Monday, February 28, 2005

'Is God Among Us or Not?'

This was the sermon heard yesterday at my little church on the hill.

Exodus 17:1-7

The retired and dearly missed comic strip, ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ presents one episode where 6-year-old Calvin is dragging his sled to the top of a hill. There’s only one problem: there’s no snow. Not a problem for our young hero. He looks to the sky and says, ‘Boy, it sure would be great if we had some snow!’ Nothing. ‘I mean it, I’d love some snow right now!’ Still nothing. Over the next few panels this little tantrum gets bigger and more involved. Calvin is running in circles, he gets down on his knees and begs, he shouts and wails and finally in the last little box yells, ‘Do you want me to become an atheist!??!’

In this light-hearted example, Calvin wants God to make things happen. He has a desire, what he sees as a need, for God to respond to his yelling to the sky for snow to fall. And he expects results! Otherwise, he threatens, I just might choose not to believe in you any more. Cartoonist Bill Watterson provides this look into a particular way in which some try to use or manipulate God into doing what they think God should be doing. In various places we can see this ‘prosperity gospel’ played out through televangelists, various books charging the believer to ‘name it and claim it.’ If you do good by God, or just ask sincerely or passionately or systematically enough, God will give you what you think you deserve.

But there is another side, a more grave side, to this issue. We hear the Israelites grumbling (as they often do) in the wilderness. They are tired. They are beaten down by the endless wandering. And in this particular story they are beaten down by thirst. One of humanity’s most basic needs is nowhere to be found. This is not some extra frill that God’s people are seeking. Instead they are crying out for a bare necessity.

It’s easy to say God is with us when things line up, when life is generally positive. But in other moments, those moments when our lives don’t seem to be going as we think they should be, those moments when life is genuinely rotten, the question ‘Is God among us or not?’ takes a serious tone. In those moments, moments where we are crying out for water like the Israelites rather than crying out for snow like Calvin, it is perhaps much more crucial to our lives and our own sense of relationship to God that we know God is among us. There is more of a sense of urgency, even of desperation, a greater need to know that we are not alone no matter how lonely we feel.

The Israelites are accused of testing God. They are demanding that Moses take care of them. They are demanding that Moses satisfy their thirst. They cry out for something they need and suggest that they were better off in Egypt. Sure they were slaves but at least they were better nourished. That really says something about their trust in God being with them! After a while they were wanting to go back to the oppressive earthly power that had enslaved them because at least then they were more certain that basic essentials would be provided for them to live. The Israelites are demanding one basic essential so that they may live.

A rabbi was asked a question by a pupil, referring to Deuteronomy 6:6: ‘And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.’ ‘Why is it said this way?’ the pupil asked. ‘Why are we not told to place God’s words in our heart?’ The rabbi answered that it is not within humanity’s power to place the divine teachings directly in one’s heart. ‘All that we can do is place them on the surface of the heart so that when the heart breaks they will drop in.’

Life is full of heartbreak. People cry out from street corners and in cafes after a harsh breakup or failed marriage, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People cry out in living rooms or in cars on the way to or from work after listening to the evening news, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People cry out after burying their father, mother, a sibling, a spouse, a best friend, a son or a daughter, ‘Is God among us or not?’ People wrestling with mental illness or a terminal disease cry out, ‘Is God among us or not?’ Heartbreak and thirst cover the earth and in that heartbreak and thirst people cry out, ‘Is God among us or not?’

But there is another piece of the universal puzzle, a piece that only God can give. It is a piece that fills our hearts when they break, a piece that just drops in when we thirst and when we cry out. God’s transformative words, spoken to Moses, spoken to us: ‘I will be standing there in front of you.’ This is what God says to Moses when instructing him to strike the rock. I will be there in front of you.

Both the Israelites and Calvin think that unless water is present, unless it starts snowing, then God is absent. But in looking for water, the Israelites look past Moses. They look past their own families. They look past one another. They look past their children and their livestock. Calvin looks past the ground on which he walks, his own breath as he walks toward the edge of the hill.

We look for waters of relief from our grief and miss God’s presence in our tears. We look for waters of relief for loved ones and look past the person next to us offering us (wouldn’t you know it?) a cup of water. And in turn others look for waters of relief and may look past us. Our hearts attempt to close to prevent breaking, with God’s words clinging to the surface, ever searching for an opportunity to enter.

Is the Lord among us or not? We hear the promise: yes. I am in front of you. I will be in front of you. In our thirst God remains with us. God fills the cracks in our hearts with God’s presence. God stands in front of us through friends and family reaching out to us in genuine love. God stands in front of us through a song that soothes and a gentle smile and embrace. God stands in front of us as the sun’s rays warm our faces and the rain cools our tempers. God stands in front of us in the needy, the outcast, the hungry, and the thirsty. God pulls us together and invites us to help each other answer our question, ‘Is God among us or not?’

‘Yes, I am,’ says God. I am among the physically and spiritually thirsty and among those who might help in quenching that thirst. I am among the sick and the downtrodden, calling the oppressor to repentance and the oppressed to comfort. I am in burn units aiding in crucial decisions and celebrating anniversaries and milestones. I am in nursing homes, maternity wards, and psychiatric units. I stand in front of you calling you to each other, calling you to be my hands and feet, calling you to take up your staff and take care of one another.

I am among you. Look toward one another and believe.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

On Saturdays I do my best to shine light in some corners of the pop culture world that perhaps you haven't seen before. Or maybe you have and they deserve a second look. I'll leave that up to you.

I saw The Terminal this week. Tom Hanks comes over on a plane from a fictional East European country (according to his accent) and finds out he can't leave the airport because during his flight a coup erupted back home. So he passes the time by playing matchmaker between employees, learning English from travel guides, and getting on the nerves of the airport commissioner. Not a bad film.

In the CD player is a disc I just picked up this week called Passion: Hymns Ancient & Modern. The Passion praise group has put out numerous live CDs featuring modern praise songs, and this one features arrangements of familiar hymns. It was recommended by a friend a while back and I happened upon it the other day. If you don't get too freaked out at the thought of 'How Great Thou Art' and the Doxology arranged to guitar and drums, you might like this.

I've started The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, and it's a challenging and thought-provoking read. I'm mostly reading it for information as I'm not as boned up on genetics and biology as I should be, but it's pretty easy to engage the material, too. So far Ridley's main point is that in the human and animal world, while the individual has aspirations which may on occasion be deemed selfish, the 'greater good' (I'm disheartened that he keeps saying 'greater' as opposed to 'common') is meant to prevail and that selfishness is kept in check by what is best for the society, partially by one's dependence on it. He notes that what is called 'virtuous' is usually selfless. Good stuff.

No television recommendation. Don't be shocked.

Everybody is somebody else's heretic. That's the tagline of this blog. Updated irregularly, but still a decent read.

That's it. Have a good week.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Time Management and Other Random Musings

~I enter into my two days off with a completed sermon and confirmation lesson sitting in my office across the way. No chance of me going over there to tweak them either. What's done is done.

~On a related note, in order to prepare for a true two days off rather than a day off and my rationalized working Saturdays, both the sermon and the confirmation lesson were tweaked throughout the week. Inspiration, write a few paragraphs, leave it alone. Wash, rinse, repeat. This is actually the way I wrote sermons in college, which while looking back I may have changed my mind about some of the content I still consider to be some of my best ones. And the last couple weeks have seen some pretty darn good ones, in my not so humble opinion. My approach lately has been to set aside one afternoon and force inspiration to come out my ears, producing mixed results. Go figure.

~Over the past year or so, a quote by Winston Churchill (hopefully no relation to Ward) has arisen a couple times on my journey. It goes something like this: 'If you aren't liberal when you're young you have no heart. If you aren't conservative when you're old you have no head.' I've always thought this quote to have kind of a defeatist edge to it: 'You're allowed to be idealistic when you're young, and then when you grow up you'll realize that the world sucks and will never change, and to think otherwise is to remain in your young naive stupid ways.' Couple this with a few articles I've been reading on Reinhold Niebuhr whose life sees this quote played out. Anyway, the point of this random musing is that I'm starting to admit to myself that in certain areas I'm becoming 'conservative' in my young age. Or maybe I always was. I'll leave the specific issues for other days. Disclaimer: 'conservative,' not Republican. I generally don't have much use for partisanship.

~Speaking of my young age, I waved goodbye to my early 20s this past Wednesday. A friend made this comment the day I turned 20: 'Wow...you're halfway to 40.' Now I'm even closer. Good for me.

~I'm starting to require less sugar and cream in my coffee.

~I miss exercise. I need more in my life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

It's not about you - Part 2

This is kind of related to Sunday's post, but not really. But kind of. You'll see.

There's another piece to the whole 'why aren't I more excited to be here this morning?' question, and it has to do with a reason I stated in my previous post: '...I was cursing having to come in Saturday morning to finish my sermon...'

Aha!! For the past, well, pretty much the entire time I've been here, I've only been taking one day off a week. Saturdays have been used for sermon tweaking. I'm either sitting in the church office typing or practicing in the sanctuary. It's been a working day. Friday I've been faithful in making a point not to go anywhere near the church building, but Saturdays which I call my 'on call' day (read: not actually working but available in emergencies) have more often than not been working days.

So I present all this to the pastoral relations committee last night, concluding that I'm going to do better about staying away from the church on Saturdays barring the occasional happening that requires me to be around. They not only affirmed this move, but even suggested a different day off other than Saturday so that I could avoid those special occasions interfering in my day off. I told them I'd think about that.

They're so good to me here.:)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

It's not about you

So I had a realization this morning. Not a realization I guess, but a reminder. I'm trudging up the stairs from the basement, having just come from teaching confirmation. My throat is sore from whatever my wife and half the congregation has, I was cursing having to come in Saturday morning to finish my sermon, what the heck difference is my sermon going to make....

For the record, this isn't burnout. It's way too early for burnout. It was more a crappy snowy tired I-feel-a-cold-coming-on morning where I just kept asking myself, 'Why aren't I more excited about what I'm doing this morning?' In part, there are just some mornings like that. We all have them, some more regularly than others.

Well anyway, I zip up my robe and just before I make my way out of the office for worship, I stop myself and just say, 'This isn't about me.' I can't explain it, but that made going through the service much much easier.

There are some who abuse that phrase. 'It's not about you' can lead to radical self-denial that borders on some weird masochistic superpiety. It definitely wasn't that this morning. Instead, it was the kind of 'it's not about you' through which I simply was reminded who I am and whose I am. If it's not about me then let the Spirit blow where it will and may I from time to time be an instrument of what God is trying to say.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Weekend fun

It's Saturday, so you need some stuff to read/watch/listen to. I can help you out.

I haven't settled on a new book yet, but one on my nightstand I'm considering is The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. This book was assigned reading in a college course years ago and I've been meaning to re-read it. The back cover describes the book as 'A brilliant examination of man's most basic instinct--the desire for mutual aid and trust.' It's genetics, psychology, and anthropology all rolled into one. Woo!

We watched Love Actually on Valentine's Day. This is a great film. It fits in the category of 'romantic comedy' but it's not really the predictable sappy kind that Matthew McConaughey always stars in. Instead, it's a British film starring a good dozen or so recognizable people in various relationship scenarios, all kind of interrelated but not really. Just go watch it.

Currently in the CD player is Passion by Peter Gabriel. It's the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ and parts of it are quite stunning. Come to Maundy Thursday service here and you'll get to hear a little bit of it.

You know what television show I've allowed myself to get sucked into? Celebrity Fit Club. Yeah, the guy who despises television in general and 'reality TV' in particular watches Celebrity Fit Club. But I've found that VH1 has that ability in general. Flip on one of those 'I Love [Insert Decade Here]' shows and watch a half hour disappear. It's really weird. But anyway, Celebrity Fit Club is about these eight celebrities (the Snapple lady qualifies as a celebrity) who are trying to work toward a healthier weight with no liposuction in sight. I think it's because I've become more health conscious the past few years that a show like this is able to snare me into staring at the idiot box for an hour.

Just added to the blogroll is Waskow's Weblog, a blog by Rabbi Arthur Waskow.

Enjoy and may your upcoming week be merry.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

So....

Lots of visitors here as of late. And some good activity in some of the comments sections as well. I was wondering how long I'd really stick with this before getting too bored with it or too busy with other things, but 2-4 new posts a week ain't bad for a guy trying to balance full-time ministry, a marriage, and wasting time on the internet.

I visited a coffeeshop this afternoon that I know will quickly become a new haunt of mine. They have an open mic twice a month, so one day when I work up the nerve I'll climb onstage with my guitar and play a few tunes. Meantime I'll curl up in the corner with a bottomless cup and read.

Speaking of, I've finished God's Politics. It's an excellent read and I highly recommend it. I'm starting to get distracted from my original plan to read an Old Testament-focused book and becoming increasingly interested in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially with at least two mainline denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and my own United Church of Christ, have been or are beginning to talk about advocating divestment from Israel (apparently two resolutions concerning this matter are going to the floor of General Synod this summer). What I'm hoping during this possible new study venture is to locate some sources more objective in nature as both sides have their fair share of advocates. Too much Israel-as-victim or Palestinians-as-saints and I start to get suspicious. So if any of my loyal readers can help me out with locating a good history book or two, I'd appreciate it.

Well, tomorrow is my day off and that means that on principle I keep away from the church. What's in store instead? Any number of hobby-related activities. In other words I'll either be reading or playing music. In addition, at some point I travel to Heidelberg for the second Friday in a row. Last time it was to see my brother play Oscar in The Odd Couple and this time it will be to hook up with my wife's family for a little while. Good times.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Faith in Bath

Faith in Bath is the website for Bath UCC in Maine. They somehow found me (Martha?), so I'll give 'em a little plug, too.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Some Disjointed Thoughts on War

I've been thinking a lot about war the past few weeks.

I've been thinking about my time at Eden and how the general air was against going into Iraq.

I've been thinking about various views on the internet that give reasons why the U.S. needed to go to Iraq.

I've been asking myself if Jesus really was a pacifist.

I've been thinking about all the people in the world who want to kill Americans, who want to kill Christians, who want to kill. And I've been thinking about people in the world who want to kill Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims. And of course we can add blacks, Jews, homosexuals, and virtually any and every group on the planet to the list, depending on who you talk to. And I've been thinking about how people who want to kill them don't stop until they are imprisoned or worse. But of course their ideas live on.

I attended a talk on war this past Tuesday given by an orthodox rabbi. He gave some of the usual rhetoric some may recognize as 'just war' reasoning, even providing a one-line litmus test for whether one is a pacifist or not: 'If someone were to break into your home, would you use violence to stop them from harming your family?' At certain points he dangerously approached the line of moral relativism, but I don't think it's necessary to expound on that here. But he said some things that I needed to think about. That pacifist test got me.

Jim Wallis, along with a group of religious leaders, in the case of Iraq, sought
a third alternative to 'just war' and pacifism. He speaks of an international police force and international court to try Saddam Hussein. He speaks of forcing him out of power with means other than war, although I cannot help but think that violence would have been used in this third option. How else to remove Saddam and the Baaths from power? How else to take him to the proposed tribunal? Might it be less violent? Could an insurgency have been avoided if this plan were followed?

So I've been thinking about war, and will continue to think about war. I will think about how sometimes perhaps violence is necessary, but in many other cases how war is used for selfish political ambition. I will continue to think about how war has stopped further violence and has encouraged further violence. I will continue to think about how war, no matter who thinks of themselves as the 'good guys' (and nobody thinks of themselves as the 'bad guys'), people die. People die. And it's never just the combatants. And I'll keep thinking about the lack of outrage, humility, and restraint that is sometimes shown by the 'good guys' when that happens. I'll also think about the outrage I feel when I hear about another beheading.

And I'll also keep thinking about how platitudes like 'War is Hell' don't help.

As a 'necessary evil,' as it is often called, is it truly always necessary? And is it ever not evil?

If we are all God's children, what does God think when the 'bad guy' dies, no matter how corrupt or despicable their actions?

Maybe a more appropriate Lenten study this time around should be Bonhoeffer's decision to join the assassination attempt on Hitler, a book on 'just war,' further study on 'third alternatives,' or something else.

'Violence is not the answer.' To which question?

I hate this. I'm gonna go buy groceries.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

That time again....

Happy Saturday. Or as they say in France, bien Samadi. Right? Eh....

I'm about 50 pages from the end of the Wallis book, so I'll be moving on to something else pretty soon. Some may remember my Lenten challenge to come up with a good book related to Old Testament issues not too long ago, and I think I'm going with Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. That'll probably be next.

I'm still digging Radiohead. Currently in the CD player is OK Computer.

For television, I usually watch Family Guy and Futurama on Cartoon Network before going to bed. It's a good way to wind down.

Around the 'net, check out JamBase. It's a website dedicated (or maybe Deadicated?) to reviews, interviews, and concert info on bands that fit the 'jamband' category (think Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Grateful Dead, Allman Bros., Blues Traveler). Well, I like it anyway.

Enjoy your week. Stay tuned for more caffeine-induced rambling.

Friday, February 11, 2005

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross....or is it the Old Rugged Cross....

Over at The Parish, Greg gives a few thoughts on the symbology of the cross. This inspired me to make this post.

So it's Lent, and that means churches will be dusting off some of those old hymns about the cross. In addition, some will sing about being bathed in blood, but that's for another post. Let's stick with the cross for a little bit.

I used to wear a simple pewter cross around my neck. I think I know where that necklace is, but I haven't worn it for a couple years. Our sanctuaries are adorned with gold and silver crosses of various shapes and sizes, beautifully handcrafted and shiny. Some have found more creative ways to portray the cross. Ash Wednesday saw black crosses smeared on foreheads and palms. We can buy crosses made of nails bundled together, or crosses made from dried palm leaves. Over the centuries the cross has taken many forms: Celtic, Iron, the Pax cross at the top of the blog, etc.

A few years ago I saw a very different incarnation of the crosses I'd grown up seeing. A large wooden cross was placed in the sanctuary, carved roughly from two wooden beams. No purple cloth hung from it. It hadn't been sanded down or polished. If you touched it you could end up with a splinter. It was placed in the corner of the sanctuary, almost an intruder into the more beautiful surroundings of stained glass and mohogany, and as such it demanded congregants' attention. It truly was an old rugged cross. Nothing really wondrous about it.

Let's remember, after all, the cross is a symbol of execution, of humiliation, of death. Over the years we've cleaned it up, dressed it up, sterilized it, made it more presentable. But ultimately its true nature can't be concealed. Not only did Jesus die on this piece of torture, but perhaps some 10,000 others.

I'll come clean. I have a small polished olivewood cross hanging in my office. There are crosses etched into my wedding ring. I'm not exempt from this attempt to make the cross look more pleasant. And resurrection notwithstanding, the cross is at its core a very ugly thing. We can say, 'But he is risen! The cross has lost its power! We don't have to focus on its ugliness any more!' I say we can't use the resurrection as an escape from the tragedy and violence of Good Friday (and what moron decided to call it 'Good?').

The events of Holy Week and Easter go hand in hand. The resurrection means nothing without the cross. Rather than looking around the cross, we need to look through it, contemplate its true meaning as a form of Roman oppression and violence, to reclaim it as a horrible indispensible piece of Jesus' tragic end. There is a lot of power in surveying the wondrous cross for what it really is. And for those of us who keep prettier versions of it around the house, its that much more important.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"...and to dust you shall return."

This served as my invitation to the congregation before the imposition of ashes this evening. It's roughly paraphrased, as I did it sans notes. Maybe there's hope yet for me to work off manuscript. Well anyway, here it is:

"A bumpersticker that has become very popular the past few years has the American flag as a backdrop with the words 'The Power of Pride' laden over top. I think that the people who produced this sticker have underestimated the significance of this simple phrase.

"There is certainly power in pride. Some of it is good. Pride can produce loyalty and it can produce the strength that one may need to get through difficult times. But pride has other power as well. Pride can produce other things within us that are more harmful and destructive, two of which we remember tonight.

"The first thing that pride's power can overshadow is our sense of mortality, our sense of finitude. Pride can become so built up that we begin to believe we're invincible. We deny our humanity. We run from death. We try to escape it through material possessions or through so-called anti-aging techniques. Pride can help us fool ourselves into thinking we can in turn fool death.

"The second thing that pride's power can overshadow is our sense of accountability, toward one another and toward God. Pride can cause us to deny that we are responsible for our actions, as we try to justify everything we do that hurts others; that goes against God's call to us. Pride helps us deny that we can be wrong.

"Tonight we put off our pride. We confess our sins and we admit to ourselves and one another that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us put off our pride as we journey toward the cross. Let us humble ourselves before God."

I think it was longer and maybe a little more rambling than that, but this was the gist.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Behold, the Ever-Expanding Blogroll

Some of these blogs have been listed on the sidebar for a while, but I thought I'd call attention to them anyway.

The Progressive Pilgrim Cafe is currently beginning a discussion on Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity. From what I've seen it's a good little community to discuss faith-related issues.

Treading Water is written by Liddy, a young woman making her way through seminary and pursuing UCC pastoral ministry.

Eat My Justice is a music blog written by Nick Dukes. I just dig his writing style.

I didn't expect to get this immersed in the blogosphere. Who knew?

Royal Language

Some may recall an entry I wrote about taking a 'working Sabbath' near the beginning of January. Well, it really did me a lot of good to take an afternoon of study and plan ahead for the next couple weeks. This could quickly become a tradition for the first Monday of the month.

One issue I've been pondering off and on the past few weeks has been royal imagery in relation to Jesus. In preparation for Lent I just switched the sanctuary paraments this morning to purple, the color of royalty. Those who have read my online ramblings here and elsewhere or who have heard me preach know that I have no problem talking about the kingdom of God. But my issue isn't with kingdom so much as 'Christ the king,' 'hail King Jesus,' 'amazing love, how can this be that you my king would die for me,' 'Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.'

To get a disclaimer out of the way, no, my issue isn't with the apparent patriarchal overtones. Some get far more huffy than I over that aspect of king-speak. No, my concern is more along the lines of whether Jesus wished to be thought of as king of the very kingdom he preached.

Christian Century has a very good article this week concerning Jesus and Paul and their ideas about empire. The Greek word for kingdom, baseleia, can also be translated as empire, and this article notes, as does Stephen Patterson, that such a word was very intentional in its day. Jesus could have talked about the family of God or the community of God, but in the days of the Roman Empire Jesus used 'empire.' It was a message of over-against and instead-of. It's little wonder he died the death of a political traitor. Perhaps if Jesus had been born in other times or places we'd be talking about the Dynasty of God, the Third Reich of God, or the Manifest Destiny of God.

In the book of Revelation, one primary image of Jesus is wearing dazzling white with a crown. It is a very royal image. The gospel writers make use of prophecy to declare Jesus a king (Mat. 21:5), in other places Jesus either avoids being made king (John 6:15) or avoids directly answering when he is asked about being king (Mat. 27:11, Luke 23:3, John 18:37). And yet the author of Matthew is very open about declaring Jesus the Messiah, a term meaning God's anointed, previously associated with the kings of Israel and Judah. Still in other places Jesus goes back and forth between speaking of 'my kingdom' (Luke 22:30, John 18:36) and 'my Father's kingdom' (Mat. 26:29). And then there are many instances in the passion narratives where the soldiers and crowds mock him, calling him 'king of the Jews.'

So the gospel communities are not particularly bashful about declaring Jesus their messiah or king, yet acknowledge that Jesus did not tend to speak of himself often in such terms. But teachings on the kingdom of God far outweigh references to who rules that kingdom (apart from God, of course).

Could it be that in the decades following Jesus' death that the small band of disciples continued to defy the empire by preaching God's empire, even declaring Jesus their emperor for good measure? After all, 'Son of God' was originally a term conferred upon the Caesars. Both Jesus and his followers made good use of royal terms to defy the powers and principalities of their day.

Well, I'm not really going to solve anything in this post. I still feel weird about calling Jesus my king, although I understand why the early church called him that. Of course, I have no problem with calling him 'Lord,' but that's for another day.

Off to study.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

'What Was He Thinking?' - A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

A musician and longtime follower of Miles Davis was at a club one night. His band had just finished their first set and he took a seat by the bar to relax before the group went back on. The bartender motioned to a nearby waitress and said, “You make sure to take extra special care of Miles. He’s a VIP.” The musician’s ears perked up. “Did you just say ‘Miles?’” “Yep,” the bartender replied. “He comes in here all the time. Always sits in the corner booth with a couple friends.” The musician glanced over to find that indeed, Miles Davis was sitting in the corner. What an opportunity! His all-time favorite blues trumpet player, the man on whom he’d based his style, was sitting 30 feet away. Standing up, the musician straightened his jacket, smoothed down his hair, and approached.

“Mr. Davis? My name is Jack, and I’ve been listening to your stuff since I was twelve. I have every album you’ve put out including a couple concert bootlegs. I’ve studied your style since I could pick up a trumpet. Remember that time you played in Seattle in ’85? Well, I was in the club that night. You probably couldn’t see me because I was near the back and actually had to duck out early after I bumped into this waitress and got a whol tray of drinks dumped on my head so I had to wash my hair five times that night to get out the smell and so I totally missed the encore but I’ve seen you six other times so that’s okay. And I have all your albums, and I’ve been listening since I was twelve, and I have all your albums. You are my biggest fan.”

What a moment. What a moment to try to capture, a moment that would live forever in this man’s mind. It would be a moment he’d never forget. The question is, would he remember it because of who he was meeting, or because of how silly he ended up sounding?

Can you relate? A moment comes along that never will again, a moment that just seems so perfect where we can express ourselves to a roomful of people or one particular person. Maybe it’s an important board speech or a job interview. Maybe it’s a first date or even your wedding day. Maybe it’s meeting a person important to you, a mentor, an inspiration. Actor Jim Carrey relates the time he met his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart. Carrey approached, deciding it would be fun to kick off the introduction with an impression of the movie icon. In response, Stewart brushed by him coldly, clearly not amused by the opening. Well, that’s Jim Carrey, we could say. But surely many of us can recall a moment, a star-struck moment where our nerves do the talking rather than our brains, and we end up with a nice red handprint on our foreheads.

It’s Transfiguration Sunday, and Peter is star struck. Here is this moment where Jesus is transfigured before him and two other disciples close to him. His clothes are dazzling white. His garments are transformed. Moses and Elijah are said to appear. So Peter trying to be helpful, says, “Hey! I’ll build three tents for you, Moses, and Elijah!” Why? What were the three of them going to do there? What was he thinking? Or was he?

What do the gospel writers seek to convey for their communities with this story? What is at stake? Matthew’s community was, by the time this gospel was compiled, getting some heavy heat, particularly from an opposing Jewish community. What was all this blather about the Messiah arriving? Jesus didn’t fulfill the Messiah’s role! He came, he opposed the Romans, he tried to reform a couple Jewish practices, and he got killed. Big deal.

But for Matthew it IS a big deal. Jesus, he wishes to show, continues in the great tradition of Moses and Elijah. He didn’t fail, his death was not the end. He was one chosen and set apart by God to do greater things, to proclaim the kingdom. And his true glory is going to be revealed, just like it is in this story. Something bigger was behind Jesus’ call, something greater behind his message. The story of his transfiguration is a glimpse of God’s greater purposes. We saw greater things in him, says Matthew’s author, greater things like what we tell about Moses and Elijah, greater things in his life. Greater things in his death. And greater things today.

This is what’s behind the proclamation that comes through the clouds: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” It is a moment with similar characteristics with the episode at Sinai in Exodus. Matthew wants to show that Jesus and his community’s message of Jesus has integrity and continuity with the sacred stories of Moses before him. Listen to him!

So we’re back to star-struck Peter. Let’s make three tents. He misses the point. The revelation conveyed through the transfiguration lies in Jesus’ being called, set apart, God’s beloved Son. Moses and Elijah are perhaps there more to add weight to the call rather than to have a nice friendly chat in a tent.

So where’s that leave us? Can we always identify more with Matthew’s readers, those ‘in the know’ about the transfiguration’s meaning, scoffing at Peter’s bumbleheaded reaction? Or might there be a moment, maybe an entire era of one’s life, that we can identify with the star-struck mouth-faster-than-brain antics of our dear fully human apostle? After all, many a strange act has been perpetrated where the question of whether the perpetrator listened to Jesus first should be asked. Acts of violence in Jesus’ name are often committed. Doctrine sometimes takes precedence over another’s humanity. ‘Preaching the truth in love’ sometimes tragically and other times violently trumps the recognition that the object of that preaching is a beloved child of God. At other points, self-denial or a primary preoccupation with ‘faith-based’ fear can also result from ignoring Jesus’ touch and his call to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” How open are our eyes and ears to what God’s revelation to us through Jesus really means?

When I was a chaplain at a St. Louis hospital about a year and a half ago, I entered a new patient’s room to introduce him to the spiritual care department and explain my availability as a chaplain to him. We talked about the reason for his stay and his family, among other things, and at one point he shared that he was legally blind. We talked about what that meant for his life for a moment before passing on to the next subject, and as the visit wound down, like so many visits before this one, I pulled out a spiritual care flyer and handed it to him, saying, “Well, this explains what the department offers, including the number we can be reached at.” By this time a nurse had entered the room to check his heart monitor and said, “I can read it to you later.” Whoops.

We’re entering into Lent, a time to be especially attentive to what Jesus is saying. It requires careful listening, true listening rather than blocking out what we don’t want to hear or pushing our own habits or desires. It is a time to respond to what Jesus is actually saying, to act appropriately to the new ways in which we are called to act. In some moments we cannot help but be star-struck by God’s awesome presence. It is in that same moment that God is speaking.


Jesus as in that great tradition before him, reveals God with us. As we journey toward the cross, we need to pay attention.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Dean is UCC

So apparently it was just recently noted that Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee Chair hopeful, is a UCC member.

Dean, you may remember, is the featured player in an overplayed CNN spot where he can be seen yelling at the Iowa caucus. I believe the yell can also be found mixed with different drumbeats on your local mp3-sharing software.

He gives impassioned speeches against racism, but also proclaims hatred for Republicans. Not just what they stand for, mind you.

He accuses the opposition of being all about 'God, guns, and gays,' and declares that his favorite book of the New Testament is Job.

One can't fault him for being no-nonsense, but there are a couple things to fault him for in the meantime. Some, due to a blind sense of loyalty, won't. I will.

But I guess if we like voting for the guy we'd rather have a beer with nowadays, he'll do fine.

Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?

Check this stuff out

Well, it's Saturday and that must mean you get a list of pieces from around the pop culture world for your viewing/listening/reading pleasure.

I'm still working my way through the Wallis book, and it's very good. He talks about (and I agree) how faith can and should influence politics, but not in ways that forces it upon others or leads one to thoughts of being set aside, chosen, and affirmed in any and all political action one may take. That's dangerous thinking walking a hairline between presumption and idolatry. Good stuff.

Something a little different in music today. A seminary friend got me interested in Chill Out music, and so I recommend Chill Out Album, Vol. 4. I personally like the first CD better, but others may disagree. It's good music for.....chilling.....out.

Television....hmmmm....television.....I got nothing.

We watched the original Shrek last night. Still a decent romp over any and all things Disney.

Around the web, check out Martha's Musings. It's a light-hearted blog from a UCC pastor in Maine.

Enjoy your week.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Is this really that major an issue?

"Will you stand?" This is the question asked at this website in regards to keeping 'B.C.' (Before Christ) and 'A.D' (Anno Domini, In the Year of Our Lord) in school textbooks as opposed to B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era). Will you stand to keep these Christian-specific terms in place to designate eras in our world's history? From the site:

"Our goal is to get “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” completely removed from the Ohio Academic Content Standards. The A.D. Calendar has been a part of our history for several hundred years. If “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” remain in our Academic Content Standards, I fear “B.C.” and “A.D.” will not be a part of our history or a part of our curriculum.

Therefore, we must strongly stress to the members of the State Board of Education that “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” be completely removed from the Academic Content Standards."

What is interesting about this website is that the reasoning behind fighting the good fight to keep these designations in place is never given. "My fellow Christians, friends and citizens, the ramifications and significance of this is too severe for us to not take action. " But the 'ramifications and significance of this' are never shared. The mere suggestion that elsewhere in our society people are trying to remove references to God should be, it seems to be assumed, enough to raise the ire of concerned Christian citizens.

I've written elsewhere about my feelings on the pledge, and this seems to be more bad stewardship of time and energy. What is the significance of keeping 'Before Christ' and 'Anno Domini,' besides 'that's the way it's been?' What are the ramifications of using 'Before Common Era' and 'Common Era?' What exactly is the attack on Christianity here? Why is it so important to stand on this issue? The site doesn't say. Some may view it as a further slippery slope down the mountain of there being no God in public places.

There are plenty of ways to put God in public places. There are plenty of ways to mention Christ in school, government, and the workplace. Love your neighbor. Pray for those who persecute you. Proclaim release to the captives. Make peace. Serve the poor, the orphan and the widow. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick. Ask how the 'least of these' may be helped to realize a better life.

Jim Wallis writes that there are many places in which faith may influence your politics and, more generally, your public life. 'God,' he writes, 'is personal, but never private.' And there are many more productive ways to bring one's faith into the public realm than lobbying for letters in a textbook.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Lenten Challenge

We are a week away from the church season of Lent, that 40-day long time of preparation for Easter that is traditionally marked by study and prayer. Many people 'give up' something or are especially mindful about daily devotions. It really is my favorite season of the church year, as I have a great appreciation for the piety of my E&R ancestors, and book study, if my readers haven't already guessed, is truly important to me.

The first year I really took Lent seriously was my freshman year of college. My good friend Ian and I both decided to give up television that year, and I was just beginning to immerse myself in the content of my Topics in Biblical Literature class. In lieu of being mesmerized in half-hour blocks by drivel that I'd forget a half-hour later, I worked my way through The Historical Figure of Jesus.

The next year we'd give up television again, but it wouldn't be nearly as meaningful or productive. But I continued my own tradition of study. In the years following I've read The God of Jesus, With Ears to Hear, and Meditations on the Cross, among others.

This year I'm looking for a good book dealing with the Old Testament. This is where I'd like some help from my blogosphere comrades. What would you recommend? I have a few ideas, but was hoping for some input from you, my loyal reader.

Meanwhile, I continue on with the Wallis book. It's pretty good so far. More later.