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Sunday, March 23, 2014

What's In That Water, Anyway?

John 4:5-42 ~ Samaritan Woman at the Well ~
Last week in our gospel reading we encountered Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus under the cover of the darkness of night, to ask him questions, stirred by Jesus’ teachings. Nicodemus was curious, but he was also afraid. Otherwise, why would he come in secret to see the Lord, and then keep secret the good news that he heard from Jesus?
Today we read of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Comparing the two stories, we notice quite a few contrasts. One of the first things that we notice is that this meeting at the well occurs in the bright light of the noon day sun. And, details about this woman stand in stark contrast to Nicodemus.
·         Nicodemus was a figure of authority and whose position garnered respect. The woman is a Samaritan – of a race of people considered unclean and untouchable by Jewish law and standards; so despised that most Jews would go out of their way to avoid encountering them on their journeys, and would never have wanted one to touch the cup they were to use.
·         She is a woman – already a person of little account or worth in her culture, because of her gender.
·         Unlike Nicodemus, she is given no name in the story. She is unknown, adding to the sense that she is a person of little regard.
·         She has come to the well in the center of town to draw water for herself. We can safely assume that she is either a servant or a person of no wealth or standing of her own. In fact, one reason she may have been at the well at that time of the day was that she was an outcast among her own. Most women drawing water at the well would congregate there in groups early in the morning or in the evening – they would not come alone, in the hottest part of the day, to draw water.
·         As Jesus reveals, she has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Before we cast her as an immoral woman, though, we must consider the strong possibility that each of her husbands had died, perhaps they were even brothers, each marrying her out of obligation as the brother before him died until finally, with no means of support, and her life on the line, she finds herself under the protection of a man who would not marry her – maybe even out of fear.
·         Unlike Nicodemus, this woman is not seeking anything, she is just going about her business. It is Jesus who surprises her, it is Jesus who speaks first and engages her.
·         Unlike Nicodemus, the woman has little to lose.
·         After the encounter with Jesus Nicodemus seems to keep a low profile. The woman’s response to this encounter with Jesus is to leave her bucket behind, and to go and tell. To go and tell everyone who would listen about this man – for, could it be, that he is the Messiah?
I wonder what it must have been like for this Samaritan woman, to have Jesus even speak to her at first, to acknowledge that she was there, and then as this conversation unfolds, to learn that Jesus knows everything there was to know about her – and chose to speak to her anyway. Jesus didn’t reject her. He didn’t turn his back on her. He didn’t demand anything from her. I wonder what ran through her mind as Jesus offered to quench her thirst.
Like Nicodemus, this woman initially interprets everything Jesus says literally. He offers to crawl back into his mother’s womb. She questions why Jesus doesn’t even have a bucket.
But with just a few words, Jesus opens her eyes. He gives her new understanding. He transforms her with hope. He reaches out to her in love. Jesus accepts her as a child of God, offering her something she never thought within reach. A Samaritan woman! An outcast! A person of no account, marginalized in every way possible.
In this surprising, confounding event, Jesus unplugs the dam of hopelessness and lets the living water of God’s love and care for this woman wash over her. She came to the well that day with her bucket, expecting to draws a days’ worth of life sustaining water. But as Jesus’ love enfolds her, she drops her bucket, the vessel that can never hold what it is that Jesus gives. She is offered life-giving water that comes from the divine “spring of water, gushing up to eternal life” - and she runs to tell her friends, her townspeople, anyone who will listen, that there is “something in the water” – the water that only Jesus can give. 
While this woman came to the well with her own set of expectations for what life had to offer her, as she came to the well in the ordinary existence of her days, she came with only one purpose in mind. She thought she would draw water that day from the cistern at the base of the well. It would meet her physical needs. She would perform a chore that was expected of her.
But her encounter with Jesus is life-changing not only for her but for those whom she invites into the story. Her encounter with Jesus leads her to running, bubbling, life-giving, Spirit-filled water, water that is eternal, water that doesn’t dry up, water that overflows the cups we hold, water that cannot be contained, water that washes away sin and infuses us with God’s own life. With his words, Jesus transforms this woman of no account into a seeker who is suddenly thirsty for the life-saving word that he can give her. And he transforms her into a disciple – one who tells the story and invites others to hear it for themselves.
As he so often does, Jesus confounds expectations and dashes the status quo to smithereens – “the way things always are” or “have been” applies no longer. This woman of no account, this person of no status, this creature of no authority, is not only accepted but beloved; not only worthy but treasured. With the words “I am He,” Jesus identifies himself as the source of the living water she now seeks. The treasure offered here is the same treasure that is offered to all the world by this God who is determined to save us, determined to give us everything, determined to go to the cross in order to become for us the life-giving stream of life that never ends.
This story intersects our lives at the baptismal font. It beckons to us from the table. It leaps off the pages of scripture and invites us to be transformed as well. It invites our participation. It confers on us the status of God’s beloved, the ones who are washed in the waters of baptism and given equal status with this Samaritan woman, and with Nicodemus, and with those who have believed in Jesus and his claim, “I am he.”
This story and the promise of living water is for each and every person. If you have ever considered yourself unworthy, or been told that you are, this living water is for you. If you have been disappointed by life, betrayed by someone you trusted, felt less than worthy of love in any way, let the waters of from Jesus’ spring quench your thirst. If you have doubted, disbelieved, been bound by confusion or lack of faith, know that Christ holds this promise and this eternal gift for you.
This woman who had nothing – and everything – to lose – shared with others the good news of this life-giving words, this saving water, this promise of new life for all who come to drink. What are we then to do? We can do as this woman did.
The first thing the woman did was to tell her friends what her experience was. She didn’t try to convince them. She didn’t proselytize, she simply shared her story. She testified to what she had seen, what she had heard, how she had been loved, what that felt like. And others came. Samaritans, who had no affinity for a Jew let alone a rabbi, came to hear for themselves the life-saving word of God. In so doing they came to believe.
Each one of us is here because there is something in this unbelievable, counter-cultural, transformational story that has grabbed us. There is something about this Jesus of Nazareth that beckons to us. There is something that happened because of our baptism or something that is leading us to the font that we can’t even explain, but we know it is something worth clinging to and therefore it is something worth sharing with others. You don’t have to convince anyone of anything. Nor do you have to understand it. Simply testify to those you know that this word of God, this baptism and this meal mean something to you, make a difference in your life, and you need to share it with others. God will do the rest.
Like the Samaritans who came and asked Jesus to stay, who heard his word and were touched by his spirit, those we invite to this place will be transformed not by anything that we have done, but by everything that God has done through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Let Go My Legos!

John 3:1-17 ~

My grandson Alex loves Legos. Who doesn’t, right? Back in November or December, when my husband and I asked our son Bill what he might suggest we get for Alex for Christmas, we were told that just about anything Legos would be great, that Alex was really into them.
Now, at the time Alex was not quite 4 – his birthday is in January. And as anyone familiar with Legos knows, the really good ones, the ones that make castles and planes and pirates ships and the really cool stuff that appeals to an almost any 4-year-old child, are recommended for children within certain age ranges – for instance, from 7 to 9 years old, or 8 to 12 years old, or something like that – and for good reason. A reason frequently overlooked when purchasing the Legos for that really bright child of yours. While you are sure this child has the ability to figure out how to build a master creation with these small blocks and all the teeny tiny pieces that come with them, they are not necessarily as easy to put together as they appear.
Finally, Christmas came and the family gathered at our house. Alex was uber-excited and happy with the Legos he received. And while the rest of us were all relaxing, preparing dinner and visiting with one another, our son Bill spent the rest of the day constructing Lego sets into the exact design required to replicate the castle, or the plane or the pirate ship pictured on each box, which was what was expected by little Alex.
Of course, by the time the blocks and the rest of Alex’s Christmas booty made it home, the pieces from the various sets were hopelessly dismantled and intermingled. And Alex was incapable of building the specified designs on his own, especially from the confusion of blocks in front of him now. So, a month later when it was time for Alex’s birthday celebration, the request came down from his parents – please – no more Legos!
There is something that often happens between the development of our expectations and how reality plays out. When we approach something with preconceived ideas thoroughly cemented by ironclad ideologies, it can be hard to comprehend and face the mental complexities that result when our ideas are challenged. Alex expected to be able to make those Legos into the desired designs easily, each and every time he brought them out (and the adults around him had no more realistic expectations, apparently). The Legos could, in fact, be built into other creations. They didn’t have to become a plane, a castle, or a pirate ship. They could probably also be made into a house, a sail boat or a train. They could come together to form a church or a school or a spaceship. However, Alex couldn’t comprehend those possibilities at first, couldn’t grasp that these blocks could come together in ways that he hadn’t even imagined.
In our gospel narrative, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness. He is a Pharisee – a leader within the Jewish holy establishment – a man of tradition, a man faithful to Jewish law. When Nicodemus came to visit Jesus he came with some preconceived ideas. He came with a firmly cemented ideology, with particular thoughts and philosophies and convictions about how things work – about how God, in particular, works. And he begins by saying to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” So far, so good, right? Rapidly, however, we begin to see that the darkness that shrouds Nicodemus also keeps him from comprehending the truth of Jesus’ radical, unexpected message.
Here in John’s gospel, where “signs” are not “miracles” but are actions and events that point to the presence and activity of God, and where the gospel repeatedly points to Jesus as the way that God is in the world and acts on behalf of the world, Nicodemus acknowledges that what Jesus is doing and saying points to God. But when Jesus answers Nicodemus with words about birth and water and Spirit, Nicodemus simply cannot understand what Jesus is saying.
The radical design and reality of God’s tremendous love and liberating Spirit don’t fit on or into the box of Nicodemus’s worldview. The deep darkness of his unbelief obscures his vision of God’s mysterious and redemptive work. The Lego pieces of his deeply-held convictions don’t fit into the radically creative and restorative design of God’s redeeming love for the whole world. Jesus changes the game. God is making a new creation in this kingdom of God, and all the old ideas and previous designs of our imagining are dismantled and redesigned through the cross of Christ.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The Greek word νωθεν (anothen) can be translated “again”, “anew”, or “from above” – and here, it seems that Nicodemus assumes the first meaning – “again” - and is confused, because how can anyone be, literally born - again?
I don’t think that we can really blame poor Nicodemus for his inability to imagine new lives and a new world transformed by God in the radical nature of Jesus Christ. And, beyond this exchange, we don’t really know what the impact of this conversation with Jesus had on him. We do see him later in the gospel, as he half-heartedly speaks on behalf of Jesus to the temple elite, and then again, when he again comes under cover of darkness, this time to aid Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for entombment following his crucifixion. The fact that he seemingly stuck around and continued in some way to grow into a follower of Christ would suggest that although he may have lacked belief in Christ during this visit, some kernel of faith was planted and slowly grew. And he was changed.
The thing is, that is the way of faith. In his gospel, John never uses the word “faith” as a noun. It is not something you “get” or something that belongs to you; it isn’t something that you possess or manipulate. Rather, in John’s gospel we see faith as a verb. It is an action word. It is continuously working, continuously growing, and continuously changing everything around it. Faith comes through the Spirit, which, as Jesus points out, blows where it will. It never rests. It never sits still. It cannot be fit into a box, be built into a cookie-cutter design, or be pinned down by expectations and pre-formed convictions. Rather, through the Spirit of God, given at our baptism, faith challenges our assumptions, and opens the door to living, breathing union with God that impacts and guides our actions and our lives, forever changing them. Faith confounds us.  
But it is not always easy. We’re not talking about a magic elixir that solves all of our problems and puts an end to the current pain and suffering of the world. Living on this side of the cross as we do, we are vulnerable, we remain broken, we are mortal, imperfect creatures who all too frequently behave as Nicodemus, and demand that our blocks fit together to meet our expectations to construct that picture on the box. We are often crushed by disappointment, devastation and despair when they do not.
The reality of living in this complex world means that we stand in the shadow of the cross of Christ, where dreams are sometimes shattered and suffering not only exists but seems to thrive. Planes fall inexplicably out of the sky and vanish without a trace. Buildings that have stood strong and firm for over one hundred years disappear in a flash, taking the lives of ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Young parents learn that their small child has terminal cancer, and there is nothing they can do about it. Unexpected phone calls forever change lives. Civil wars drive millions of innocent people into exile. Addictions steal dreams and destroy families. Bodies, minds and spirits are laid waste by failing health and aging. We could go on and on listing all the kinds of losses we endure, and all of the ways that the reality of the world confounds our expectations of justice, and of life as it should be.
And into that reality comes Jesus, rearranging our blocks and building something new, something beyond our imagining. God enters our fragile, hurting, suffering humanity in the Word made flesh, and joins us in our suffering. God chooses not to be aloof from us, God chooses to be in the trenches with us. God accompanies us through every triumph and every challenge of life. God lifts up those who suffer. God sends loving hands and spirits to aid those who are stricken.
The cross of Christ stands as witness to these facts, offering us a place where the suffering of the whole world is connected, and embraced in God’s loving care. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the whole world may be saved through him”. The cross—and all the suffering, sadness, and sorrow it bears—stands as witness to God’s presence and power and embrace…promising that even in the abrupt changes, God is present, and somehow holding it all together: connecting us with one another, embracing us fully in His arms. And into this same world, God’s Spirit continually blows freely, bringing us comfort, strengthening us in every adversity, empowering us in Jesus’ name, and sending us into places we’d never imagined, to build up blocks of resiliency and love. As the darkness gives way to Jesus’ eternally penetrating light, may God grant us new life in this endless baptism of God’s grace.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Devil Made Me Do It

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 ~ Lent I, 2014
        Back a few decades ago, a black comedian by the name of Flip Wilson made popular the phrase, “The devil made me do it,” in a comedy routine of his. The phrase became a modern catch-phrase, for light-hearted denial of responsibility for any wrongdoing. Wilson performed routines in which he built a story around this phrase on his own variety show, on the Ed Sullivan show, and in several other venues. “The devil made me do it” as an iconic phrase really caught on.
        Over the past few decades, several songs have been recorded and released, given this same title, “The Devil Made Me Do It”, in every genre of music from gangsta rap to rock to country-western, addressing situations from criminal liability to substance abuse to behavioral and relational indiscretions.
In 2009 it was widely reported when a 62-year old Washington state woman who was arrested and charged for stealing $73,000 from her church treasury told the detectives who questioned her, “Satan had a big part in the theft.”
And earlier this year the Huffington Post published a tongue-in-cheek analysis in the form of a fictional dialogue between the Devil and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. This followed a New York magazine interview, in which Justice Scalia reportedly revealed that not only did he believe in the devil, but he thought most Americans did, too.  The Huff Post piece reflected on some of the legal decisions Scalia wrote on last year, supposedly from the viewpoint of this belief.
A cursory glance at our scriptural texts today might also lead us to believe that all temptation and misdeeds indeed come from the devil. Through the centuries this kind of belief has led to interpretations and teachings that every evil is inspired and enacted by the devil and agents of the devil, which has led in turn to some historic atrocities, like the witchcraft trials and the Spanish Inquisition.
Today we’ll consider our Genesis text in particular, in light of some misconceptions that muddy our understanding of our relationship with God, evil and sin.
Our reading this morning starts toward the end of the creation story. God has been busy, taking the chaos, that formless void, and separating out waters and creating dry land, establishing boundaries between them. Nowhere does the text say that what God created was a perfect paradise, as we often think of the Garden of Eden. But God did create and establish a vast assortment of elements, creatures and things; God made sun and moon, stars and planets, and set them all in their courses. And what God created was good, it was very good, and God was pleased by it. It was balanced. It was blessed by God. But it was still lacking something, and so finally, God created man and woman.
God set them in the garden, this wonderful, diverse and rich creation, and gave them work to do. They were to till the ground and keep it. In return God would freely provide for them out of it. God, who is full of grace and love, would fill all their needs. And at the end of chapter 2 (verse 25), just before the second part of our text picks up today, we are told, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
If we fast forward to the verses just after our assigned reading ends, right after the couple’s eyes “were opened”, the next words we read are, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Chapter 3, vs. 8 & 9)
What in the world happened between “and they were not ashamed” and “I was afraid,…..and I hid myself”?
Enter the wily serpent. Although we often think of this snake as an evil satanic figure, the text simply refers to the figure as “serpent.” In the Ancient Near East, the serpent was seen as a symbol of wisdom, though Genesis 3: renders the serpent as “crafty”. This cunning creature brings alienation between humans, and between humans and their god by bringing on doubt, fear, and distrust. The serpent instills in the man and woman a loss of focus and identity.
In the garden, the serpent encourages them to doubt; to count on their own “wisdom” rather than on God and God’s wisdom. The scene unfolded something like this:
When Eve told the serpent how God had said they could eat from any tree but one, the serpent scoffed. “Surely you don’t believe that, do you? I mean, really! You think that if you eat that fruit you’re going to die? Come on now. You’re too smart to believe that, and speaking of smarts – if you do eat this fruit, you will gain all the knowledge needed to succeed in life. Then you’ll be rich beyond measure. Surely you are too smart to believe God meant that literally!”
How easily Satan shifts our thinking to believe that our human wisdom surpasses God’s word and promise.
Pondering the serpent’s words, the woman and man forget who they are and whose they are. I say they, because although tradition has it that Eve was convinced by the serpent and then brought temptation to Adam, this text makes it clear that the man was present all along. Eve took the fruit and ate and then offered it to her husband who also decided to eat. There is no claiming “The devil made me do it!” They each ate of their own accord.
And so, they each succumb to the serpent’s taunts. They each forget or disbelieve or distrust God’s promise that God would see to their needs. The moment that they ate of the fruit they became aware of their vulnerability – of their nakedness. They understood their profound failure to trust in God and depend on God, the only thing God ever really demanded from them. The consequences are immediate. In a moment of time they go from freedom to frailty, from confident, trusting dependence on God, to stumbling and falling into an abyss of shame and doubt and failure. The result is that they are compelled to hide from God. And we have been hiding ever since.
For, isn’t that still our story? Temptation so often comes at the point of identity, where we fail to claim our full potential as human beings and as children of God. We forget that we are God’s children, made in God’s own image, and that God desires our attention, our dependence and our full devotion. We fill our days with busyness, and fail to till the soil of God’s creation; we fail to till the soil of compassion, almsgiving, embracing at risk children, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, embracing those who may challenge us or be different from us. Instead, we cling to sin, a powerful force that arises from God’s good creation. And we discover that knowing good from evil doesn’t mean we will always choose the good, and resist temptation to do evil.
Our creaturely vulnerability and brokenness have distorted God’s generosity and beneficence. “The devil made me do it” may be our cry, but the reality is that it is truly through our willful rejection of dependence on God, that we have repeatedly created corrupt and inadequate systems of power and dominance.
We have forever transformed the creation and garden of God’s delight into a broken and struggling planet, where earth, sea and skies suffer from the abuses we have heaped on them. Even the church is not immune from seeking power over sacred relationship with the divine. Our human vulnerability leads us to live in fear of failure, of intimacy, of relinquishing perceived power, of offering one another forgiveness.  
And yet, even after the fall, in the creation story we see glimpses of God’s grace enfolding God’s creation. God continues to create “good” – not perfect, but life-sustaining good. In verse 21 of Genesis 3 we are told that “… the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” Seeing their vulnerability and their shame, God’s grace is made evident in God’s continuing acts of creativity and renewal.
Since the time of creation and the fall, God has continued to pursue the hearts of God’s people. God has sent prophets and judges, has continued to provide for God’s people, even giving manna in the desert, water from a rock, and finally, the messiah, born of a human mother in a human birth, who lived and died so that the powers of evil and death would be forever vanquished. May it be so.
In Jesus, God has the last word. In the cross of Christ, God destroys death forever. There is no greater power. Our fear, our identity crises, our vulnerability, our failures, and our struggle with dependence all cause us to experience pain, disappointment and despair in life, but ultimately leads us back to Jesus, through whom God grants us new life and frees us to begin anew.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, who saves us from our fear and failure, be with us this Lent as we explore more deeply your incomparable love that is poured out on the cross for us. Embrace us as we struggle with sin and guilt, and lead us to a broader understanding of your continuing creative and saving work. Grant that we may know and do your will despite the distractions and temptations in the world, and bring us at last to the peace and light.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Heart Condition

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Readings: Joel 2:1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 

You may not be able to tell this by looking at me, but the truth of the matter is, I have a heart condition. It’s a serious condition, though there is not cardiologist in the world who can do a whit about it. There is no surgeon who has the skill to open up my heart and fix what is broken.
The fact of the matter is, I’ve never even seen a doctor about my heart condition. I know that there is nothing that any one of them can do despite all the medical knowledge amassed over the centuries; there is no research that has come up with a cure, nor could there ever be; and the development of ever-more delicate and intricate procedures, medications and treatments to correct the imperfections of our bodies fail to produce an answer to what ails me.
In a sense, my condition is hereditary and here’s the clincher – I’m afraid that I share this condition with all of you. We’ve all inherited the same heart condition, along with our DNA and all that goes into making us who we are. It is congenital; we were each born with it. As members of a fallen race, there is nothing that our mothers could have done to have prevented it. Here we are, each one of us suffering from the same condition, each with our own set of symptoms and maladies that go along with it. And as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, this condition is closely related to, in fact is caused by that thing that is undeniably a part of who we are - sin.
Here at the beginning of this season of Lent, it occurs to me that much of the work of Lent is truly about the heart. Our lessons today would certainly lead us to believe that this is true. In them we read words like, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” and, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart,” and, “rend your hearts not your clothing,” then finally, in the gospel text from Matthew, we are left with these final words, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So if Lent is a lot about heart, what do we do about this heart condition of ours?
We often talk about Lent being a journey; after all, we are describing something that isn’t over in a flash but takes more than forty long days to unfold. Yet for most of us, it’s not really our journey, but Christ’s journey that we are after. After all it is Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. It is Jesus who is literally and figuratively following a road that will lead him to his passion and his death. We are less travelers along this journey with Jesus than we are spectators, bystanders lined up along the roadside, observing the events taking place and marking the signposts along the way.
Those signposts include the gospel images of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and his encounter with Nicodemus and later, with the Samaritan woman at the well. During Lent we hear from our gospel texts about the man who was born blind and was healed by Christ, and about Lazarus being raised from the dead. Then, finally we arrive at the gates of Jerusalem where Jesus is met by a jubilant crowd bearing royal banners in his honor and waving palm branches in exultation, followed in short order by Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, his being handed over to the authorities under whose watch he will suffer his passion and death.
So, with all of this happening to Jesus, how do we enter this Lenten journey? And why would we even want to? What might we hope to take away from this holy season? How does Jesus’ journey become our journey?
I think the answers to all of these questions lead us back to our heart condition and to these impossibly broken hearts and the sin that we cling to. I think we come looking for a cure. We look for the reassurance that our heart condition will not be fatal. We seek ways to closer union with God, so that our hearts might be created anew and strengthened. My friends, we come to this journey because we desperately need our hearts to be healed and we know deep down inside that our only hope for these diseased, corrupted, and faulty hearts of ours is to be found through Jesus, most powerfully at the foot of his cross.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, a church in conflict with itself, suffering divisions and distractions to the mission of the church, with many of the members at odds with each other and many under the influence of false apostles, Paul talks about the reconciliation of relationships.  Paul makes it clear that it is through the cross, that God’s reconciling sacrifice and God’s love bring a cross-shaped reality to the disciples of Christ. It is God’s healing work on the cross that makes it possible for us to be reconciled and healed in two directions – healed in relationship with God, and healed in relationship with one another. It is through this reconciliation with God that God is able to take our hearts that have been torn apart by sin and brokenness, and create them anew…making possible reconciliation with others and restoring the relationships that reflect the love of God and the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.
Disciples of Christ, living out the reality of the cross in daily life and ministry, live with a new reality – that God’s reconciling, loving embrace of us, with all of our raw edges and imperfections, with these heart conditions that rule our lives and our interactions, is not only able to change us but save us and bring us to new life. And God uses the cross to do it. Christ invites us into ministry and life shaped by that very same cross.
Our Lenten journey, not surprisingly is also shaped by the cross of Christ, not only on Good Friday but every day; … it’s why the ashes we mark today are in the sign of a cross. While Paul describes reconciliation that is cruciform – it will include the work of opening our hearts to and for God, and opening our lives and hearts to and for one another. It is only through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that this kind of reconciliation and new life is possible. 
Opening hearts to God comes in many different forms – Lenten practices like fasting, praying, exercising patience and compassion and generosity through almsgiving all draw us into the Lenten journey, drawing us closer to God. The reality is that although spiritual practices are needed in order for us to distance ourselves from all that distracts and divides us, it is God who makes all this possible.
Like the people in the encounters with Jesus that we will witness through the biblical texts in the coming weeks, our own encounters with Jesus will be transformative.  God’s heart-work of changing lives, forgiving sins, healing broken bodies and souls and raising the dead to new life, calls us to engage in this journey called Lent that we might experience God’s reconciling reality for all. Therefore, as we begin this season of Lent, let us rend our hearts to the great physician, engaging in those tried and true Christian practices that engage our body, mind, and spirit. And may the peace, love and reconciling grace of God be with you throughout these forty days.
Let us pray. O Lord our God, we come to you with hearts broken by sin. Have mercy on us O Lord, and through our journey with Christ this Lent bring us the healing and wholeness we so desperately need. Make our hearts clean and our spirits, focused on the cross, that our relationships with you and our neighbor might be restored for the sake of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Whose Transfiguration is It, Anyway?

Matthew 17:1-9 Transfiguration Sunday
I love mountains. If I had the opportunity to build my dream home and had to choose between a site on the top of a mountain or a place at the beach, the choice would be tough. However, although I find the beauty and power displayed in the ocean to be supremely alluring, I think I would go with the top of a mountain. There is just something so beautiful, so mysterious and so awe-inspiring about mountains. Being so high up, able to look down upon a panorama of God’s beautiful creation, full of diversity and life and light is simply amazing. And so, as I read this text, my first reaction to this story is, “I want to be there. It must have been spectacular.”
Whether you are a mountain-lover like me or would in fact prefer the beach home, I wonder how the setting for this scene strikes you. I mean, wouldn’t you have just loved to have been on the mountaintop that day with Peter, James and John, as they accompanied Jesus, and then to have witnessed this wonderful event? What must it have been like for the disciples, to have this spectacular sight unfold before them on the top of that high mountain that day? To see Jesus joined by Moses and Elijah, those two cornerstones of the story of the faith of Israel and her relationship with God; then, to witness the glorious transfiguration of Jesus; to see his face, shining like the sun; to witness the brilliance of his clothes, now dazzling white.
Only, I don’t think that these three disciples would have described the scene as “spectacular.” At least, not at first, and especially not right after they heard “the voice”. The text tells us their first reaction upon hearing God’s voice was to do a simultaneous face-plant. That’s right, in this holy moment, upon this glorious mountaintop, we are told that they fell to the ground, face first. They were not just afraid, they were terrified. While that is actually not an unusual first reaction to the presence of the divine in the bible, I wonder - would we, with our 20-20 hindsight have reacted any differently?
Here at the end of the Epiphany season, on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday each year, in order to participate in this mountaintop experience and to remind ourselves that this experience is part of our experience too. Here in the church we pull out the white paraments; we sing songs evoking the glorious transfiguration of our Lord. We share in the blessed meal of our Lord’s bidding. We might remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that we heard echoes of the same voice as it spoke the nearly the same words at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, because the truth is that Epiphany both begins and ends with God’s voice making Jesus known to the world.
Do you remember it? Where have we heard these words before?
As Jesus was being baptized in the River Jordan, the clouds parted and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” In today’s gospel text, we have yet another sacred scene. Once again from the cloud comes the voice. It actually interrupts Peter saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased;” but this time, the voice adds these words: “listen to him!”
The repetition of these words declaring the true identity of Jesus, confirm what was revealed at his baptism and has also been confessed by Peter and the disciples. Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. But in the verses just before these, when Jesus reveals a new word to the disciples - that their journey to Jerusalem would end in his passion, death and resurrection, they had vehemently protested. These poor disciples, who constantly swing between faith and doubt, understanding and misunderstanding, cannot grasp this truth that confuses their worldview.
The Son of God, the Messiah, is supposed to be the victorious Lord of all, who rescues God’s beloved people of Israel, who vanquishes the foe. If Jesus is truly the Messiah, how can what Jesus said be true – that he would suffer and die? I doubt that they even heard the part about his being raised from the dead. They were afraid. They were confused. So by nature, they had begun to doubt. God then adds these words to the declaration on the mountain as an exhortation that they should listen to what Jesus has to say, and obey him. God’s words affirm that what Jesus has revealed has been ordained by God. In obedience to the will of God, Jesus will go to Jerusalem, submit to suffering and die. And there, God will have the last word, from the cross. There, the love of God and Jesus Christ’s solidarity with all those who suffer will be revealed - and with this Transfiguration on the mountain, there should be no doubt of the source of this revelation.
Throughout the story of the bible, mountaintop events are transformational. They are pivotal. On the top of mountains, perspective is changed. Relationship with God is clarified and even changed.
Back a few years ago, there was a series of TV commercials for a financial holding company, EF Hutton. Do you remember them? There would be a gathering of people at a party, or a large group of people working together in an office, or perhaps a couple of people having dinner in a crowded restaurant, when one person says to another, “EF Hutton said,…..” and immediately, the scene freezes; all chatter ceases; even the music and everyday sounds in each of the settings are silenced, and suddenly everyone is focused on listening to what it is that EF Hutton has to say. The tag line then was, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” And not only were these people listening, they were listening with intent. They want to know what EF Hutton, the voice of authority, reveals about what they should do with their money.
I think of those scenes when I read this text, because I think that while God wants to reiterate that indeed Jesus is God’s beloved, and is supremely pleasing to God, there is something important about the additional words of God here, and they draw us into the scene as well. The tense of these words in the Greek is more like, “keep on listening to him”. These words are for Jesus’ disciples of every time and place. These are words meant to carry the disciples all the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and beyond.
Many translations render God’s command here as “listen to him” but I think that it could just as easily and perhaps even more accurately be translated as “hear him.” In fact, it could be argued that whichever way the Greek word is translated, both listening and hearing are important to the life of the disciple.
Our world is filled with words, sounds, music, conversation, myths, monologues, dialogues, instructions, announcements, and these days, weather reports – words, words, words. There are conflicting sounds, words and voices. Like the disciples of Jesus’ time, some of what we hear confuses our worldview and we struggle with doubt. While many of the everyday words and sounds of our lives go in one ear and out the other, here in this biblical text, God commands us, “listen to Jesus….hear him, and keep on hearing him.”
Yet hearing and understanding are not automatic. Listening that does not lead to action has severe consequences in the life of faith and discipleship.
On that mountaintop, Jesus encountered God and was transformed. The scene harkens back to another mountaintop scene when Moses encountered God and was likewise transformed – his face shone like the sun. While we might not physically travel to the mountaintop, while we may be afraid of heights, would rather be at the beach, prefer our feet to be planted firmly on the ground, and are filled at times with doubt or fear, God’s word comes to all who follow Jesus – to all who follow the one whom God declares is God’s Beloved, the one in whom God is well-pleased. God calls disciples to listen to – to hear and to follow in Jesus’ ways. God’s word comes to us – listen to Jesus. Keep on listening to him.
While the disciples were still lying down, on their faces, filled with fear, Jesus came to them. Jesus touched them. What tender action, filled with love. Despite the failure of the disciples to understand, even to believe, first, Jesus loved them. Then he said to them, “Be raised up, and do not be afraid.” In that moment the disciples were pulled from their fear and failure and blessed with new life and courage.
God meets us in Jesus the same way. What is it in your life that instills falling-down-on-your-face fear? Jesus’ response is, “be raised up.” What is it that keeps you from hearing God’s word and plan for you? Jesus’ answer is “I love you – be raised up.” The cross of Christ and the resurrection are the antidotes to all that stands in the way between you and discipleship.
The good news for us this day, is that God doesn’t leave us on our own to figure these things out. God doesn’t leave us on our own to believe, to act or to pray. The Spirit draws us to the written word and there we meet God. God’s grace is poured out upon us in the holy meal, where we share in the Word made flesh. There, Jesus feeds us with his own body and reminds us, “this is for you.” Jesus meets us in the wine, and reminds us once again, “this is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.” And even if we have fallen on our faces in failure, fear or doubt in the moment we receive this precious means of grace, are fed and forgiven, we are transfigured too. Each and every time.
As we enter the season of Lent this week, my prayer for each of us, is that we might commit to listening to and hearing God’s voice; that wherever our Lenten disciplines take us, as we encounter God’s voice in the scriptures, we might witness to the transfigured Lord of all; as we contemplate God’s transformational activity in our lives, in and through the world, that we might learn to love as Christ loves.
Let us pray; Lord God, as we journey toward the cross, grant that we may learn to listen and to hear well the transforming word of grace and love and might be so inspired in our discipleship, that in the new life of Christ is evident in our engagement in the world. Grant that we might become the instruments of your mercy and grace Jesus showed us to be. And unite us in spirit and love. In the name of Jesus we pray.