Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘40’

Are We Out of the Woods?

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

The 40 days of Lent, for Christians around the world, are an opportunity. Now I don’t know where you are in terms of Christian traditions or Lent. Maybe for you, Lent is a strange word that sounds like the small amount of fuzz in your pants pockets [i.e. lint] or the past tense of a word meaning to borrow. Some of you may have grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so Lent may remind you of giving something up, like candy, alcohol, or meat [on certain days]. I also know that many of you have no history with this thing called Lent whatsoever. So let’s focus on the number 40, shall we? And on the journey story of Jesus of Nazareth, which begins with a 40 day period of self-discovery.

And as a help in our own journey of self-discovery, allow me to introduce another story.

wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery. Her story was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed, at the age of 22, saw her mother die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Afterwards, her family was incredibly distant and disconnected and she began a path of self-destruction, leading to broken relationships and heroin addiction. Four years later, Strayed, with no hiking experience, set out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail that begins in the Mojave Desert and continues through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. Her story recounts Cheryl’s life before and after this hike, describing her physical challenges and spiritual realizations. Let’s watch the trailer:

Cheryl Strayed’s story is an appropriate one for us to look at during this season. It leads us to Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew. This 40 day journey of Jesus is told by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, though today we are focusing on Matthew’s version, and there are some differences that I need to point out.

First, Matthew’s author says that Spirit “takes Jesus up” into the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so no surprise that this version of the story makes two connections with Israel. The number 40 refers to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and the phrase “forty days and forty nights” refers to Moses in the book of Exodus who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.”  Further, Matthew’s story defines the character of “the tempter” in various ways, calling him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and even Beelzebul.

Speaking of the temptations. And no, not the Motown group, though they were AMAZING.

temptationsgroupThis is Jesus’ temptation experience and Matthew switches things up. First, Jesus is told to turn stones [plural] into loaves of bread. Then, Jesus is tempted at the pinnacle of the temple [order change], and lastly, Jesus is tempted up on a mountain [see earlier Exodus/Moses references]. The plural of stones and loaves is important because Matthew is making the point that if Jesus is who he says he is, why not feed the world? Why not use his magic power to do something like that? Jesus rebuffs the temptation by retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and waiting for food, and in that waiting and humility, they were finally able to be ready to receive the manna [bread] that Yahweh provided.

The second test is in Jesus exploiting his supposed religious power as God’s son. This is about the religious elite of Jesus’ day, and how they wielded power over the marginalized of society. Jesus, in Matthew’s story, again refers to Moses, this time to a story in which people were thirsty and Moses asked God to make water flow from a rock.

And lastly, when Jesus is up on a high mountain [so high that he not only sees the promised land but the whole cosmos], he is tempted by the question: who is the divine? Is Yahweh God? Is the tempter God? And it follows: how is Jesus really? That last question, of course, has been the crazy controversy of Christianity since probably around the 3-4th century.

The identity question within Jesus’ wilderness story is the point for us. Just like in the story of the Wild, someone is challenged to look deeply at who they are, facing temptations, anger, sadness, the past, and the present.

I will pretty much leave this here for now, because we need to take this journey appropriately—with patience and care. Self-examination /change/personal growth are not quick-fixes. This is more than just learning a new skill, giving up something, or practicing some sort of religious thing. This is a change not just in what you do but in who you are. Each step of your journey is important. And we all must start where we are. Doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or the state of your life currently. This is where you are. Just take the next step, whatever that is. Take the first step.

See the trail, the wilderness, the journey—as an opportunity. Embrace it. What would it be like for you to forgive yourself? What would it be like for you to embrace your own journey? What is your first step to change that will help to make you a healthier, balanced, and whole person?

 

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Temptation to Imagination

Luke 4:1-13

Temptation

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

Think about that for a moment.

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

For Christians, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a period of 40 days [not counting Sundays]. The forty days of Lent is about one tenth of a year. So observing Lent is like giving one tenth of your year to do something different. Of course, many people assume that Lent is all about giving up something for forty days, like chocolate or TV. But it’s not really about that. You don’t have to give up something for Lent. This period of forty days is supposed to be about self-reflection that leads to personal growth and also to doing good in the world and helping others.

So during Lent, I’ll be asking myself [and you] to use our imaginations. Return to the initial question:

What does it mean for you to be yourself?

The Gospel stories, including Luke, say in their story, that after being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus of Nazareth went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking: what does it mean to be me, Jesus of Nazareth?

And during that process, the stories tell us that Jesus faced temptations. I’ll leave it up to you how you wish to interpret the symbolism in the story. From my perspective, I don’t take it literally, but certainly embrace the symbolic meaning in the text. For example, it’s no secret that the Gospels have Jesus start his ministry in the wilderness and then end it in Jerusalem. The wilderness, in the Hebrew tradition, was a symbolic place where people were challenged and pushed to their limits; but the wilderness was also where people learned and grew as human beings. Jesus starts there, but he eventually makes it to the religious and cultural epicenter of that part of the world—Jerusalem. The Gospels tell the story in this way to remind us that it was necessary for Jesus to have sufficient time in the wilderness before tackling the challenges he would face in Jerusalem.

Also, there is the obvious parallel to the Moses story. Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Then, eventually they made it to Jerusalem. So you’ll need to embrace the symbolism of the number 40 to dig deeper into the meaning. The 40 days of Lent don’t necessarily have to be a literal 40 days. It’s just symbolism to remind us that at certain times in life we need a time in the wilderness for learning and growth.

wildernessSpecifically, the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness have their own symbolic meaning. First, Jesus was hungry because he had been fasting, like many other religious ascetics did in his time. After his fast Jesus was tempted by bread. But this was not just about controlling his appetite. Later in the Gospel stories this same Jesus would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. He chose to help them find nourishment because they were in need. This is important to note, because Jesus did NOT choose to feed, heal, or bless people because he was driven by fear or by the voice of someone or something else in his head. He chose to do those things himself because it came naturally to him. So perhaps the first temptation was more about facing the common temptation to act out of fear or desperation. Trusting that bread will be provided enables one to provide bread for others.

The second temptation is also fear-related.

Prove, says the tempter’s voice, that you are God’s Son and jump off the pinnacle of the temple. I think that Jesus was most certainly human in every way, and so I also think that from time to time he feared failure and felt inadequate. Any leader feels this sometimes. So the second temptation was to face the possibility that things would not always go as he hoped—that his followers and friends may not always join with him and that others would criticize and reject him. I mean, who doesn’t fear rejection, right? So by not jumping off the temple roof, Jesus claims a truth that regardless of what people say or do, his real self will not be harmed.

The third and final temptation is all about power. Even good people with good intentions struggle with this. If you know that you want the best for people and the world, shouldn’t the world then conform to your ideas of how things should be? Who better to rule the world than the person who has good intentions, right? I mean, who would blame Jesus for claiming the throne to better spread his message and revolution of love? But that’s the temptation.

Regardless of how good our intentions may be, taking power eventually leads to trampling others.

Perhaps this was the hardest temptation. Would Jesus claim the power that so many wanted him to have? His answer of “no” to that question changed the whole story, didn’t it?

Speaking of the story, the very next thing that happened after Jesus’ time in the wilderness should come as no surprise. Jesus left the wilderness and found people [in this case, Peter, James, and John]. He shared his experience with them and they made connections. You see, Jesus’ personal spiritual experience of 40 days wasn’t just an isolated time of prayer and meditation. It was purposeful. His self-reflection led to deeper connections with other human beings.

That’s what inspires me the most, because often spiritual practices like prayer and meditation and even worship stay in the wilderness or the sanctuary or a building.

Unfortunately, it is tempting in every religion to become isolated from others in the world and to forget that any spiritual practice should not only make you a better person, but it should connect you to others in a meaningful way.

So may your forty days be a time for self-reflection, asking the question: what does it mean for you to truly be yourself, and may you discover not only who you are but what you are becoming. This process truly is worthwhile.

I close with an excerpt from Edwina Gateley’s poem, Called to Become from There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013):

You are called to become a perfect creation.
No one is called to become who you are called to be.
This becoming may be gentle or harsh.
Subtle or violent.
But it never ceases.
Never pauses or hesitates.
Only is—Creative force—Calling you.

Calling you to become a perfect creation.

 

There’s Got to be Another Way!

Luke 13:31-35

CopticCross CelticCross RomanCross

Let’s do something different. Bear with me here.
Go back in your memory to a specific date, time of day, place, and an event in which you saw the symbol of the cross.

  1. Stand in that place. What do you see? What do you hear?
  2. Be specific. Pay attention to what you are feeling.
  3. Don’t summarize or draw conclusions or try to explain.
  4. Be brief. The symbol of the cross is there in this moment of your life.
  5. What do you feel, see, hear, taste, smell-experience?
  6. Write it down and don’t worry about complete sentences.

I just asked you to create word pictures. Thanks, Jeff Barker! Word pictures are an effective way for us to visualize a story of our lives and how we react to symbols. We very rarely pause enough to reflect on such feelings in our stories—feelings we carry with us for a lifetime. Today I have chosen the symbol of the cross, because during these 40 days of Lent we are looking deeply at our identities and also how we identify God. The cross, of course, is probably the most recognizable Christian symbol today. Its meaning, however, varies from person to person, according to his/her experiences. Here’s my word picture.

Incredibly humid August evening in Indiana. I’m covered with oil, dirt, and fake blood and wearing white shorts–barefoot. The two other sixteen-year-olds look tired, but focused. I feel tired. I feel weird. I’m sweating; I’m thirsty; I’m nervous. Led through the grass field by seventeen-year-old Roman soldiers to the three platforms. They tie our hands to the wooden planks and make believe that they are nailing our feet. I am tired. The 100 or so teenagers watching have weird looks. Some are sad, some look anxious, others are confused, some are bored. A kid yawns. I want to yawn, but I can’t. I have to be still. Time. Moves. Slowly. Sweat. Thirst. Confusion. Embarrassment. Regret. I have an itch. On my nose. Can’t…scratch…it. Praise songs start with guitar and voices. I like it. Some relief. I want to sing, too. But I have to be still. The other youth leave. The teen soldiers tell us that the play is over. All three of us gasp for air. I’m washing off the dirt and oil, wondering why I didn’t cry like the girl in the front. I want something to drink. Or pizza. And I’m worried about having enough clothes leftover for the weekend.  

For many, the cross is a symbol that points to death—more specifically, a gruesome death for Jesus of Nazareth. The cross’ meaning, however,  has changed over time. The early followers of Christ avoided it—for obvious reasons. Crucifixion was a form of state torture for the Romans. It was not meant to kill someone quickly. Its purpose was to degrade and humiliate a person so much that he was de-humanized. Embracing such a symbol of a crucifixion was not something that would help the early followers of Jesus to remember well their teacher and prophet. They preferred instead to focus on Jesus’ teachings, life, and ministry.

Many scholars and historians believe that certain followers of Jesus in the 2nd Century may have been the first ones to use a hand gesture that mirrored a cross. This gesture was in fact to heal from disease, spiritual, or mental affliction. But the actual cross symbol–the crucifix [cross with Jesus personified on it], was not widely used until the 6th Century CE.[1] This of course follows the beginning of what we now call the Catholic tradition [out of Europe under Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300’s CE]. Of course, the crucifix and sign of the cross remain important aspects of Catholic faith practice today. For Protestants, however, [those who broke away from Catholic tradition] this is usually not the case. Notice the empty crosses [no Jesus] and rare examples of Protestants making the sign of the cross as a hand gesture.

As the symbols changed, so did the meaning of the cross. And this had major significance in people’s lives. The basic question, since all this talk of crosses began, and the question raised in Luke’s Gospel story is:

Why did Jesus die?

ChagallMarc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938

It sounds simple, but of course, the answers have not been simple. I do not have the time in one sermon to go over all of the attempts to answer this question. But I will give you a summary of [and hopefully a relevant reflection on] the most widely used perspective.

The penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Yeah, say that three times fast.
In other words: Jesus died for [and because of] our sins.

This theory of the atonement developed with the Reformed tradition. We have a man named Anselm of Canterbury to thank for it, as he developed this idea about 1100 CE. The gist is that Jesus Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can forgive the sins. In this view, Jesus died because God was angry at humans for being sinful. Someone had to suffer and die on the cross, and that someone was Jesus. This view of atonement is the most common [still] in U.S. churches, and apparently quite the norm in Indiana Christian camps with youth Passion plays. I would know. Oil, dirt, fake blood.

Of course, there are a lot of issues with this view. God is angry and vengeful enough to want to kill humanity? Isn’t this a humanity called good by God? But in God’s rage, God still finds it possible to send Jesus to take the blame and be killed, therefore satisfying God’s need to punish sin. So it’s hate mixed with love.

Of course, that has haunted many people. For if God is angry at us, this feeds a shamefulness or guilt that many people feel. Someone feels “bad” because Jesus died for her sin. I have seen this all too often: people stay in abusive relationships, isolate themselves, consider suicide—all because they are “bad” and deserve punishment. It is amazing how many times I have seen this.

There is another side as well. Penal substitutionary atonement can also justify, in some people’s minds, violence against others. Innocent children die in Afghanistan due to drones? People die in Palestine and Israel because of bombs? Shootings in Connecticut? It’s all justifiable, because it will save someone else. Taken too far, this substitution theory is awful.

Needless to say, many people reject this theory of atonement all together. Theologians, like Marcus Borg, understand Jesus’ death on the cross as an event of political motivations. Many wanted Jesus dead for his revolutionary ideas. Jerusalem indeed was a hotbed for revolt, political demonstration, and religious movement. It actually wasn’t until long after Jesus’ death that the cross actually became a symbol for forgiveness of sins. In Borg’s view, atonement theology does not go back to Jesus himself. Jesus did not see the purpose of his life [his vocation] as being only his death. In sharp contrast to the substitution view of atonement, it is God who initiates and fulfills reconciliation.

It is amazing grace, not wrath. God gets rid of any separation between humans and God with mercy.[2]

Why is this important? Well, see above–all the baggage people carry, the lack of healing, and of course, the violence.

Also, what we think about the cross and Jesus’ death is not very connected to the Gospel stories themselves. Jesus does not describe God as a vengeful, angry deity ready to blast sinful people with lightning bolts because everybody is bad. I honestly don’t see a Jesus who is so focused on individual morality and the afterlife. I see a Jesus who was passionate about serving humanity—especially those who were unloved or called “bad” by others or pushed down by oppressive systems, or left out in the cold. Jesus taught more about the kingdom of God being on earth—in other words, that God’s presence was here on the ground, where real people live and breathe and try to make sense of their purpose in life. Jesus saw the injustice, hate, and sadness of the world and didn’t try to hide it. And when he did describe himself in this Luke passage, he talked about animals.

Herod, the ruler who supposedly wanted to kill him [according to some Pharisees in Jerusalem], was a fox. Picture what a fox looks like and what kinds of animals a fox likes to eat. Jerusalem was full of little baby chicks. It’s marshmallow Peeps season so the metaphor works.  That fox [Herod] was leading them to trouble. Too many chicks were following him.

And Jesus was the mother hen.

Not a tyrannosaurus rex or a roaring lion, but…

a

mother

hen.

A mother hen who is completely devoted to protecting and caring for her little, defenseless chicks. A mother hen without the teeth and claws of the fox. A mother hen who will selflessly teach mercy and accept and love all those people who were told that they’re bad. A mother hen who is sad about the state of affairs in the world—so much hate, so much violence, so much abuse of power. And yet, a mother hen who is willing to keep on healing, teaching, and empowering people to see God in their lives.

So what do you see in the symbol of the cross?
Why did Jesus die?

It is God’s wish for people to be cared for and loved—not hated.
It is Jesus’ life and teachings that call us to care and love all who are left out, hated, pushed down, and led astray.
God’s insistence on being here with us in the mess and suffering of the world is immeasurable. It’s not anger; it is grace.

In a world that tells us, to quote Bruno Mars, that we’ve been locked out of heaven:

Jesus tells us: God’s kingdom is here. On earth. Living. Working. Moving through us.

So let us journey to the cross–the path of truth, and life, and mercy.

Grace awaits. Love under the wings of a loving God.

And as you journey there, notice the others along the way. There are people just like you. They are looking for purpose and forgiveness and acceptance just as they are. They too have sometimes been called or feel bad.

So how will they see grace, justice, and love in you? Amen.


[1] Stott, John (2006),The Cross of Christ (20th Anniversary ed.). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. p. 27.

[2] Dr. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.

A Trusting Identity: We Are a People of Continuing Testament

Luke 4:1-13     

These 40 days of Lent is a time to reflect on identity. Who am I? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Who are we? Whenever we look deeply at our own identity, if we are open, we can even surprise ourselves. We can find out something new that we didn’t recognize before. And always, always, identity formation is enhanced in community. The people around us help us to know ourselves better. I can certainly say that this has been true for me. Throughout my life, there have been people who have helped to shape and form my identity. Some were family; some were friends; some were teachers, mentors; and of course, the people we love deeply and commit our lives to [like life partners and spouses] help us see ourselves differently.

But there is trust involved. We won’t embrace someone’s viewpoint of ourselves if we don’t trust that person. If someone challenges us or encourages us to try something new or to change in a certain way, we do so because we trust that person’s knowledge of us. And we also trust that he/she has our best interests in mind and that this person loves us enough to tell it like it is—to be honest.

One of my struggles in all the churches I have been part of is the lack of trust I have often observed. There are a lot of people in the pews or on the church rolls who read the Bible, pray, serve on committees or boards, even preach and teach Sunday school. But they rarely [if ever] move past the superficial conversations to reveal doubts about God; or say that they aren’t sure about the Bible; or that sometimes there are not answers to life’s greatest questions. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of trust related to our tendency to check our brains outside the sanctuary’s doors. It’s weird, but once many church people are inside the sanctuary, they don’t think or ask questions.

As people of faith who then form communities of faith, our identities are formed by how we see the scriptures [the Bible], and our theology [how we think about God]. There is an identity phrase used by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. This phrase has sort of become the denomination’s unofficial slogan. There is a story behind it, as there always is. Some of you may remember the comedian George Burns. His wife was also a performer, Gracie Allen.

GracieAllenThey had their own show together. The story goes that after Gracie died, George found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter included the phrase Never place a period where God has placed a comma.[1] A few years ago, when the UCC was in the midst of developing an identity campaign, a man called Ron Buford was charged with leading the creative efforts. So he gathered ideas from people in local congregations around the UCC.

Ron was first inspired by a quote from one of the founders of the Congregationalist Church, John Robinson: O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word. The idea that there was more light to break forth and no period where God has placed a comma became God is still speaking.

CommaIt was not and is not a new idea, actually. Revelation continues; testament [literally, witness] continues. The Bible, though full of different religious traditions and a mash-up of different time periods and writers, we say is inspired by God. There is not a period. This means that one interpretation of a Bible passage or one theology is not the final one or the best one. God is still speaking means that what Reformed theologians like John Calvin or Martin Luther wrote or said or what Councils in Nicaea or Rome decided is not by any means the final word. God is still speaking recognizes that their perspectives were limited to their culture and time period and agendas. What about other voices and interpretations? This is what continuing testament is all about—trusting that there still light [new perspectives] to break forth.

For some, this is difficult to accept, and why people [within the Christian community] say that UCC stands for Utterly Confused Christians or Unitarians Considering Christ. The openness of the idea, however, of God is still speaking does not mean that we’re all relativists [and neither are Unitarians, actually]. In other words, we are not just interpreting the scriptures in a way that is convenient or consistent with our cultural practices, political beliefs, or just simply put—we are not seeking to interpret the Bible to mirror what we like and already think.

God is still speaking is about opening up the mind and heart to different and even difficult interpretations—perspectives that challenge our comfort zones and move us to humility and love-action. And yes, if we’re really open and ready to listen, we will find that some of our doctrines and dogmas were and are oppressive, racist, close-minded, and downright awful. Throughout history, people [and the church] have interpreted scripture in order to do something bad to other people. It still happens quite often today, I am sad to say.

This is one of the main reasons I decided to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ–precisely because I do believe that there is a LOT of wisdom, light, and meaning yet to be discovered. It’s really never-ending. I have no trust in a Biblical interpretation that cuts down other people. You’re Muslim—well, too bad! The Bible says you are going to hell unless you believe in Jesus; tough luck. Oh, you’re gay? That’s too bad, because even though Jesus loves everybody else, he doesn’t love you! You pray that way? Eat that food? Speak that language? Believe that about God? Good luck, because my Bible says: See ya!

 And yet, if God is God, how in the world could we possibly limit this God by slapping a period down at the end and saying: That’s it! There’s only one way to look at it! The Bible as a whole contradicts this. Have you ever compared the four Gospels? Their views of Jesus–what he did and who he was–are sometimes very far apart, and rightly so. Each part of the Bible has its own unique voice. Continuing testament, God is still speaking—the idea is nothing new. The Bible itself is made up of different viewpoints, theologies, and religious practices. Continuing testament is about being attentive to God’s creative movement in the world.

God’s not stuck in a book; or in an era; or even in a religion. God is love and that love is free.

It is with that effort to hear a Still-Speaking God in the Bible stories that we turn to Jesus’ retreat story. Notice I didn’t say Jesus’ temptation. I’m borrowing from Dr. Bruce Epperly, professor at Claremont University. Bruce equates Jesus’ so-called temptation in the wilderness with a spiritual retreat.[2] He argues that our take on the story is quite full of devil-baggage and thus, we miss the Gospel writer’s point. Jesus is on spiritual retreat—trying to find his identity after being baptized by John. Jesus goes to pray and think and journey. And in that process he comes face to face with himself.

devilIt is true that our view of this story is often clouded by our view of the age-old character, the devil. Yes, that evil dude with the goatee, horns, red suit, and trident/pitchfork. Honestly, there is probably no better example of a mishmash of history and legend than the character of Satan. Of course, less than 1% of how the devil is portrayed in popular culture actually includes what the Bible says! In fact, there is no devil in the Hebrew Scriptures [what Christians call the OT]. Evil yes; devil no. Even in the NT of the Bible, the personification of the devil is hotly debated. Yes, there are demons [evil, angry spirits], but always in people or in some cases, in animals. The devil as a personified character is never described physically. There are evil voices and people who do evil things—that’s it.

You see, over the centuries various cultures have defined evil in different ways. The U.S. concept of Satan or the devil is a combo of various Anglo-Saxon and other European traditions—mixing in a bit of Greek mythology.

FaustThe German tradition of Faust is often mistakenly combined with Jesus’ wilderness story. Of course, Faust, in the story, is a highly successful scholar who is dissatisfied with life in general and so he makes a deal with the devil to acquire unlimited knowledge. Many see Jesus’ wilderness experience as this personified devil trying to seduce him to make a deal. And this kind of thinking leads us to the idea that the devil appears in our heads or on our shoulders, trying to persuade us to do bad things. Finally, we come up with the famous but ridiculous phrase: the devil made me do it.

 

HomerEventually, we start to feel a bit like Homer Simpson who carried the burden of Good Homer and Evil Homer. Again, though, is this really what Jesus’ wilderness experience is about? Is there one guy who is pure evil and makes us do evil things? Do we make that guy responsible for the things we do? Honestly, I think this is harmful and certainly not truthful. All of us are responsible for what we do and say. Sure, we are all capable of evil. No doubt about that. It doesn’t take long to see that we are all capable of hurting, killing, destroying, stealing, lying, and hating.

But I argue that it is less about a pitch fork-wielding devil and more about a lack of trust. In Jesus’ wilderness retreat, he is “tempted” three times, but each time it is about trust. If Jesus did not trust that he would have enough to eat, then by all means, he would have turned the stone to bread. If Jesus did not trust that he had what he needed, he would feel the need to take power for himself; and if Jesus thought that God really didn’t care, he would throw himself down to test that theory. It is all about trust.

That’s the message I hear. In our identity as people of faith, it is about trust. We are in a relationship with a trustworthy God who loves us unconditionally as we are, creates all of us equally human; and leaves us with an incredible natural creation to care for and love. And God entrusts us with relationships, which are supposed to be built on trust.

Temptation, then, is really planting the seeds of mistrust in relationships.

We are tempted to lie if we don’t trust that a person will accept our truth.

We are tempted to be passive-aggressive and not talk with someone face to face, because we do not trust them to listen.

We are tempted to hurt another if we think that person will hurt us.

We are tempted to steal if we don’t trust that we will have what we need.

We are tempted to hate if we don’t trust that differences are okay.

We are tempted to be apathetic and individualistic because we don’t trust that our actions make a difference.

It is about trust.

And so, let us form an identity of trust.

First, trust that God loves and doesn’t hate. God creates and doesn’t destroy. God is engaged in merciful action and not legalistic judging.

And then, trust yourself enough to love someone as she is. Trust yourself enough to accept differences and even embrace them. Trust enough to stand up for someone when no one else will. Trust enough to be honest, and generous, and forgiving, and passionate about helping.

Trust.

There is more light to break forth.

God IS still speaking through your actions of justice, love, and mercy.

The testament continues…in you. Amen.


[1] Two Minutes for God : Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007) by Peter B. Panagore

Fully Awake

Luke 9:28-43

PhillySo the other day I was walking down the street in University City in Philadelphia, on my way to a meeting. It was cold [of course] and so people were hurrying to class, work, or wherever they needed to go without hesitating one bit. Who could blame them? It was cold. I admit that I also hurried down the street just like everybody else—though I did have about 10-15 minutes to spare before my meeting started. Perhaps it was for that reason or because of some strange coincidence that my eyes made contact with someone else’s eyes. She was standing there, in the cold, not running to the next thing. She just stood there. As the people hurried by, she stood there. Our eyes met and before I knew it, my feet had stopped walking. And now I stood there. Whoosh. A group of students buzzed past. A delivery truck’s engine hummed as they loaded merchandise. Whoosh. A businesswoman walked in between me and the strange, standing still, eye-contact-making woman.

Can you buy me a sandwich, please? Sir? Can you buy me a sandwich?

That is all she said. My first reaction was related more to logistics than to any kind of ethical or moral decision:

Uh…Where?

Here.

She pointed to the door of a food court-type establishment full of UPenn and Drexel students and I followed her inside. It was much warmer, of course, and she asked me if it would be okay for her to buy a sandwich at a particular place, to which I nodded my head and said:

Sure.

Thank you, sir.

She ordered the sandwich, I paid [as the lady behind the counter looked at me with a strange expression] and then she shook my hand and said:

My name’s Tanya.

I’m Josh.

Thank you, Josh.

And then Tanya shook my hand for a second time [firmly], and then she was gone—sandwich and all. Out into the cold, out onto the street where the people whizzed by and the cars honked and where my meeting was now a couple of minutes away. I too walked back out into the cold and joined the hurried mess. I made my meeting; then I worked on the worship service for Sunday; I answered a bunch of emails; I made some phone calls; I continued on with my day; but I kept thinking about Tanya.

eyeNow I make no great claim of being a humanitarian. I just bought her a sandwich, after all. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t get Tanya a job, I didn’t fix the poverty and homelessness in Philadelphia and beyond; I did nothing extraordinary. I make no value judgment about what I did, because, honestly, at its core, all I did was make eye contact with someone. And the eye contact led to me buying a sandwich.

I will say, however, that we live in a world full of people. We come in contact with people every day—or, at least we should. We share sidewalks, streets, rooms, offices, schools, churches, air, ground, and the planet with other people. And I think the more we realize that every day we come into contact with another human being and have the chance to treat him/her as a human being—the more we are awake to opportunity and possibility. At our most honest moments, we recognize that the world is a difficult, sometimes-awful place. It can feel overwhelming; it can seem hopeless and therefore not worthwhile to help or to try to make a positive impact. But I wonder–if we considered that every day we come into contact with other people; if we made eye contact with them; if we treated them like human beings and not objects or clients or consumers or agendas or ethnicities or nationalities or orientations or categories—I wonder if we just might awaken to new purposes and perspectives.

butterflyTransfiguration. It means metamorphosis; a change; an enlightening; an awakening. Transfiguration is a word we use to describe this crazy story in the Gospels of the Bible. Today is even called Transfiguration Sunday. Why? Because Wednesday, February 13th is the start of the season of Lent, a 40 day period.  Most consider Lent to be the oldest Christian observance—starting out as a time for the early followers of Jesus to pray, fast, and undergo self-examination. Over time, traditions change of course, but the purpose remained the same. The reason Lent became a 40 day observance was to remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness for, you guessed it—prayer, fasting, and self-examination. And as I’ve mentioned before, the number 40 is incredibly symbolic. Moses was 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God; Elijah spent 40 days walking to Mt. Horeb; 40 days and nights Noah and company dealt with the flood; 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before making it to the holy land; and Jonah, premium whale food, gave the Ninevites 40 days to shape up and honor God.

So the transfiguration story is steeped in symbolism, and not a literal tale. There are three versions of the story—in Mark, Matthew, and here in Luke. In the version we read today, Jesus just finished teaching his followers about what it would mean to be disciples. What should they expect? After this, they went up to a mountain for prayer. Right away, the symbol of a mountain should tell us that the story has shifted from down-to-earth action to metaphorical, visionary stuff. Up on the mountain, in Biblical stories, people hear and see things differently. Perspectives change. So Peter, John, James, and Jesus go up the mountain. And Jesus prays. Prayer is something that Luke’s Gospel focuses on. And in this case, it is during the act of prayer that Jesus’ face [and his clothes] brighten up. This is visual—seen. Also seen are two beloved faith heroes of old—Moses and Elijah. These two speak to Jesus about his apparent departure, but really the word better translated is exodus.

Aha! So Luke is directly connecting the exodus story of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt to Jerusalem with Jesus’ ministry. Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. So Jesus would lead people from bondage to freedom. But Jesus and Moses had yet another thing in common. Moses, when he met up with God on the mountain and received commands from God—came down with a bright, radiant face. Luke doesn’t want us to miss this Jesus-Moses connection. Luke wants you and me as readers to see.

But it’s hard to see, don’t you think, if your eyes are closed? Peter and company were weighed down with sleep and we don’t know why. But really, doesn’t this scene look a lot like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? I mean, he was praying there, too, and the disciples were asleep then, too. But our storyteller Luke reminds us that up on the mountain, even with the sleepies still in their eyes, Peter and co. become fully awake. They see Jesus for who he is and Moses and Elijah. Even so, Peter is as clumsy as ever. He interrupts the transcendent, spiritual moment with:

Hey Jesus—it’s good to be here. Let’s make three tents. You can have one, and we’ll give one to Moses and Elijah, too!

Says the narrator: Peter didn’t even know what he said.

PeterSometimes I think Peter is singled out in the Gospels to represent our inability to listen or simply to call attention to our general lack of awareness.
Okay, but Peter is probably not this bad.

But even Peter’s words can’t hold back the vision of clouds and voice from up above, telling them to listen to Jesus. It is pretty clear that the whole story is meant for the disciples [and for you and I] to stop trying to figure everything out and to just listen. Just see.

The veil is lifted up and Peter, James, and John see things as they are—no facades or masks, no false pretense, no filter. This vision is raw. It’s terrifying. It’s the real world.

They come down from the mountain. Right away, the world finds them. A great crowd forms. A man shouts out:

Help my son! He’s sick—he has random seizures. It’s horrific! Your disciples, when I told them about him, couldn’t do anything. Help!

No more visions. No more floating clouds and god-like voices. No more tents for faith heroes. No more sleeping. Real life. Raw life. A sick kid. A desperate dad. A needy crowd.

And an unhappy Jesus, right? Jesus, fresh off the mountaintop experience, is ticked off! He almost cannot bear to be with humanity anymore. The world is so messed up, there is so much injustice and so many people sleepwalking through it all—he’s had it! A calm, passive Jesus petting a baby lamb? No way. He’s Jesus–the one God is actually pleased with, because he tells it like it is, sees things as they are. Yes, Jesus ends up healing the kid, but he does so almost reluctantly, because he knows that one healing won’t change the world. One healing won’t bring justice to all those oppressed by an imperialistic society. One healing is one healing. There is much more work to be done and the road ahead is difficult. And it may get ugly.

Wait—it WILL get ugly.

And we are supposed to see without a veil over our faces. We are supposed to make eye contact with the world as it is. And we are supposed to wake up—fully awaken, to be able to act. But it’s hard—isn’t it—to not lose hope or to get overwhelmed and then apathetic? It’s hard to balance the mystical, spiritual, heartwarming experiences we want to have with the raw, tangible, ugly, and difficult experiences of real life. But that’s the point. The mountain and the street corner are one and the same. The great visions co-exist with the unjust, sad, and sick lives of real people. The spiritual, God-experiences live in the same space with unanswered prayers. The voices in the clouds co-exist with the desperate cries in the street. We have no time to build tents or shrines to commemorate religious things. We have today. And if our eyes are open, we can see the spiritual co-existing with humanity.

We can see that God doesn’t stay far off in the clouds, but lives with us in our pain, our uncertainty, our fears, and our inadequacies. We can see that there is more to the world than just what our physical eyes spot or what our TVs tell us.

There is more to the world. There is more to people than the categories we give them. We are more than categories. We are loved, and gifted, and full of purpose. And so are the others around us. We just need to see. We just need to wake up. Every day is an opportunity to see someone and accept her for who she is—embracing her whole self, her full humanity. Every day is a chance to open your eyes to notice that you can do good in the world if you fully awaken.

40 days are just another 40 days if you want them to be. But Lent could be a mountaintop experience on the city street, if you are open to it. This is an opportunity to see. May our eyes be fully open and our hearts prepared to make eye contact; to listen; to embrace someone’s full humanity; to heal; to forgive; to share; to love. Amen.

 

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