Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Slippery Slope

2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9


        For many of my brothers and sisters preaching this morning this text explodes from the pages with an affirmation that our God and our God alone is holy and sacred. A few preachers, blinded by the allure of postmodernism and haunted by the possibility that the religious tapestry of this world might carry more legitimacy than some might wish to consider, groan under the weight of Paul’s glorious claim.     

Simply put, a traditional reading of this text begins and ends with the confirmation that Christ is Lord. Any pertinent knowledge to be gathered concerning the nature of God is initiated and confirmed by staring deeply into the face of Jesus. That said, I know that you are a group of devout and intelligent folks who cringe when any religious conversation begins with those two dismissive words, “Simply put.”

Understanding God is not simple. Knowledge of God is an ageless mystery that has confronted every culture of humankind. Is declaring “Jesus is Lord” the beginning and the end of any dialogue or does this affirmation limit us from participating in other conversations? I invite you to join me on a journey this morning. It is a journey which will encourage you to cling to your own affirmations concerning God yet ask you to be open to other conflicting voices.

Our journey begins in Corinth. Early in his missionary journeys Paul helped to establish a church in that cosmopolitan city. From the day the first metaphorical stone was laid, the foundation of that church was out of balance. The congregation was composed and dominated by varying traditions and cultures. Some were Jewish converts who had been raised on the gifts of the Torah. Others were more familiar with varying Greek and Roman traditions. It was Paul’s design to bring them together as one in Christ.

It was a noble experiment, but one that caused Paul a great deal of pain. Paul, trying to use language familiar to the Jewish converts, spoke of Christ as the new covenant who was exposing them to a new law. Immediately this raised questions concerning the Law of Moses. Paul found himself in a quandary and used an analogy that might not have been particularly helpful.

In the initial chapters of Second Corinthians Paul stated that the new law of God was not written in stone but on human hearts. Furthermore Paul argued while Moses had viewed this glory, a veil was placed over his face to keep the Israelites from seeing the glory of God. But with the resurrection of Christ, the veil was removed, revealing both the face of God and the promise of life eternal.

So what’s the problem? It seems in celebrating the power of the resurrection, Paul unintentionally throws Moses under the bus. Let me state this differently. If I asked you, “What is the ultimate goal of your religious experience,” how would you respond?

Here are some frequently given answers:

To live eternally with God;

To be reunited with family and friends forever;

To love God with all my heart, soul, and mind;

To love my neighbor as I love myself;

To strive for inner peace;

To enjoy enlightenment and the highest wisdom;

To discover spiritual emancipation;

To affirm there is no god but God;

To live in harmony with God;

To enjoy God and glorify God forever.


Which if any one of those answers would you eliminate based on your faith journey? I doubt it will surprise you that each of those answers come from our own Christian tradition. What might startle you is that most of those answers also are also celebrated by other religious tenets outside the Christian experience.  A major separation between most religions comes in how one celebrates and defines heaven. In all religions other than Christianity entrance to a heavenly reward is based on human action. As Christians, our key to eternity is understood through the incarnation and resurrection of the one we call Jesus. God became human and lived among us. To quote our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, “God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal.” That is a critically unique presupposition in understanding who we are as Christians.  In order to drive this point home, instead of celebrating the glorious inclusiveness of God, Paul appears to negate the very essence Judaism, that being the Law of Moses.

You might think I am nit-picking but historically the third and fourth chapters of Second Corinthians have been consistently used to develop sermons that were not only anti-Jewish but became the springboard legitimizing violence by Christians toward Jews for over 2,000 years. Is that really what Paul intended? Certainly not. Paul wanted the folks in Corinth to celebrate the uniqueness of Christ. But I also believe Paul wanted them to live life as Jesus lived it. The foundations of that lifestyle rest solely in those commandments written in stone.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the Sunday we celebrate a mystical occurrence when three of the disciples witnessed a holy moment as Jesus stood between Moses and the prophet Elijah. As the clouds of heaven swirled around these prominent figures of not just one but three religions, the disciples of our Lord heard God declare, “This is my son; listen to him.” What God did not say was, “This is my son; ignore what you have heard from the past.”

The three religions that originate from Abraham define themselves through moments on a mountain. Moses goes to Sinai to discover something about the essence of God and is given the Ten Commandments. When Moses returns, God reveals God’s self as gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and steadfast in love. God was saying to Moses, “If you desire to keep my commandments, go down the mountain and tell my people to act like I act.”

Moses partner at the Transfiguration, Elijah, had his own mountain top experiences. The first was Mount Carmel when Elijah stood toe to toe with 450 prophets of Baal. At the end of the day, only Elijah remained standing.  Unfortunately Jezebel was not at Carmel. When word reached her of Elijah’s victory she put a bounty out on his head. The prophet escaped to Mount Horeb where he hid out in a cave. When God finally spoke to Elijah, the words were hardly complimentary. “Elijah, what are you doing here?”

Elijah quickly responded, “I did everything you asked but Israel has forsaken you. I am the only one left who worships you and they want to kill me.”

God said, “Go out and stand on the ledge.” A great wind came up, then a storm with rain and lightning. Elijah feared for his life. Then there was silence. Finally the voice of God said once again, “Elijah what are you doing here. Return to the valley.” The message was loud and clear. First, Elijah could not hide from life. And second, no one, not even Jezebel, could stand against the word of God.

The third man standing between Moses and Elijah on Mount Hermon was Jesus. His inspiration also came from the mountains. Be it the Sermon on the Mount or Golgotha, the mountain top moments of Jesus were divine.  But his inspirational words and deeds were observed in the valley.

Even if we go beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mohammed climbed Mt Hira and was visited by the angel Gabriel. In a series of vision Mohammad was given what we now call the Koran. Mohammed considered the ethical teachings of both Moses and Jesus to be divinely inspired. The first commandment of Islamic teaching and the first commandment of Mosaic Law are identical, “There is but one God.” When the visions were complete, Mohammed was not allowed to stay in the safety of the cave. He was commanded to return to the valley and share his visions.

Moses, Elijah, Jesus even Mohammed found inspiration in the mountains. But the followers of each of these religions lived exactly where we live today, in the valley. The valley is filled with contradictions. The valley is filled with confusion.  Sometimes the valley is even filled with hate. Worst of all, often that hate is experienced and even initiated from those who claim Moses, or Mohammed, or even Jesus to be their inspiration.

It pains me that words of compassion, words of reconciliation, words of love, words initiating from God can become so twisted when they make their way to the valley.

I know God through the inspiration and the resurrection of the one we call Jesus. He is my Lord. He is my savior. And he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Ellie Wiesel knows God through the inspiration of the one called Yahweh. Wiesel claims Yahweh to be the Master of the Universe. Wiesel also claims Yahweh as the one who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sami Rosouli knows God through the inspiration of the one he calls Allah. Born in Iraq, Rosouli speaks for millions of Muslims who have always understood Allah to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Each of us, in our own way, anxiously waits to see the face of God.

Each of us, in our own way, earnestly listens for the voice of God.

But sometimes, in the desire to be faithful, what is seen and heard is compromised by voices of fear and confusion who try to isolate God from the rest of God’s creation. 

Then God, or Yahweh, or Allah responds, “If you love Me with all your heart, soul, and mind, you will love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

By doing so the light of God shines on each of us.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

When It Was Quiet

Mark 1:32-39


        Ever have one of those days that you get out of bed and are already behind? At noon you wish you could stop for lunch but you have barely managed to catch up with the stuff from yesterday.  You are afraid to check your e-mail because you know, “you have mail” and the only reason your cell phone isn’t ringing is because you forgot to charge the batteries. When I read the Gospel of Mark, I get the impression this was the way Jesus spent his life. It seems as if every other verse begins with the word, “Immediately.”  Immediately Jesus healed the sick; immediately Jesus went to the next town; immediately Jesus called the disciples around him.  Everything in the life of Jesus happened immediately and it happened often. Even after sunset Jesus was still about the business of healing the sick and offering a word of comfort to those with restless souls. He must have been exhausted by the time he would finally lay down to sleep. Yet early each morning, before the sunrise, Jesus would go out into the darkness, find a quiet place and spend time in prayer.

        If you have raised children, you have prayed for a quiet place.  If you were a teacher, I know you prayed for a quiet moment. If your job seems to have no beginning or no end, I suspect you have prayed for a quiet release. And those of you who have retired and have “all the time in the world,” now that you have the time, do you actively and intentionally seek out a quiet place to pray?

        I am often told prayer is one of those things we should be able to do any time, any place. Folks tell me they often pray on their way to work. If they are driving I hope for the sake of others they pray with their eyes open. Some folks pray…when they are on exercise machines…, in the midst of a lot of heavy breathing…, with  TVs directly overhead. Some folks like to pray when they are swimming.  I can understand that. When I swim my prayer is always, “Don’t let me drown.” Are we really praying if our time of prayer is delegated to moments when we are doing something else? Yes, we are killing two birds with one stone but is it any wonder it seems God seldom responds to prayer? Maybe God refuses to compete with the TV or the rhythm of our feet. Maybe God doesn’t like to raise God’s voice.  Maybe God demands quietness.

        Early in the morning, Jesus went out to find a quiet place to pray. I have never accepted the excuse that one is too busy to pray or to study scripture. Do we really believe our lives are busier than the life of Jesus? Some folks tell me there are just not enough hours in the day, but if something is really important, guess what, we find the time. Work is important, children are important, relationships are important, exercise is important. I am not saying God is not important, but too often we only find a moment for God on Sunday, or when the situation demands it. On the contrary, Jesus was in daily communication with his heavenly parent. The prayers were regular and they were expected. 

I am not much of a phone guy but Deb communicates with our daughter every day. Martina leaves work promptly at 5:00. Before the clock strikes 5:15 they are on the phone together. There is no emergency; often nothing new is shared. They are just checking in to share their daily adventures. Truth is they like to daily hear each other’s voice. I suspect our heavenly parent feels the same way.

        That said, I completely realize for most folks talking to God is a daunting task. To hear prayers in church, or meetings, or before meals seems natural. Those are done in the midst of many other folks who are participating in time-honored rituals. But to be alone with God, in a quiet place, with nothing to distract or interrupt, can be frightening. We are programmed to noise. And as much as we desire the quiet, perhaps we subconsciously fear it. Quiet time is inward time. Inward time is a time of examination when we risk seeing ourselves as God sees us. It exposes our potential, our weaknesses, our gifts, our deficiencies, our dreams and even our nightmares. Quiet time reveals the one who knows us better than we know ourselves.

        Rodney Crowell, one of my favorite dashboard poets, sings:

                It’s time to go inward and take a look at myself.

                It’s time to make the most of the time I’ve got left.

                Prison bars imagined are no less steel.

                It’s time to go inward, would you believe that I’m afraid

                To stare down the barrel of the choices I’ve made?

        The ghost of bad decisions makes mountains

Out of everything I feel.

It’s time to go inward, time to be still,

If I don’t do it now I don’t believe I ever will.

My mind is like a chatterbox

                Whose noise pollutes the pathways to my soul.


        Early in the morning, Jesus went out to find a quiet place to pray. Why of all people would Jesus find it necessary to daily check in with God before beginning his day? Why would Jesus have to examine his life, his mission, his calling? Certainly there could have been nothing but positive thoughts emulating from the one chosen by God. What would tempt him from the task at hand? What could make him uncertain about the road ahead? Unquestionably there must have been constant communication between the Son and the Father. And yet Jesus still finds a quiet moment to begin his day.  Why was it necessary? Maybe Jesus needed to give thanks, and say, “O Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Perhaps Jesus wanted to affirm that God’s plan remained his roadmap for the day.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Maybe Jesus needed a moment to consider his pending adventures and be reminded that God would walk beside him. “Supply us with daily bread and protect us from temptation.” Perhaps Jesus knew that obstacles would certainly cross his path and wanted strength for the journey.  “Deliver us from the evil thoughts of those who confront us.”  Most of all I believe Jesus wanted to praise the one who was not just his Heavenly Father but the Parent of all creation. “For you are the power and the glory, today and forever more.” Could some of the strength, the steadfastness, the compassion, the consistency of Jesus evolved from the faithfulness of his prayer life?

        That makes me wonder, if the Son of God found prayer to be a critical part of his daily routine, why are we who call ourselves the children of God so slow to respond to our savior’s example? Maybe you never gave any thought to pursuing an active prayer life?  Maybe it is time management. Maybe it is fear of the quiet. Maybe it is fear of what God might say?  Maybe it is fear that nothing might be discovered. Maybe it is fear that too much might be discovered.  Maybe it is the fear of not knowing how to pray. Many reasons keep us from coming to God. None of them should be taken lightly. I only want to share this one little insight. I have known a number of folks who are intensely faithful in their prayer life. I have read the prayers and commentaries of people who are faithful in their prayer life.  None of them suggest it is a waste of time or a disappointing experience. All of them say it is a discipline that takes time and energy to perfect. But none have regretted the journey because they all affirm that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guards their heart and their thoughts. There may be untamed and unmanageable feelings, there may be bitterness and even hatred, there may be anxiety brought on by nothing in particular, there may be some strange or foreboding disaster that does not yet appear. Through all of this, their overwhelming hunger for God underscores all the ambitions, dreams and restlessness of a churning spirit. They know that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard their hearts and thoughts.

        Thomas Merton spent the first 27 years of his life in turmoil and confusion. He spent his last 27 years in prayer. Merton observed, “Prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God. One cannot enter into prayer without an inner upheaval that breaks our routine, and liberates our heart from the preoccupation of our daily business. This is why so few people apply themselves seriously to prayer. They are afraid something they cannot control might happen. And they are right. Truth rises from the courage to silence the day and open our hearts to the quiet presence of the Word.”

How did Merton find such serenity and such confidence?  He followed the example of his Lord. Early every morning, while it was still dark, he found a quiet place to pray.

        May we all be blest with such faith and discipline.



Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Beginning of Widsom

Psalm 111


        It has been a long week. Some of us have been here for worship three out of the last four days. I promise a short communion meditation because frankly I am not sure I have much more to say. I joked with someone yesterday that maybe those of you that attended both funerals should vote over which was your favorite meditation and I would just re-preach it. Thank goodness in moments of distress we can always turn to the Psalms for comfort and inspiration.

        Psalm 111 begins, “I will give praise with my whole heart for the works of the Lord.” At first glance this appears to be another of those glorious Psalms painting a picture of the magnificence of creation. But the Psalmist is not lifting his eyes to either the heavens or the hills. The Psalmist crafts a litany that reminds us of our relationship with God.               

God is gracious and merciful.

                God provides food for those who are hungry.

                The works of God’s hands are just and faithful.

                The words from God’s mouth are righteous.

                Holy and awesome is the name of God.


        The Psalmist sings of the fidelity of God. Then the writer concludes with these haunting words, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

        Red flags begin pulsating throughout my brain. The concept of fear is something with which I am not unfamiliar. This puts me in some pretty good company. A wise person once said, “If you are without fear, you are an idiot.”

        When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. Ironically today I cherish the dark. When I was young, I feared falling short of parental expectations. I turned that into a tool for motivation. Athletically I sometimes feared not rising above a difficult moment.  This fear still occasionally haunts me.

        Can fear of the dark, or fear of failed expectations, or the fear of getting a bit tight when hitting a second serve be placed in the same category as being afraid of God?  The obvious answer would seem to be a resounding no. Surely the Psalmist was not referring to God as a paralyzing figure that brings us to our knees. So then what did he mean?    In the Old Testament the phrase “The fear of the Lord” is used quite often with some of the expected explanations.

The fear of God is an act of reverence.  I still remember as a child each Sunday morning watching the choir fill the loft behind the pulpit. When everyone had found their place the choir would sing, “The Lord is his Holy temple. Let all the world keep silence.” That was the signal to sit up and act right because Church was ready to start.

The fear of God is an act of piety.  This is the first church I have ever attended where your best clothes were not reserved for Sunday morning. In my last church folks dressed “to the nines” every week. Through their dress they were demonstrating how important worship was. I was delighted to wear my robe in Clinton. There was no way my wardrobe could have ever matched theirs.

The fear of God is a demonstration of strict Monotheism. This is a conversation that rarely surfaces in religious circles today. But in the time of the Psalmist, the other prevalent religions believed in a host of holy deities.  To fear only one God was an act of radial allegiance. The temptation to worship more than one god is really not an issue today unless you want to include the gods of nationalism, the gods of consumerism and perhaps the god worshipped this evening on the NFL’s highest holy day.

Being in awe, being pious in my worship, and being singular in my understanding of God, are relevant today. Yet none of the above is intellectually challenging enough to confront my perceptions of the way the world around me should operate. I know I am entering deep water here, but let me ask you. What is it that motivates you to change a radically time honored tradition? I believe the answer lies somewhere in the confusing blur between love and fear.

Deb and I have been married 40 years. I fervently agree with folks who suggest I got the better of the bargain. Deb and I have dissimilar personalities. We also approach decision-making in different ways. Because of her wisdom, she decides all the big things and I get to settle what’s left. Deb constantly reminds me every joint decision we make is big. We have managed to stay together 40 years because I love her, and I fear what I would become without her.

The Psalmist speaks of the fear and love of God inclusively because the Psalmist cannot image life outside the realm of God. It is this critical insight that begins the Psalmist journey toward wisdom.           (stop)

Here at Rockfish, I occasionally have to scramble to find resources to assist folks who need a hand to get back on their feet, both financially and psychologically. At my last church, some weeks I seemed to spend more time as a social worker than minister. Seldom a week went by that folks did not show up for help. Folks who need assistance don’t call and make an appointment. They intuitively know the busiest moments in the life of the church and that is when they appear. The professionally poor  know if folks are stretched for time, writing a check is the quickest and less guilt ridden way to “save” them. But while hand-outs might plug a leak, they don’t halt the flood. 

So I developed a system. My receptionist would call and inform me when someone needed financial assistance. I had this big fancy upstairs office in Clinton and so I would have Melissa invite the person into the library and offer them a cup of coffee. She would then have our financial assistant check the books to see how much money we had in our emergency relief fund. I would come down the stairs, greet the person and talk about their situation. At some point Melissa would “interrupt” me to inform me of a phone message. Actually the pink slip she gave me was the amount of money in our funds. I would then spend time talking to the person about their monthly income, their bills, how we might help, and most importantly, tell them I was always free for conversations but financially they could only call on us once a year.

These conversations were taxing and to be honest I got to the point I actually feared them. There is so much pain in this world. The stories I heard were often cases of self inflicted wounds and bad choices, but they were still real people, with real problems which I alone could not solve.

All of the faces seemed to blur into one but there was one elderly man I shall never forget. The phone rang and I was right in the middle of something really important, or so I thought. Melissa said, “Someone needs to see you.” I wanted to bite her head off and say, “You know I am busy,” but I remembered she had her job and I had mine. I started down the stairs, more weary than angry, to hear another story. The conversation and his problems seemed no different than any other I regularly heard. Melissa interrupted us with her “message” and I knew it was time to get down to work.

I asked, “How can I help you?”

The response was, “I was hoping we could spend a few moments in prayer.”

I thought, “This guy is really setting me up for the kill.” So I asked, “What would you like me to pray for?” 

He responded, “You pray for me and I will pray for you.”

We grasped each other’s hands and prayed. I began by attempting to say the right words while subconsciously trying   figure out how much this experience was going to cost the church. When I finished, he prayed. It was not elaborate or especially memorable but when we finished his eyes were filled with tears. He thanked me for the coffee, said he was now ready to face the day. He got up and left. I never met him again, but I too was ready to face my day.

My greatest fear is that I will not be sufficient for your needs. Then God drops by to remind me that I am not God.

That, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.

                To God be the glory.   Amen.