Archive for February, 2008

Drama at High Noon on the Way to Galilee

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

On a snowy day after church several years ago, a parishioner’s car got stuck in the gate between the church and middle school parking lots. One would have expected the force of gravity to come in handy with the slight incline between the lots, but the snow was packed so deep that gravity was no help. The last few folks at church came to the rescue, pushing and pushing, but the car remained firmly in place. Finally, Glenn Gall, I believe, had the bright idea to look for cardboard in the church basement—surely we had a discarded box somewhere! After finding flattened cardboard in the furnace room, we tucked pieces under the rear wheels of the car, and down it went when we pushed again!

My surprise at how simple the solution was to this problem remains fixed in my memory so many years later. Previously, I had not idea that simple cardboard could accomplish all that work which human muscle power alone could not. That’s a story about how cars get unstuck, but what about people? How do they—how do we–get unstuck?

There are a lot of “stuck” people in our Gospel story today, whose cast of characters includes an anonymous Samaritan woman, Jesus, and his male disciples. On the geo-political scale, the Jews and the Samaritans were “stuck” in their enmity toward one another. Ancient divisions had simmered and solidified over generations. Centuries earlier, northern Judea, with its easily breeched defenses, had been overrun by the Babylonians. They enforced mass deportations that led to the mixing of populations. This strategy decreased the likelihood of cohesive resistance. It also led to frequent intermarrying between Jews and foreigners, thus mixing religions and race. Such practices were abhorrent to the Jews in the South. They considered their Samaritan neighbors half-breeds, not pure-blooded Jews. A split nation was stuck in racial and religious stereotypes.

When I moved to Alabama for graduate school in 1974, the first think that struck me there was the fact that the Civil War was still living history. Now, I knew it was history, and I knew that racism was living history, but I had no idea that the Civil War was still living history. People referred to it as “the war between the States,” not the Civil War. And they knew their battle monuments, the stories of the battles, and more. I was referred to as a Northerner more times than I could count. When Steve moved down to Alabama, he was told by Southern Baptists that there was no way he would get a church job as a Northerner unless he had connections. Frankly, his only connection was me, another Northerner. He wound up working food preparation at Hardees, selling Life Insurance–well, trying to sell life insurance– and selling shoes at a discount shoe store called Shoe City. Historic enmity, played out generations later.

A byproduct of the historic stuck-ness between the Samaritans and the Jews was the difference between their places of worship. Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim; Jews at the Temple in Jerusalem. The place of worship was very important in ancient times, and even today is a continuing factor in religious and political strife in the Middle East. The split nation of Samaritans and Jews was stuck about where God was truly, appropriately worshiped.

Yet there is still more stuck-ness in the story. In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day, there were generally two scenarios in which a woman and man might be found alone together—first, if they were blood relatives or second, if the man was propositioning the woman. As I explored artistic depictions of this story, what struck me most powerfully were the gender dynamics I felt seeing this woman alone at the well in a rural area with this man who is a stranger to her, asking for water. We cannot miss these dynamics as we consider the story.

In what scenario would a man and a woman be conversing together in a deserted public place–what alone a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman? In what scenario would a man and a woman be conversing about theology, worship, and the long-awaited Messiah, when engaging in such theological conversations was the privilege of men, not women? We all know the answer–it is none.

There is one final, profoundly personal point of stuck-ness in the story. Marriage in ancient patriarchal society came early for women, shortly after puberty, and somewhat later for men. It was a contractual agreement between families, not an individual arrangement between lovers. Divorce was easy for men, who could provide a writ of divorcement over small infractions, major differences, or great moral lapses.

Hear the words of the Law found in Deuteronomy 24: 1: “If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off.” Divorce was not a right of women. The Samaritan woman in the text–already an outcast by race and religion–has been five times put away and sent off by men, and the man she now lives with is not her husband.

There is another possible scenario, however. Jesus comments that the woman has been married five times, but never states that she has been divorced. Levirite Law, as recorded in Deut. 25:5-10 provides for widows in this way: “If a man dies without bearing offspring, his widow is to marry the deceased’s brother.” Now, Levirite Law might not have been practiced in more syncretistic northern Israel, and there are only two instances of it recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is possible that this woman has been repeatedly widowed and remarried, widowed and divorced, or some combination thereof.
This woman was clearly stuck, personally stuck, deeply stuck. Was it ‘her fault’ that she had so many failed relationships, and/or deceased husbands? Was she unable to have children, or did she face some illness of mind, body, or spirit that made it difficult for her to function in a relationship? Was she too strong of spirit for the men she had been married to? Historically, the Samaritan woman is often portrayed as a “loose woman,” who would bed down with anyone, anywhere. Yet to lose so many relationships was never in this woman’s power to choose. These six men are surely background characters in this story.

Regardless of the reasons, this woman was stuck, stuck in patterns that repeated themselves over and over again. This stuck-ness stripped her of social status as an honorable woman. Rather than enjoying the friendship of other women, she was likely the brunt of judging stares and juicy gossip. This is surely the reason Jesus finds her alone, drawing water from the well at high noon– the hottest time of day–rather than in the cool of the morning or the early evening, as would be customary for the other women. The Samaritan woman was not “wanted” in the company of the other women. She was not “safe” in their company. She was not “accepted” in their company.

Generally, Jews from Judea took the long road around Samaria to get to Galilee, not the short road through it, as Jesus and his disciples did that day. Barreling straight through generational prejudices was Jesus’ way. On this hot day, his basic need for a cup of water leads to surprising encounters with surprising consequences. He treats the woman as a person with legitimate ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. He invites her to open up to the idea that “God is Spirit,” (John 4:24), that a specific geographical location for worship is less important than the authenticity of worship. He discloses her past in a challenging rather than condemning way. To Jesus, her personal history does not stand in the way of what and who this woman can become. He invites her into his world with an offer of “an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life” (John 4:14, The Message Bible). Her own thirst for change and welcome is so great, this is an invitation she cannot refuse! Seen in its historical, religious, cultural, and gendered context, it’s all radical stuff.

Jesus’ male followers return and are shocked that he is talking to a woman. That is unsettling! They are still stuck. The woman, however–so amazed and undone by the conversation with Jesus–forgets her water pot, throws caution to the wind, and returns to the village to tell everyone about the man she met at the well that day who knew all about her. She becomes an evangelist, whose testimony leads many of the Samaritans to ‘come and see for themselves’ and ultimately be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:42).

The Samaritan woman gets unstuck. In her singular encounter with Jesus, generations of stereotypes about Jews and Samaritans begin to unravel. In her singular encounter with Jesus, generations of belief about where one should worship God are challenged. In her singular encounter with Jesus, cycles of marriage and divorce followed by more of the same are laid bare before the light of God’s grace. In her singular encounter with Jesus, living waters–springing up, gushing up–are offered in place of patterns of living that here only led to more death. Through this singular encounter with Jesus, this despised woman becomes an emissary of God to her neighbors.

I’ve been stuck. Have you been stuck? We are all stuck, in ways we may know and places we may not. A critical thought based on how someone looks, not knowing who they are. Stuck. A stereotype about a whole group of people. Stuck. Cycles of self-reproach that lead to nowhere but more self-hatred. Stuck. Riding the fence on one’s commitment to Christ, with one foot in the door and one out. Stuck. Sometimes we are hesitant to admit to ourselves where we are stuck.

One of the greatest blessings for me of finding a Spiritual Director last year and continuing Spiritual Direction has been getting unstuck. In the light of increasing unstuck-ness, I am more capable of seeing the places where I am still stuck, or slowly getting unstuck. I can sense the artesian springs of living water gushing up, spilling out, breaking forth in my life in new ways.

As we close, I want to offer you a few moments of silence to reflect on where you, personally, are still stuck. Notice one place you are stuck (Silence). Listen for the God who is Spirit (Silence). Imagine rivers of life–artesian springs–flowing in, around, over, and through that stuck-ness (Silence). Consider one small step you will take this week toward getting unstuck (Silence). Let us pray together…

Intentional Christian Communities. Isn’t that the church? Reflections from the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

I had initially rejected the idea of going to the New Baptist Covenant celebration. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before the event that I decided to go.

My initial reluctance was that it seemed like a lot of sound and furry, and I wasn’t convinced that it would signify much of anything. I thought the only reason to go would be because it might be a bit of a happening, with Jimmy Carter calling the group together, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore speaking.

And then I kept hearing about other people from the Baptist Peace Fellowship, The Alliance of Baptists, and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists who were going to be there. So I decided to go and am glad I did. It was a tremendous gathering and I came home with lots to think about. Kathryn Ray was there, as well, and we both agree that it was an event well worth attending.

Jimmy Carter set well the tone for the gathering on the first night when he said we were there to be with the other folk who were there and that it wouldn’t be helpful if we spent our energy on who wasn’t there. That reference was to the Southern Baptists, who declined to support this historic gathering of Baptists.

But twenty other Baptist denominations and groups did, including the American Baptist Churches, USA and the four major African-American Baptist denominations. There were more than 15,000 of us there, and we had a good time with each other. And I didn’t hear anyone talk about the Southern Baptists. We were forming a coalition of the willing, and what was much more important was where this group was going than where the Southern Baptists currently are.

Being a Baptist gathering, there was a major focus on preaching. And great preaching there was. I can’t begin to name all the preachers of note who were there. And there were also people like Marian Wright Edelman from the Children’s Defense Fund who is a bit of a preacher herself, and the most famous lawyer and Baptist Sunday School teacher turned mystery writer, John Grisham. We heard from the Pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church along with Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Believe me, they all preached. Al Gore cut loose.

The Republican Senator and Baptist church member from Iowa, Chuck Grassley, was also there. Truthfully, he’s not much of a preacher, but it was good to have him there. And the Senator from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham a Republican Baptist who like Mike Huckabee, had accepted an invitation to speak, also like Mike Huckabee, decided not to come.

There were plenty of other preachers and speakers. I have the program from the gathering if you would like to see the list.

In addition to the preaching, there were a variety of workshops whose topics ranged from engaging the criminal justice system, faith and public policy, evangelism, HIV/AIDS ministry, the role of the Holy Spirit in personal Bible Study and prayer, and many more.

Of all the workshop offerings, the one that made the least sense for me to attend was on Peacemaking. That is the one, of course, I went to. I go to those kinds of things all the time, but I finally decided to go to this one because though I had heard both presenters several times, Paul Dekar and Glenn Stassen, I had never heard them do something together. Like the last minute decision to go to the gathering itself, this turned out to be a decision I am glad I made.

That’s even true despite the fact that they really didn’t do a workshop together. They divided the time between themselves, and gave what they assumed were two unrelated presentations. Paul talked about a network of Baptist Intentional Christian Communities and Glenn talked about his work on what he calls just peacemaking, a response to the just war theory.

The more I sat in that workshop, though, the more the two themes came together, and the more they highlighted, for me, what this larger gathering of the New Baptist Covenant seemed to be pointing to. No one else may have come up with these conclusions, but I surely did.

An intentional Christian community is a group of Christians who make a deep commitment to community life with one another for the sake of developing a Christian life, or Christian lifestyle, with each other. Most intentional communities focus on what are called the inward and outward journeys. That is they develop with each other spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation, worship and Bible study, as well as ministry and mission that flows to each other and the world. Some share homes and income with each other.

After Paul Dekar talked about this movement of Baptist Intentional Christian Communities, Glenn Stassen started talking about just peacemaking. I have included the handout that Glenn gave us, but don’t look at it right now. It outlines ways peacemaking can happen.

I think one of the overall themes of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration was how can we be more intentionally Christian? How do we take our commitment to follow Jesus and turn it into a life of devotion and ministry that makes our Christianity authentic to our lives and this world? Preacher and preacher was asking us, in effect, how do we get past our divisions and work together in the name of Jesus for God’s Realm?

And it was challenging preaching. Tony Campolo asked which Jesus we are going to follow, the one that American culture is comfortable with, or the one in the Bible who calls us to make peace, stand with the poor, bridge our divides, love God and one another. William Shaw, President of the National Baptist Convention, USA called our attention to that very first sermon that Jesus preached reminding us that when after he said God had called him to preach good news to the poor, they tried to throw him over a cliff.

We were confronted at that gathering by a Jesus who makes demands in our lives to be peacemakers, to challenge the status quo, to work on the behalf of the marginalized, to care for God’s creation, to walk in humility and devotion with our God.

How do we become so intentionally Christian? What does it take to follow Jesus? An important way is to become an intentional community, a community that does not have to function outside the church. As I sat and listened to Paul Dekar, it occurred to me that people shouldn’t have to go to extreme lengths to find a community that helps them become more intentionally Christian. That’s what we should be doing for each other in this thing we call the church.

When Glenn handed out his information about just peacemaking, it seemed to me that if we were doing things rightly, it wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary that Christians are finding ways to make peace. This shouldn’t be controversial material for people who follow Jesus. But it is. Jimmy Carter, for example is vilified by members of the Religious Right because he speaks so often and eloquently for peace and justice. And he is also a man of deep personal faith who is not at all uncomfortable at telling his own testimony of his relationship with Jesus.

After both workshop speakers were done, I asked Paul Dekar if he thought there was any hope for local congregations to become, by in large, intentional communities that helped its members become more intentionally Christian. He said no. As did Glenn Stassen when I asked if he thought there was any way local congregations in this country would become a bulwark of peacemaking. He puts his hope in what he calls Peacemaker Groups, individuals within congregations who form a group that will take the peacemaking message of Jesus seriously.

I want to still believe that our intentional commitment to be community with each other in the church will help us be more intentionally Christian. But that is the challenge for the church. Are we that willing to be intentional about being the church, or what we often call these days a community of faith? Are we willing to offer ourselves as living sacrifices not only to God, but to each other, to help each other be more intentionally Christian? Are we willing to bring our gifts, our insights, our curiosity, our questions, our answers, to each other, and build a community together that helps us all become more intentionally Christian?

Community, like following Jesus, doesn’t happen all on its own. Both take commitment. But in this case they feed each other. Following Jesus should lead us to each other, and building community with each other should lead us to Jesus.

I think the New Baptist Covenant holds out the possibility for us that we might find ways to help each other follow Jesus. But it means new agendas for our lives and new priorities. It means new commitments. It means new intentionality.

Kathryn Ray’s cousin, Jimmy Allen, was the Co-Chair of the gathering and played an important role in the planning of and in the gathering itself. He asked us more than once if our time together was “a moment or a movement.”

I think this is a question we can ask ourselves in any church. When we come together is it for a moment here and there, or is it for a movement called Christianity?

There are many questions about where the New Baptist Covenant is going. In a couple of weeks Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Allen, and others are going to gather and begin to discern what is next for the New Baptist Covenant.

That’s lots of work and there is a long row ahead for them. But we don’t have to wait. How intentionally are we going to help bring about a community of Christians who are propelled by a vision to be salt and light? A sign of hope for the hopeless? A place of life for the dying? A place called home for the wandering? A place of healing for the soul sick? A place of comfort for the battered? A place of rest for the struggling? A place of commitment for the aimless? A place of revolutionary fervor for those looking for a new world?

Is there a celebration of a new covenant, Baptist or otherwise, waiting for us? It’s not too late to decide to go. And we will be glad we did.

Get Real

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Be not afraid:

We never observed Lent when I was a kid. We noticed our Catholic and Methodist classmates “gave up” things for Lent, usually chocolate or soda pop, but we did not regard chocolate and soda pop as the root cause of evil. Money was the root of all evil, and since we didn’t have any of that, we didn’t have anything worth giving up for Lent. Or so we thought. 

In any event, we weren’t sure what good it did to “give up” something if we were just going to go back to it in six weeks. 

Of course, as with much of life, there was more to Lent than appeared at first glance: Lent is a time for “spiritual discipline,” for setting goals and developing strength, and practicing self-control and all that. But that came later. 

In my church, as a kid, we did not emphasize spiritual discipline, but spiritual energy – the Apostle Paul (one of our big heroes) was not a product of “spiritual discipline” – the Lord just knocked him off his donkey one day and said, “Paul, things are different now, and you’re different, and it’s not going to go back to normal in six weeks. Go change the world.” Spiritual life was not about disciplined achievement, but grace, even grace at the business end of a lightning-bolt. Energy. 

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for Lent, even for me. Lent has to do with confronting sin – that’s what Jesus did in the wilderness – (we can go for that) and strengthening ourselves against something – whether “sin” or “the devil” or the ravages of time (we can go for that, too).

In her sermon a couple of weeks ago, Mary pointed out Mark’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is told in just two verses, with no details on the temptations. Matthew’s account, which is today’s gospel lesson, gives details: stones-to-bread and temptation-of-political-power and to “prove you’re the son of God.” The resistance that Jesus showed is an example for us to follow, but Mary pointed out that a large part of what Jesus was doing was getting His own act together. Maybe in Lent we should focus on our own spirit – getting our own act together.

Since it is one of the lectionary lessons for this first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis also must have something to do with what Lent is all about. 

This morning I almost had us sing “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” – a.k.a. “At the Cross” – which has the line “Would He devote that Sacred Head, for such a worm as I?” though not in this hymnal. In this hymnal the words have been “watered down” (my Grandma Cora would surely say) to “sinners such as I” – we don’t much care to describe ourselves as “worms,” these days, it undermines our self-esteem – not that we’re very keen on admitting to being sinners, either. We’re all like politicians at that point – “mistakes were made,” we’re willing to say, “but not by me.”

Admitting to being “sinners” – confessing sin – can be overdone, of course… can be like “waterboarding” – sometimes churches beat people up so much they’re willing to confess to anything. I know someone who got so tired in her church of the constant repetition of “confessions” of degradation and hopeless worthlessness and unrelenting error and deliberate evil, that she changed churches,just be able to look herself in the mirror on Sunday morning. Wallowing in sin can be tedious and painful (and not just when the church or somebody does it to us, but also when we do it to ourselves).

Still, “Such a worm as I,” resonates with reality; there is a kind of worminess to the human condition, the condition of the world. You could say, getting back to that Genesis story, that apple had a worm in it, and the worm has been there ever since, partly in the world, and partly in us – though you might not want to think about that image too near to lunch. 

Maybe we and the world are not totally depraved and wicked and awful, but to say we’re “persistently inclined to sin” fits our real experience. I’m not the most evil creature imaginable, but I won’t be offended if you’re cautious about turning your back on me until you get to know me – I’m willing to confess to that level of untrustworthiness in myself, and justify that level of wariness in you. (Ronald Reagan said, “Trust – but verify.”)

Lent has something to do with that wormy reality of our personal and shared condition. Only, real worminess – not something made up or exaggerated. The world was a good place – “a garden,” the story says – and things got messed up, and we can’t quite get back to the “garden” part of it; that’s why we recognize the story, and it’s told at Lent so we can think about what to do.

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness show it’s useful to give attention to ourselves, and to confess – or discover – the part we play in making ourselves the way we are, and making our world the way it is.

The psalm today, Psalm 32, speaks to that.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Ps 32:1-7, nrsv)

It’s about confession, confessing, of all things, “sins” – “transgressions” – the very things that “undermine our self esteem.” Since penitence is one of the things we connect with Lent, this psalm is included for Lent’s Kick-off Sunday. And what does it say about sin and self-esteem?

Not that confession makes you feel bad, but that silence makes you feel bad. “Sin” – or “mistakes” or “failures” or “limitations” or whatever euphemism works for you in this spot – sin undermines our self-respect, “dries up the bones” – when we try to hide it, especially from ourselves, when we “keep silence,” especially to ourselves and to God. Ask any psychiatrist or psychologist or counselor or social worker or mom or dad. They’ll all tell you that if you feel bad about something and you don’t talk about it, it will eat you alive. Confess – it’s good for the soul.

That’s why churches have confession in the first place: not to make you feel bad (though sometimes they forget that), but to let you air it out. That’s why this psalm about confession begins with the word “happy” – blessed. 

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered. (v. 1)

And how do they get happy? they confess. They admit to what is real. If we aren’t dealing with the reality of ourselves and the world – the bad as well as the good – our sins will eat us up.

Not that we can’t overdo it – we can overdo anything. Some people think the Apostle Paul (or somebody, writing in his name) comes close to “overdoing it” when he describes himself as the “chief” of sinners. (I Timothy 1:15, kjv) It’s almost like bragging. “Getting real” is not about always confessing, or nothing-but-confessing – reality includes the flip side of confession, forgiveness – that’s what it’s for.

We overdo it when we “confess” so long or so often we never get to the forgiveness, or – sneakiest of all – by confessing sins we haven’t committed, things we haven’t done.

Pope John the 23rd used to hear confessions of the nuns in the Vatican (maybe all Popes do – it would make sense), and when someone asked him what that was like, he’s supposed to have said, “it’s like being stoned to death with popcorn.” Lots of folks “confess” things that aren’t so bad, really – and that’s a waste. Martin Luther said, “If you must sin, sin boldly.” Don’t waste God’s time with popcorn.

Some prayers written up for church services are just boring – vague, pointless, harsh-sounding, and empty: “oh, Lord, we confess that in many ways we have done what we ought not to have done, and we have left undone many and divers things we ought to have done, and have grievously failed our companions in the world, and polluted our environment and have wretchedly failed to live up to…” and on and on and on. 

Lots of drama, no specifics. 

I have to believe God quits listening and goes home early from those confessions.

And we overdo it when we confess somebody else’s sin. 

I went to a gathering of church folks several years ago, in a galaxy far far away, in a denomination other than Baptist (though pretty close), that included a presentation by someone whose whole ministry was getting the United States to end military intervention in wherever it was intervening at that time. 

As is the custom at such gatherings, this leader was part of the team that led the closing service of worship for that event. He led the prayer of confession. 

Somewhere in the prayer he said, “O Lord, we confess that we are warmongers…” 

This was a man who had burned his draft card; who had been arrested for pouring his blood on military files someplace, who had organized people to oppose wars – he may have been guilty of many things – we all are – but “warmongering” was not one of them. 

I mean, not really. 

Maybe in some generic sense of “we’re all guilty of this or that,” or “I could have done more…” and so on, but really, in any practical sense… No, he was not a warmonger.

So what was he doing?

He was confessing Ronald Reagan’s sin, maybe (it was that era), which is kind of presumptuous, or “America’s sin,” or human sin – but he wasn’t confessing his own sin, which is what confession is about, what Lent is about – Lent is about “who are you? really.”

We don’t get forgiveness for confessing somebody else’s worminess, or some vague, generic failing. That’s not reality. 

Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to contemplate Herod’s spiritual condition, or to repent the sins of Caesar or confess the moral flaws of the Roman Empire. Jesus went into the wilderness to examine the real Jesus – the good and the bad in Himself – and to bring that out on the table for the life that lay ahead.

I propose that as our model for Lent. That may mean we set aside whatever is our focus at the moment – even the good and worthy causes that command our attention. Lent will be over in six weeks, and we can go back to them with renewed vitality and reborn liveliness then, if . . . if we give some undistracted attention to our own hearts and needs, our strengths, or our other concerns, and even our “sins” or shortcomings or flaws or fears. 

I don’t personally know any warmongers, I don’t know anybody who needs to give up warmongering for Lent; most of us already care about justice; most of us care about the poor and the uninsured and the homeless and the needy in America and the world. We are already concerned about those excluded because of race or gender or orientation or color or social standing or economic status or language. We don’t have to confess our failings in those areas – that would be popcorn repentance.

Lent is for a change of pace, a turning away from usual concerns. During Lent, let’s get real. Confess the real sins, the real needs we have, the things we don’t talk about to God or ourselves. 

Take some time in the next six weeks to ask ourselves the question, “when we’re doing all these other things, what is it we’re not doing?” When we confess to being “warmongers,” what is it we’re not confessing. 

Justice will still need to be done six weeks from now, we’ll still need to advocate for the poor, for the excluded, for peace; we’ll still need to oppose the death penalty, and oppose imprisonment without trial, and discrimination; we can pick that up right where we left off.

If we take Lent as a time to get down to the reality of our need and the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness, we can pick up those efforts with new energy, and new hope; so when Lent is over, Easter can be a time of new life in Christ really, for us and the world whose condition we help to change.

Amen.

 

 
Psalm 32

A David Psalm

1 Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be— you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.

2 Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.

3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.

4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.

5 Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”

Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.

6 These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.

7 God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
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Genesis 2:15-17 (NRSV)

The Lord god took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

 

(Genesis 3:1-7):

Now the serpent was more crafty that any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. he said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes shall be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Sop when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin-cloths for themselves.

Genesis 2:15-17 (The Message) 15 God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.

16-17 God commanded the Man, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.”
Genesis 3

1 The serpent was clever, more clever than any wild animal God had made. He spoke to the Woman: “Do I understand that God told you not to eat from any tree in the garden?”

2-3 The Woman said to the serpent, “Not at all. We can eat from the trees in the garden. It’s only about the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘Don’t eat from it; don’t even touch it or you’ll die.'”

4-5 The serpent told the Woman, “You won’t die. God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you’ll see what’s really going on. You’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil.”

6 When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realized what she would get out of it—she’d know everything!—she took and ate the fruit and then gave some to her husband, and he ate.

7 Immediately the two of them did “see what’s really going on” – saw themselves naked! They sewed fig leaves together as makeshift clothes for themselves.

The Transfiguration–Whose Story is It?

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

There is a remarkable painting by Giovanni Tiepolo completed in the 1770’s or 1780’s that relates to our text today. I have perused a variety of artwork related to this story via the internet, and much of it has emphasized the distance between the transfigured Jesus on the Mount and the humans who both witnessed and participated in this event. Jesus is adorned in white and is often completely surrounded by a white aura. Sometimes he is depicted with a halo circling his head. Moses and Elijah stand off at both sides, and the disciples lay prostrate at Jesus’ feet.

Tiepolo’s painting, however, doesn’t depict the transfiguration itself. Instead, the artist paints Jesus, Peter, James, and John, beginning the climb up the steep mountain. It is the most ordinary of sights–four men, walking together, at the outset of a journey. Granted, they don’t carry backpacks and wear hiking sneakers. The National Parks hasn’t been there to mark the elevation every little while and erect small covered shelters along the way. Through this painting, I was struck with several aspects of the transfiguration story that had previously eluded me.

The last time we see Jesus take a significant retreat, he is alone, headed into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights after being baptized by his cousin, John. This time, however, he retreats with some of his closest disciples, confidants, and friends after his public ministry has begun. Jesus leaves behind the noise of pressing crowds seeking healing, religious leaders attempting to entrap him, and even the distance between his calling from God and his family of origin back in Nazareth.

Jesus has recently explained to Peter, James, and John that he will undergo great suffering, but will rise again on the third day. They don’t have a clue as to what he is talking about. Peter goes as far as to rebuke Jesus for such crazy talk. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter.

So, again Jesus retreats, but this time with his inner circle. Have you ever gone with some of your closest friends or colleagues to a place apart? I’m thinking of churches that offer special retreats for their leadership team, or college students that spend spring break together. I’m even thinking of Jephtha’s daughter in the book of Judges (Judges, Chapter 11). Her father vows to sacrifice whatever meets him at his door if God gives him a victory in battle. His forces win, but his victory soon turns bittersweet. How could it not? Jephtha’s own beloved daughter meets him at the door. It’s a dark, horrible story. One of its many haunting features comes when the unnamed daughter asks her father to let her go away with her women friends to “bewail her virginity” before she is sacrificed. Each year thereafter, Jephtha’s daughter is remembered by the young women of Israel (Judges 11:37-40). Retreating with our inner circle of friends, we can think of so many associations and stories–some gentle, some tragic, some a mixture of both.

Thus it seems appropriate–even necessary–that Jesus would gather with these three disciples for a mountain retreat as he has sets his face toward the trouble and tragedy that awaits him in Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of his faith. What did Jesus expect to happen on that mountain? Was he in need of strengthening from God? Did he hope for Yahweh to touch this inner circle, whose journey would parallel his own in ways they could never guess at that time? Was he yearning for quiet companionship in this time of reckoning? Indeed, once any of us decides to follow a course that we believe is right yet also know will be costly, we, too, are often in need of community, prayer, and the touch of God.

We cannot know the answers to all our questions, but we need to ask them. This asking helps us to get hold of a story that, at first glance, seems quite removed from most of our lives. Which one of us has seen Moses and Elijah, in conversation with Jesus? Which one of us has watched the earthly Jesus transformed into the Christ of faith, clothed in white and surrounded by a light we cannot bear? Which one of us has heard God speak, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him”?

Ah, but we have! And we do! The form of such speaking may vary. The circumstances and conduit may change. But none of us would be here today if we weren’t in the process of hearing God speak to us through this same Jesus who walked up the mountain with his disciples to retreat and this same Christ before whom we are often astounded and undone. None of us would be here today if something within us wasn’t compelling us to listen to him. Instead, we would be reading our Sunday paper, or sleeping in, or catching up on our weekday work.

What is the significance of this vision on the mountain, this transfiguration–or transformation–of Jesus? I once heard a preacher say, “The more difficult the call, the louder God will speak.” In other words, if God is speaking loudly, then you are probably going to need that clarity of voice down the road. This was true when I felt the call to greater public service at the funeral of Bob Thomas, one of the great saints of this church. A young nephew challenged the gathered congregation, saying, “Bob is no longer here, but his spirit of loving service remains. He’s leaving his work to the rest of us. What is it that you are called to do?”

It was as if God was speaking that challenge directly to my heart. By the time I left that funeral, I began considering a candidacy for School Board. In the ensuing months, I campaigned and was elected. Three months into my four year term, at the age of 41, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Now, any idiot would probably decide not to take on something as ambitious as public office if he or she knew that surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy–and recovery from the treatments–was up and coming. When I heard the news that it was cancer, I was as incredulous as everyone else. And there was nothing easy about serving on the School Board at that time.

Yet, I had heard God’s call. What should I do? After much reflection, I determined that I would not resign for health reasons unless God “uncalled” me–in other words, released me from that call. In the absence of such a release, I determined to be faithful. Period.

Tradition has it that Peter was one day crucified upside down. James was killed by the sword, as recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 12:1,2). John was exiled to the small island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9). They would each need this mountaintop experience with Jesus in the days and years to come, long after their friend and Lord faced his own crucifixion.

With that lengthy and steep trek up and down the mountain, I doubt that Jesus and his disciples spend just the few moments described in the Gospels on the mountaintop. The time apart surely quiets their souls, centers their hearts, and gives them a chance to just be together, alone with God. In that silence comes the vision of Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. In that silence comes the Presence of Yahweh in a luminous cloud. The silence is pierced by the sound of Yahweh’s voice. In that silence comes the Light, which people all over the world identify when the veil between this world and the next is lifted for a brief time.

Peter, James, and John walk down the mountain with Jesus after all this happens, and they can never forget what they have seen and heard. Harder still, Jesus tells them to keep this all a secret until after his own suffering and rising—which they don’t understand, anyhow. He talks with them about Elijah, and they begin figuring out that he is talking about the imprisoned baptizer named John, not Elijah the ancient prophet of Israel. Jesus speaks about the prophets and their suffering, and his own suffering, as if they are all of one piece. And he talks about Jerusalem, a spiritual home he both loves and mourns at the same time, for she does not recognize those who come to save her.

The trip down the mountain must be a lot like the disciples much later walking along the road to Emmaus, talking with the One whom they don’t recognize about the things they have seen and heard after Jesus’ death. Some experiences you try to unpack with anyone who will listen, and some you just tuck in your heart because they are too precious to share.

The time down the mountain must be a little like the trip home from a really intense and life-changing retreat. And then…and then…and then…come the demands of life, streaming in as a veritable flood. Do you feel that flood, when you return to work after a vacation, or to school after a break? As soon as Jesus, Peter, James, and John descend from the mountain, they are immediately faced with a desperate father and his convulsing child whom the other disciples cannot heal. Jesus is called to the rescue. “Why couldn’t we heal him?” the disciples wonder (Mt. 17:19). “This kind can only be removed by prayer & fasting,” Jesus responds (Mt. 17:20). The whole definition of prayer probably means something very different to Jesus’ inner circle after the mountain experience.

We often focus on the exaltation of Christ at the Transfiguration, but the question that holds me is this, “Did Jesus need that experience, too?” Did he go up there with his disciples because he, as well as they, needed to hear from Yahweh–whether in a still, small Voice like Elijah, a whirlwind like Job, a burning bush like Moses–or none of these? Did he, too, need a word from God or an experience with God to help get him through the Days of Darkness to come?

The transfiguration is a numinous experience. Do you know this word? Numinous implies mystery, fluidity, sacredness. And yet, as we prepare today for the Lord’s Supper, I have to say that every time you all come to this Communion Table to receive the bread and juice, it is a numinous experience for me. I look at you, and I am so amazed that God has made of us a family of faith. I close my eyes and hold you in the Light of God’s presence. I see your stories in my heart–the hard places, the joyous spaces, the growing edges. I sense that wider Body of Christ, of whom we are just a small part.

Let’s not leave the Transfiguration on the mountain; we need that vision too much. We dare not simply relegate it to church doctrine or believe it is too supernatural for our contemporary sensibilities. This transforming revelation goes on and on in the lives of God’s people as we recognize Christ in the solitude and among our close friends in retreat, as we witness Jesus working his compassion among the crowds today as well as long ago, as we pray like we’ve never prayed before and behold the miracles of divine grace. Let us celebrate the Lord’s Supper together in this spirit. Amen.