Sermon for Lent 3A

John 4:5-42

I love a good love story. My current favorite is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, a series of several novels detailing a story about a woman who travels through time from 1946 to 1743 and ends up meeting the love of her life, marrying him, and staying in the 1700s. Well, sort of. There are lots of twists and turns to this story, including the heroine traveling back to the 20th century and living there for about 20 years before returning back to the 1700s. And Gabaldon has not finished the story of this couple yet—she is working even now on the next novel in the series. But whenever she ends the series, I expect that, no matter what else happens, the couple will live happily ever after. And when you write a novel in the romance genre, people who are reading it, no matter what the novel is, expect certain things to happen: First of all, the man and the woman meet. The way they meet doesn’t always have to be the same, but it needs to be some kind of memorable meeting, something to get the reader invested in the story. Then, there is the initial attraction to one another and a declaration of love. But then, problems arise that separate the couple: often, one person finds out that the other person is not quite who she thought he was. After the couple surmounts whatever obstacle or obstacles get thrown into their path, however, they again realize how much they love one another. They come together, they work out their differences, misunderstandings are cleared up, and they live happily ever after. This is generally the way love stories in our culture work.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we have the Jewish version of a love story. Any Jewish person hearing the opening of the story: “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well,” knows that the next thing that’s going to happen is that a woman is going to come to the well. Think back to the story in Genesis of how Abraham’s servant finds a bride for Isaac: he comes to the well, and Rebekah comes just then and not only offers him water, but also offers to draw water for all of his camels as well. Abraham’s servant knows immediately that Rebekah is going to be Isaac’s wife. Also in Genesis, there is the story of Jacob, fleeing from the murderous rage of his brother Esau. He finally arrives in the land of his mother’s family and comes to a well just as the flocks are arriving to be watered. Upon seeing Rachel coming with her flocks of sheep, Jacob is so taken with her that he single-handedly removes the stone from the mouth of the well and draws water for her flocks. Finally, in the book of Exodus, we see Moses fleeing for his life from Egypt and, arriving at a well in the land of Midian, driving off some shepherds who were preventing Zipporah and her sisters from giving water to their flocks of sheep. And Moses eventually marries Zipporah. So a Jewish audience familiar with these stories is going to expect that Jesus sitting at a well is going to be the beginning of a love story for Jesus.

But this love story, while following the convention of the couple meeting at a well, is going to have some unexpected twists. Like the men in the Old Testament stories, Jesus comes as an outsider, a stranger, to the well. But the woman who comes to meet him is not the expected beautiful young maiden. Instead, she is a Samaritan, a member of a group of people that the Jewish people had a deep-rooted hatred for. And so, when Jesus asks her for a drink, instead of immediately showing hospitality and offering water for him and for his disciples, too, when they get back from town, she stands there, looks him up and down, and says, “Hold on there, buster. You’re Jewish and I’m Samaritan. And you want me to give you a drink of water?” The convention of the Jewish love story has been thwarted immediately, and we can almost see the original group who heard this story leaning in to see what will happen next.

What follows is a simply amazing conversation. This Samaritan woman knows her history and knows her faith pretty well, and she is able to hold her own in a conversation with the one who will reveal himself to be the long-expected Messiah. Now, we need to stop here a moment and look in some more detail at this unnamed Samaritan woman, because while we may not know a lot about her, what we do know helps us understand this new version of the Jewish love story. In the years before Christ, there were two Jewish kingdoms, the northern one known as Israel and the southern one known as Judah. In the year 722 BC(E), the Assyrian Empire swept in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. This Empire carted off many of the people who were living there and repopulated the area with other nationalities. Mixed marriages happened, and so the Samaritans, while tracing their ancestry from Jacob, were not regarded as “pure” Israelites by those who called themselves Jews. Looking at the Samaritan woman, there is also the matter of her five husbands and the one she is living with not being her husband. Interpreters over the years have suggested that means that she is immoral, but that is not the case. Remember that women did not have much of a choice over who they were married to, and men died. Or, men divorced their wives for no good cause. And the man she was living with—well, it was up to him to marry her. She may have had shelter and protection from him, but for whatever reason, he wouldn’t marry her. I imagine this Samaritan woman as one who has lived a difficult life, and who does not respect a man simply because he is a man—he has to earn that respect from her.

But, back to this conversation that this tough woman has with Jesus. The Samaritan woman probably thinks Jesus is a little overcome from the noon heat when he starts talking about living water, but then, when he reveals that he knows about her marital history, her tone changes. She realizes he’s a prophet, so she challenges him on the question of where it is proper to worship. She thinks she’s going to trap Jesus and then be able to dismiss him: if he says it is proper to worship only in Jerusalem, she can say, “But our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, and we share some of those ancestors—were they wrong?” But if Jesus answers that it’s okay to worship God on the mountain, then she can say, “What kind of a Jewish prophet are you, anyway?” But then Jesus gives an answer that gets him out of the trap and keeps the woman interested in talking to him: true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The place doesn’t matter.

This is enough to throw the woman for a loop, and she defers to the coming of the future Messiah, who will explain everything. And then comes the big reveal: Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah. The one that both the Samaritans and the Jews have been expecting and hoping for. The one who will set all things right. And so, she runs and brings back the rest of her people in the village to hear Jesus, so that they can discover that the Messiah has come. We don’t know all of the things that Jesus said that convinced the people of this Samaritan village. But here is one thing: the Messiah was expected to reunite all of the tribes of Israel, including the ten tribes who were “lost” when Assyria came in and conquered the northern kingdom. And here he is doing it: coming to the Samaritans, whom the Jewish people did not get along with. And so, perhaps this is a love story after all: Jesus coming and uniting himself, not only with his people, but also with those who were not expected to be part of the story. Jesus has come to the well as the bridegroom, and has claimed the Samaritans as a part of his bride.

Jesus loves us, too, as a bridegroom loves his bride. We are Gentiles—in other words, we are not Jewish. And yet, Jesus has come to love us, to make us his bride, to bring us into his family. We are the ones who no one expected to be included in to the Messiah’s family. And, like the Samaritan woman at the well, we often resist at first. We question Jesus and say, “Wait a minute. Why do you want anything to do with us?” And yet, Jesus keeps talking with us, wooing us, getting us to come a little bit closer to him. He reveals that he knows everything we have ever done. And then, we get nervous and start arguing with him: “But, Jesus, this church over here says that you said this, and this church over here says the complete opposite. What do you say?” And Jesus deflects our question with an answer that defies our either/or mindset, and he keeps us talking to him. Finally, he tells us that he is the Messiah, the one who we have been waiting for, the one who will love and protect us when the world does not, and he invites us to come and be joined with him forever.

Jesus invites us to be in relationship with him. But he doesn’t stop there. When the disciples come back from their errand in town, he says to them, “. . . look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Jesus sends us out into the world to find those who are lost, those who society deems unlovable, those who we would never expect, and asks us to invite those people into relationship with him as well. As we look around at Powell and its surroundings, it may seem to us that everyone we know is Christian, belongs to a church, and has a relationship with Jesus already. But Jesus asks us to look into the places that we would not normally go—and there are those places even in this small town—and he asks us to speak to the people we do not know, and to invite them to come and know him. For Jesus comes to us not just as individuals, but as a community—just as the Samaritan woman told her community about Jesus, and they came to see and hear him and have a relationship with him as well.

Jesus loves us, and he crosses boundaries to find us and to bring us to be in relationship with him. He crossed the boundary between Judea and Samaria to find the Samaritan woman at the well, and through her, her entire village. And even before this, as John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel, Jesus crossed the boundary between heaven and earth to find us and to pitch his tent among us, so that we might come to know a little bit of how great his love for us truly is. This love story between Jesus and the world began not just at the well, but before time began, before the creation ever came to be. He invites us to come and see, and to taste of the living water that only he can provide. Let us drink deep of that living water, and invite others to come and drink with us. Amen.

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Sermon for Lent 2A

Genesis 12:1-4a & John 3:1-17

I told this story in my December newsletter article, so the following will be a test to see how many of you actually read that article and remember it! My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and several months ago, decided to do the DNA test available on www.ancestry.com to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.

As I looked at today’s Scripture lessons, I realized that we Christians have a DNA, too, that goes back all the way to Abraham. And that DNA is one of faith. Paul writes in Romans that those who share the faith of Abraham are also descendants of Abraham, along with those who can trace their physical DNA back to Abraham. And, if we are descendants of Abraham, then we, too, are called to be a blessing to others, just as Abraham was blessed by God and called to be a blessing to others. And there is something interesting about this blessing: God tells Abram (as he is still called at this point in the story) that “all families of the earth shall be blessed” through him. There is no mention yet of children, much less the child that Abraham will father through Sarah or the child that Abraham will father through Hagar. God says “all families.” And when God says “all,” God means “all.”

And this ties in to our Gospel lesson today, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We all know this verse. Signs with “John 3:16” written on them get flashed up at sporting events of all types. But I would like to suggest that we human beings focus too much on the latter half of that statement rather than the former. We use John 3:16, and other verses of John, as a battering ram to get people to believe in Jesus by saying that they will not go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus. Or, as some Christians say, people will not go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus in the right way, which is their way, and they draw lines where Jesus has never drawn any. And I don’t think that this is what Jesus’ meaning was when he said this to Nicodemus.

What would happen if we took seriously the first part of this verse, “For God so loved the world”? The Greek word that gets translated as “world” here is kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.

So, why do we draw lines? Why do we continue to try to define who has God’s love and who doesn’t? Well, I think that has to do with the words about believing in Jesus. I’ve read the following story before from Amy-Jill Levine’s book, The Misunderstood Jew, but I would like to read it again for you, because I think her words are more powerful than my summary of her words could be.

Levine writes, “After a long and happy life, I find myself at the pearly gates ( a sight of great joy; the word for “pearl” in Greek is, by the way, margarita). Standing there is St. Peter. This truly is heaven, for finally my academic questions will receive answers. I immediately begin the questions that have been plaguing me for half a century: ‘Can you speak Greek? Where did you go when you wandered off in the middle of Acts? How was the incident between you and Paul in Antioch resolved? What happened to your wife?’ Peter looks at me with some bemusement and states, ‘Look, lady, I’ve got a whole line of saved people to process. Pick up your harp and slippers here, and get the wings and halo at the next table. We’ll talk after dinner.’ As I float off, I hear, behind me, a man trying to gain Peter’s attention. He has located a ‘red letter Bible,’ which is a text in which the words of Jesus are printed in red letters. This is heaven, and all sorts of sacred art and Scriptures, from the Bhagavad Gita to the Qur’an, are easily available (missing, however, was the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version). The fellow has his Bible open to John 14, and he is frenetically pointing at v. 6: ‘Jesus says here, in red letters, that he is the way. I’ve seen this woman on television . . . She’s not Christian; she’s not baptized–she shouldn’t be here!’ ‘Oy,’ says Peter, ‘another one–wait here.’ He returns a few moments later with a man about five foot three with dark hair and eyes. I notice immediately that he has holes in his wrists, for when the empire executes an individual, the circumstances of that death cannot be forgotten. ‘What is it, my son?’ he asks. The man, obviously nonplussed, sputters, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but didn’t you say that no one comes to the Father except through you?’ ‘Well,’ responds Jesus, ‘John does have me saying this.’ . . . ‘But if you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew, which does come first in the canon, you’ll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in those who do their best to live a righteous life: feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison. . .’ Becoming almost apoplectic, the man interrupts, ‘But, but, that’s works righteousness. You’re saying she’s earned her way into heaven?’ ‘No,’ replies Jesus, ‘I am not saying that at all. I am saying that I am the way, not you, not your church, not your reading of John’s Gospel, and not the claim of any individual Christian or any particular congregation. I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?’ The last thing I recall seeing, before picking up my heavenly accessories, is Jesus handing the poor man a Kleenex to help get the log out of his eye.” (Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 92-93).

The conclusion that I draw from her story is that we don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. As followers of someone who gave his life so that we, and the rest of the world, might have eternal life, we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for this wonderful, beautiful kosmos.

So, how do we do that? Well, we might begin by looking at our ancestor in faith, Abraham. God promised that he would bless Abraham so that he would be a blessing, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. As an aside, the next part of the verse, that we don’t have in today’s reading, says that Abraham was 75 years old when God called him. I think we have several people in our congregation who are around that age. Never think, when God calls you, that you are too old! But, just like Abraham, God calls us, and God blesses us, so that we may be a blessing to everyone in this world. And all means all. We are not called to determine who is in and who is out. We are called to love everyone, regardless of ethnicity, religion, age, gender, or any other dividing line that we sinful human beings can think to use to put a wall up between “us” and “them”.

Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We may not be called to die on a cross for someone else, but we may be called to clean up and repair a Jewish cemetery that has been vandalized by neo-Nazis. We may not be called to physically die for someone else, but we may be called to rethink a strongly held belief in the face of someone else’s story, so that they may be able to better live their life as God has called them to live. It is in ways like these, and other countless ways that God can work through us so that we can be a blessing to those around us.

We are descendants of Abraham, whom God first called to be a blessing to the world. We are also followers of Jesus, whom God sent to die for us because he loved the world so much, that he wanted us all to have eternal life. I would like to conclude this sermon by showing a video of people discovering their DNA results, and how what they discovered about themselves began to change both their view of themselves and of the people around them. Yes, the main goal of this video is to advertise for their product. But there’s also a message about who we are as human beings, so I think it’s appropriate to take a look at it today.

 

So, you see, there is no us vs. them. There is only us. Despite our differences, we are one people, all children of God. For God so loved the kosmos. And all means all. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 1A

Matthew 4:1-11

The process for someone to be ordained as a pastor in the ELCA is a lengthy and involved one. There is acceptance into candidacy by the candidacy committee of the synod, which involves an essay and an interview. Then there is seminary training. Then, before the person can go on internship, there is another essay which must be written and another interview with members of the candidacy committee, which results in endorsement. Then, after the internship, another lengthy essay must be written for the final approval interview with the candidacy committee. All of these essays and interviews go on simultaneously with the master’s degree level classwork that the person works on at seminary. Needless to say, it can be very stressful.

I’d like to tell the story of my final approval interview. It happened in December, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and it involved an approximately 4-hour trip from Gettysburg, PA, to Richmond, VA, on Interstate 95. If anyone here has ever driven I-95 in that area of the country before, then you know this is not something that anyone ever wants to do. Try five lanes of traffic, and, if there are no jams, then cars are speeding past you even while you’re already driving 10 miles over the speed limit. So add the stress of driving on I-95 to the stress of preparing for the approval interview, and I was pretty tense when I arrived at the place in Richmond where the interviews were to be held. And even the presence of a pastor who was designated as a chaplain couldn’t calm the butterflies in my stomach.

The time arrived and I was called in, where I went through a rigorous questioning of my time on internship, what I had learned, how God was calling me, and some other things. Now let me say that none of the questions the committee asked were unreasonable, and they were not being hostile towards me. When candidacy committees interview candidates for pastoral ministry, they generally ask these good and probing questions because they want to make sure we are prepared for ministry and that the ELCA is getting qualified candidates who have truly been called to ordained ministry. But after this rigorous interview and a tense waiting period, I was called back in to hear the announcement that they had approved me. I don’t remember much after that except literally trembling with relief and somehow making my way over to the local Olive Garden, where I was meeting my parents for dinner. They had made the 2-hour drive down from the Charlottesville area to meet me and to hear the news. I walked in to where they were sitting, collapsed in the chair, and announced, “I need a drink.”

Why am I telling this story? Because today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus in the wilderness has often been called “the temptation of Jesus” when the Greek word is actually closer to “testing”. And there’s a difference between temptation and testing. This story is not like us being tempted to eat chocolate when we’ve given up chocolate for Lent. This story is more like us when we undergo testing, such as pastors who go through a process leading up to approval for ordination, or lawyers who have to take bar exams before they can be licensed to practice, or doctors going through medical boards. This story of Jesus in the wilderness is a story of testing to see if he will truly act as the Son of God should act.

So, let’s back up for a moment. Since our lectionary skips around quite a bit, we might be a bit confused as to what has led up to this moment in Jesus’ life. Matthew has started us out with Jesus’ genealogy, the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, the return of Jesus and his family to Nazareth, and then, skipping straight over Jesus’ growing-up years, Matthew goes to the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. At his baptism, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and heard a voice from heaven proclaiming that he was God’s beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased. It is immediately after that that Jesus was led by the Spirit to go into the wilderness. I’m thinking that, after an announcement from God at his baptism that Jesus was God’s Son, Jesus needed some time by himself to discern what it actually meant to be the Son of God. And at the end of those forty days and forty nights, this is where the devil found Jesus. The devil knew that Jesus was physically weak from not eating, and most likely to fail the test on what exactly it means to be the Son of God.

So, let’s look at the three test questions that Jesus has to answer. The first question is this: “If (or since) you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, as the Son of God you have all of these fantastic powers. Why are you denying yourself? Snap your fingers, turn these stones into loaves of bread, and stuff your face.” Jesus was hungry enough that this was a really hard question to answer. But perhaps he thought back to today’s Old Testament story, where Eve desires to be like God and reaches out for the fruit of the tree. There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil; rather, her test was one of whether or not she would have control over her appetites and her desires. She failed her test. Jesus, on the other hand, reached deep down into the training in the Word of God that he had received, and found there the knowledge that even though he had the power to satisfy his appetite with the snap of a finger, God desired him to have control over his appetite. And so, even though he was famished, he remembered his Scripture and said, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” First test: passed.

From the test of changing stones into bread, the devil says, “Okay, good, so Jesus knows his Scriptures. I’ll quote some Scripture to him out of context and see what he does.” So the devil says, “All right, Jesus, next test. You trust in God and his Word so much? Throw yourself down off of this high spot. Surely, if (or since) you’re God’s Son, God will send angels to rescue you. It even says God will do this in the Psalms.” Picture this test as people today who don’t take their child to a doctor for a broken bone because they trust in God alone to heal the child. The broken bone may heal, but it’s a good bet that it won’t heal straight and that child will limp for the rest of her life. But with Jesus, it’s a little bit more than that, because we assume that, even if no angels came to rescue him, Jesus would be able to rescue himself. The question that Jesus must answer is, will he be subject to the laws of nature, as the rest of humanity is? What would it mean if the laws of nature had no meaning for him? Would he then not be subject to moral laws, either? And what would it mean for those who choose to follow him? Thankfully, Jesus again reaches into his training in Scripture and says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” He chooses obedience to God instead of unlimited power over the laws of nature. Second test: passed.

But the devil has one more test to give Jesus, the test that will be the hardest of all to pass. He tells Jesus that he will give him all of the kingdoms in the world, and all their splendor, if Jesus will bow down and worship the devil. Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus stopped to think about this one. But what if he did? Imagine, Jesus: all the kingdoms of the world. Unlimited power. You could feed everyone. No one would ever be slaughtered again, as your family was in Bethlehem after you and your parents fled. Everyone would come to you and love you, and you wouldn’t have to go to the cross and die. Wouldn’t ordering the world the way it should be run be worth the price of bowing down and worshiping the devil? But Jesus says no. Perhaps he realizes that a benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship. And again, he falls back on his training and remembers that Scripture that says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” And God’s way does not mean grasping power and claiming to be on the same level as God. It means humbling oneself and serving one another. Jesus has passed the third and final test, and he is deemed worthy of the title, Son of God.

We have many tests in our lives, too, to see if we are worthy of carrying the titles given to us in our human vocations. But does God send us tests to see if we are worthy of the name, “children of God”? That’s a difficult question to answer, I think, because although Scripture is full of stories of people who face tests from God, like Job, or like Abraham when he was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, we also have at least one Scripture text which says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’.” And so, I am not going to speak to any individual situation that you may encounter. But I would suggest that there are times in life when God may be testing us. Are we going to choose self-fulfillment, power, and a desire to make ourselves gods? Or are we going to choose love for others, humble service, and the way of the cross?

It’s a little frightening to think about God testing us. Like any test, we would worry about whether or not we would pass it. But here is the good news: Jesus has already passed the tests for us. He has gone to the cross for us, and because of this, every time that we have failed the test has been forgiven. And we can know that Jesus walks with us in every situation, and that he is always urging us to follow the way of the cross as he did. And the way of the cross is not the way of self-fulfillment, ultimate power, and a desire to be God. Rather, it is the way of emptying oneself, serving one another, and walking in the way that God would have us walk. We are not going to pass every test sent us in life. But when we fail, we know that Jesus is with us to forgive us, to pick us up, and to urge us to keep on going. As we continue our walk through Lent, let us never forget that Jesus is always by our side. Amen.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

 

I love Lent. I know that sounds odd, as Lent is a somber time, a time of repentance, a time of remembering all of the bad things we’ve done and the good things we’ve failed to do. But Lent is also a time of truth-telling, a time when we acknowledge that we are all equally sinners before God, and where there is no room for “alternative facts”. It is a time where we are laid bare before God, where we acknowledge that, even though we have done all we can to pretend that we are invincible, we are, in fact, mortal. We are dust, and to dust we shall all return. This is an absolute truth in a world where truth seems to change definitions every day. And while that truth is sobering, it is also comforting to me: in the end, no matter who the person is: movie star, government official, bishop, pastor, teacher, student, or just the average person on the street, we will all return to dust.

So, in the spirit of truth-telling, I want us to ask ourselves tonight why we come to worship, and what the point of worship really is. Do we come to feel good about ourselves? Is it a form of, as Jesus says in our Gospel lesson tonight, practicing our piety before others? Do we come because we want others to see what good people we are? If we do, then tonight is not the worship service we should be at. We hear a call to repentance and confession before God of all of our sins—those ways in which we have missed the mark, the standard that God has for us. So, what then is our worship, both tonight and on Sundays, all about?

I would like to suggest that worship is not about us, but it is about God. It is about both God speaking his will for us as well as speaking his love for us. And God’s will for us is not always easy. It’s not about simply being nice to other people, although that is part of it. It is about, as the prophet Micah tells us, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. And tonight, I want us to think a little bit about the doing justice part of God’s will for us. Because the word in our Gospel lesson that is translated “piety,” is actually more properly translated as “justice”: “Beware of practicing your justice before others in order to be seen by them.”

Now, I know that justice can be a polarizing word these days, so let’s try another word for a moment: fairness. When I was growing up, every time my brother or I complained to my father that something wasn’t fair, my father’s automatic response was, “Life isn’t fair.” And he’s absolutely right: life, with our sinful condition, is absolutely not fair. Just this week, I gave financial assistance to someone who had lost her job without her employer giving her a reason for letting her go, because Wyoming is an “employment at will” state, which means that your employer does not have to give a reason for firing you. That’s absolutely not fair, especially when you’re not from the area and have come out here for that job and now are stuck for no reason that you can understand. But just because something isn’t fair doesn’t mean that we can’t work to change it and make life a little bit fairer for people around us. That idea of fairness is starting to get at what the Biblical concept of justice is really about: to help and make sure that the people around us have just as much of an opportunity as we do to live their lives to the glory of God.

And that’s where our Lenten disciplines come in: the three things that Jesus mentions in our Gospel reading tonight: giving alms, that is, giving money to the poor; prayer, and fasting. As we use these six weeks to focus on our sins and repent of them, these practices can help us to make amends for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. Our midweek offerings during Lent go to ELCA World Hunger, our churchwide organization that not only helps people who are hungry, but which also works to bring attention to the injustices in how our global food distribution system works and that works towards righting those injustices and making the world a little more fair for everyone. Besides giving money to ELCA World Hunger, I would like to encourage us to learn how much food gets wasted in our country every day and find ways to waste less food; to find out what government programs are out there to help feed people and to encourage our representatives to not cut them, and, if we can afford to, also give some money to Backpack Blessings, which works to feed hungry children in this area, and Loaves & Fishes, our local food pantry.

The next discipline that we have is prayer. And one truth about prayer is that everyone’s prayer life, including mine, can use some work. Prayer is about cultivating that relationship that we have with God and listening for God’s voice to speak to us about things that concern us. Let’s learn to listen to God in these six weeks, and figure out how to put what we hear from God into practice.

And finally, there is fasting. Fasting doesn’t have to mean fasting from food, although one good fasting practice is to skip a meal at least once a week and then put the money that you would have spent on that meal towards ELCA World Hunger. This Lent, I have decided that the discipline I will put special focus on is fasting from plastic. Even when people recycle plastic, much of it still ends up in the ocean, including such things as straws and water bottles. I already recycle as much as I can, but if I can find a way to reduce what I use, that could make an impact, however small, on the environment. And let’s remember, too, that practicing justice, or fairness, also means practicing it towards all living creatures that are part of God’s creation. We are called to care for God’s creation, which means not choking God’s creatures with the plastic that we use and that does not turn into dust, as we do.

I do not tell you this in order to practice my justice/piety before you in order to win your approval. Already in the days leading up to this day, I have noticed how much plastic I use and how much cannot be recycled. This is an ongoing practice that I know I will fail at. In fact, I automatically picked up a straw and used it when I went out to eat tonight, and didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late. And no matter which discipline we choose, we are not going to get it right. Perhaps that’s why Lent is a yearly thing: we need this time each year to reflect, refocus, and keep working to try and get these things right. And that’s where God’s grace comes in. We don’t do all of these things so that God will love us or so that we will get into heaven. God loves us no matter what, and the work that Jesus did for us on the cross is done. It is finished. So, I invite you to come into these six weeks of Lent and reflect on what Jesus has done for us and how much God loves us. And to respond to God’s love by focusing on these disciplines as spiritual practices and habits that will help us to live faithfully until we all return to the dust of the earth. Come, let us make our repentance genuine and grow deeper into the love and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord

Matthew 17:1-9

I did my internship at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Lancaster, PA. You’ve probably heard me talk about stories from this experience before, but today I’d like to start out by describing the sanctuary. This is a congregation that was founded in 1730, and the building was built in 1766. Think about that for a moment: this congregation predates the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States. Now, let me describe the sanctuary. This is a colonial era style sanctuary, with doors on the pews. The ushers will still escort you to your choice of pew, open the door to the pew for you, and then close it once you’re inside. I always felt like they were buckling me up for an amusement park ride, to be honest with you! There is a balcony in this sanctuary, and, on eye level with the balcony, is the pulpit. To get up to the pulpit, you have to climb a set of narrow and uneven steps, and I was just telling someone this week that, when I knew I was scheduled to preach, I put on my alb a few days beforehand and practiced going up and down those steps so I wouldn’t trip and fall. And behind this pulpit is an absolutely gorgeous painting depicting the resurrection of Jesus with two of the female disciples kneeling at his feet. Don’t be envious of all this beauty—it was rather intimidating for me to climb up into that pulpit and preach. But here’s why I wanted to describe this setting for you: like most pastoral interns, I was scheduled to preach the Sunday after Easter, in order to give the senior and associate pastors a break. Like every year, the Gospel for the Sunday after Easter is the story of Thomas, who proclaims that he will not believe that Jesus is risen until he puts his hands in the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands. As I was preaching the sermon that morning, this wonderful thought came to me that I was actually preaching what the beautiful painting behind me depicted: the resurrection of Jesus. And I felt this sense of awe and wonder come over me so that I wanted to cry for the beauty of it all. And my immediate reaction to this blessing from God was to say: Thank you, Holy Spirit, but I really need to finish this sermon. My internship supervisor and the congregation won’t appreciate it if I break down in tears. Could you please come back later?

This is the paradox of the Transfiguration. We want those mountaintop moments; we want to stay on the mountain. But when those moments come, very often we are too busy to appreciate them, or we think, “That’s nice, but I really do have to get back to work.” We don’t always know how to savor the moment. But, on the other end of the spectrum, we tend to think about those moments of beauty and glory so much that we remain in them, and we don’t realize that they’re given to us, not so that we can stay on the mountain always, but so that the memory of them will sustain us and motivate us to continue the often dirty and messy work that awaits us in the valley.

This was Peter’s error in the story of the transfiguration. Before this story, Peter had just confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus had praised him for this confession, given to him by the Father in heaven. But then, when Jesus started talking about how he must suffer and die, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, only to be rebuked himself by Jesus. Peter was probably smarting from that rebuke and wondering if he was really still part of Jesus’ band of disciples. And now, Jesus takes him along with two others to witness this glorious scene on the mountain: Peter was overcome with awe and wonder. And, perhaps a sense of vindication as well: See, I knew I was right about Jesus! I knew he was the Son of God! Now all I have to do is figure out how to get Jesus and Moses and Elijah to stay here, and then I can bring others up here to see, and show them that I was right. I know! “I will make three dwellings here, one for you, (Jesus), one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

And then, the voice comes from the cloud on the mountain, saying that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. But more than that comes this command: to listen to Jesus. And Jesus knows that the mountaintop experience will be short. All too soon, the heavenly glory will fade and he will have to go back down the mountain, where he will find the rest of his disciples failing in their efforts to heal a boy; where he will teach and some will respond to him, but others will not believe; where he will be plotted against, and eventually be sentenced to die on a cross. And so, I wonder if this transfiguration experience wasn’t meant more for Jesus than for the disciples. Jesus’ disciples did get a glimpse of who Jesus really was, and that will cause them to wonder when Jesus will finally show that glory to the rest of the world. But for Jesus, this heady experience of heavenly glory, of talking with Moses and Elijah—that will stay in his memory, and that will sustain him as he descends the mountain and into the trials and the suffering to come.

So, how do we find that balance? God gives us these times in our lives where we truly experience him, where we are overcome by his majesty and his glory. How do we know when to linger in the moment and when the moment is over and it’s time to get to work? Well, the first thing to realize is that none of us will get that right in our lifetimes. There will be times when the moment comes and we don’t recognize it, or we don’t have time for it. And there will be times when we linger too long and we need that kick in the pants to get moving. But I think the key in searching for that balance comes in God’s command from the cloud: Listen to Jesus!

This week one of the pastors in my text study group shared a song written by Marty Haugen about the transfiguration story. This is one I hadn’t heard before, and the lyrics could have been the sermon all by themselves today. The first part of the song is told from the point of view of the disciples. Here are two of the lyrics:

In these heights I feel so inspired,

Smell the air and just look at the views!

We could set up camp and retire

Just kick back, write the good news.

It’s so nice on the mountain of Tabor,

No people in need, with faces to feed.

When you’ve had it to here with your neighbor,

It’s so good to be here with Jesus.

 

I would like to suggest that, when we start feeling like the words of these lyrics, it may be time for us to listen to Jesus’ words telling us that whatever we do to the least of these members of his family, we do to him. These mountaintop moments are not given to us to escape from the world that Jesus calls us to be a part of. We are not to linger in them to avoid doing what Jesus has commanded us to do. Rather, these moments, these visions of the glory of God in Jesus Christ are given to strengthen us, to remind us that one day the time will come when there will be no more hunger or crying or pain, but that for right now, this is the work that God has called us to do with that vision in mind.

On the other hand, there are times when we become weary from the work which Jesus has called us to do. It’s called “compassion fatigue,” and those especially who work full time in social work or social ministries often feel this. It’s that feeling you get when you realize that no matter what you do or no matter how much you give, there will always be more work to do. It’s a feeling of despair; a feeling that things will never be better. Marty Haugen speaks of it like this:

It’s so nice on the mountain of Tabor

No crosses to bear, no worries or care

And so peaceful to rest from our labor,

It’s so good to be here with Jesus.

It’s so good to be here, so great to be here,

So good to be here with Jesus,

And Elijah, with Jesus,

And Moses, with Jesus,

And you guys, with Jesus.

 

It is in those times that we listen to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” It is in those times that we are invited to linger in the moment, to rest in the glory of God, and to find strength for continuing the journey.

It’s all about listening to Jesus, and learning when to linger in the transcendent moments of glory that he sends, and learning when it’s time to get to work. We listen to Jesus in many ways: through the Scripture lessons that we hear on Sundays and read during the week, through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, through the community of Christians around us, even through people outside of the Christian community. And we wait for those transcendent, mountaintop experiences, those times and places that Celtic tradition calls “thin places,” where heaven seems so close that we can touch it. We can learn to recognize those moments and be thankful for them, but not to linger too long, for Jesus calls us to be out in the world, to see him not only in those mountaintop places, but also in the faces of the people around us as we serve others. And so we keep those glorious moments in our memory and we keep the vision in front of us through the difficult times, so that we can be strengthened by the knowledge that one day, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth will be one and the same. Amen.