Cultivating and Letting Go, Part 2

 

Copyright 2019. “Mother Hen” by Lauren Wright Pittman, Lenten Season, “Cultivating & Letting Go” A Sanctified Art, LLC/sanctifiedart.org. All rights reserved. Purchased for use by Emory Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

A Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019, Second Sunday of Lent,  Deut. 32:11-12a,  Ruth 2:12 and Luke 13:31-35

For Lent, we are exploring the theme “Cultivating and Letting Go”through curriculum created by A Sanctified Art—a team of artists who provide interactive resources for churches.

In the introductory materials, the team explains the theme by defining the two powerful verbs they’ve chosen to inspire people during the season:

Cultivate (verb): to prepare and use for the raising of crops; to foster the growth of; to improve by labor, care, or study; to refine; to further; to encourage.

Let go (verb): relinquish one’s grip on someone or something.

Then they expound further:

“Lent is a season of spiritual gardening, of inviting God to unearth in us what lies fallow, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge. This Lent, we’re embracing the literal and spiritual practices of cultivating and letting go.”

As we continue the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, I’d like to invite you to keep reflecting on this concept of cultivatingand letting go. On Ash Wednesday, some of you wrote what you’d like to cultivateand let goon pieces of paper and nailed them to the chancel cross. If you haven’t had the opportunity, I encourage you to select a slip of purple paper (located in the hymnals and Bibles at the ends of your pews) and scribble your goals for cultivatingand letting go. Then take them home and put on the fridge or bathroom mirror or computer, etc., to have a visual reminder of your goal for Lent.

Last Sunday, we heard Luke’s Gospel account of when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and how Jesus cultivatedfaithfulness in God’s provision and let goof the temptation to use power for personal gain.

This morning’s text, Luke 13:31-35, now finds Jesus in the middle of full-time ministry.  According to earlier verses, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” And he has been telling the townspeople “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Soon thereafter (and this is where today’s story begins) a group of Pharisees approach him, saying, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” as if he was some dog or… hen … to shoo away.

Jesus passionately responds:

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! … And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

If there was any doubt about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry prior to this encounter, his proclamation in front of the Pharisees, the disciples and townspeople makes it abundantly clear:

Jesus is not running away from the cunning King Herod or avoiding the city of Jerusalem where Herod rules under the auspices of the oppressive Roman Empire. Jesus is going straight to them and nothing can stop him. He is cultivating resilience and courage and letting goof fearthe fear of harm and death.

Lutheran pastor, Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, puts it this way in a blog post about Jesus’ message to Herod:

Jesus is not afraid of dying, and he sends a message back with Pharisees that Herod doesn’t even have to come after Jesus.  Jesus will go to him, right to Jerusalem.  Because that’s what a prophet does – goes bravely into the spaces of danger to confront evil.[1]

One might wonder that if Jesus is ready to face evil head on, why would he describe himself as a mother hen instead of a lion or a bear? Why would Jesus choose to be a fox’s prey instead of its predator?

Lauren Wright Pittman, a member of A Sanctified Art, who created the art piece used for today’s bulletin cover, says this about her painting entitled “Mother Hen”:

The image of Christ as a mother hen is revolutionary. Instead of using a hypermasculine, militaristic, menacing image in response to Herod’s death threats, Jesus upends the expected posture of violence and chooses to identify with the nurturing, protective, feminine image of a mother hen. He explains his love for Jerusalem as a mother hen who desperately desires to lovingly shelter her young. This image drips of rejection, however, because the chicks are unwilling to be protected. In Jesus’ attempt to love the world he meets unwillingness, distrust, mockery, and violence.

Jesus’ use of this simile is wonderfully subversive because at first it seems like a harmless, warm, and fuzzy kind of reference—a cuddly, plump mother hen wanting to snuggle her young—but mother hens will protect their young at all cost. A mother hen will put her whole body on the line to keep her chicks safe; if danger nears, she will meet it head on … Jesus wants that fox (Herod) to know that death threats will not keep him from fiercely bringing healing and restoration to the world.

While preparing this sermon, I searched for videos of mother hens protecting their young, and learned that they are not harmless, warm and fuzzy birds. Mother hens are overprotective, intrusive, fussy and overbearing; they cackle and peck and are always attentive. Studies show that mother hens have good memory recall and are emotionally intelligent, meaning that they empathize when their chicks are distressed.

Mother hens stand their ground with cats, dogs, and hawks as well as foxes. They will always protect the chicks, even if it kills them. The same is true of Jesus: he will always protect God’s children, even knowing his actions will result in state-sanctioned execution.

And yet in this moment, Jesus laments that the people will only realize they need God’s steadfast love and protection after death on the cross. The prophets of old spoke out against cruel and corrupt authorities and called upon the people of Jerusalem to love God and neighbor, but their words mostly fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, Jesus is having little success convincing Jerusalem to embrace a kingdom of God that is vastly different from Herod and Caesar’s.

The people aren’t willing to be gathered under God’s parenting wings. They desire to cultivate resilience and courage to devote themselves entirely to God and to live out God’s commands. But they can’t seem to let go of their fears of what the government might do to them and their families if they pledge allegiance to anyone else. Even the disciples, who have witnessed God’s power to love, heal and restore, are unable to let goof the fear of uncertainty and thus, they abandon Jesus in his darkest hour. Simon-Peter goes so far as to deny he ever knew Jesus. Neither the disciples nor the citizens of Jerusalem care for the folks in charge, but they figure it’s better to be safe than to be dead by going against the system.

Thus, Jesus laments that Jerusalem won’t come to God on their own despite God’s deep desire to be in a covenantal relationship with them. And yet God in Christ continues toward the city, arms stretched out in love for a people who don’t want to receive it.

Renown author and pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers this insight on the situation:[2]

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread, breast exposed—but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand…

Jesus won’t be the king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides upon her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep.

When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her—wings spread, breast exposed—without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart…but if you mean what you say, this is how you stand.”

As Christians, we don’t look for danger and death, of course. We’re not fatalistic for Jesus. However, we do follow in the way of the loving, merciful and non-violent Jesus, and to serve others knowing that there are those who won’t like what we’re doing and who might try to harm us as a result.

We are mother hens who are called to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized—the sick, the lonely, the broken, the poor, the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast—in a world where foxes roam about.

We are the flawed, wonderfully made and gifted people who are invited by God to cultivatethe resilience and courage needed to share Christ’s love. We are the servant leaders, kingdom builders and dream shapers who are summoned by God to let goof the fear of uncertainty—failure, harm and yes, even death. …like,

*David Deutchman, known fondly as the “ICU Grandpa,” who for 12 years has visited the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital twice a week to hold preemie babies in the pediatric and neonatal ICUs. [3]

*(or) The White Helmets–an unarmed, neutral organization of more than 3,000 volunteer rescue workers who have been operating in opposition-held areas of Syria over the last five years. [4]

*(or) Felicia Sanders, one of three survivors of the Charleston mass shooting at Emmanuel AME in 2015, who quickly pulled her 11-year-old granddaughter to the floor, shielded her with her body and whispered, “play dead, play dead.”[5]

*(or) Anthony Borges, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who during last year’s mass shooting was shot five times while holding a classroom door closed so his classmates could hide.[6]

*(or) 4-year-old Austin Perine who dons a superhero’s cape and then, with assistance from his dad, walks the streets of downtown Birmingham in the mid-afternoon handing chicken sandwiches to homeless men and women.[7]

*Or the members of this congregation who prepare and serve a meal to the men of Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, collect food for Decatur Emergency Assistance, participate annually in the MLK Day of Service and offer care in a variety of ways.

*Or the churches in New Zealand who are opening their doors to the families of Christchurch Mosque where 49 people died after a white supremacist opened fire as Muslims were praying and worshipping. [8]

*Or this church who will once again invite our siblings in the Muslim communities of Atlanta to join us on Saturday as we make meal bags for CHOA to help out parents who can’t afford to eat as their child lays in a hospital bed.

Blessed be all those who yesterday, today and tomorrow continue to cultivate courage and resilience and let goof fear—the mother hens, the servant leaders, the kingdom builders and the dream shapers.

Blessed be the ones who seek comfort together and who stretch out their arms to enfold others in God’s love. Blessed be the ones who are lost and need help and mercy.

And blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord and gather us each and everyone one of us under his wings.

Amen.

[1]https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2017/05/jesus-mother-hen/

[2]https://www.religion-online.org/article/as-a-hen-gathers-her-brood/

[3]https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/29/health/icu-grandpa-childrens-hospital-trnd/index.html

[4]https://www.history.com/news/who-are-the-white-helmets

[5]https://www.today.com/news/survivor-stories-felicia-sanders-surviving-charleston-church-shooting-t137291

[6]https://www.si.com/soccer/2019/03/13/fc-barcelona-lyon-parkland-shooting-anthony-borges-visits-camp-nou

[7]https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/iyw-boy-helps-homeless-trnd/index.html

[8]https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/15/asia/christchurch-world-helping-muslim-community-trnd/index.html

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Cultivating & Letting Go, Part 1

A Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2019, First Sunday of Lent, Deuteronomy 6:13, 16, 8:3 and 10:20; and Luke 4:1-13

The Wilderness by Stanley Spencer (2012)

In some indigenous communities, teenage boys participate in a rite of passage known as hanblecheyapi (hahn blay-chay-yah-pee) or vision quest. The young men go alone into the wilderness to receive their life’s calling and become a new version of themselves.The authors of the book American Indian Healing Arts explain:[1]

Endurance training and spending nights camping out alone with little or no food help to prepare each youth for the rigors of his spiritual journey. As the time for the quest approaches, rituals of purification…take place, accompanied by special prayers.

Then the boy goes off by himself to seek a vision. He spends four or five days and nights fasting, alone with his thoughts, on a windswept butte or within a shallow pit. He learns to deal with fear and find out about his own personal strengths. Each boy also looks for power and meaning in the natural world. The vision quest frequently brings on life-changing visions and dreams that provide glimpses into mystical and spiritual realms beyond his ordinary experiences.”

The hanblecheyapi (hahn blay-chay-yah-pee) provides a new perspective on today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus, following his baptism in the Jordan River, is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.

A common interpretation has been to characterize Jesus as a stoic hero—someone with great fortitude and self-reliance who puffs out his chest and shuts the devil down without blinking.

But a closer look at Jesus’ words shows that he demonstrates tremendous humility and serves as an example of how human beings are made for a collaborative and unassuming fellowship with God.

Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness prepared to do battle with the devil and show off his supernatural gifts. He spent 40 days alone fasting, praying, and discerning God’s purpose for him, before the devil comes onto the scene.

Kaitlin Curtice, a Native American Christian mystic offers this insight about Jesus’ time in the wilderness:[2]

“I see a kind of communion with the wilderness that taught Jesus about himself, that prepared him for his coming ministry and journey.We cannot know what kind of conversations happened in that quiet, but I can imagine there were a lot of thoughts coming in and out of Jesus’s existence. And in his struggle with spirits– evil and good, past and present– he found himself, his voice, and his own spiritual journey unfolding.”

I like to think that Jesus reflected on the ancient stories of how God provides for Moses and the Israelites flee from bondage in Egypt and wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Jesus likely recalled how the Israelites learned hard lessons about the value of relying on God’s strength instead of their own. They were stories he had heard since he was a child, and he probably recited them over and over in his mind as he dwelled in the desert for more than a month.

With an empty stomach, weak muscles and fuzzy brain (made worse by the scorching heat of the day), Jesus may not have retained a whole lot. But he clung to those stories and the truth that God alone could sustain him. So it was with a humble heart that Jesus responded to the devil’s attempts to turn him away from God:

Don’t trust God to feed you, trust yourself.

Turn these stones to bread so you can eat.

“One does not live by bread alone.”

Don’t trust God to provide you with your needs.

Devote yourself to me, and all will be yours.

“Worship the Lord your God and only serve God.”

Don’t trust God to protect you.

God will abandon you.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

 Jesus let go of the temptation to rely on his own power and cultivated a willingness to completely rely on God’s power and might.

The devil’s temptations are an attack on Jesus’ baptism, the idea that Jesus is God’s beloved who is not only reliant on God but embodies God’s hope and love for the world. Jesus’ responses thwart the devil’s plan because they are an implicit declaration of the good news of the Gospel that “God loves us all! God is the One we are made to trust—with humility and grace—for nourishment, guidance and love.”[3]

Similarly, evil and sin tries to attack our identity as God’s beloved children claimed in baptismal waters. Author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way:[4]

“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”

Like Jesus, we are tempted to be something other than what God created.

We are tempted to rely on ourselves and not live into God’s abundance. We are tempted to procure unlimited power and control. We are tempted to abuse faith and God’s authority to make others feel unworthy of God’s love. We are tempted to care only about ourselves and to ignore God and neighbor.

Kendrick Lamar who became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018, knows intimately of being tempted. On the song, “For Sale?” the Grammy-award winning artist speaks openly and honestly about an encounter with the devil he calls “Lucy.” He raps:

“My name is Lucy, Kendrick…
Lucy give you no worries
Lucy got million stories
About these rappers I came after when they was boring
Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty…
I want you to know that Lucy got you
All your life I watched you
And now you all grown up then sign this contract if that’s possible”

Despite struggles with the trappings of celebrity and fame, Lamar makes a faithful effort to rely on God’s love and grace.  In interviews and at concerts, Lamar often credits God for helping him through career challenges, drug addiction and getting away from the violence and crime that plagued his hometown of Compton, California in the 1990s. Lamar even once dressed up as Jesus for Halloween and when asked about his choice by a music magazine, he said: [5]

“If I want to idolize somebody, I’m not going to do a scary monster, I’m not gonna do another artist or human being–I’m gonna idolize the Master…and try to walk in His light. It’s hard, it’s something I probably could never do, but I’m gonna try. Not just with the outfit but with everyday life.”

While he is far from perfect, Lamar lives out his beliefs by making a difference in other people’s lives.  He regularly makes donations to the Compton Unified School District’s music, sports and after-school programs to help students stay in the classroom and off the street. And he also raises awareness about mental health challenges, and domestic abuse. Kendrick Lamar has let goof the temptation to idolize himself and is cultivating devotion toward God.

Courtesy of Google Images

The practice of cultivating and letting gois not easy. For me, it’s something I have to work hard at doing in my struggles with depression and anxiety, which I was diagnosed with 16 years ago. I have to daily cultivatetrust in God who has claimed me in baptism; and who gives me strength to get out of bed every day, and go to therapy once a week, take prescription medicine; and cultivatea willingness to listen to the affirming voices in my life that say:

“It’s ok”

“You are not crazy”

“You are not hopeless“

“It’s ok to have hard days”

“You are worthy”

“I love you”

And I have to let go of the temptation to handle my depression and anxiety without help from God and others, and be ensnared by the negative voices that say:

“You’re weak minded”

“You’re a burden”

“You’re overly sensitive”

“You’re being selfish”

“Mental health isn’t real”

“Suck it up!”

Many of us have struggled at some point in our lives (possibly for days on end) with who the world says we are v. who God knows and dreams we can be.

We’ve had experiences in the wilderness when we were tempted to put our own needs ahead of others and to trust more in our own power than in God’s.

This season of Lent and journey toward the cross in Jerusalem is a wilderness time.  As we wander and contemplate how human sin leads to Jesus’ suffering and death, we seek to grow in our faith through communion with God (and neighbor) through prayer, study, worship, and mission. We look to Jesus as our model for living into that divinely created relationship. We look to Jesus who cultivates faithfulness in what God will provide and lets go of temptations to use power for his personal gain even unto crucifixion.

May we continue to learn to cultivate and let go as Jesus has, does and will always do for our sakes.

Amen.

[1]Jesus and Us: A Shared Wilderness by Kaitlin Curtice, 5-8-17, https://kaitlincurtice.com/2017/05/08/jesus-us-a-shared-wilderness/

[2]Jesus and Us: A Shared Wilderness by Kaitlin Curtice, 5-8-17, https://kaitlincurtice.com/2017/05/08/jesus-us-a-shared-wilderness/

[3]The Salt Project Blog Commentary on Luke 4:1-13 for First Sunday in Lent, 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/5/the-hidden-fountain-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-1

[4]Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jericho Books (2014) and 2019 Lenten Resources: “Cultivating and Letting Go” by A Sanctified Art.

[5]Kendrick Lamar article on Wikipedia., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kendrick_Lamar

Ash Wednesday: What do we need to “cultivate” and “let go” during Lent?

A Meditation for Ash Wednesday at Emory Presbyterian Church, March 6, 2019, Lent 2019 “Cultivating and Letting Go” (theme resources from A Sanctified Art, LLC, a sanctified art.com)

Isaiah 58:1-12 

Christians all over the world today will receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in observation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  But what does this ancient practice exactly mean for us as Christians in a post-modern world? Why do we need ashy smudges above our eyebrows? Why does Lent begin this way and does our observance of the season mean we have to give up chocolate or caffeine or The Voice for more than a month.

The season of Lent is recognized as a time of prayer, fasting, self-examination and service that helps us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning.  Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, a professor of theology at Columbia Seminary, explains:

“Presbyterians do not enter this period of fasting and prayer to attract God’s attention or to be noticed by other people. Lent is a way of paying attention to our own lives. We receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads to focus our attention on who we really are…Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent provide a time to focus our attention on the mystery at the heart of the Christian life: that through the death of Jesus Christ, we have entered new life…The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines—fasting, prayer, service—in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent is an incredibly profound opportunity to practice humility and compassion with and toward others on our faith journeys, all the while reflecting on Jesus’ ministry and walk toward the cross in Jerusalem.

It is a chance to cultivate something new like:

a spiritual discipline (prayer, writing letters of gratitude to the important and unsung people in life like a teacher, a sanitation worker, a police officer, a coffee shop barista);

a mission practice (serving at a food bank or a pet shelter or putting together meals for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta);

relationships with others (family and friends, neighbors, someone different than you, someone with whom you are engaged in conflict;

a moment for self-care (taking a daily walk, tending a garden, reading a book, drawing, painting, playing music, journaling);

It is a chance to let go of the stuff that gets in the way of us and God, that keep us from following the ways of love, grace, justice and peace like:

envy,

pride,

greed,

malice,

hate,

gossip,

judging others,

poor choices,

deep seeded anger and hate,

things you can’t control or fix,

self-doubt about the amazing gifts God has given you,

Lent is a powerful and challenging time in which we invest our love and our life into a different way of living–

a type of living that is counter to the self-centered, consumeristic, mean-spirited society that permeates our TV screens and smart phones and various other corners of life.

a type of living that faithfully seeks to build a community where all are welcome with an abundance of grace.

a type of living that believes in God’s promise to awake our souls (our inmost being) to the reality of God’s kingdom and the hope of another world that has already been formed and is still being fully realized.

a type of living where we cultivate God’s dream for us to grow in the light, and we let go of the fears that try to bury us in the dark.

a type of living in which the ancient prophet Isaiah says that…

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry …
then your light will rise in the darkness…
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail…
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

Ash Wednesday and the receiving of the ashes in the sign of a cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our own mortality and that we may not see the results of our work. Yet we are called all the same to repent of our selfish ways and turn toward the way of Christ’s unconditional, selfless love.

A prayer written decades ago in the memory of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated by political extremists for speaking against poverty and social injustice, sums it up this way:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

Changes: Turn and Face the Strange

A Sermon for Sunday, March 3, 2019 at Emory Presbyterian Church—Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday,  Luke 9:28-43 

On the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, Christians across the globe celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord, which marks a significant transition in Jesus’ ministry where upon he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” to die.

Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus, through suffering, death and resurrection, is the hope of the ages—the One who embodies the Ten Commandments and fulfills the dreams of the prophets who proclaim that God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel demise exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

The Transfiguration of the Lord, that big, mountain top reveal of Jesus’ identity and purpose, is an illuminating moment for the disciples Peter, James and John, and it is a powerful event for us to consider as 21stcentury followers of Christ.

It is particularly fitting to recognize Christ’s transfiguration when you, the congregation, and I, as your new pastor, are beginning the next chapter of ministry at Emory Presbyterian Church. The transformation we’ve both experienced separately over the last two years has now brought us together in this very hour and place.

Neither of us are the same as we were a month ago. We’ve been changed. We are still changing. Even now as we take in each and every breath, change is happening and will continue to occur. Our relationship with one another is forming and our faith is being shaped by God’s magnificent presence in our lives as we seek to embody Christ’s love in all that we do.

Transfiguration. transformation. change. It is a natural part of daily living that can be exciting, fascinating, and striking to witness and embrace.

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said God made the concept of transfiguration obvious to him while attending a church leaders’ meeting to discuss the issues of apartheid in South Africa. In his book “God Has a Dream,” Tutu writes:[1]

“During our discussions, I went into the priory garden for some quiet. …It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden, I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world. The principal of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water. When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.

The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is ‘untransfigurable,’ that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory.”

Transfiguration. transformation. change. It is awe-inspiring and liberating, and well to be completely honest, it can be daunting.  Many of us can relate to the disciples on the mountaintop who are perplexed to see Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming a dazzling white and the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah suddenly appearing and talking to him ; and Peter who tries to give a profound response but instead anxiously and awkwardly asks Moses and Elijah if they want to have a sleepover. And we can understand what it’s like to be stunned into silence as Peter, James and John are when hearing God’s voice speaks to them.

Peter, James and John are usually judged unfairly for staying quiet and choosing not to tell anyone about what they witnessed after coming away from the mountain. At first glance, it does seem unusual that they don’t instantly run around telling everyone about the amazing phenomenon they’ve seen. It doesn’t make sense that they would be able to push that incredible story to the back corners of their minds and not let a word of it slip from their lips. Their decision to not speak about the transfiguration event is often interpreted as a sign of their disbelief in who Jesus was and why he had come to dwell with humanity.

However, I wonder if their silence is not a weakness but a strength. To take time for discernment, meditation and prayer is always a good practice. Similar to Desmond Tutu sitting quietly in the garden, the disciples are also contemplating the meaning of Christ’s transformation in their own minds and hearts. They don’t speak of it or share with anyone because it’s too wonderous to describe, and they need time to reflect silently.

You’re familiar with those type of experiences–those amazing, breath-taking mountain top experiences that render us awe-struck and speechless:

Falling in love. Getting married. Seeing the birth of a child. Listening to soul-stirring music during Good Friday Tenebrae. Riding a monstrous roller coaster. Staring at vastness of the Grand Canyon. Reclining on the beach as the sun goes down. Reading an inspiring piece of literature. Spotting baby deer in the woods as you drive along the highway. Gazing at a night sky full of stars. Reuniting with old friends or family members you haven’t seen in decades. Receiving unexpected good news from medical tests.

All of these are experiences of transfiguration—circumstances so incredible that we can’t come up with the right words to describe what is happening. We try and we fumble before eventually resigning to the truth that all we can do is stand there and bask in the mystery of God’s power and glory. Some of the most compelling transfiguration events in my life have been:

my wedding day,

my children’s births,

my ordination to the PC(USA) 14 years ago,

youth trips to Montreat and Asheville, North Carolina,

The rock band U2 leading thousands of people in the singing of Amazing Grace at the Georgia Dome,

a box of letters and cards from family and friends that Elizabeth collected for me when I turned 40 a few years ago,

And last Sunday when interim pastor Brady Radford gifted me with that splendidly made walking stick as a symbol of transition in this faith community.

I never cease to be amazed by the power of God’s transformation in my life and the lives of others. And over the years, I’ve realized there is great value in simply being mindful of the moment and entering into quiet reflection.

Experiencing transfiguration gives me hope that God has changed, is changing and will change everything for the better. To quote the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all that I have not seen.”

Emerson’s statement helps me remember that while the power of God’s transformation is immense, we can’t remain stuck in the wonder of transfiguration. We can’t stay forever on top of the mountain, even when Christ is shining brightly in the midst.

Like the disciples, we have to leave the mountaintop and continue following Jesus’ light into difficult and messy places. Luke tells us that the day after Peter, James, John and Jesus come down from the mountain, a large crowd approaches and a distressed father bursts forth with his son who is being plagued by a demon. Jesus immediately rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy and returns him to his father—all of which astounds the crowd.

Transfiguration. Peter, James and John see it lived out and on display in their community and world. The disciples see Jesus’ essence differently since the event on the mountaintop. They know him to be the incarnated light of God’s love. And seeing Jesus differently means seeing oneself and others differently too. As a noted religious scholar explains it: [2]

“Transfiguration is never meant as a private experience of spirituality removed from the public square. It was a vision to carry us down, a glimpse of unimagined possibility at ground level.”

Jesus has come to lead the way toward healing, liberation and love and to radiate light in the darkest of corners. His journey will lead him through ashes, torment, sorrow and death by the hands of those who greatly fear change and refuse to see the image of God in other human beings.

We are meant to accompany Jesus on the path and participate in his mission of transfiguration for the world. “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange,”[3]the rock prophet David Bowie once crooned, is our calling in this life.

In a sermon delivered in February 2011 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Desmond Tutu reminded the congregation of their calling, which is also true for us:[4]

“We are agents of transfiguration. Go forth and transform your personal   relationships, your community, God’s world so that it becomes hospitable to laughter, to joy, to caring, to sharing, to compassion, to justice, to freedom, to peace. And you know, transfiguration can happen because you have smiled on someone carrying a heavy burden. Transfiguration can happen because you uttered a word of concern. …

 You are the agents of transfiguration as you walk the pavements of this city. Become an agent of transfiguration. You don’t need to do anything that is spectacular. …

 Sitting in your car in rush hour, fuming because (there are so many other stupid drivers), instead as you look around at your fellow drivers, why not become what you are—an agent of transfiguration. Hold one, hold two up before God because maybe that one has just had a devastating diagnosis. That (other) one might be rejoicing; share in their joy—holding up God’s world gently, tenderly so that God will transform it, will transfigure it.”

Each of us are agents of transfiguration. We are called to be the change that God desires for the world—to face the strange and the astonishing and let it permeate our hearts, minds and souls. We are called to be transformed by God and to help transform God’s world through acts of unconditional love and acceptance of others, especially the broken and marginalized. The closing hymn of our worship service eloquently puts it this way: [5]

Arise, your light is come!

The Spirit’s call obey;

Show forth the glory of your God,

Which shines on you today.

 Fling wide the prison door;

Proclaim the captives’ liberty,

Good tidings to the poor.

 All you in sorrow born,

Bind up the broken-hearted ones

And comfort those who mourn.

Amen.


[1]“God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time” by Desmond Tutu, 2004, Doubleday/Random House

[2]Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Lori Brandt Hale, 2013, Westminster John Knox Press

[3]“Changes” by David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971, RCA

[4]http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs023/1103773562590/archive/1104654582854.html

[5]“Arise, Your Light has Come!” PC(USA) Glory to God Hymnal, Hymn #744 (FESTAL SONG)

The Voice

A Sermon for Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, Sunday, January 13, 2019, Guest Preaching on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

This is an exciting time in the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church as the congregation anticipates the February arrival of Mike and Melody Watson’s first child. And there couldn’t be a more perfect occasion to throw them a baby shower, following the worship service, than on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On this day we recognize Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism with Christ—of how God showers us with grace and calls us beloved, just as you will shower Mike and Melody with that same love and affection.

The event of Jesus’ baptism, recounted in the scripture lesson from The Gospel of Luke, inaugurates his public ministry of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth. Although it doesn’t have quite the flourish of Christmas, Jesus’ baptism is just as significant, if not more so, than his birth.

“John the Baptist” by Jen Norton

It is such a big deal that Jesus’ cousin—that camel-hair coat wearing, locust and honey eating wilderness preacher John the Baptist—loudly proclaims that the people need to prepare for this sacred moment by repenting and receiving baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John shouts to the crowd gathered at the Jordan River:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The people immediately ask the preacher: What do we need to do differently? How can we repent?” John replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Next, the tax collectors approach John and ask the same questions. He tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

Finally, Roman soldiers come to him and also inquire about their behavior. John says: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The people, according to this morning’s gospel passage, are filled with anticipation and wondering if John is the messiah. John reminds them:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Google Images

After John finishes baptizing everyone, he baptizes Jesus who somehow snuck into the crowd earlier without being detected by anyone else. As Jesus is praying, the skies open up and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, accompanied by a booming voice from heaven that says:“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is quite a spectacular scene—a hundred times better than the climatic images of any blockbuster super hero-sci-fi-fantasy movie. It is so awesome that it may seem initially challenging to determine it’s meaning for our own lives.

When we ponder stories of baptism, they seem on the surface to be dull in comparison to what happens to Jesus. Church steeples didn’t rip apart for a dove to dive bomb our heads. Nor did a thunderous voice speak to us from above the clouds like Darth Vader in a Star Wars movie: “I am your father.”

Despite the lack of such a grand display, however, our baptisms (and reminders of them) are just as powerful, poignant, and full of surprises when we take time to contemplate them.

In the last week, I’ve thought a lot about baptisms. Baptisms I’ve been a part of, as well as the holy experiences of water in unexpected moments…

Five years ago this coming March, my wife Elizabeth and I had our son Davis baptized at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church where I was serving as an associate pastor. It was a wonderful day. Extended family and close friends drove many miles to witness the baptism of a plump, bald, chipmunk cheek 4-month-old. The sacrament went fairly smoothly. Davis was alert but calm as the senior pastor placed water atop the child’s head. Even Davis’ precocious big sister Katie, who was 5 years old at the time, stood quietly next to Elizabeth, a large smile radiating from her face.

That is, until I stepped forward to give the closing prayer. As I wrapped up the prayer, I glanced down to see Katie walk up next to me, mouth the word, “Amen” and then take a dramatic bow as if she had just performed the lead role in a play. She was, apparently, expressing how “well pleased” she was with her brother’s baptism.

Then there was the time before my senior year of high school, when my family was living in Birmingham, Alabama and my parents went through an ugly divorce that rendered me despondent. I spent several days sitting in a recliner watching TV. One afternoon, the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and two of my good friends from youth group, Kathy and Stacey were standing on the front stoop, smiling.  Before I could say hello, they said excitedly, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re going to the lake at Oak Mountain State Park and you’re coming with us. Grab your towel and bathing suit!”

A half hour later, we were swimming and laughing and splashing around as the warm sun sparkled across the water. Never once did we bring up the mess at home. Words weren’t necessary. Their love and care for me was evident by their actions and the hours we spent together in the cool, clear water of the lake.

And lastly, in the summer of 2013 I took a group of middle school youth to North Carolina to participate in a week of service at Asheville Youth Mission. We closed out the trip with a morning spirituality walk through the city of Asheville. Led by AYM’s co-founder, the late Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan, we paused at various spots to read and discuss stories about Jesus’ ministry to the sick and the poor. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of the week, due in large part to the love of God that flowed from Aimee as she greeted her brothers and sisters who were living on the streets.

Toward the end of the walk, we stopped for a few minutes to look at a fountain located in Pack Square Park. The fountain is beautifully constructed fountain with a large bronze-ring surrounding a mound of quarried stone. Water covers the entire ring, creating a reflecting pool, and then flows slowly over the edge onto the ground to form a circle around the fountain’s base.

It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are and to whom we belong. She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters clean, refresh, and sustain us on our journeys. And then, as a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given, Aimee encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. With a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was instantly soaked from head to toe.

Some tension had arisen among the group that week between a few of the 6th grade girls and me (the typical “you’re being an over-bearing jerk with the rules” v. “you’re not listening and acting immature” battle). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.

In both our baptism and the everyday reminders of that sacrament, we re-discover what it means to be human and a citizen of God’s kingdom. We learn again that we are each a beloved child uniquely created by a loving God for the purpose of living a life of love. We realize that while it’s not in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, God does speak to us loud and clear in the ordinariness of life. The writer Debbie Thomas observes:

(Jesus is) the one who opens the barrier, and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are…. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved. [1] 

In baptism, we hear the voice of God who beckons us to turn away from our complicity with practices that cause brokenness in the world, and instead look toward a kingdom that offers opportunities of healing and wholeness for all of God’s beloved children.

Jesus’ baptism signaled that God was taking steps to reform this old world of earthly kingdoms and corrupt rulers by establishing a new world in which “all things live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom and dignity.”[2] God continues to make that world even now; signs of transformation all around us:

There’s the Oklahoma mom, 54-year-old Sara Cunningham who offers to stand in as the parent for LGBTQ couples if their own parent or parents choose not to on their wedding day. [3]

And there’s 13-year-old Jerry Hatcher, Jr., who, over the last six years, has woken up before dawn on Christmas Eve, and asked his parents to drive him to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital so he can buy breakfast for the families who have to spend the holidays with an ill child. [4]

Or there’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the emergency and refugee program of the PC(USA) that has provided $50,000 in grants to presbyteries in the southwest to support local churches and partner organizations that are providing food and temporary shelter for asylum seekers. [5]

And of course, there are the members of this church who faithfully serve their community on a regular basis, like last year on the MLK Day of Service when some of you made a delicious pot of chili and sandwiches to give to cold and hungry folks living on the streets of Atlanta.

The ministry Jesus did and the work we do in Jesus’ name is a manifestation of God’s vision for a world that is different from our own.

And the Holy Spirit empowers us by our baptisms with Christ to be a part of the kingdom and to invite others to heed God’s call to welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, feed the poor, free the enslaved, and make space for the marginalized to lift their voices.

This is the message that John the Baptist delivers from the wilderness to those with ears to hear.

In baptism, God dusts us off and rinses us clean of our mistakes—our failure to cherish God and to treat our neighbors with dignity, fairness and generosity. And God calls us to try again and again and again.

In baptism—where we gather together as a community to witness God’s unconditional love for humanity in Christ—God clothes us in the garments of a new social world and movement: kindness, compassion, humility, courage, hope, patience and mercy. And God calls us to share those gifts with others.

The faith-based non-profit media company known as SALT eloquently put it this way in a recent blog post regarding Jesus’ baptism:

In Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal.  And it’s a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. If even Jesus gladly undergoes a rite of conversion, how much more should Christians live humble, unpretentious lives of conversion!  Indeed, following Jesus means setting out with him on this path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is ‘well pleased.’ Jesus is baptized and calls us to follow him on a path of unassuming generosity, never looking down our noses at anyone, and always gladly embracing the Spirit’s sanctifying, restoring, empowering renewal.  For each one of us – and everyone we meet – is a beloved son or daughter of God, and Jesus’[6]

The voice of God—who in Christ has claimed us through the baptismal waters and deemed us beloved creations—has spoken and still speaks.

In response, may we—with humility and grace—continue to listen, follow and love.

            Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1232-this-place-deep-water-2

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2709

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sara-cunningham-oklahoma-free-mom-hugs-same-sex-weddings-stand-in-mother/

[4] https://www.11alive.com/article/life/heartwarming/atlanta-boy-continues-christmas-tradition-surprises-hospital-patients-families-with-paid-meal/

[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-perilous-journey-helping-todays-asylum-seekers

[6] http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/1/7/jesus-also-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-two

Rejoice…The Lord is Near!

A Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2018 (My Final Sunday at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, Duluth, GA)

The Third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7

This time of year comes with many rituals in our family—decorating the tree, giving Katie and Davis a new ornament, pulling out all the beloved children’s books to read at bedtime, eating lots of goodies, drinking tasty eggnog, listening to festive tunes, and watching holiday movies. The last item is my favorite activity, especially after the kids are in bed and Elizabeth and I are sitting cozily in our living room amid the glow of Christmas lights.  Of all the merry-themed films, the one I must see every season is the modern classic, Christmas Vacation.

The story revolves around the misadventures of Clark Griswold and his family as they prepare to celebrate Christmas.  Clark is a kind-hearted, naïve bumbler of a guy who attempts to make the holidays perfect for his family.  However, no matter how hard he tries to achieve his goal, everything turns into a disaster—either because he’s overdone it or due to the ineptness of some of his relatives.

For most of the film, Clark bounces happily along, determined to make the best of the situation. Then, on Christmas Eve, following an evening of blunders—dinner featuring an over-cooked turkey and JELLO-molds with cat food; the dog Snots chasing a squirrel through the house and Uncle Lewis accidentally setting the tree on fire with his cigar—a delivery man arrives at the home with an envelope containing what Clark believes is his traditional yearly bonus. Clark immediately tells everyone that the money will cover the down payment on the family’s big Christmas gift—a brand new pool. But when he opens the envelope, Clark discovers that instead of a bonus, it’s certificate for a free year’s membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.

This unexpected news causes Clark to snap and go on a tirade that prompts the rest of his family to grab their coats and head for the door. But a crazed Clark is not about to give up as he delivers one of the all-time greatest holiday rants (which I’ve slightly edited):

Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny flipping Kaye. And when Santa squeezes down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of jerks this side of the nuthouse!

The holidays are not so jolly and joy-filled in Clark Griswold’s home, no matter how much Clark tries to enforce it upon everyone. If we’re being honest, the holidays aren’t completely full of joy in real life either.

“Joy” is, of course, a primary theme of the Advent and Christmas seasons. We see that three-letter word on cards and decorations and hear it through the music streaming on our smart phones. Yet experience teaches us that “joy” is often allusive, especially in December.

Many people encounter inflated expectations, family tensions, loneliness, depression, grief, and sudden crises during a time in which society expects folks to constantly be cheery and bright. It’s not acceptable to be a Scrooge or get on Santa’s naughty list, we’re told repeatedly through nauseating Hallmark ads and cheesy Christmas specials. To all of this, I say, “bah humbug!”

Feeling blue and lacking merriment is completely understandable and ok right now. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And even if you’re not dealing with one of the life challenges I just mentioned, simply processing the news about the brokenness of our world is enough to make you sad and joyless.

“Joy,” often seems to be beyond our grasp. And yet the mystery of “joy,” according to the Rev. Holly Hearon, is an invitation to further explore it’s meaning. She writes:

The allusiveness of joy invites us to pause and reflect on what it is we are seeking when we speak of joy. Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or does “joy” represent hopes that have become little more than a seasonal habit

It appears that during this period in which we prepare for Christ’s birth, we’ve somehow confused joy for sentimental pleasantness. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that having “joy,” or being joyful, means everything is wonderful and grand, and our worries and fears quickly melt away. We’ve mistaken the tidings of comfort and joy from the angels hovering over the shepherds’ fields to mean that we shouldn’t feel sad during the holidays.

That’s not exactly what the angels or God or Jesus or the biblical writers had in mind when they spoke of “joy.” Today’s passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians explores “joy” in relation to the life of faith. As Hearon notes:

To “rejoice in the Lord always” points to a “joy” that is not only enduring but that sustains us even when we are worn down by life challenges. This requires something more than seasonal cheerfulness. It is a “joy” rooted in an ongoing relationship, built on trust, that is able to negotiate the moments of joylessness in ways that ultimately work for good. Critical, here is relationship: our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but also our relationship in community.

Hearon points out that Paul isn’t implying that everyone always agrees or gets along: “Rather, he is reminding us that each of us has a role to play in creating the supportive relationships that are the foundation of “joy” and a cause for “rejoicing.” Paul encourages readers in 4:5 to:

let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

The Greek word for gentleness is “epieikes” (epy-a-case) which is defined as tolerance— “not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom.” Thus, demonstrating “epieikes” is to “recognize we have a choice in how we behave toward others,” says Hearon. “It is not just about being nice or kind; it is about the exercise of power. … To choose not to exercise power, or to exercise it differently, requires self-awareness and humility. This is the power of Christ. It is in this way that Paul says we are to engage everyone.”

Joy. Being joyful. Rejoicing—none are just about being nice or kind or happy or pain-free.

Two of the world’s most influential religious leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, remind us of such through their abiding friendship and incredible outlook on life, which is chronicled in their collaborative work, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates who have endured the hardships of exile and violent oppression, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama understand the true nature of joy.

In their book, both men insist that joy and sorrow are inevitably fastened together.  They describe a kind of joy that is defined by self-understanding, meaning, growth and acceptance, including suffering, sadness and grief.  Archbishop Tutu says:

We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy. Life is filled with challenges and adversity.  …Discovering more joy does not save us from… hardship and heartbreak. … Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.

Joy is not the absence of suffering. Joy is the thing we find which helps us to live with and get through our hardships and heartbreaks. Joy is all about those ordinary moments of life that help us know there is something beyond ourselves, a glimmer of hope amid the gloom:

The man who steered his partner, seated in a wheelchair, toward the communion table.

The men and women who sang praises to God last Sunday morning.

The wife who forgave her husband with a kiss on the head after he’d been a grump over the weekend.

The parents who held each other close as they watch their young daughter respond well to the treatments she’s received in the hospital.

The teenager who wrote a beautiful reflection on social media about how she misses her deceased father but is happy for every moment she was able to spend with him.

The people who will gather in the sanctuary this afternoon for a Blue Christmas service to honor the tension between joy and grief and afterwards, break bread together at a local restaurant.

Joy is deep appreciation for the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. The prophet Isaiah imparts this message to the people of Israel after the Babylonian Empire banished them to the wilderness. Using a song of praise and old language reminiscent of Israel’s experience with the God of the Exodus, the prophet proclaims the Almighty’s good works is ever present in their moment of distress. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” the prophet declares. “Sing praises to the Lord for the Lord has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy!”

Joy is in the community of Israelites who hold close to each other and God’s promises of salvation, pressing onward despite their exile. And joy is in all communities where dependence on others is highly valued. As the Dalai Lama said during his conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. …We are social animals. Even for kings or queens or spiritual leaders, their survival depends on the rest of the community. So therefore, if you want a happy life and fewer problems, you have to develop a serious concern for the well being of others.

 In response to His Holinesses’ wisdom, Tutu added:

“Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others. When you show compassion, when you show caring, when you show love to others. … You have a deep joy that you can get in no other way. …You suddenly feel a warm glow in your heart, because you have, in fact, wiped the tears from the eyes of another.

God comes into this messed up world as a bundle of joy—a small, poor vulnerable baby who giggles and coos and screams and poops like all other babies. God draws near with “joy” so that we can witness “joy” up close and personal together, and so that we can go out and share joy—share compassion and love with others.

Seeking to give joy is our calling as Christians, as God’s creations, as God’s servant leaders. It is my calling as an ordained minister and it has been my calling as one of your pastors at Pleasant Hill for the last 10 + years.

We have shared so many moments of joy that to name everyone would have us here till this time next Sunday. So, I will attempt to mention some of them—the extraordinary experiences hidden in the ordinary work of ministry, a joyful compilation of the greatest hits:

Mixing cement and swinging hammers on adult mission trips; playing with children in third world countries; and clumsily knocking over the wall of a latrine that the mason had just built in the Honduran village we visited in October.

Wrecking the side of the old church bus at The Varsity on my first youth group trip downtown while the vehicle was full of middle schoolers; attending numerous faith-shaping, messy and wonderous Montreat youth and college conferences, and youth mission trips.

Youth Sunday. Mental Health Awareness Workshops. The Blessing of the Animals. The Lil Pantry. The Family Promise Host Weeks and Bed Races.

Worship. Church school. Bible studies. Weddings. Funerals. Sharing meaningful conversations, laughter and tears. Having my children baptized and seeing them raised and nurtured in their faith. Working alongside some of the finest pastors and staff that I know.

My time here and with each one of you, even on the hardest of days, has been filled with immense joy because of the love and care you give to people within and outside these walls, including me and my family.

Friends, may you continue to let your gentleness be known to everyone you meet, regardless of the hardships and the heartbreaks.

And may you rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!

The Lord draws near with “joy.” Be ready to receive it and pass it on.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not From This World

A Sermon for November 25, 2018, Christ The King Sunday

As the editor and writer of Marvel Comics from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stan Lee published a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox” which appeared on the last page of the company’s various superhero titles.

Upon his death at the age of 95 on November 12, one of the columns that the legendary creator wrote 50 years ago immediately resurfaced on social media. Published in December 1968, the essay addressed racism in America in the wake of the horrific assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that occurred earlier that year. The co-creator of iconic characters such as Spider-man, The Black Panther and The Avengers, wrote the following:

Stan Lee with actor Chadwick Boseman who plays T’Challa/Black Panther at the movie’s premiere in January, 2018

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.

The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. …He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another.

But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.

Peace and Justice,

Stan

Stan Lee’s words remain relevant today and are reflected in the moral and spiritual messages he weaved into the realistic fantasy superhero universe he helped create at Marvel Comics. Lee also adhered to the principals of love and tolerance in his own life, which is partly what made him such a beloved pop icon.

Despite being agnostic and non-religious, Lee had a great appreciation for the Golden Rule and the power of sacrificial love. As such, he imbued his super heroes with a sense of humility and compassion, and he exposed them to real life issues that would challenge their humanity. The previously mentioned characters and many more, like Iron Man and the Hulk, are flawed super heroes. For decades they’ve struggled with the challenges of everyday life just like the average person: job stress, addiction, depression, fear, prejudice, poverty, war, religious discrimination, illness and death, disabilities, and family relationships. And their powers don’t always save them from their troubles.

But Lee also believed that regardless of one’s flaws, human beings could do extraordinary things to help fashion a better world, which was evident in his super hero stories but also explicitly stated in another Soapbox column from 1968:

“We (at Marvel) believe that (humans) have a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility—the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect…We’ll never rest until it becomes a fact rather than just a cherished dream.”

Considering all of this, the case could be made that Stan Lee likely comprehended (more than many Christians) the theological concept that Christ or God’s kingdom is not from this world, and humanity is called to be a part of this alternative reality.

A certain amount of imagination and faith is needed to conceive a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor of Judea, doesn’t have that imagination and faith, which is why he remains stuck in a rudimentary understanding of kings and kingships. Pilate is unable to grasp the idea of a kingdom and world apart from the one he knows. And he is incapable of seeing Jesus as one who belongs to an entity more sovereign than Rome.

Pilate suspects, as does King Herod and the religious authorities, that Jesus is a threat to the power and prestige each of them hold. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is claiming to be the king of Israel, the Jewish nation and therefore challenging the authority of Roman Emperor. Pilate views Jesus’ action as a potential global security threat to the Empire.

Jesus’ kingdom, though, is not defined in earthly terms nor is it some heavenly, abstract concept. According to the scriptures and the culture of the time, the kingdom of God is considered an authentic world that is within and beyond our own:  a kingdom that has already arrived; a kingdom that is fully in the present, and a kingdom that will one day bring forth a new heaven and earth.  And it is a kingdom where all belong and are invited to be part of the community of an unconditionally loving God, whose reign transcends any one person or group of people.

I realize this may sound like a Utopian fantasy—a fanciful, pie-in-the sky dreaming that is more suitable for kids who read comic books or watch movies about wizards. Yet it is the foundation of our faith and why we as Presbyterians join Christians around the globe in recognizing today as Christ the King Sunday. As it is stated on the website of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

“The festival of Christ the King…moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. … In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. … As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.”

Jesus never has and never will fit into humanity’s centuries old traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, leadership, power and prestige. Jesus wasn’t a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time, and Jesus is not like any crowned figurehead, dictator or elected leader that has existed in the modern era.

Google Images

Pilate mistakenly identifies him as a meddlesome king, even going so far as to asking Jesus, “What is truth?” when the truth of who Jesus is stands plainly before him. Pilate simply can’t comprehend much less handle the truth, which is that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our lives now and forever.

Jesus is the ruler of a kingdom where God’s love, peace, justice, healing and restoration are experienced. Jesus—this God-in-the-flesh who faces interrogation by a representative of a dominating system of violence and power—is the ruler who enters our world as a small, defenseless child instead of a power-hungry deity seeking to wipe out sinners and rule with an iron fist.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says to an ignorant Pilate.

The truth—that is God’s kingdom of love and grace—is not always easy or comforting to hear. It can be difficult because it means we’re acknowledging that we haven’t quite lived into the reality of God’s kingdom and have remained tethered to an earthly realm (a broken society and culture) that fosters greed, resentment, prejudice and hate. It means that sometimes we’ve become stuck in our own self-serving agendas and rejected Christ’s verbal invitation to be a part of God’s beloved community.

One of my all-time favorite television shows, M*A*S*H, about the 4077th mobile surgical hospital unit stationed near the frontlines of the Korean War, helped me better appreciate the truth of Jesus’ kingship in an episode entitled, Quo Vadis, (Where Are You Going), Captain Chandler?

The episode begins with batch of soldiers being brought into the camp to be treated for the injuries they sustained in battle. Among them is Captain Arnold Chandler, a sheep rancher from Idaho, who believes he is Jesus Christ.

Some at the 4077th think Captain Chandler’s claim is blasphemous and that he is faking battle fatigue to earn a medical discharge. Others are concerned about the man’s mental well-being, and contact the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, for a consultation.

It turns out that Chandler, a decorated pilot who had flown 57 missions before being shot down, has lost his memories even though his head wound is superficial. Despite best efforts to help him remember, Chandler insists he is Christ. After a long visit with his patient, Sidney shares a diagnosis with camp personnel. He tells them:

“He’s not Christ. But he’s not Chandler either. The man is a victim. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, ‘Enough! You’re Christ, you’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.’”

M*A*S*H, Season 4, Episode 10: “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” (1975)

Sidney then recommends that the pilot be admitted to a hospital in Tokyo where he can receive treatment that will turn him back to his former self but “never into a fighting machine.” A few moments later, in the episode’s final scene, Captain Arnold Chandler is walking out of the medical tent to board a bus to the airport when Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reiley, the young, naïve company clerk approaches him. Radar timidly says to Captain Chandler:

“Sir, my name is Radar O’Reiley. … Um, sir are you really who they say, I mean are you really Him?”

Chandler replies: “Yes, I am.”

Radar breathes a sigh of relief and then asks: “I know you’re busy and all but could you bless this?”

Radar then reaches into a satchel and draws out a ragged old teddy bear that he’s loved since childhood. “I know he’s not real, but we’re very close.”

Captain Chandler blesses Radar’s teddy bear

Chandler places his hands on the stuffed animal, his right hand covering the teddy’s bear’s missing eye, and says: “Bless you.”

Then he looks up at Radar and says, “Bless you, Radar.” 

Moved and humbled by the gesture, Radar says proudly, “I’m Walter.”

Chandler replies: “Bless you, Walter.” And then as he boards the bus, he looks at everyone in the camp and says, “Bless all of you.”

I first shared this illustration in a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland on Christ the King Sunday, 2006. While preparing that sermon, I tracked down the episode’s writer, Bert Prelutsky, and sent him an email asking for more insight on the story of Captain Arnold Chandler. Bert emailed me back the next day, saying:

“I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us.”

There is, of course, a lot about God and God’s kingdom that is mysterious and astonishing. But maybe it’s not so strange to consider that we’ve each been blessed with a spark of the Divine, the captivating love of God

Maybe it’s not too far fetched to concede that when we are tuned into Christ’s voice enough so that we might follow and embrace God’s vision, which is both within and beyond our reach, we encounter a glimpse of the holy…

Mission trips to Honduras and Blue Ridge, Georgia; Bible Study and fellowship at the Duluth Co-Op; Laundry Love; Operation Turkey Sandwich, Clifton Men’s Shelter; Rainbow Village, Blood Drives; Mental Health Awareness Workshops for Parents and High School Youth, Free Clinical Exams for Uninsured Mammogram Patients. Vacation Bible School. Montreat, etc., etc.,

Operation Turkey Sandwich

When we come together to love others as Christ loves, we participate in a kingdom that is not from this world.

That is and will always be the truth.

Amen.