Sunday, February 28, 2010
I’ve been seeing a lot of Tiger Woods lately. I know you have too. It doesn’t seem to matter if we go in search of information on him or not. It just comes to us, unbidden, standing in line at the grocery store, or every time we go online and our homepage news loads. And then there’s Brangelina… there’s another couple I know more about than I really would like to. And there’s always that burning question: will Brad go back to Jen? And more to the point, would she even have him back?
I guess, we might say, all these folks have their issues. But all that tells us is that they are members of the human race. It is easier to give Tiger and Elin and Brad and Angelina and Jennifer our rapt attention than it is to do our own hard work of opening up to transformation. But that is precisely what we are invited to do in this season of Lent: to acknowledge our common humanity, and therefore our common need for the transforming power of God in our lives. We are invited to pause, and reflect, and to invite God in. We are invited to begin a journey of transformation.
Jesus is going “through one town and village after another,” our gospel passage tells us this morning, “teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (13:22). It is fair to say that Jesus has some thoughts on transformation. At one point in his travels and teaching he has a question thrown at him by someone in the crowd: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” It’s an understandable question. Here is Jesus, offering a startling message of radical reversal, in which the poor and the outcast are suddenly the heirs of the very reign of God, and the people who are accustomed to locating themselves at the top of the power pyramid are dismayed to find themselves, according to Jesus’ reckoning, at the bottom. It is the complete opposite of what Jesus’ audience has been schooled to expect from life.
Jesus answers the question—“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—by offering a not entirely comforting parable about narrow doors and people standing outside knocking. All sorts of celebrity insiders will be kept out, but then “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed,” says Jesus, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (13:29-30) Jesus describes the radical, upside down reign of God, and then describes it again, just in case anyone’s having a hard time following.
At that very moment, the gospel says, when Jesus has pronounced judgment on the powers that be, some of their ranks send him a message: Get out of town. Now. Herod’s after you. And really, there’s no surprise there. Who stands to lose the most in the scenario Jesus has just painted? Jesus sends back a message so sharp and challenging, it undoubtedly increases the danger he’s in. Perhaps it even seals his fate. Look, he says, you tell that fox—a characterization that will not be lost on the subsistence farmers in the crowd, Herod the sly, Herod the cunning, Herod who goes after the defenseless and devours them—you tell that fox, Jesus says, that unlike him, I am engaged in the business of healing and making whole. While he devours I nourish. While he preys upon people, I lay my hands upon them and pray to God for them to be made free. I am not done with this work. And I am not on Herod’s schedule. I am on God’s.
Then Jesus begins a lament, so poignant you can almost hear the tears in his voice.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Jerusalem in the lives of the children of Israel, or in this particular gospel. By the time Jesus says these words, Jerusalem has been at the epicenter of the sacred geography of the Jews for nearly 1000 years. More than simply being the capital city of the kingdom from the time of David, Jerusalem is understood, by virtue of the temple, to be the home, the literal dwelling place of the shekhina, the Spirit and presence of God. Jerusalem, also called by the holy name Zion, is celebrated in psalms:
For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his habitation:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.” ~ Psalm 132:13-14
By the time Jesus weeps his lament over Jerusalem, it has been occupied, defended, and occupied again. Solomon’s original magnificent temple has been reduced to ashes and replaced with a far less impressive specimen. David’s line has been replaced with the pretender Herodians, who have killed and purchased and married their way to the throne. And yet, through it all, the prophets and the people still retain a vision of how Jerusalem could and should be. When Jesus laments over Jerusalem he is weeping for its past glories, its devastating losses, and even the hopes he still has for it. Jesus is both lamenting what is, and praying for what is not yet. In the course of his lament he is offering an image of himself, his relationship to Jerusalem, as a loving, suffering, sorrowful mother—a hen, hardly the most regal or stately of birds—sheltering chicks under her wings. A hen, who, when attacked by a fox, will surely lose the fight, but may yet preserve her children’s lives. Even in his lament, even in his naming his sacrificial love for Jerusalem, Jesus is holding out hope for its transformation.
The already and the not yet. The temple no longer stands in Jerusalem. All that remains are the outer walls. Some Jews still hope for a third temple to be built, but many no longer focus their worship on this one location. For Christians, the idea that God resides primarily in one physical space on earth has been replaced by the understanding that, in addition to transcending all places and times, God resides in each one of us, that our own bodies are God’s temples. In that sense, we are Jerusalem now.
The already and the not yet. It is the second Sunday in Lent, and I am here to tell you that many of us, like Jerusalem, are but remnants of our former glory, our daily Lenten disciplines foundering on the seas of our good intentions. We’ve got issues, often having to do with the difference between where we are and where we wish we were. We wish we were lighter or we wish we were more buff; we wish we were in a stable job or we wish we were free of the workplace grind altogether; we wish we were in a quiet cocoon of rest and privacy, or we wish we were in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a large community… you get the picture. We tend to believe we only have to accomplish this or achieve that or eliminate the other thing, and voila, there will be our happiness, there will be our joy. The celebrities whose lives we follow in the tabloids might have a comment or two as to how that particular plan has worked out for them. We begin to have a creeping suspicion that, perhaps, achievement is not the path to happiness we thought it was. We begin to suspect we haven’t figured it out yet. We are still holding out for transformation.
The already and the not yet. We can feel so stuck, so mired in our issues. But sometimes we catch glimpses of the not yet, even in our own lives, and it surprises us. It’s not what we thought it was. We take a walk in the pristine, freshly fallen snow, and we are astonished at the consolation and connectedness we can feel in that moment. We take a little time to read scripture, and we are amazed at the ways in which a mirror is held up to our own lives. We clean out a closet and donate our perfectly good clothes or canned goods to those who need them desperately, and we feel lighter in a way we didn’t anticipate. We are convicted, if I may use a good, old-fashioned Christian word, convicted of our need for one another and our need for God’s grace in our lives. We begin to suspect that transformation may be more about letting go than anything else. This is the journey of Lent: a letting go, little by little, of our conviction that we know best. Our letting in, little by little, the powerful reality that God is with us already.
The already and the not yet. This is the view of reality that lies at the heart of our table celebration. Jesus tells us in our reading this morning that “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” You will recognize those words as often being a part of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When we gather around this table, we enact in the here and now a vision of a day that hasn’t entirely materialized. In our celebration of that meal, we show a unity we often don’t feel, and we act in hope of a community we fall short of living out. And by the power of the sacrament, the “not yet” seeps backwards, by the grace of God, into the here and now.
The already and the not yet. In Lent, we’re encouraged to befriend our brokenness, we are urged to acknowledge that all is not well with our souls, and we are asked to identify with the hurt of so many people in our world. It feels a little silly to dwell on the problems of incredibly wealthy celebrities in the face of hundreds dead in Chile, 230,000 dead in Haiti, civilians dying in the offensive in Afghanistan, millions of uninsured here at home dying from preventable diseases. We would do well to ask ourselves why certain stories get all the airplay. Our common humanity binds us to one another, around the table and around the planet, and the faces that loom large on our televisions as well as the ones we never see, the faces lost in the shadows, are all in this human dance with us, here and now. It is the “not yet” we yearn for, the time when God will be at home among mortal women and men and children; that time when God will wipe every tear from all our eyes; and all the world—everybody, every body, will be the pristine, new Jerusalem. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Sometimes, you just have to let someone else say the words for you. As a friend from cyber-space put it this week, “Water baptized on the outside; Holy Spirit filled on the inside. Jesus says, ‘Bring it on.’” Which is a very nice summary of the gospel passage we’ve read this morning.
All over the world, in Christian faith communities, some version of this story is read every year on the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is officially the time during which we join Jesus in his wilderness testing, in preparation for the great celebration of Easter. Lent, in my own mind, is the time when we give in to at least one of our hungers: our hunger for a real experience of God, an encounter. If we look to Jesus, we will see very quickly that a desire for a real experience of God is always a very loud invitation to the universe and the powers of evil, to “bring it on.”
First things first. We will be reading primarily from the gospel of Luke, not just in Lent, but all year long, so know this: you need to be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit. In fact, Luke is pretty much the most explicitly Spirit-saturated of all the gospels, and it starts before Jesus is born, before he’s even a twinkle in the angel Gabriel’s eye. According to Luke, John the Baptist, the one who will be Ed McMahon to Jesus’ Johnny Carson, will be filled with the Holy Spirit [Luke 1:15]. Gabriel answers Mary’s question, “How will this be?” by saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…” [1:35]. When a pregnant-with-Jesus Mary visits a pregnant-with-John Elizabeth, the child “leaps in [Elizabeth’s] womb. And Elizabeth [is] filled with the Holy Spirit” [1:41]. All this Spirit-presence, and Jesus isn’t even born yet!
As an adult, John heralds Jesus’ first public appearance with a warning: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” [3:16]. And then the Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus in a spectacular display, complete with an appearance as a dove and a voice booming from the clouds: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [3:22].
As if it knows the reader will be breathless at this point, a little overwhelmed by so much Spirit, the text takes a brief pause, goes on a kind of holiday by virtue of a genealogy. No Spirit, no drama, just a nice long list of begats [3:23-38]. By the end of it, we’re kind of hoping for something exciting to happen again.
If we wanted excitement, we’re in luck, because we have arrived at Jesus’ “bring it on.” We have a battle of wits between Jesus and the devil that would make a video-game aficionado proud. But before that happens, a word from the number “40.” Those of you who hang around churches for a while will start recognizing the prevalence of this number in the stories we read in the Bible. Jesus was in the wilderness, without benefit of food, for forty days. The people of Israel were in the wilderness forty years, during which time Moses spent forty days in the presence of God receiving the commandments. Elijah awaited God’s word for forty days on Mount Horeb, and if we want to reach even further back into ancient Hebrew history: it rained forty days and forty nights as Noah and his family and the animals looked out the windows of the ark. And there are more… these are just the highlights.
I’m sure you get it by now. Forty is one of those Bible numbers. It is significant. Forty, in scripture, is the length it time it takes to do something momentous, something game-changing. At the end of forty, it is complete, the world is washed clean, you are ready, you have changed your mind or been tempted enough, or even, in the case of the Israelites in the wilderness, enough of you have died so that God can do something useful with the rest of you. Forty is a number of completion, of 180 degree turnarounds. “Forty” is long enough for the big stuff to take place.
And so, back to the big stuff. Jesus is in the wilderness where, for the entire length of time, the whole forty days, he is being tempted by the devil. The Greek word used for “devil” here is diabolou. It means, literally, one who throws stuff around. One who messes things up, brings chaos... that’s what the tempter does. 
Jesus withstands temptation for forty days until, apparently, the devil pulls out three temptations that are so notable, they have been recorded here, for us.
The first temptation is a no-brainer, if we think about it for half a second. Jesus has been without food for forty days: anyone who wanted to compel him to do much of anything would probably settle on food as the most obvious enticement. Only, let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t being tempted by food per se. The devil doesn’t show him a 5-course gourmet dinner and say, You can have these if you give me something or do something for me. Instead, the one who throws things around throws down the gauntlet: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus isn’t being tempted by food. He’s tempted to do a trick to persuade the devil of his identity. Given the Spirit-soaked nature of Jesus… the dare is just shocking. It’s offensive, like asking the creator of the universe to do a card trick.
Jesus isn’t playing. There are more important things than bread. “One does not live by bread alone,” he says. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy. He’s just quoted half the verse, though. “One does not live by bread alone,” it begins, and then continues, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” [Deut. 8:3]. Jesus tells the tempter that what matters, what gives life, is the very breath of God. The Holy Spirit.
The devil escalates things. He leads Jesus to a place where he can instantly see “all the kingdoms of the world.” This is all mine, he says. And it can be all yours. All you have to do is worship me. I have all the power. I have all the authority. I can give it to you if you give me some respect.
This is such a rookie move on the devil’s part. As if Jesus would fall for that line—that anyone besides God has all power and authority and can dispense it at will. Jesus comes back at him with more Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” [Deut. 6:13]. The devil, so far, is getting nowhere with Jesus. Jesus knows too well, both who the devil is and who he, himself is.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the Temple, an important site in Luke’s gospel. The whole gospel begins at the Temple with the story of Zechariah, and then circles back and returns to the Temple again and again. There’s good reason for that. The Temple is the holiest of all places for Jesus, for all good Jews of his day. It is the place where the shekhina, the very presence of God—God’s Holy Spirit—is believed to dwell. And the devil seems to be catching on to something that motivates Jesus, what makes him tick. The devil is not a total idiot. He embellishes the next temptation by mirroring back to Jesus the same kinds of words Jesus has been saying, like someone who’s taken a basic course in effective communication. He invites Jesus to jump from the highest point of the temple, if he is the Son of God, for “It is written,” the devil says, repeating the same words with which Jesus rebuffed his two earlier attempts. “It is written,” and the devil quotes those wonderful comforting words we read this morning from Psalm 91, about how God will care for the faithful [4:10-11]. Now the devil is throwing scripture around, a clever move on his part. But he is no match for Jesus. Jesus answers, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” [4:12] And just like that, the devil is dismissed… until he tries again, later, which we know he will. Because he is the devil, after all.
The devil is no match for Jesus. That’s not to say the temptations aren’t real, aren’t tempting insofar as they go. But Jesus has something powerful in his favor. He knows who he is. Now, I don’t necessarily mean by that that he knows he is the Son of God in any different sense than anyone in this room is a son or daughter of God. Whether he is fully aware of his unique relationship with God at this point, I couldn’t say. But he knows he is a Son of God, he knows the reality of an experience of the Spirit. He knows that he is fully God’s, and that God has set him on a path he must walk. The greatest temptation for Jesus isn’t food or power or even testing the hand-eye coordination of hosts of angels. The greatest temptation is for him to walk away from who he was meant to be.
In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell talks about a personal crisis in which he came close to walking away from his life. He was ready to walk because he was so overwhelmed with the many roles he had taken on, the many things he had said “yes” to when he should have said “no.” Finally a therapist told him his issue was a simple one. Bell says,
I was anticipating something quite profound and enlightening as I got out my pen.
[The therapist] said this: “Sin.”
And then he said, in what has become a pivotal moment in my journey, “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.” 
Our job is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be. Anything else is sin. And we need to repent of it.
Jesus’ job, and he understood it well, was the relentless pursuit of who he was meant to be. We could fit, maybe, 200 theologians in this sanctuary, and they could tell us 200 different definitions of who they think Jesus was meant to be. But that doesn’t matter. What mattered was who Jesus believed God meant him to be. And that meant saying yes to some things—to people’s requests for food, for healing, for teaching, for forgiveness—and it meant saying no to certain other things—such as demands that he be this or that kind of messiah, patriot, leader, or Son of God.
Our job is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be. Anything else is sin. And we need to repent of it. This statement, this deep truth, has a way of putting everything into perspective. And we will be tempted away from this pursuit, I can guarantee it. Whether we call it “the devil” or “the power of evil” or even something as benign-sounding as “life in this world,” I guarantee you the universe will resist our efforts to be who we were meant to be and to be in communion with God. If nothing else, it’s inconvenient for lots of people if we suddenly realize that we need to stop doing some of the things we’ve been doing, and start doing other things. People don’t like it when we start saying “no.” I read this week that “saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row.” But as we learn from Jesus’ three firm “no’s”, it’s an essential practice if we intend on engaging in that relentless pursuit of God’s plan for us.
It is Lent, and our hunger for God is every bit as real as our hunger for bread. What matters, what gives life, is the very breath of God. The Holy Spirit. That same Spirit is as available to us now as to Jesus then. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to fervently, relentlessly breathe in and out that Spirit, to walk with confidence into the wilderness of discovering who and what God meant us to be, and to encounter Jesus along the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Wesley White, “Luke 4:1-13,” Kairos CoMotion Lectionary Dialogue,
 Thanks to the Rev. Viktoria Berlik for this insight.
 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 114-115.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 125.
'Toon courtesy of ReverendFun.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Barbara spent part of her ministry as a coordinator of Christian Education in a local parish. Every so often, she polled her congregation to see what kind of Adult Education programs they wanted. The answer was always the same: they wanted Bible study. Every time she asked, they told her in no uncertain terms that they wanted to study the Bible. There was this odd thing that happened, though. When she actually arranged for professors from a local seminary to come to the church to teach classes on the Bible, attendance was never good. In fact, it was poor. Again she would conduct her surveys, and again they would insist that they wanted Bible study. “Finally,” she says, “I got the message. ‘Bible’ was a code word for ‘God.’ People were not hungry for information about the Bible. They were hungry for an experience of God.” [i]
This story resonates for me this Ash Wednesday. I have my pre-conceived notions of Lent, and what it means, precisely. The call to the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; journeying into the wilderness with Jesus, who wandered for 40 days, or perhaps with the people of Israel, who wandered for 40 years; the long weeks of walking towards the cross (without benefit of a chocolate fix when things get really tough), and the burst of light and reprieve that is the resurrection. All these things mean Lent to me, and Lent means all these things. But underneath the disciplines and stories and practices there is one truth at the heart of Lent: we want an experience of God. Lent, with all these possibilities laid out like tasty offerings on a buffet, seems to promise an opportunity for just that.
“Therefore,” says the author of the letter to the Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
As we pause at the threshold of Lent, I want to suggest a few simple ideas for us to ponder, and they are all, in turn, suggested by this opening verse of our reading.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” In the letter to the Hebrews, the cloud of witnesses is comprised of biblical giants—everyone from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses and beyond. These are people who have had God tap them on the shoulder while they were going about their daily business, interrupting their lives, saying things like, “Hey, Noah, I know you’re 600 years old, but do you think you could build this enormous boat out of gopher wood and pack, oh, hundreds of thousands of species in it? Before it rains?” These are people who were watching their flocks when a nearby bush spontaneously burst into flame and began speaking with the voice of God, who then told them the divine name was an imperfect verb, meaning something like “I will be who I will be.” This cloud of witnesses, these are people who have had an experience of God. These are people whose faith we can look to, people to emulate.
I have my own cloud of witnesses, and I suspect you do too. Mine are Mary Magdalene and Therese of Lisieux, who showed me different visions of what it meant to be enthralled with Jesus; H., the priest who first invited me on a retreat in high school and suggested I might consider opening a bible if I wanted to know more about Jesus; my mother J., who, as a lifelong pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic was a little nervous about the bible thing, but who for her part showed me what it was to pray through pain. And there’s my friend J., who fearlessly looked outside her own faith tradition and found a home and a path as a Jewish convert; and my friends K. and M. and M. and C., all of whom are following Jesus bravely and creatively every day; my professor C., who made me fall in love with John Calvin, of all people, and my other professor D., who wept when he read us fragments of ancient Hebrew poetry. This is my cloud of witnesses (actually, a very small segment of it). I know you have your own. Who are they? Who are the people in your life who have had an experience of God? Who are your mentors in this pursuit? Perhaps, this Lent, our first discipline could be remembering, thinking of them. That’s the first thing.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely…”
It gets tricky here, especially for those of us who have tried to use Lent in the past as a cover for what really were attempts at dieting. So let’s get that out of the way: the author is not speaking of laying aside that kind of weight. The weight here seems to have some connection to sin. First things first, and the Bible could not be clearer on this point. One does not need to be sin-free in order to have an experience of God, and thanks be to God for that. If my dalliance with John Calvin taught me anything, it was that we are all sinners—God’s beautiful and broken creation, every one of us. That doesn’t disqualify us from having a God experience.
So, surrounded by our cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside those things which weigh us down, and the sin that clings to us like a staticky skirt in the winter. We talked in Bible study this week of the rabbit trails our brains can follow—the kind of thinking that can weigh us down, keep us from being truly free, the hateful self-talk. Just think of the ways we can talk to ourselves—how we can be far worse, far more cruel to ourselves than we ever could be to someone else. How many of us have called ourselves stupid? How many of us roll our eyes at our own mistakes and say, “Typical!” How many of us begin sentences to/ about ourselves with “I could never…” or “I can’t even…”?
Could we just put that down? Could we give that up for Lent? That weight of self-hatred, and put-downs, that weight of treating ourselves in a way that would appall God—that does appall God! God who loved us before we were even born. God who loves us now, with the kind of love that would, literally, die for us? God who says, “Come as you are”? Jesus said the second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” How can we even get working on loving our neighbor if we are spewing a constant stream of venom at ourselves? Perhaps this could be our second discipline this Lent. Lay it down. Lay that weight down. That’s the second thing.
Surrounded by our witnesses… the people who inspire us with their experience of God…
Lighter now because we’ve laid down that weight of self-hatred…
What else is there to do but run? “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”
Almost thirty years ago a film came out about the summer, not the winter Olympics. “Chariots of Fire” told the true story of the British men’s track team that competed in 1924. One of the members of the team was Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary who ended up in an ethical dilemma when the race he was supposed to compete in was scheduled for a Sunday, the Sabbath. At one point a fellow Christian is trying to talk him out of competing altogether, dismissing it as trivial in the face of Liddell’s faith. But he resists, saying “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
What race is set before you? By which I mean, what is it that God made you to be or do, that fills you with the sense of God’s pleasure in you? What fills your heart with joy? … which is one of the sure marks that it is a place or an activity where you are catching a glimpse of God—an experience of God. Running with perseverance doesn’t have to mean feeling like the sprinter who has suddenly been forced to run the marathon. Where do your joy and God’s joy intersect? Perhaps the pursuit and practice of that could be our third Lenten discipline.
Why not make this Lent a time when we pursue an experience of God with the ardor of a lover? Why not assume that we already have all the tools we need to make this possible? A great cloud of witnesses, in the sacred pages of scripture and in the sacred pages of our own lives… a real sense of lightness from the weight of sin and doubt we can lay down and walk away from… a conviction that the call to the life of faith is also a call to find the joy God has in store for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge and Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 47.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
So, no, I don't talk about the film "The Shining" in this sermon. Though there was an early draft that included a line about being chased through the hallways of the Overlook Motel by a madman... as an example of things that might make your face shine. Yeah. Sanity prevailed.
I want to talk to you this morning about joy. And terror. I want to talk to you about the kinds of things that make our faces shine, those moments when we think our hearts will burst, they are so full: We catch sight of someone we love across a crowded room. Someone we respect assesses our work and gives us a hearty “Well done.” Someone places our child in our arms for the first time. Of course, our faces can shine for other reasons as well. We can have shining faces as a result of terror. Things like: We are skiing down the grand slalom at speeds approaching 60 miles/ hour. We are confronted by someone who is very angry. Or even this: someone places our child in our arms for the first time. When we talk of shining faces, we are usually speaking of those moments when we experience the extremes of what it is to be human, which, also, sometimes, are the moments when we are closest to an experience of the divine. We call these mountaintop experiences.
“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” [Exodus 34:29]. Why exactly was Moses’ face shining? Was it joy or terror or some potent mixture of the two? My seminary professor of Old Testament talked about the way the Israelites understood the holiness of God. He called it radioactive—powerful and terrifying, something most sensible people wanted to stay far away from. Like the lion Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” God is good, but God is not safe. We can expect to come away from encounters with God altered. We can expect to be filled with fear, even as we’re filled with joy. (Kind of like falling in love.)
This is actually the second time Moses has come down from the mountain bearing the tablets of the covenant. Do you happen to remember what happened the first time he came down? The first time he found the people had formed a calf out of gold they had collected from one another and melted down, and they were worshipping that thing as a god. What could be safer and more controllable than a make-it-yourself god, handcrafted from grandma’s jewelry? After that fiasco, Moses returns to the mountaintop and finds that God is willing to give the law again, anew, and sends Moses back down… but this time, Moses’ face is changed. It is shining. Now, I ask again, why is it shining? Is it joy? Is it terror? Or is it some potent mixture of the two? Whatever the reason, we can know one thing: this God whom Moses encounters is not safe, not controllable. That’s why the people stay away from Moses for a while: they can see on his face evidence of the terrifying power of the God they worship. Ultimately, Moses decides to veil his face after these encounters, so that the people won’t be disturbed by his new look.
I imagine it might have been tempting for Moses to just leave the recalcitrant Israelites behind, and simply remain up on that mountain with God. Why not stay there, in deep communion with the Holy One, forever and ever? No more melted bracelets to deal with, no more god-as-craft-project. Well, I imagine he didn’t because that is not what God calls Moses to do, or calls us to do. God gives Moses the covenant and sends him back down the mountain, and in doing that, God claims the people as God’s own. God gives Moses the covenant and sends him back down the mountain, so that the people can have the guidance they need to live in harmony with one another and with God. God always sends us back down the mountain again, because the mountaintop serves the purposes of the valley and the plain. Moses’ shining face has a purpose, and that is to convey the holiness of God to the people in a usable form: the laws and promises and commitments that will bind them together as God’s people, forever.
There is joy and there is terror in the mountaintop experiences of our lives, those moments when, for better or for worse, we bind ourselves to other human beings so that, together, we might carry out God’s purposes. Sometimes we do these things very formally: we dress in special clothing, and there are officiants presiding over the events, and someone takes pictures. Sometimes we do these things quietly and without fanfare, with words unspoken but still clearly understood. And the challenge, always, is to walk the middle path between the joy and the terror of these commitments, knowing that these experiences are no more controllable or safe than God is. Thank God, that God promises to be there with us, to help us, to see us through.
In a few moments we will be inviting a young couple to bring their daughter to the baptismal font. This is one of those moments, for this couple. They have already bound their lives together with one another and their baby daughter, and now they take steps to ensure that her life is inextricably woven together with that of the church, the body of Christ. But the fearful and joyous mystery for them and for us is that Christ has already come down the mountain to claim this child for his own. In a sense, in presenting their daughter for baptism, this couple simply acknowledges the work God has already begun in her. Not to mention the work God has already begun in all of us, preparing us for this newest member of Christ’s body. We are already, every one of us, bound together for the work Christ calls us to do. God has already committed us into one another’s care. Today is the day we recognize and celebrate that commitment.
This is the kind of day that makes all our faces shine. Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Let every shining face we meet remind us that God binds us together in community, God entrusts us into one another’s care, and God walks beside us as we walk with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Icon: Moses and the Burning Bush, found at Christ in the Mountains.
Sunday, February 07, 2010
For another take on this passage, see this sermon, from three years back.
Go away from me! This is not the first reaction we think someone will have to Jesus. We expect people—we have been taught to expect people—to wordlessly drop everything and follow. That’s how these stories usually go. We’ve been taught about how inviting Jesus is—about how he wants to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds, about how we are all welcome to his table, about how he wants to restore our sight and release us from captivity and teach us to walk and restore us to new and better life. That anyone should find that threatening, even terrifying… well, perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us as much as it does. Go away from me, Lord. Don’t ask this of me. Don’t demand this of me. Don’t turn my life upside down like this.
Jesus, for the most part, finds us at work. It would be great for me, a religious professional, to say, well, of course, Jesus shows up in church, that’s where he finds us. That he will surely show up in the temple, in the shrine, in the holy place. And I suppose he does that too. We may find fleeting glimpses of him here, thanks be to God. But more often when he shows up in these places, he comes to prod and poke at us, to remind us that we always need to be mindful lest we fall into the role of the Pharisee, the religious hypocrite who holds others to standards we are not willing to meet ourselves. Jesus’ appearances in the holy places are the things that make religious professionals lose sleep, break out into a cold sweat. No. More often than not, Jesus finds us at work.
Jesus finds us in the midst of our mundane, day-to-day activities. He finds us there, and joins in with us, climbs into the boat, so to speak. Really, he climbed into the boat on that starry Bethlehem night, when the angels sang “Glory!” Jesus climbs into the boat with us, joins us in our ordinary projects and pursuits, in our places of skill and competency, the places where we more or less know what we are doing. We know how to catch the fish, or pay the bills, or rewire the lamp, or update the website. We know how to field the calls, and listen with empathy, and change the oil. Jesus finds us, doing all these things. And then, he says, put out into the deep water. Let me show you a new thing.
Now, it would be perfectly natural for us to respond with some measure of annoyance, or weariness, or defensiveness. I’ve been doing this all night, we might say, or all morning, or even all my life. I know what I’m doing. I know how to clean the floor, host the coffee hour, welcome the stranger. Lord, I’ve been doing this a long, long time. What do you mean, “deep water”? What am I going to find there that I haven’t found right here?
But that’s what he says, deep water, and so, grumbling, perhaps, we push away from shore, away from what is familiar, away from our zones of comfort and our dependable formulas for how to be. We push out into the deep water, the place where we’re not really sure what is swimming beneath the surface, and we’re not really sure we want to know. But we do it. We put out into the deep water, and we let down our nets, just to be polite, just to see what will happen, just to quiet that insistent voice, maybe, just so that we can say we did.
And then. Oh my. This… is awkward, because now something new is happening, and the nets are straining and our shoulders are pulling with the strain of it, and, wow, we need help. We need help. We can’t do this ourselves. We put out into deep water, we reach down below the surface of things, and we are not able to control the outcomes any more. We have listened to that word Jesus whispered in our ears, and now we are beyond our experience, now we are beyond the ways we’ve always done it before, and, oh Lord above, it is hard, hard work, and something’s got to give. And what gives is our sense of competency, our solo selves, our sense of completeness. What gives is the idea that we can go it alone. If we are going to do it Jesus’ way, in the deep water of life, we learn that we can’t go it alone.
And our first reaction is, Go away from me Lord. This is not what I bargained for. This is not what I want, this disruption to everything I know.
Then Jesus whispers another word in our ears. He doesn’t say, “Come, follow me.” Not here, not in this passage. Maybe he knows better than to expect that of us, right this moment, in our reluctance and in our dismay. No. He doesn’t say, “Follow me.” Instead, he becomes a prophet, a sage, he becomes Sybil Trelawney, telling us what we can expect. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says; “from now on you will be catching people.” Literally, he says, “You will be catching-alive people,” but even that doesn’t convey something that would necessarily still our fears, we who probably feel at this point that we have been caught alive, and we’re still not sure we won’t make a break for it. But the deeper meaning, the meaning below the surface, the meaning that restores our courage, that gives us what we need to leave everything behind to follow, is this: You will be captivating people with life. You will be reviving them. You will be restoring them to life and strength. Catching them alive, and pouring even more life into them.
And something in that captivates us. Something in that whispered word awakens us to the fact that if we are restoring others to life and strength, then it must be that we will be filled with it too. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. And that’s how he does it. And that’s when we remember the inviting Jesus, the captivating Jesus, the one who wants to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds, who is longing to welcome to his table, who is ready right now to restore our sight and release us from captivity and teach us to walk and restore us to new and better life. And so, we do it. We drop the nets. We follow. Thanks be to God. Amen.