it was a charcoal fire (you’d think it would be a driftwood  fire, wouldn’t you, there on the shore of a lake?) I think the only other place a charcoal fire is mentioned is the night Peter denied Jesus three times — they were huddled against the cold around a charcoal fire.  That can’t be a coincidence.

FOURTH: And about the 153 fish they caught with them… seriously? 153? Why 153? Again, possibly as an indicator of God’s abundance, or possibly it is symbolic of God’s abundance in a different way – some folks far more learned than I say  there were 153 known types of fish in the day. So, the catch represented EVERYONE.   God’s grace and abundance; everyone for breakfast, breakfast for everyone. There’s a space for everyone and enough for everyone.

All of this leads into what is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible to me, this 3.jpgquestioning of Peter. Three times – Peter, do you love me? And of course Peter’s recent denial has to be weighing heavily on him. How painful to be queried at all, let alone three times. You can feel him squirm.

Gotta hurt. But he’s actually reinstating him, whether Peter realizes it or not.

Because it’s all about belonging.

Feeding the sheep.

Maybe the disciples thought it was all over, in spite of having seen Jesus after his death. Maybe they WERE trying to return to business as usual, because there wasn’t anyone there to tell them what else to do. But then suddenly Jesus IS there, and once again, he calls them, not to abandon their nets and follow him, but to cast the nets where he shows them, and THEN follow him.

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We are told God goes before us and behind us and beside and around us and through us – Jesus shows this. He’s already on the beach with a fire made and breakfast waiting. He provides more fish, a more-ness that is indicative of God’s grace that is enough for everyone and sufficient to every need.   And Peter, who did in fact deny him 3 times, is asked 3 times to affirm him, AND tasked with the job of shepherding, rather than fishing.

There IS a new plan. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

Maybe Jesus is referring to Peter’s trademark impetuousness with the remark about “when you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wanted to go…” Like all of us – we’re eager to follow Jesus as long as it’s easy and we’re young and strong and can kind of follow him on our own terms…but following Jesus is not for the faint of heart and can get you crucified. It is a different calling to follow for the long haul.

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I had the opportunity to talk with several of you this week – really talk, the kind of conversations that go a little deeper than just the casual getting-to-know-you chit chat, and I’ve been thinking how much this scripture applies to all of you in this congregation. You’ve been following Jesus’ lead for a long time. You’ve been feeding and tending the sheep and lambs, and you still are.   Don’t ever feel useless, or like there’s nothing left for you. You do an excellent job of caring for each other – as Ram Dass says, we are ALL just walking each other home, after all.  We’re reaching out, trying to connect with others who aren’t here yet, and that’s fine,

Like here. We’re feeding the sheep. We are the sheep. Walking each other home….

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“Blessing of the Present”

John 12:1-8
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,
12:5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
12:7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

“Blessing of the Present”

There is a place in southern England called the Isle of Portland, and the very tip of it is called Portland Bill. If you go out there, you’ll find a pub called the Pulpit InScreen Shot 2016-03-16 at 7.41.19 AM.pngn, and a lighthouse just beyond it, jutting out into the sea. The pub is pretty abysmal, so don’t waste much time there, but the setting is gorgeous. If you are brave enough to stand out by the lighthouse, you’re likely to get soaked by the violent waves that crash up onto its footing, even in calm weather.  I find it terrifying, but its an exhilarating experience. There’s no real barrier there. Someone could easily be swept out to sea. This is due in part to an area a few dozen yards out called The Race, where seven currents come together, making for an especially rough patch of water that has been responsible for numerous shipwrecks through the ages. It’s noteworthy enough in fair weather; this video (not made by me – found on youtube) shows what it’s like when storms roll through:

Today’s scripture passage is similar. There is a juxtaposition of so many truths in this passage that there is a powerful tangle of meanings just below the surface.

There are two other variations of this story. In Luke, it’s the dinner party story in an unnamed village at the home of Mary and Martha, where Martha is preoccupied with meal prep while Mary sits with Jesus and doesn’t help; in Matthew, the setting is still Bethany, but it’s the house of Simon the Leper, and an unnamed woman pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ head.

We’re in John today, and the setting is Bethany. Not everyone agrees that Mary of Bethany was the same Mary as Mary Magdalene, but most western Orthodox interpretations accept that. Judas doesn’t appear in the story in Matt and Luke, only in John. For some reason, John saddles him with stupid moralizing commentary, attaching a judgmental motivation.   Judas was the one with good business sense, a good head for PR and career longevity. He wanted the Jesus-movement to be a successful campaign. He was mindful of the bottom line.

Names are important; they usually mean something. Being sisters, it’s significant that Martha and Mslide_2.jpgary both share the MAR part of their names.
Martha’s name means in Hebrew “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking.”
Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child.”
Martha and Mary were both Jesus’ friends. Lazarus was his friend.
Lazarus’ name means “God is my help.” This family, this group of people is the closest friends that Jesus has on this earth.   They are not a rich family, but they’re well enough off to have a home, food to share, and money to buy expensive perfume, even it set them – or Mary – back a bit.

What would that have been like, do you think? There they are, gathered in one place after some really crazy and emotional events. Mary and Martha had just been through the death of their brother – his actual dying, the grief, the shock, the funeral, the entombment – and now here he is again. Even knowing Jesus DOES things like this, it’s still got to be kind of like, “Whoa.” The disciples are there, probably tired, probably not sure exactly what’s going on. Jesus is tired and tense, knowing what is to come, yet setting it all aside for one, just one evening, with his best friends in this world. Maybe the attention Lazarus must be getting helps deflect the attention from Jesus, allowing him to be more on the sidelines than in the spotlight for a change, even among friends.

Last week, we talked about the prodigal son – the father crying “This is my son who was lost but is now found, was dead but now lives again!” This week, the cry is “This is my brother, my friend, who was dead but now lives again” Jesus told the parable of the first; in today’s story, he is experiencing it first-hand – they are both situations calling for much rejoicing, a stunned, joyful extravagance…

Six days before Passover – the next day is Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday) – we are up on it, folks.

Lazarus was dead, but apparently isn’t anymore. This is news. Big news. Alarming news in that the Pharisees see how many Jews are leaving in droves to follow Jesus. So they decide that Lazarus needs to die. Again. And best for Jesus to die, too.

This passage is a pivotal point in our Lenten journey. We’re on the downhill side now, which looks a lot like an uphill trek toward Calvary.

It’s the event of all of these juxtaposed things coming together that create that movement.

If you’ve ever been with someone as they died, you’ve felt it. You know it’s true. Life and death occupying the exact selfsame spot. It’s one of the thin places, where heaven and earth meet, this event, this occurrence, when the presence of God is undeniably PRESENT.

This passage in John juxtaposes celebration and great tension; great shock and great joy; good intentions on the part of Mary and anger and problems from Judas’ perspective; great love and great extravagance from Mary and probably discomfort and embarrassment her “socially inappropriate”actions must have caused; and the most living, human, most present presence of Jesus, right up against his imminent absence and death.oil-flask.jpg

Mary senses that in this passage. She chooses to honor and bless the Jesus she loves in the most profound way she can – simply by offering the extravagance of herself and the expensive nard.

Lazarus senses this presence from an entirely different perspective, having recently returned from a place no one ever has before. He feels it.

Jesus himself is gripping the sides of the wheel set in motion that nothing is going to stop. He sees where he is and where he’s going with remarkable clarity.

Even Judas, who, I think, was not guilty of anything at this point except perhaps being so preoccupied with what he thought the big picture was that he totally missed it altogether – he would have sensed it if he hadn’t been so preoccupied.

And by the way – you know what Judas’ name means? God be praised.

Like that expanse of water off the southern coast of England, all of the undercurrents come together in one place in this passage, and it is terrifying because the next day, Jesus heads into Jerusalem to die.

As we go forward from here today, back into our lives, our jobs, our plans and projects, may we be aware of the presence of Christ whenever and wherever we encounter him, in these present, gifted moments that make up our lives.

“Lenten Wilderness, Extravagant God”

 

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Remember the movie, “Oliver!”? Based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist? A young orphan boy in the London poorhouse is sold off as punishment for asking for more food, and after a rough and tumble series of events, is taken in by a well-to-do stranger. There’s a scene in the movie where Oliver, who has grown accustomed to wearing dirty rags and sleeping in the company of thieves in dark and dank places, wakes up to s voice singing, the sounds carried in with birdsong and morning light streaming into his bedroom at the gentleman’s house. Oliver is clean, in a nice place with clean bedding and white curtains, and he looks out his 2nd story window onto the mostly still empty street, where the singing is coming from a woman selling red roses, singing “Who will buy my sweet red roses? Two blooms for a penny?” She is joined by a group of other young women singing a different but harmonious tune querying, ”Will you buy any milk today, mistress?” and still other voices offering “Ripe strawberries, ripe strawberries….” The harmonies blend and lift, the sun streams down, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and everyone is offering….something in great abundance! Oliver is utterly enchanted and wonders “who will buy this wonderful morning…such a sky you never did see! Who will tie it up with a ribbon and put it in a box for me so I can see it as my leisure when

 [Note:  I couldn’t show this film clip in church because we aren’t set up for it, but I made a clip of the clip so I could just upload the beginning part here. However, WordPress tells me the file format is not supported and won’t let me upload it. SO — if you watch this clip, feel free to cut it about 2.39 — otherwise it’s 8 minutes of 1968 Disney musical dancing, which, you know, I love, but I wouldn’t have included it all here if  I could have worked around it!]

 

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Of course, the items being offered in Isaiah are without price, while the ones in London cost money – but the essence, the beauty, the spirit on the surface of it all is the same.

This 55th chapter of Isaiah was probably written by someone during the Babylonian exile, for the Israelites who were in exile at that time. That period of time was ending, and they were about to be heading back toward Jerusalem – not knowing that Jerusalem was in horrible shape and unlikely to be able to offer abundant living of any sort to anyone.

But the invitation that is extended transcends time and world events, because it’s indicative of how God works,
and God is not bound by our human conventions and constructs.

I don’t know about you, but my dad taught me that most things that seemed too good to be true usually were, and that nothing was really free.

What’s being offered here? Is it REALLY free? Listen again.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that hamilk-wine.jpgve no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

This runs counter to our world. What our experience shows us is that there’s always a catch, isn’t there. There’s never a free lunch. You get what you pay for. What goes around comes around. Time to pay the piper.
But the prophet is promising an extravagant bounty for free. Just pull up a chair and dig in.

The prophet also says, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

So, maybe, we don’t have to pay money for any of these things. They are free in that sense. But there is still a cost, just not a monetary one.

It’s like any of the choices we make. We can’t do and be everything. We have to pick and choose. If we choose what God is offering, we’re NOT choosing something else. Our choice costs us whatever we didn’t choose.

Choosing to follow Christ means we have to acknowledge our own brokenness. That we’re unable to do it on our own. God’s ways are not our ways, thank goodness.
Sometimes if we’re choosing to follow Christ, we have to sacrifice our egos. Our pride. We have to take ourselves off center stage sometimes and let someone else have the spotlight.

Sometimes the people with whom we share the stage aren’t even people we like at all. After all, everyone is invited to the same feast. Sometimes they have different values than we do, different backgrounds, different issues and opinions. They might even vote differently than we do. They might even have done something to us. They might even be people we need to forgive.
And really, if we manage to come to terms with all those things – our own weakness and brokenness, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, self-importance and fallibility, we’re left with our humble humility that can also be a deterrent to accepting the grace and abundance our extravagant God wants to give us. It’s possible to allow ourselves to become crippled by our own unworthiness. We have to be able not only to forgive other people, but to forgive ourselves too.

Why is it, if we KNOW how much more satisfying and sustaining God’s ways are, from banquets to unnamed.jpgBasic Life Choices 101, why do we have such a hard time staying in a right relationship with God? Why do we forget? Why do we wander? Why do we so easily get wrapped up in things that move us away from God?

It’s all part of being human. Which, in spite of our shortcomings, is a pretty wonderful thing to be. Life is an amazing adventure, different for each one of us even when we walk together in the same direction. Even in those moments when we DO manage to be in a right relationship with God and with each other, we are together, but not the same.   And God has ways to use us all. Each one of us. Every day. All the time. On Tuesdays, in November, in England or Iowa or Western Hills or New Zealand, on land, on the sea, in the air, scrubbing the floor, cleaning out the garage, nearby, far away , when we feel good, when we’re sick, whether we are sad, grieving, full of energy, bored, excited, sleepy, baking bread, during Christmas, driving the car, walking around the block, in the hot summertime, during this season of Lent….God is always there, inviting us, nurturing us, loving us.

Saying, Ho! Hey you! Christian! Follow me.

“Jerusalem Chicken”

 

Luke 13:31-35
13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

13:32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

13:33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

13:34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

13:35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

 

Here’s a bit of Lenten brain exercise for you

A farmer is standing on one bank of a river, with a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain. He needs to get to the other side of the river, taking the fox, the chicken, and the grain with him.

Howanimalmasks-fox.jpgever, the boat used to cross the river is only large enough to carry the farmer and one of the things he needs to take with him, so he will need to make several trips in order to get everything across.

In addition, he cannot leave the fox unattended with the chicken, or else the fox will eat the chicken; and he cannot leave the chicken unattended with the grain, or else the chicken will eat the grain. The fox couldn’t care less about the grain; he can be left alone with it.chicken-masks-printable.png


How can the farmer get everything across the river without anything being eaten?

 

 

 

  • The man first takes the chicken across, leaving it on the other side. 
  • He returns alone in the canoe and picks up the bag of grain. 
  • After bringing across the grain, he takes the chicken back to the original side, dropping him off, and picking up the fox. 
  • After bringing the fox to the other side, and leaving it with the grain, the man returns back to the original side, retrieving the chicken, and making his 3rd and final trip crossing the river. 
  • At no point was the fox left alone with the chicken, or the chicken with the grain.

 

Most of us have heard this one before, but do you know why it’s hard for some people to get initially? Because it doesn’t occur to us to carry the chicken around, to make the same trip twice. We don’t initially “think outside the box.”

But Jesus did.  And he was a master at metaphor.

In this morning’s scripture passage, who is it that comes running to tell Jesus he better leave because Herod wants to kill him? Some Pharisees. Seems odd. After all, the Pharisees we hear most about were not particularly fans or “friends of Jesus.” He called them hypocrites and was known to stymie them with tricky questions their legalism couldn’t answer. They maintained what was often an antagonistic relationship with each other, or at best, a sort of watchful truce…but apparently, there were those among them who believed in him, even if they did so secretly.   And speaking of Herod – what is WITH him? Still hatin’ on Jesus from a distance after all these years…

Everything Jesus is doing in the scripture today has to do with him establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth. He is clearly on a unique mission; he’s been working his way toward Jerusalem for a while now, healing people on the Sabbath (to the irritation of the Pharisees and the annoyance of Herod) and trying to explain to followers what the Kingdom of God is like, using parables – mustard seed, barren fig tree, yeast in bread, and so on. It’s all part of a bigger picture, and he knows what he has to do. So, in a nutshell, when Herod says, ‘Jump!’ instead of asking, ‘How high?’ Jesus replies by calling Herod a fox and says – maybe with a sarcastic subtext- ‘Aaah! You want to kill me? Don’t bother me now! I’m busy healing and freeing and teaching (aka bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth) today, tomorrow AND the third day so I can die, ok? And I have to go on and get TO Jerusalem today, tomorrow and the next day so I CAN die, because (sarcasm) prophets can only die IN Jerusalem. Not outside it. So, see ya when I see ya.’

Then Jesus goes into this very non-sarcastic, heartfelt lament about his unrequited love for the people of Israel – God’s love, his love, it’s all intermingled – how he has yearned so many times to protect the Israelites as a hen spreads her wings over her chicks to protect her brood…’ but they won’t have it. They push him away; they don’t let him in. Nonetheless, the wheels of the cart Jesus is driving have been set in motion, and nothing can stop it. He weeps over it all.

It’s lonely and frightening to be the only one aware of the big picture. And that’s significant.

I get that it’s significant. And when you pause for a moment and think about it, it’s really moving. And,  I’m always intrigued by animal metaphors in the Bible. But…why a chicken? Why not an eagle? They’re noble. Or a lion or some big cat or hawk or something. Heck, even a turkey buzzard is inspiring in flight if you don’t get too close. But a chicken? How does a hen fit into the big picture? Is it because Jesus has already alluded to Herod as a FOX? Chickens are pretty benign creatures. Pretty defenseless against almost anything, especially a fox.

Then I stumbled on an article by Barbara Brown Taylor in the Christian Century that affirmed I had not been concerned about the chicken in vain.

I haven’t been to the Holy Land, but Barbara Brown Taylor has, and she makes reference to the chapel of Dominus Flevit. It’s on the western slope of the Mount of Olivimgres.jpges, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Its name means Jesus wept, or the Lord has wept or the Lord weeps. Tradition claims this chapel marks the spot where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The chapel itself is built in the shape of a teardrop, and there is a big window with open ironwork partially covering it that looks out onto the skyline of Jerusalem.

 

 

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Embedded in the front of the chapel altar is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb looks like a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the seven little yellows chicks around her feet. The hen is flared up and out as much as she can be; the effect is a bit cobra-like, as menacing  as a hen can be. Do not mess with her chicks.

 

The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin, which translate into English as, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The last phrase – the “and you were not willing” part, is set outside the circle of the other words, in a pool of red directly underneath the chicks’ feet.

When I read about this, I felt vindicated about my chicken metaphor fixation. There is a mosaic hen outside Jerusalem that dates back to antiquity. The protective hen was a significant enough image to have been created in the first place, and to remain unto this very day.

[In the interest of full disclosure, the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away, and when I searched out a few more things, I discovered that this ancient chapel really only dates back to 1955. It’s BUILT over the ruins of a 7th-century church, from which some mosaics still remain…it’s not clear from anything I read whether the chicken medallion is that old or not. But I still think it’s pretty cool.]

Jerusalem has always been a hugely important city. Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. The Temple is there, the hub of life, a place of beginnings, prophecies, teaching, honor, the very dwelling place of God. When Jerusalem obeys God, all is well with the world. If it does not, there is a definite disturbance in the force, like a gravitational wave that threatens to unhinge everything. We know from the scripture text that Jesus has Jerusalem on his mind. If Jesus had been standing near this particular spot, he would have had the same view, not identical of course, but awe-inspiring in it’s own time. And he would have understood the full significance of hens and foxes.

Barbara Brown Taylor says this about the delicate balance concerning Jerusalem, faith and obedience:

If the city were filled with hardy souls, this would not be a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, it is filled with pale yellow chicks and at least one fox. In the absence of a mother hen, some of the chicks have taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. Across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she is worth. Most of the chicks cannot hear her, and the ones that do make no response. They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are.
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them.

 So of course it is fitting for Jesus to have chosen to compare himself to a hen. He’s forever thinking outside the box, turning things upside down, flipping our expectations end over end. Losers get the prize, the last become first, it’s children and little people who end up on top while the kings and scholars land on the bottom. The God of all creation comes to us as a bastard child born among a bunch of barn animals; this God-Man rides into town on a donkey, not as the King of anything except perhaps the unexpected.

There she is, this mother hen, this Jerusalem chicken, standing between her chicks and anyone who means to do them harm. She has no defense. She assumes what is simultaneously the most vulnerable and the most powerful position in the world: wings spread wide, chest out and unprotected, drawing herself up to the full height of her chicken stature, a sacrificial position. If the fox wants her chicks, he will have to kill her first.

Which is exactly what he does.

On a hill outside Jerusalem.

Alone, but in full view of all the foxes and chicks.

WE know this is not the end of story. But this is Lent, and we still have wilderness to travel.

Thanks be to God.

“What’s In YOUR Wilderness?”

 

February 14, 2016

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf IMG_4583-300x200.jpg
of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.
And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
If you were among the 20 people here Ash Wednesday evening, you’ve been reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return, and extended blessings for holy Lent. Whatever that means! What does that mean, actually? How do you go about observing Lent? People do all sorts of different things: some people give up something – chocolate, caffeine, meat, TV, something. There are always those who observe Lent in name only by giving up something that doesn’t affect them to start with, like bananas when they don’t even like bananas to start with, or getting up at 4 a.m. if you don’t get up until 7:00 anyway – not the point, but… There are folks who observe Lent by adding something extra in: an intentional time of prayer or Bible reading, a daily random act of kindness, a walk, an extra workout at the gym. There are as many ways to observe Lent as there are people. The main thing is to do something intentional that makes you examine yourself and bring you into a closer relationship with God. It’s really between you and God.

maxresdefault.jpgThe scripture today always reminds me of those Capital One credit card ads – a few years back there were Vikings, now it’s Samuel Jackson asking, “What’s in YOUR wallet?” Except the question for us as it pertains to Lentis “What’s in YOUR wilderness?” We base so much of our faith experience on this passage – not just about Lent, but about strength and temptation, Christian values – a LOT.

90fd8a66c8cad1a83db72c55ed021141.jpg

The temptation for us is to think that this text is actually ABOUT us.  That there is some kind of overarching, universal theme that can be drawn from the text and applied to our lives and churches today.  Of course, that’s what most of us do with everything at least some of the time, since each of us is the center of our own universe.

But you know what? It’s not about us, at least, not in the way we usually think. We use it, we refer to it and learn from it and live with it, and that’s all good. But I think it’s important that we at least try to understand it in the context in which it was written. This passage is about what was in Jesus’ wilderness. It’s about Jesus being properly vetted as God’s Messiah at the start of his public ministry.

First there was John the Baptist announcing him, then the baptism, and then the 40-day calm before the storm of the beginning of Jesus’ ministerial career. Our perspective here in the 21st century is skewed by hindsight and the fact that we look BACK through so many cultural and historical filters. There’s no way to know the importance of Jesus’ credentials to his would-be followers. But they had to have mattered.

He has come to wrest power away from the world, from the powers and principalities that were in place instead of God. WE know there will come a time when he turns his face like flint towards Jerusalem. But people then didn’t know.  He will provoke a confrontation with the powers and principalities.  AND he will call his followers to join him. But all that is still in the future. At this point, it is important to know just what kind of man Jesus really is.

The devil represents sort of a compromise, really. The devil is that voice that whispers soothingly in your ear that you and he can be mutual partners of a sort. You can each have your own way, and nobody will be any the wiser for it. What are a few stones into bread, anyway? Nobody gets4c4a3822ea075942c0240ab4e055b843.jpg hurt. Nobody needs to know. And you’ll feel a whole lot better.

It’s just that, the way God has things set up, there can be no compromise with evil. No meeting half-way, no negotiation of terms. So….that doesn’t make for a nice, neat, happy ending. It leads instead to a messy crucifixion.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we always trot this passage out for the first Sunday of Lent. If we’re actively participating in an intentional Lenten observation, chances are we are abstaining from something, or adding some beneficial activity to our schedules, or doing something on a regular basis to help someone else. We hold up this text as an example of how Jesus was able to resist the devil in the face of these temptations, and since Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and we’re at least fully human with maybe an occasional spark of divinity, then we therefore have the spirit and the power to resist temptation like Jesus did.

There’s nothing wrong with asking God to help us in facing whatever temptations we may be facing. It’s a spiritually healthy thing to realize we lack much real power of our own / on our own, and that we have a need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. God giving people strength is wrapped up in the core of our beliefs as Christians.

Wilderness pinacle.JPGAll that is good. But let’s just be clear that this passage from the 4th chapter of Luke is NOT about those things. There is just nothing in there that says, “Alright now – go resist evil like Jesus did.” What Jesus had at stake was on such a different theological plane and of a magnitude so much greater than anything we live with that we just can’t compare his situation with ours. We may be concerned with being able to avoid chocolate or red meat or coffee for a few weeks. Jesus was concerned with power. Far-reaching power. Ultimate power. God’s power.He had to convince people that his quest for power was not going to result in it being abused and misused for oppressive purposes. People were sizing him up and taking note of whether he would use his “power” among people, or above them, over them, against them…what was this so-called Messiah going to do? Not unlike how we might watch a presidential candidate in the stretch before election day.

Another thing we think is at stake that isn’t is whether Jesus is going to slip up somehow and make a mistake with all the testing and temptation going on. I mean, what if he slips up? That would mean he is less than perfect, and if he’s less than perfect, then he can’t be the “perfect” sacrifice for our sins. He can’t be the true Messiah, and then, oh my, everything is ruined!

In order to be fully human, Jesus had to be vulnerable. What would it mean if he had been some superhero who never experienced doubt or humility or any uncertainty? Being vulnerable is definitely a part of the whole human experience. We are all vulnerable, at some times more than others.

What does it actually mean to change the world or to become a spiritual power that is incorruptible? What does it mean to be a power that avoids the usual traps that result in oppression and the continuation of inequality and injustice at every turn?

I learned something from a confirmation class a while back when I was still at Quapaw Quarter. They are a group of 8 middle schoolers and 1 high school student. Getting all of them paying attention and on the same figurative page for more than about 23 seconds at a time is really difficult. But there is one thing I’ve found that brings them up short and drops them in their tracks: tell them you’re giving them a test. I think this ploy becomes effective kicks in maybe around the time they get to the far side of 5th grade and I think carries pretty far into adulthood. Earlier grades, not so much. First they think you’re joking. Then the smiles fade and they start getting worried. If you want to be really mean, tell them it goes on their permanent record. But they’ll only buy that once. Anyway, I gave them a test a couple of weeks ago. Just some basic multiple choice questions about John and Charles Wesley, True-False questions about baptism and sacraments, the Bible, and finally some short answer opinion questions. All in all, just things we had talked about at one time or another over the past 5 weeks.

Nobody really did very well on the test – but they got focused and we had some really good discussion time.

Maybe THAT’S the ultimate take-away for us from this passage. For the tests and temptations we face to be the foundation for some really good discussion time with God. For remembering Jesus was a real person with dirt under his fingernails and a huge job to do. It’s by the grace of God to begin with that the Bible is such as rich source for us, that there are truths in it that span centuries and levels of understanding. I leave it to you to connect the dots. But I would like to offer a poem I was fortunate enough to stumble across. It’s by a Canadian blogger named Andrew King. For me, it brings this passage to life.


DESERT LESSON (by Andrew King, a Canadian blogger)

It is the empty time just before morning,
the light just beginning to touch

the tops of the hills,
just beginning to palm the skins
of the desert stones.

First one stone and then another
begins to change color as
in slow grandeur
the sun lifts
into red-orange sky.
First one stone and then another
emerges from shadow,
small solitudes of darkness
in the solitude of wilderness
in the emptiness of early morning.

Jesus is awake, blankets clutched
to keep out the cold
while he sits and watches stars
fade in the spreading dawn.
Hunger gnaws at his belly
like a dog chewing a bone.
Looking at a stone, he thinks,
How like a loaf of bread
this rock appears.
How comforting such
food would be. . .

Lifting his head in the direction
of the Holy City, Jesus pictures
the sunrise on the rooftops
of the Temple,
gleaming in the light like
the spires of marble mountains.
He imagines his feet astride
that proud building’s pinnacle
and himself
not weak but mighty,
not being hungry but full,
not vulnerable,
not breakable should I fall. . .

The wind begins to rise, stirs
the dry and scrawny grasses.
Jesus ponders the passage
of time, the rise and fall
of kingdoms, the tides
of marching armies,
the endless quests for power
that sweep up people and nations
like sands in a desert wind.
He imagines himself
at the head of
a host of armoured thousands,
lands and nations to serve me
like the Pharoahs, like David,
like Caesar ruling from Rome. . .

Jesus sighs, and stands and stretches,
a solitary and hungry
yet somehow satisfied man,
and folds the dusty blankets.

He will not bid the stones
turn to bread today
to ease his pressing hunger:
for the hungry and poor
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

He will not evade
frail humanness today,
or deny his utter mortality,
for even the mighty
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

He will not seek
the throne of a kingdom today,
selfish wealth or glory:
for the outcasts and hurting
of the world cannot,
and he is in the world
to bear their burden.

Day has come to the wilderness around him.
The sun is full and blazing.
Saying,
“Get away
from me, Satan,”
Jesus starts to walk fromcliff-view-of-dead-sea-450.jpg
the desert testing
toward the towns and the cities
where his ministry of love
will begin.

His feet leave firm prints in the sand.

 

THAT’s power. That’s what’s in Jesus’ wilderness. What’s in yours?

Thanks be to God.

A Buechner Perspective on Theology…

I wish there were a Frederick Buechner summer camp for grown-up kids.  I’d be a happy camper for sure.

Theology is the study of God and God’s ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.

~ originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

 

 

“Of Mountains and Mirrors”

February 7

Luke 9:28-36 – The setting for this passage: Jesus has given the disciples the power to heal diseases and have authority over demons; sent them out to preach and teach heal, all of which creates quite a buzz that perplexes Herod, who doesn’t know who is doing all these things but wants to find out. Then there’s the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection, saying pick up your cross and follow me……


28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

 

~~~

Here we are again. Another month, February now, and today is the last Sunday in Epiphany – a season of light. It’s Transfiguration Sunday. Next week will be the first Sunday in Lent. But I want to talk a little about transfiguration. Jesus has gone up to pray in the mountains with Peter, James and John. And this THING happens.

Jesus is praying, Peter, James, and John are trying their best to stay awake but are only about halfway successful, and suddenly — this THING happens. Dazzling white light, and not only Jesus’ appearance and clothing change, but big dogs Moses and Elijah suddenly appear as well – talking shop about what’s about to go down in Jerusalem. Peter and James and John may have been not very alert at first, but all this gets their full attention. They are there and witnesses to this experience, even if they don’t understand it fully. It was a God thing. A holy moment. Holy ground. And as such, it is perfect. It defies all words. Absolutely nothing is needed. No applause, no explanations, no words – just a perfect moment that transcends and eclipses everything else.

article-2165423-13CFDD4D000005DC-953_634x441.jpg So Peter says – Hey! This is great! Let’s build a house for each of you!  Gotta love Peter – totally missing the point, as he does so frequently. He’s my favorite disciple, I guess because I can see so much of myself in him. He’s very human. But even his mood-breaking observation is sort of drowned out by a cloud of light enshrouding them and a disembodied voice saying “This is my Son , my Chosen– listen to him!”

Then – it’s gone as quickly as it came. The light fades, they’re alone again, and it’s like it never happened. Except, it HAD…

What do you do with that?

What’s it even mean?

Some would say Moses represents the LAW and Elijah the PROPHETS – the two sides of
Jewish scripture. Jesus had gone to the mountains to pray, after all, and God is revealed through encounters with scripture…the true nature of Jesus is revealed by this 74_1mirror_book.jpgtransfiguration. That’s what Transfiguration IS – it does not mean the same thing as the word transformation. Transformation implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object. Transfiguration implies a revelation of the true nature. Jesus is not transformed on the mountain that day. He doesn’t go up there like some sort of caterpillar, to wrap himself in a cocoon and emerge as a glorious butterfly, full of light and beauty. That is what happens at the Resurrection event, but not here, not today. Even though Peter and James and John were half asleep when it happened, there was never any doubt for any of them that it was Jesus there with them.

That said, while transfiguration is not the same thing as transformation, it can be transformative. Transfiguration happens all the time, in big ways and small ways, whenever something in us – or in something we see — reflects the glory of God. And those reflections can provide enough “light” so that transformation happens – to other people, to the world – it sets things in motion.

 

We’re made in God’s image. But we are not perfect and whole. We are like broken mirrors. There’s a huge broken mirror out in the dumpster on the parking lot right now that someone wanted to get rid of. Thank goodness our God doesn’t throw US away even though we are broken mirrors. That’s called grace. J Those broken piece still reflect and Broken-Mirror-by-Bing-Wright-2.jpgcan be very bright. When a connection happens that brings out that kind of light, it’s a
kind of transfiguration. It’s bigger than us. It’s not of our own making, but it’s part of us. It’s God IN us, the good in each of us. When your child as a baby really and truly SEES you for the first time, or when he takes his first step, there’s a deep connection that flares, that exists, that sparks and ignites.  When you watch the face of someone who is watching someone they love very much. When you look into the face and eyes of someone very old and see all the younger versions of themselves they have been. When you’re at summer church camp and feel the presence of God so strongly you think you’ll burst and all you can do is give yourself to God. If you’ve ever felt wonder an awe at watching wild geese fly over in a night sky, or witnessed the birth of kittens or watched a butterfly emerge from a cocoon, or been mesmerized by the glint of silver sunlight on the water of a cold lake on a fall day, or the shifting glow of embers as a log burns in a fireplace, or felt the rolling boom of thunder surround and shake you in a storm, smelled rain on hot, dry dirt, stared into the gray sky watching snowflakes float down from dizzying heights, or lost yourself and all track of time in a piece of music or a riveting story… when you watch your children or grandchildren sleeping, or meet the eyes of hungry person you’ve just served food to Under the Bridge.

I think those are transfigurational moments.

That’s what Lent is about, in a way. Between Transfiguration, when three apostles catch a glimpse of Christ, the unbroken mirror, in glory – Shine, Jesus, Shine – and Easter, when the whole community sees his resurrected glory, we get ready. We catch a glimpse of the nature of what is truly there, and what is yet to be.
Marshall Scott is an Episcopal priest in California, and he says it this way:

The discipline of Lent isn’t about reshaping us or transforming us into someone, somethingsky-reflection-mirrors.jpg
different. It’s about buffing us, polishing us, so that the glory of Christ, already present in our lives,
is more clearly reflected in the world around us. We are called to reflect the presence of Christ within us. And we’re called to do that, not by becoming someone or something we are not already, but by allowing the light of Christ that shines on us to reflect from us out into a dark and weary world. Through this Lent, and through every day of our lives in Christ, let us pursue our own transfiguration, and in time the world will see us, literally, in a new light.

Thanks be to God.

“The ‘Gift’ of Love”

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;
yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The Gift of Love

I have to say, I have a hard time having a sermon title by Tuesday. Well, let me rephrase. Having a sermon title is easy. Having a sermon title that is interesting, thought provokingly clever, AND relevant to what I want to say is a whole ‘nother thing.

To be honest, I was reluctant to even use the I Corinthians passage as a sermon text, because, really, what can I even begin to say about it that you haven’t already heard a thousand times, or that you don’t already know? That won’t be boring to you? I mean, come on. Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.

Still, it’s this passage that seems to fit best with the things I’ve observed and experienced this week that I think maybe I need to share.

2f1d74150486b146e252c6207f667732So. “The Gift of Love” goes along nicely with that sweet, gentle  passage from
1 Corinthians we heard read earlier. It’s all satin ribbons, unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it? It’s THE most popular scripture for wedding ceremonies. It was one of the scriptures read at David’s and my wedding.

But if you look at it in the context in which it was written, that’s not really the main point.

It comes on the heels of 2 other passages about the body of Christ, both of which we read the past two weeks here. Paul has been exhorting the members of the young church at Corinth to persevere and play nicely with each other. He’s talked about how all the members of the church have gifts of the Spirit, and how all the members are like the Body of Christ, with all parts being equal and necessary — the first century version of “there are no small parts, only small actors” kind of thing.

And now this – that all our actions with one another need to be guided by love or the center just won’t hold. Everything else will fade away; love is the only thing that remains.

Then, there’s that bit about seeing through a glass darkly or in a mirror dimly, now but later we will see face to face.

THAT’s key.

If you connect the body of Christ part with the all- you-need-is-love part, it leads you toward thoughts like, well, what if I’m an ankle in the body of Christ. I don’t know what it’s like to be an earlobe. All I know is being an ankle. I can’t see the whole thing. We can’t see the whole thing. Only shadows and occasional glimmers of something so much brighter and clearer we can’t bear to look at it.

Ever try it? This “love” thing? For real for real?

maxresdefaultI don’t know if 4th grade curriculum is still this way or not, but when I was in 4th grade and Bonnie Hughes was my teacher, she had to teach us about nouns and verbs, and various other parts of speech. Circle the noun in the sentence and underline the verb.

As a kid I was a voracious reader; I loved books and stories, and I was reading above my grade level way before I knew how to analyze what I was reading. But that actually worked against me when we began to identify nouns and verbs. I remember Mrs. Hughes reading sentences aloud, and we had to write down all the verbs in each sentence she read. Seems like there were a lot of sentences – I don’t remember how many, but when we got our papers back from being graded, mine said “ – 45” in red at the top. Minus 45! I was crushed!

We had a little conference at the teacher’s desk. The sentence was “The storm raged outside the house.” I said the verbs were “raged” and “storm”, because the storm raged, and you could be raging mad and storm through the house. Another sentence: “The wolf ran into the woods.” Verbs? “Ran,” of course, and “wolf,” because it was entirely possible to wolf down food. I was making up scenarios right and left to accommodate all the words she was reading; if there was a word that could be used as a verb, then by gum, I wanted it to have its day and be listed! Mrs. Hughes very gently and clearly explained it depended on how the word was used within the context of that sentence as to whether it was a noun or a verb. The light bulb came on, and I did fine after that.

Love is kind of like that. It’s a noun and a verb. And not only that, as a verb it is both transitive and intransitive. Transitive means it has a direct object.   I love cats. He loved music. She loves power tools. Intransitive means it can kind of hang out there alone: I love. He loved. She loves. Love does indeed keep going and going and going, without bounds, without limits.

That’s what makes it strong and beautiful and HARD.

Love is patient and kind and generous and – and that’s easy enough when the person or people you’re “loving” is 1) loveable – e.g., nice, friendly, sincere, honest, clean, and not asking too much of you at inconvenient times. Someone who isn’t too needy. Someone who is basically of sound mind and health, someone who has something to offer in return. That’s loveable.

If the person is obnoxious, loud, says offensive things, talks too much, sees everything differently than you do, it gets to be a little harder. Still doable, but harder.

Then there are people like my friend, Clyde. We’ve known each other our whole lives. Grew up together. He has schizophrenia, and lately, the things that used to be anchors holding his life together have changed. He lives on his own, with a disability check and a little bit of supplemental income from a trust his mom set up before she died. He doesn’t drive but lives close enough to grocery stores, the pharmacy and fast food to be able to get out some on his own. My level of involvement in his life hashqdefaultalways been to make sure he had a ride to and from choir practice and church, and to talk to him like a regular person. He got off his meds last summer, though, and that’s when loving Clyde became a lot harder. As meeting his needs necessitated more involvement and personal investment from me, I had to look at myself harder than I really wanted to. Loving Clyde had become an intransitive
verb. No end to it. No boundaries. No end to the need for it. That’s hard. Love never gives up or fails or takes a holiday.

Try loving the scamming panhandler who’s got your phone number, or the belligerent drunk person, or the mentally ill folks who don’t or won’t or can’t listen to logic…

Try loving your church neighbor when you’re at odds with each other over the way some church decision needs to be resolved.

Love is not for the faint hearted.

You want to love God and Jesus? Jesus had been reading scripture in the temple at Nazareth, saying that the scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it. And what he had just read had to do with God being there not just for the Jews and Israel, but for the Gentiles and the rest of the world beyond Israel. The upshot of it all is that God is God even for the Gentiles and the world outside Israel, AND God has a penchant for the poor.  That’s NOT what they wanted to hear. So, the people chased him out of town and would have thrown him off the cliff if they could have caught him.

Love. Not for sissies.

Here’s the thing I’ve been really noticing and thinking about this week, and it comes in the forms of an observation about perspective, and good news.

The perspective part is this – like the bulletin board here in the pastpresentfuture_resizedhallway says – you spend your childhood making faces in the mirror – Middle age is when the mirror gets back at you…My perspective has changed, and getting to know you is changing it even more. I think when you get to be “middle aged” it’s like you are equidistant from the beginning to the end – and you now see that there IS most definitely an endpoint. It’s a shift in how you look at things.

Most of you are already there and have moved beyond that point already. We THINK we know what something is, what it’s like, what it will be. But once we get to it, nothing is ever what it seemed like it would be when it was still a long way off. Hence the truth of the saying, “Be careful what you wish for! (or pray for!)”…………..

Loss of spouse, friends, health problems – money problems – no guarantees – families that were once close-knit and happy become scattered and isolated. Lives end abruptly, too soon. Sometime strokes or other debilitating illnesses trap a person longer than they want to be here. All of us have scars from having loved. To love is to live, to live fully leaves scars from involvement, from your heart and soul being ripped apart and seared through and torn and trampled. Even the church that’s supposed to be here for you in your “golden years” no longer exists in the same way.

We can look at it as a betrayal, as though we somehow got short-changed, and get mad at God, turn bitter; or we can remember that the odds of any of us being alive at all are too astronomically high to comprehend. And, we have received not only God’s gift of LIFE but God’s ongoing gift of love. The love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never ends.

That’s powerful stuff.

That’s what you are helping me see, as we get to know each other. YOU are love, in action.  The way you care for one another, the way you greet each day with a smile and a “thanks be to God!” – no matter how you’re feeling.  How it all fits together? None of us knows. Through a glass darkly, in a mirror dimly – but in the fullness of time, God’s time, sometime, we’ll know.

Meanwhile, faith hope and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.

Thanks be to God.

The Body of Christ According to Android

When you’re talking church, and you’re talking about engaging one’s neighborhood,

the Body of Christ is like…. this:

Sure wish I had a way to show this Sunday morning.

Be together. Not the same.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;  whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Lessons from My Father’s Desk

Well, I’ve been here a week now. Got it all figured out! I know what to do to increase attendance, solve all the church’s financial problems, engage our neighborhood, and make everyone happy in the process!

Right. But I did at least remember to bring my sermon with me this morning.  Baby steps…

I have met more people now, and am beginning to know the stories of some of you. One thing I think EVERYONE has said so far, in some form or fashion: “Western Hills is such a good place. We just need more people!”

This sermon is an attempt to share some thoughts about that.

In the scripture today, Paul is addressing the people of the church in Corinth, because they are having problems being a church. It’s nothing new, even when it WAS new. Same sort of problems have been around, as long as churches have existed, because churches are people.

This isn’t to say at all that organizations are inherently bad things. But they are all composed of people, and we are all fallible. Paul is using imagery to compare the church to a human body with a head, hands and feet – the body comprising all the people in the church. He wasn’t the first person to use this body analogy – lots of writers in the Roman world used it, especially politicians and philosophers. But there were differences. In the social hierarchy of the Roman world, the head of the body was typically going to be chosen from among the elite and wealthy – the ruling class as it were. Everyone else was responsible for the grunt work.

What works in the secular world doesn’t work as well for the body of Christ. Paul was using the same image but doing something very different with it. He was saying we are one body, united in Christ, so we have unity with each other. And because of that unity with each other, we all get treated the same. Weaker parts are treated with special care, and all the parts belong to one another, equal. It’s not a case of some parts being more equal than other parts. Paul was turning the social hierarchy upside down, just like Jesus always did, and does.

Brian Peterson, a NT professor at a Lutheran seminary in NC said it very concisely:

We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easier to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture. Thus, few of our churches reflect the ethnic, social, and economic diversity of the neighborhoods around them. Our congregations are often very homogenous, and we are, sadly, comfortable with that.

 Paul made examples of the disparity between Gentiles and Jews, women and men, rich and poor. Church people don’t usually quibble over each other’s spiritual gifts. What I’ve seen so far is caring people, working together, doing a good job of taking care of each other within the church and reaching out through several established channels to the world beyond the church – Under the Bridge, Heifer, helping out with supplies for the school next door, and until recently, the Food Pantry.

But where do we go from here, and how do we do it? What polarizes us – or paralyzes us here, in the 21st century in the Western Hills neighborhood? What’s our plan for moving forward?

I don’t know yet, but if we do it right, it should look something like this: (Android ad – Be together – not the same) Unlikely pairings blue-tick hound/orangutan, baby rhino and a sheep, a sheep and an elephant, dog and cat, cats and duckling, cockatiel and dog, dog and dolphin, a marmot and tortoise — Together, not the same at all, but together.)

***
I’ve noticed when people ask me about my family background, a lot of them conclude that because my three older brothers were United Methodist pastors, my father must have also been a pastor. But he was not. My dad was a jeweler. He was many other things, too, as we all are, but by trade, he was a jeweler. He was good at taking tiny bits and bobs of metal and stone and creating new things of great beauty and value. It seemed an odd profession for someone with broad, thick hands and short, log-like fingers, but he was very deft and skilled with tiny tweezers, special tools and an ever-present head-mounted eye-loupe, which he called his “lookers.”

And in our house, as far back as I can remember there was the rolltop. This behemoth desk was Dad’s domain, its myriad drawers and shelves full of mysterious and wonderful treasures – and off-limits to my curious kid hands. There is probably fodder for an entire sermon series based on the things in that desk: clockworks – springs, cogs, tiny screws, flat crystals, gears, stems, broken rings, earrings and watchbands, loose coins, receipts, buttons, rubber bands, marbles, fountain pens, and little manila envelopes with rocks in them. Little rough pebbles – brown, greenish gray, black, reddish gold – just rocks. I remember once when a friend was over to play, she asked about “that desk with all the drawers,” and even though I wasn’t supposed to meddle with things on the desk, I showed her some of the things in the drawers, and in so doing, I came across a drawer I’d never noticed before. It had a number of beautiful, polished stones in it – we thought we must have opened a drawer of rare gems – stones smooth and shiny as glass – some solid, some with stripes and bands of contrasting colors, some with swirls, purple, green, deep crimson, some translucent, some solid, one a deep rusty brown with golden flecks and sparkles, a piece of turquoise, shiny onyx black – it was a treasure drawer.

I sort of got myself in a pickle, because I wanted to ask where those beautiful stones had come from, but I would have to explain what I was doing rummaging around in the rolltop that was off limits to me… I did ask, though, and Dad told me all those shiny stones were just like those envelopes of pebbles and rocks, except they’d been tumbled to make them smooth and shiny.

I was pretty skeptical about that until he showed me a rock tumbler and how it worked. Rocks, water, grit, motion, and time. I still remember the feeling of wonder that hit me when it sank in that something as plain and ordinary as those little pebbles could be transformed into something so beautiful.

The same thing happens to us as the body of Christ.

We work together, worship, pray, and play together, plan, sweat, laugh, argue, get in each other’s way, love each other, forgive each other, and do it all over again and again and again, all the while listening for the voice of God and trusting in the proddings and nudges of the Holy Spirit, and then one day, we discover we have moved from where we were to where God was calling us to go. And the journey continues.

We discover we’re starting to resemble that pile of tumbled stones

It’s the friction.
It’s the motion together, over time.
It’s embracing opportunities and challenges rather than being defeated by problems.
It’s dealing with the issues, whatever they are. It’s listening to ideas, having ideas, making plans, experimenting, by trial and error, maybe taking some risks, and it’ll take time and effort.
It’s sandpaper Christianity.
The body of Christ in a rock tumbler.

“One Body” (This is a song I learned at the national Episcopal Youth Event in Amherst, MA in the early 90s.  I can’t find the songbook I know I still have, and I’m no longer sure who wrote the song. Might have been Lindy Hearne, might have been someone else. But the words are basically as follows.)

CHORUS
We are one (we are one)
One body (one body)
Many parts (many parts)
One body (one body)
God has made (God has made)
One body (one body)
All of us (all of us)
One body (one body)

VERSE 1
If I am an ear (one body) I will need the eye (one body)
If I am a foot (one body) I will need the hand (one body)
One –ooooooh

CHORUS

VERSE 2
So it is with Christ (one body) each one has a gift (one body)
Each must do a part (one body) Together we will stand (one body)
One –ooooooh

CHORUS