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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prophet Overboard! - Jonah 1:1-17, 2:10-3:6, 3:10-4:2

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they made a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah sent out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord. Now Ninevah was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go in to the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Ninevah will be overthrown!” And the people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

A third grade class was doing a science unit on marine life. The teacher explained a whale’s diet, noting that it would be impossible for a whale to swallow a human because of its very small throat. Johnny put up his hand and said, “But Jonah was swallowed whole by the whale!” The teacher was slightly irritated and said, “A whale simply cannot swallow a human whole.” Not deterred, Johnny said, “I’ll simply ask Jonah when I get to heaven.” The teacher said, “What if Jonah didn’t go to heaven?” Johnny replied, “Then you can ask him.”

Peter Gomes, who serves as the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, refers to the Bible as “a book of the imagination.” The Jonah story is one example of a story that requires some imagination when we read it. This story has some great truths, and it reveals a lot to us about God and about ourselves, if we will only read it with a little imagination. May we pray.

Jonah is a great story. It is only four chapters long, and each chapter serves as a little mini-story within the larger story. It’s an excellent piece of literature, and our selected readings for today only hit the highlights. When you go home this evening, I want you to sit down and read the entire book of Jonah – you can read it in about 15 minutes. Read it with a sense of humor, and read it as satire. Satire not only entertains, but it teaches.

We wonder about the inclusion of this story in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s different from the other books. The other books focus on God’s concern for Israel – this one focuses on God’s concern for a group of Gentiles. Not exactly what you’d expect in the Scriptures for God’s chosen people.

Jonah is sitting at home in the very first words of the book, and God says, “Hey Jonah. I’ve got a job for you. I want you to go east to Ninevah, and cry out against all the wickedness there.” Now, Ninevah is the capital city of Assyria, a long-standing enemy of Israel.

Jonah goes all right. He goes down to the seaport, to a town called Joppa, and pays his way onto a ship headed for Tarshish. Tarshish is a town on the west coast of what is now Spain. It represented the end of the known world, and was the exact opposite direction from where God wanted Jonah to go. The text tells us that Jonah was trying to get away from God’s presence, and, I suppose the end of the world would have been the most likely place to hide.

Certainly, Jonah is not the first nor the last person to run away from a call from God. Show me a pastor working in full-time ministry, and I’ll show you someone who initially resisted that call. I sensed my call into ministry years before I accepted it. I somehow thought that if I ran fast and far enough in the opposite direction, I could get away from God’s call, that I could somehow get out ahead of it. If I buried myself with school, with work, with other pursuits, perhaps the call of God would simply pass me by.

Jonah tried to bury himself as well. In fact, burial is a good word for what Jonah intended to do. When he intended to board the ship, the text tells us he went down to Joppa. This is symbolic language that implies a descent, a burial. On board, he went down into the hold of the ship to sleep. When the storm was at its worst, he was thrown into the sea, and descended below its waters. Finally, he went down into the belly of the fish. Four times Jonah has buried himself or been buried, each time an attempt to hide from the presence of God.

But, it doesn’t work. Even in the belly of the fish, even in the deepest, darkest, place Jonah can bury himself, God is still there.

The fish spews Jonah up on the shore, and this time, he sets out for his destination. A side note, here. Did you know that the fish is an example of oceanfront real estate development? It’s true. The fish took what should have been a loss and turned it into some prophet on the shore.

Jonah arrives in Ninevah, bleached white from three days swimming in gastric juices, with a few pieces of seaweed still clinging to his ear. Tucked under his arm is his favorite sermon on hellfire and brimstone. He may not have been happy about being there in the first place, but I think he was proud of the sermon. “Hey Ninevah!” In 40 days, you’re going to be blasted to bits!!!” If you have to go and deliver a message to your worst enemy, you have to be glad when it’s one of gloom and doom and imminent judgment.

Jonah finishes giving his sermon, hikes up a nearby hill, pops the top off a PBR, begins the doomsday countdown, and gets himself a front row seat for all the destructive action. You can just hear him counting down the days: “40 more days, and Ninevah gets it! 39 more days! 38, 37, 36 . . .” By the time the count has finally worn down, Jonah is jumping up and down, excitedly counting down the last few seconds. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – BOOM!” Only, no boom. He began the countdown again, thinking his timing might be off. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – BOOM!” Still no boom.

The phone rang. “Jonah – good news.” It was the Lord. “Great job on the sermon. They believed you. The whole city repented, so I’m not going to destroy them after all. Thanks, Jonah.”

Jonah gets furious at this. “Lord, that’s why I didn’t want to come here in the first place! That’s why I ran away from you in the first place! When I preach doom and destruction, I expect doom and destruction! But here you are, so merciful, so kind, so forgiving, so loving. It just makes me sick.”

I hope you catch the humor in this. This story is funny. This story is so funny that as I continued to read it in preparation this week, I found myself chuckling. This story is a satire on every exclusive, narrow-minded expression of religion. This is theology presented to us as high comedy.

But the story should not only amuse us; it should disturb us a bit as well. Jonah presents us with a picture of God that is so loving, so patient, so obnoxiously gracious that we are forced to extend our human boundaries of God’s infinite grace.

Jonah is angry because God just loves too many people. According to Jonah, God is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing." Like Jonah, that's how we expect God to be toward us. It sure is irritating when God acts that way toward others.

A story is told about an incident on an international flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to London. A well-dressed woman made her way down the aisle, past the business travelers, toward her assigned seat. She arrived, and a man who was clearly from some more remote part of the continent was her seatmate. “Is this your assigned seat?” she asked. “Yes.” She looked around for empty seats nearby, but the flight appeared to be full. She grabbed a flight attendant who was passing by. “Excuse me, I seem to be seated next to someone whose skin color is different from my own. Another arrangement must be made.” The flight attendant responded, “Ma’am, it is not our policy to move passengers unnecessarily.” “Well,” said the woman quietly. “I have enough cash in my purse to provide for an alternative. Please go up to first class and see if something is available up there.” A few minutes later, the flight attendant came back. He leaned across the woman and tapped the male passenger on the arm. “I’m sorry sir, but we need to make a seating change. If you follow me, we have a place for you up in first class.”

The love of God makes it possible to give everyone first-class treatment. Even people we don’t like. Even people we think should be the last recipients of God’s grace. What troubles us is that we sometimes end up in our same old seats.

This can be very upsetting to us, and it was very upsetting to Jonah. He had delivered a message of judgment, and he expected God to fulfill it. The people in Ninevah were wicked, and they were going to get just exactly what they had deserved. They had made their beds, now they could lie in them. They were Israel’s enemies for crying out loud!!! Just when Jonah stands to call down the all-consuming fire of judgment, God has the nerve to forgive, to have mercy, and to abound in steadfast love.

The text will go on to tell us that while Jonah is sulking in the desert, God caused a plant to come up and shelter his head from the 120-degree heat. Then God sends a worm to attack the plant, and it withers and dies. Jonah goes into a fit yet again. “Here I am sitting out here in this stupid heat, and you kill the plant that was giving me some relief from the heat!” God simply says, “Jonah, what’s the matter with you? How can you be angry with me for allowing a little plant to die, yet disappointed because I allowed 120,000 people to live?”

Forgiveness becomes a bitter pill for Jonah to swallow. The result of withholding forgiveness is bitterness, and it eats away at Jonah in just the same way the worm ate away at his beloved plant in the desert. It seems absurd to hang onto such anger, yet we’ve all done it. In righteous indignation we withdraw to a safe distance, where we can sulk and contentedly wait and watch for our enemies to get what they deserve. Forgiveness only complicates the issue. When you can stay angry at a person, at least you know where he or she stands at a safe distance somewhere below you. Forgiveness is messy, sorta what you might imagine after being cooped up in a fish’s stomach for three days. But a life lived in community with others is messy, and it requires us to forgive.

To be sure, when we hold onto bitterness and anger, there is punishment. Only it is the one who sits alone brooding in anger and bitterness who is punished, and it’s always self-inflicted. We can withhold love and forgiveness, we can wallow in bitterness and anger, we can carry our grudges everywhere, but in the end, that ends up doing the most damage to ourselves.

Jonah is so busy sulking out in the desert, so busy grinding his teeth, so busy wallowing in his anger, he forgets one very small detail. God never asked him to go hang out in the desert and see what the result of the message was. God only asked him to deliver the message. Here Jonah is, making a huge sacrifice, going through great discomfort, exerting a ton of effort, and angry because God doesn’t stop and recognize Jonah for doing something God had no desire for Jonah to do in the first place.

There’s a lesson in that for us. Rather than making ourselves busy with all sorts of things that God may not even desire for us to do, let’s each stop and re-consider just what exactly God would like for us to do. We may find that we’re off sulking in the desert, expecting God to reward us, when, in fact, God never asked us to go and wallow in our own anger. God may be busy loving the very people we delivered a message of judgment too, and God may need us to start loving them too. God may wonder why we’re spending our time on things that have nothing to do with proclaiming the kingdom of God or seeking those who are lost to be part of our community. God may remind us to simply get back to basics, to do what we’re supposed to do in the first place and not make ourselves busy with a lot of other “stuff.” God may simply tell us to operate according to God’s priorities, and not any one person’s forceful or misguided agenda.

By the end of the story, Jonah is confronted with the reality that he is not, in fact, the center of the universe. God’s ways are different than his. God’s choices are different than his. God’s priorities are different than his. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, not only to me, not only to people like me or to people I like. God has the audacity to love everyone, including the people I love the least.

Jesus got in trouble when he carried out this principle. He made no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, healthy and sick, insider and outsider. Jesus radically shared God’s love with everybody and anybody, and this made the religious establishment nervous. Jesus set forth a vision of the kingdom of God that was entirely too broad for the religious insiders of his day. In the name of God, Jesus gave himself to the world.

The Church has struggled with this message. In the 10th chapter of the book of Acts, Simon Peter didn’t want to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. He didn’t want anyone outside his little circle getting in. But, too late. They were already knocking on the door. In fact, so many outsiders became part of the Church that by the 15th chapter, all the preachers had to come to a specially-called session of the annual conference to squabble over how many were going to be let into God’s Church. It would seem that God just keeps inviting everybody.

The problem is that we human messengers are sometimes reluctant. The Church doesn’t tell a lot of new stories, just the same old story of a God who loves everybody, who is merciful to everybody, and who is kind to everybody. Despite our reluctance, we continue to proclaim that the love of God is for all people and that the Creator of heaven and earth wants to stand face-to-face with every one of his beloved children.

God is willing to love everybody, including Jonah, including Ninevah, including you and me, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it, thanks be to God!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What happened to the sermon from August 23?

Many of you have probably noticed that there is no sermon posted from August 23. That's because I didn't preach on August 23! Instead, musical guests "AG and Kate" led our morning worship gathering, and I got to sit in the congregation for a change.

Thanks for understanding that I, too, take a little time off every now and then.

If you'd like more information on AG and Kate, you can visit their website

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Noah's Ark - Genesis 6:9-24, 7:24, 8:14-19

These are the descendents of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, I have determined to make an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits (450 feet), its width fifty cubits (75 feet), and its height 30 cubits (45 feet). Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – so that they may about on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

This morning we find ourselves in the middle of some of our favorite stories out of the Old Testament. Today, I invite you to join me in looking at Noah’s Ark. We are prone to think of Noah’s Ark as a children’s story, and I’ll admit that most of my memories of stories like Noah’s Ark are from when I was back in Vacation Bible School happily coloring rainbows and smiling animals and the nice man with the long white beard.

I’d like you imagine this story taking place today. The Lord speaks to Noah and says: "In one year, I am going to make it rain and cover the whole Earth with water until all is destroyed. But I want you to save the righteous people and two of every kind of living thing on the Earth. Therefore, I am commanding you to build an Ark."

In a flash of lightning, God delivered the specifications for an Ark, and Noah agreed to build it.
"Remember," said the Lord, "You must complete the Ark and bring everything aboard in one year."

Exactly one year later, a fierce storm cloud formed and all the seas of the earth went into a tumult. The Lord saw Noah sitting in his front yard weeping. "Noah." He shouted, "Where is the Ark?"

"Lord, please forgive me!" cried Noah. "I did my best but there were big problems. First, I had to get a permit for construction and your plans weren’t up to code. I had to hire an engineering firm and redraw the plans.

Then I got into a fight with OSHA over a fire sprinkler system and floatation devices.

Then my neighbor objected, claiming I was violating zoning ordinances by building the Ark in my front yard, so I had to get a variance from the city planning commission.

I had problems getting enough wood, because there was a ban on cutting trees to protect the Spotted Owl. I finally convinced the U.S. Forest Service that I needed the wood to save the owls.

However, the Fish and Wildlife Service won't let me catch any owls. So, no owls.

The carpenters formed a union and went out on strike. I had to negotiate a settlement with the National Labor Union. Now I have 16 carpenters on the Ark, but still no owls.

When I started rounding up the other animals, I got sued by an animal rights group for confining the animals.

Just when I got the suit dismissed, the EPA notified me that I could not complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on your proposed flood. They didn't take very kindly to the idea that they had no jurisdiction over the conduct of the Creator of the universe.

Then the Army Corps of Engineer demanded a map of the proposed new flood plain. I sent them a globe.

Right now, I am trying to resolve a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that I am practicing discrimination by not taking godless, unbelieving people aboard!

The IRS has seized all my assets, claiming that I'm about to flee the country to avoid paying taxes.

I got a notice from the State that I owe some user tax and failed to register the Ark as a 'recreational water craft.'

Finally the ACLU got the courts to issue an injunction against further construction of the Ark, saying that since God is flooding the earth, it is a religious event and therefore unconstitutional.

I really don't think I can finish the Ark for another 5 or 6 years!" Noah wailed.

The sky began to clear, the sun began to shine and the seas began to calm. A rainbow arched across the sky.

Noah looked up hopefully. "You mean you are not going to destroy the Earth, Lord?"

"No," said the Lord sadly. "It looks like humanity is doing that all on its own!" May we pray.

Like the charming tales in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, the stories in Genesis 3-11 originally tried to answer age-old questions such as: “Why is childbirth painful?” or “Why do people speak different languages?” In Genesis, however, these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin.

These stories are not intended to serve as either a historical record or scientific account of the beginnings of humanity. Rather, they are intended to tell us something about God and about who we are in relation to God. Over and over again, we find the story punctuated by sin, that is, by our distance and separation from God.

Right at the middle of this section of the book of origins, the book of beginnings – Genesis – we find the story of the great flood and a man who went by the name of Noah.

Let’s look at some of the background before we proceed any further. The legend of an epic flood is common to all ancient cultures. Anthropologists have identified 25 distinct flood accounts in the traditions of various cultures, and if we allow for all the variations upon those accounts, we end up with around 2500 identifiable flood stories from ancient cultures.

Take a look at the ark itself. God gives very specific instructions for its construction, including where to put the door and window. I’ll get to this window in a minute. If we convert the measurements for the ark into modern figures, it’s about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. If you take the square footage produced by those dimensions, and place those onto three decks, you end up with a vessel with 101,250 square feet. The ark is of colossal proportions – is it any wonder that it captured our imaginations as children?

For many people of faith, we grow up hearing the Noah story in Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School and we sing songs about it. “The Lord told Noah, build me an arky, arky…” We learn the story as if it is just a cute little story about a boat and animals and a rainbow in the sky. We decorate nurseries and children’s classrooms with Noah’s Ark murals and put it on the front of children’s bibles. Smiling and happy Noah, surrounded by smiling and happy animals, merrily floating along under a bright and colorful rainbow. Whenever I drew this story in Sunday School, that’s how it always looked.

Then we get older and we re-read the story of Noah, and we’ll stop and think, “Wait! We teach this to children?” We are surprised by the utter destruction depicted, by God’s anger and wrath and God’s desire to destroy all life on the earth, images that clash with our childhood memories of sheep and cows getting on a nice boat built by the nice, long-bearded man.

Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative. Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it. In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place. Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.

We are fascinated by this depiction of God’s judgment. We sometimes act as if God is peeking at us over a cloud with a sack full of lightning bolts, just waiting for us to really screw up. How many times have you heard someone say something or watched them do something that you knew was wrong, and find yourself slowly sliding away from them? You half expect them to get zapped, and give them just a little bit of room in case God’s aim is slightly off or he failed to account for the wind or has developed a slice or something.

But, this story really isn’t about God’s judgment. Some have used this text to prop up their own agendas and to dole out their own versions of justice, oppressing anyone they perceive to be inferior. Christians have used this argument to validate anti-semitism, saying the Jews somehow missed the boat. Others have used it to validate racism using some half-baked cockamamie theory about one of Noah’s sons being darker than the others and also inferior. Modern-day Israel has used this argument to oppress Palestinians. Some strains of the Christian tradition have used this argument to delight in anything they perceive as God’s judgment upon the ungodly, infidels, and persons of moral inferiority. Others have used it to justify so-called “righteous violence,” the violence of genocide, oppression, and final solutions, perceiving themselves to be the righteous one? Have you ever noticed that, no matter how narrow God’s favored people are defined, the person doing the defining is always on the list? These actions, even if this story were about God’s judgment – which it’s not – somehow forget the detail of the story that God does the dirty work, not Noah.

However, nowhere on the sacred page of Scripture are the details of the disaster described. The text is not concerned with, nor does it delight in, the plight of the victims. There are no portholes on the ark, so that righteous Noah and his righteous family can watch all humanity suffer. There is only a window in the top, an opening toward God, that will let God’s light in. God is not depicted as having a good laugh while throwing down lightning bolts to smite the random evil-doers. Genesis 6:6 says that when God saw the wickedness of the earth, “it grieved him to his heart.” The reality of evil and God dealing with it is something that breaks God’s very heart. God appears as a grieving and pained parent, not as an angry executioner, not as a sadistic torturer, not as one who delights in pain. So, this story really isn’t about God’s judgment.

This story really isn’t about Noah and his family, either. Sometimes we read this story as if Noah were the winner of some TV elimination show like Survivor or Middle Eastern Idol or Who Wants to be Righteous Man? As if Noah stood up to some long battery of tests administered by the righteousness agency or won the supernatural lottery.

It’s hard to say why God chose Noah. We know he was a righteous man, a man of integrity in his generation; and we know he walked with God. But the text doesn’t claim that he was the only one who did. It never says that Noah was the last righteous man on earth, or that good behavior is the reason God chose him in the first place. It’s not because Noah was perfect. Only a few verses after Noah’s family comes out of the ark, that much is already clear – take a look at Genesis chapter 9 for this part of the story. After being cooped up on the ark for over a year and probably coming very close to losing his sanity – not to mention his breakfast – Noah, a man of the soil, planted a vineyard. Of course he drank some of the wine from that vineyard. Of course he drank a little too much – there was much to celebrate. And we find Noah, the character most likely to be featured on nursery wallpaper, passed out naked in the living room. No, he certainly wasn’t perfect.

What the text does tell us is that Noah walked with God. Let’s dwell there for a minute.

It may not surprise you to learn that this phrase, “walked with God,” means something much deeper and richer in the original language than our translations can capture. Walking with God suggests an intimacy, an interdependence, even. Early Christian theologians used similar terms when they tried to articulate the bond among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The terms they used suggested a dance.

Our translations might serve us better if they said, “Noah danced with God,” which is undeniable and empirical evidence that Noah was, at least statistically, more likely to be a Methodist than a Baptist.

In a dance, there is movement. There is give and take between partners. There is flow. There is intertwining to the point that it sometimes becomes difficult to view one partner apart from the other. Have you ever watched the beauty of two people dancing together who really know what they’re doing? Have you noticed how painfully awkward it is to watch two people dance of whom neither one has a clue what they’re doing?

But far more interesting, have you ever watched two people dance, one with great skill, and the other with great none whatsoever? When the weaker partner leads, it’s clumsy and awkward. But when the stronger partner leads, they can do so in such a way that the movement is beautiful and seamless, and you would never notice the shortcomings of the weaker dancer?

In our dance with God, God is clearly the strong partner and we are clearly the weak partner. We can try to lead God – dictating the sorts of things God should be up to and the sorts of things God ought to prioritize, whom to smite and whom to save – but I think our dance would look awkward at best and disastrous at worst. God is the leading partner. We need to surrender our own wills, stop trying to force God into our own little box, and be conformed to God’s will. We need to stop asking God to move with us, and be open to moving with God.

Noah moved with God. Life flowed between them. Noah dwelt in the full radiance of God’s presence.

It’s sort of like asking an unborn child if it has a relationship with its mother. Assuming the child is available for interview, understands English, and can respond back, the child might say, “Well, I guess you could say that I have a relationship with my mother. But, well, it’s so much deeper than that. I am dependent on her. I go everywhere with her. Whenever she moves, I move. My heartbeat happens because of her. Yes, we have a relationship, but I live inside of her. Do you get that?”

That’s what Noah had with God. It went beyond a relationship. It went beyond walking together. It was a situation in which Noah relied upon God for his very life. In turn, God chose to use Noah, knowing full well that Noah was not perfect, knowing that Noah was fragile, knowing that Noah was just as likely to fail as succeed.

And by that, we have stumbled onto the meaning of this story. The story isn’t about God’s wrath and judgment. It’s not about the animals. It’s not about Noah and his family. The story of Noah’s ark is about God and God’s commitment to the world. It’s a story about God who commits to the future of a less than perfect world.

God realizes that we humans are resistant to God’s will for creation, yet God continues to live with and work through such resistant creatures. God continues to work through a father who has too much to drink and passes out naked in the living room. God continues to work through a son who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and sees something he shouldn’t. God continues to work through two other sons who cover up the elephant in the room and never want to address it again.

God will continue to grieve the wrongdoing of his children, but through grace, will open up new avenues of interaction between the human and the divine. God proves trustworthy in this dance with humanity, and though we often forget the steps, or miss the rhythm, or fall on our faces, or leave the dance floor, God continues to invite us back. God remains committed to us, despite our sometimes glaring lack of commitment to God.

And so, despite all the things we’d like to make this story of Noah and the ark about, it’s about God – God’s commitment and God’s promises. It’s about God who provides salvation in the midst of chaos and who willingly enters into the uncertainty of a less-than-perfect world. It’s about God who does not abandon what God created and blessed and called “good” in the first place.

God is committed to the future of a less-than-perfect world with less-than-perfect people, in less-than-perfect circumstances, and leaves a sign to remind us of his covenant. God hangs the rainbow in the sky as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises, even when we fail to keep ours, a reminder that God is committed to us even when we are not committed to God, a reminder that God continues to invite us to dance, a reminder that all people everywhere – people of every color, line, and hue – are created in the image of God and therefore valued, and we’re all invited to the dance.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Good Intentions - Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not;’ but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

When John Wesley sent the early Methodist preachers out, he asked three questions upon their return: “Did you make anyone glad? Did you make anyone sad? Did you make anyone mad?” If the answer to all three questions was “no,” he concluded that their preaching on that particular occasion had been ineffective.

There are times when the Gospel message comes to us as news that makes us glad – glad for the good news of God’s love in Christ for us. There are times when it makes us sad – sad over our sin and failure to live for God. And there are times when it makes us mad – mad because we realize we’re the ones being talked about and being asked to change. Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find ourselves responding in all these ways.

In our text today, Jesus has some very direct things to say to the religious leaders of his day. As someone who has become a religious leader of our day, I pay much closer attention to these particular stories than I used to. I realized, that as a leader in the religious establishment, as a church insider, as part of the good and upstanding church crowd, this thing was aimed right at me! “But God, I have good intentions!” I protest. This is one of those texts that just seems to say, “That’s all well and good, but you know where the road paved with good intentions leads!”

May we pray.
Gracious God, your people have gathered to worship, and also to hear from you. Now Lord, I ask that you would speak to me; speak through me; if necessary in spite of me, and always beyond me that the truth of your Word might not be hid. Amen.

Today’s text is a conversation taking place between Jesus and the religious leaders. It is his last week in Jerusalem before the crucifixion – the joy of his triumphal entry is behind him, and the cross looms ever larger in front of him. He seems to be ticking off the religious establishment left and right, and I’m sure this conversation helped bring the conflict to a head. This is a rare instance in which Jesus confronts the religious folks on their own turf. They engage him in a style of discourse commonly used by rabbis. They ask questions, Jesus responds with stories and additional questions, and he comes off sounding like a real smart aleck.

Jesus and the religious leaders were all in the hallway getting their coffee before Sunday School. He tells them this story: A man had two sons. To both sons he said, “Go work in the vineyard.” The first son said, “No,” but then later, for whatever reason, went and worked. The second son said, “Sure Dad, I’ll go do it,” but stayed inside chatting on facebook for the rest of the day. One son said the wrong thing, but followed through with the right action. The other son said the right thing, but failed to follow through.

Have you ever had an experience with someone who said they were there to help, but in reality, provided no help whatsoever? About a year ago, I was doing a wedding in another church for a wonderful couple from out-of-town. Their wedding director was a relative of the mother-of-the-bride. My usual arrangement with wedding directors is, “You run everything at the back of the church, and I’ll run everything at the front.” If you have your wedding here, you’re blessed to have Sara Kidd as your wedding director. I haven’t done a wedding with Sara yet, but just in our general worship planning, I love working with Sara. She makes my job easy. Things run smoothly. She and Polly Haney and the rest of the worship team are such a help in pulling off the logistics of worship. However, sometimes people say they’re going to help, and then make things more difficult.

I have wedding rehearsals down to a science. The whole thing, including seating mothers and grandmothers, the processional, the service, and the recessional, can be rehearsed twice in 45 minutes. With this particular wedding director, at 45 minutes, we were just finishing the first run-through of seating the mothers and the processional after several starts and re-starts. I freely admit that patience continues to be a growth area for me. It was a hot evening. The church wasn’t air-conditioned. We were all getting hungry knowing that the rehearsal dinner was prepared and waiting for us. The wedding party and members of the family were getting a little edgy and frustrated, and you could slice the tension in the room. After 45 minutes, everyone was finally assembled where they were supposed to be, and I had just opened my book and was about to begin our first run-through of the service. The wedding director interrupted. To me she said, “When everyone is coming in, I think you should be standing over here.” Her suggestion made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Perhaps I was frustrated. Perhaps I was concerned for the waste of everyone else’s time. Perhaps my patience had run out. Perhaps I just wasn’t interested in being told how to conduct the wedding, but in response to her suggestion I heard myself say, “No.” She began to argue. I said, “Ma’am, you’re going to need to have a seat now.”

Her intentions were good. She sincerely thought she was helping.

Back in our text today, Jesus asks the religious leaders, “Which son did the will of their father? The son who gave the wrong answer but did the right thing, or the son who gave the right answer but did the wrong thing?”

They decided it was the son who did the right thing, even though he gave the wrong answer. They know Jesus has told this story against them, though they can’t really prove it. As religious leaders, they were known for giving the right answers, but not necessarily for doing the right thing. But they know the old clich├ęs as well as any of us: actions speak louder than words, talk is cheap, empty words are synonymous with broken promises, I would rather see a sermon than hear one.

So as a religious insider, I am warned against honoring the Lord with my lips while my heart and actions are far from what God expects. The truth of my commitment lives in my heart, and what I do is the best measure of what’s in my heart. Or, as it’s put by the great poet of our age, Toby Keith, “a little less talk, a lot more action.”

The son who gives the wrong answer but does the right action is elevated as the hero in many interpretations of this text, and there are even some who refer to it as the parable as the faithful and unfaithful son.

However, the response of both sons is lacking. Each response lacks integrity because word is disconnected from action. The son who said “no,” even though he eventually did what the father asked, was no prize, either. In many cultures—including the one in which this story is set—open, public defiance of one’s father was a worse offense than not doing what one’s father asked. What sort of father would raise his son in such a manner that the son thought it was okay to speak to him that way? The father is left with one son who says “no” with his words and “yes” with his actions, and another who says “yes” with his words and “no” with his actions. There is something about both sons that needs to be transformed.

When we are asked to choose, we are asked to choose between two sons who both insulted their father. I can identify with either son in this parable, which is the troubling part, because both sons are still so far away from the will of their father. If we say the will of God is primarily about saying and knowing and believing the right things – about saying the right creed, and attending the right Bible study, and thinking a certain way, and constructing our worship services appropriately, we can forget that a lack of action will make our words sound incredibly hollow. If, on the other hand, we say the will of God is primarily about behavior – about doing the right things, and acting the right way, and getting our hands dirty working in the vineyard, we easily lapse into a works righteousness in which we are trying to earn our way into the kingdom of God. It’s not as simple as a change in our words and beliefs, nor is it as simple as a change in our actions and deeds.

What Jesus calls for is a change of heart.

Jesus calls for a change of heart that is only possible by God’s grace. To rely solely on our own words or on our own deeds is to rely solely upon ourselves. Herein lies the danger of good intentions: they allow us to rest too easily upon ourselves and in the promises we ourselves make. We can become very comfortable with the contributions we’re making or the things we believe, or the contributions we intend to make or the things we intend to believe. Those who believe certain things will take false pride in those beliefs and chide anyone who doesn’t believe the same way, and those who act in certain ways look down their noses at others who don’t act just like they do.

Have you met these people? People who are so convinced that they’re right that everyone else has to be wrong? Who will go down a long list of things that they believe and do, and if you don’t believe just like they do, then you are completely wrong? If your experiences are different, if your values are different, if your worldview is different, then you must be in the wrong? Rather than recognizing the complexity of how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, they spend all their time arguing the correctness of their position in such a way that highlights what they perceive to be the incorrectness of yours. Or, worse yet, have you ever been one such person?

A friend of mine who is a United Methodist pastor has a fondness for Hardee’s sausage biscuits. I know, a pastor with a fondness for fatty, greasy food – who would have thought? One day, he was at the Hardee’s near his church wearing a polo shirt with his church’s name and logo on it. Some guy, apparently trying to pick a fight with him, looked at his shirt and said, “United Methodist Church, huh? What Bible y’all use over there?” My friend responded, “We use the one that has both the Old and New Testaments.” Not deterred, his antagonist pressed on. “Nah, man – you boys believe in the King James Bible over there?” Without missing a beat, my friend responded, “Believe in it? Shoot, I’ve even seen one.”

The man was like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, who thought that the absolute pristine correctness of their beliefs trumped everything else. They felt justified in looking down their noses and anyone who did not think and act the same way, that if people believed anything outside of their determined little realm, then they were wrong. However, is it possible to be firm in our convictions and still recognize the validity of other people’s beliefs and experiences, even when they don’t exactly line up with ours?

Even the Puritans in early New England recognized this complexity. Keep in mind that Puritans were not exactly the most open-minded people; after all, these were the same people who would burn you at the stake for witchcraft if you forgot the words to the Lord’s Prayer. But an old Puritan proverb said “God does not break all hearts in the same way.” In other words, God moves and works in different hearts in radically different ways. It is nothing more than spiritual snobbery to assume that we have the corner on the market and that we’re somehow superior because of some knowledge or experience or action of our own.

To this, Jesus says even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of people who act and think this way. Even the most despised and reviled sinners of Jesus’ day would enter the kingdom of God ahead of anyone in the religious establishment who was placing their security in their own beliefs or actions or accomplishments. I would love to point the finger at someone else in this interpretation, and say, Jesus must be talking about them in this passage. I want to walk up to Jesus, shake his hand on the way out of church, wink, and whisper, “I’m sure SOMEBODY needed their toes stepped on, and you sure gave it to ‘em!” And what I would mean by that is somebody else – insert your favorite sin or marginalized people group here – needed to hear that. Certainly not me and my Godly friends.

But I’m exactly the one this is aimed at. Here’s why. People in the religious establishment, like me, too easily become comfortable in our own accomplishments and good intentions. Comfortable and complacent, we too easily become very satisfied with the position we’ve settled into and focus on being nice people instead of on the power of the Gospel. We too easily substitute politeness for transformation, and forget that we are still in need of God’s grace. We too easily forget that the resurrection is still the defining force in our lives, and that things in our lives still need to die in order for the things of God to be brought to new life. We too easily think we’re just fine and dandy, thank you very much.

People on the outside, however, those whose personal lives are in shambles, who are on the fringes, who are marginalized, know they need something. They know something’s not working. Those who are outside the pale of the acceptable circles of the religious elite may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for radical grace. It’s much easier to seek grace when you stand in desperate need of it. It’s much easier to seek radical transformation in your life when you realize how deeply you need it. The church is here to proclaim God’s grace. We need to remember that grace is still needed by those inside. And it is always available to those outside.

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson was right. Perhaps the church really does need a revolution in every generation. Those of us in the religious establishment would do well to trade in our public images and good intentions for a fresh dose of the transformative grace of God. We are still sinners whose lives have been touched and transformed by God’s grace, and it is imperative that we invite others to experience what we have. That’s what evangelism is – when we invite others to join us on the journey and experience what we have. Evangelism is not some expert giving all the right answers to those who are without them. Evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.

Every now and then, it’s good for the saints to be reminded that we’re also sinners. Every time I’ve gotten just a little too comfortable with the correctness of my words, or the correctness of my deeds, it’s good to be reminded that my heart is always in need of transformation. Every time I’ve started to think it’s about me – about my words, and my deeds, and my efforts, and my intentions, I’m reminded that it’s about God – about what God is doing and how I need to make myself available to the ways God is working and moving through me. If it were all about me, I think the hope for the world would be slim indeed.

Thank God it’s not all about me, or all about any of us, for that matter. It’s not about our deeds, our beliefs, our doctrine, or our words being right. It’s about our hearts being right. It’s about our hearts being broken and transformed into the likeness of the heart of God, a transformation that only comes about through the grace of Jesus Christ. That transformation is not something that happens only once. It happens day by day, each and every morning when we wake up and continue to a say a resounding “yes” to the transformation God works in each of us.

A man had two sons. One thought his words would save him; the other thought his deeds would save him. In the end, it was the love and grace of their father that saved them, love and grace that can transform every human heart, including ones like ours.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, may we pray.

Lord God, you call us not to correct words or action alone. You call us to have transformed hearts. We know we can’t do it on our own. We’ve tried to do it on our own accomplishments, on our own knowledge, on our own good intentions. Transform us, God. We know that such transformation comes about only through a relationship with your son, Jesus. We want to be his followers. We invite him into our lives, to transform our hearts into the likeness of your heart. For those who need to invite him into their lives for the first time, we pray. Right now, fill them with your presence and begin the great work of transformation within them. For those of us who have said “yes” with our lips only, for those of us who have said “yes” with our actions only, we know it’s not enough. May we recognize that we are in need of continual transformation, and that each of us always stands in need of your love and grace. Keep us open, Lord. Keep us open, and continue to pour out your grace on us and fill us with your Holy Spirit. We make a new commitment to you right now. We will live as your resurrection people in the world, full of your grace, full of your love, ready to serve you fully with our words and deeds, because you have transformed our hearts.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Peaks and Valleys - Mark 9:2-9

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

A few years ago, a reporter for Christian Century was doing a story on some of the great churches around the country. While walking through the foyer of a church in Atlanta, he came across a golden phone on the wall. Above the phone was this sign: “Direct line to God - $10,000 per call.” As he visited other churches, he saw the same thing, always the same sort of phone, with the same sort of sign. He saw it in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, and Chicago. Finally, the reporter ended up in Boone, North Carolina. He saw the same sort of phone, but the price per call was listed as 35 cents. Puzzled, he asked the Associate Pastor of the church why the call was so cheap. The young pastor explained that in Boone, that’s a local call.

Mountaintops have a long history of being special places of meeting with God. Throughout the Old Testament, God appears in particular ways on mountains by names like Sinai, Carmel, Horeb, Tabor, and Nebo. Jerusalem, the holy city, was itself built on a mountain.

Our text for this morning is another one of these mountaintop passages. This is a story that literally takes us into the nearer presence of God, and that’s exactly where I hope we will all be drawn this morning. May we pray.

Let’s take a closer look at this account, and I think you’ll agree with me that it’s just a little bit strange. Jesus and his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – take a trek up the mountain. More than likely, it was Mount Herman – the summit of which rises to about 9400 feet above sea level – a formidable height in any part of the world. When they get to the top of the mountain, Jesus begins to glow. This glowing is technically called The Transfiguration. We might also use words like Transformation, or, as the Greek does, metamorphosis. Literally, Jesus’ form was changed.

Along with Jesus appear two heroes from Israel’s history – Moses on one side and Elijah on the other. A side note here – I sometimes wonder how Peter, James and John recognized Moses and Elijah. Were there pictures of these great figures in every synagogue in Galilee? Or, perhaps they had their names printed across their shoulders like football players.

Peter, perhaps confused or bewildered, offers to build three shelters up on top of the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Elijah, and one for Moses. I want you to remember this odd little piece of the story, as it will have important significance a little bit later. Before Peter gets an answer, the voice of the Father booms in. Jesus calms them, everyone disappears, and on their way back down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone what they’ve just seen.

The oddness of this story
Are you finding anything strange about the story yet? First, let’s talk about this glowing thing that Jesus was doing. At first, we think we’ve never seen anything like it, but in reality, we’ve seen it lots of times. Think of the face of a bride on her wedding day. With the weddings I do, I am standing at the front of the church, right at the head of the center aisle, and get to be one of the first people to see the bride’s face when those doors are opened at the back of the sanctuary. On her wedding day, a bride glows.

Or, I think of the day in 1986 when my younger brother was born. We all went to the hospital that evening, and my grandmother got to hold him. She sat in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, and the corner of the room literally glowed.

Or, when I was serving communion at the church where I served during seminary, and my parents were down for a visit. This was the first time I would serve communion to my parents. My dad is a pastor, and as they came forward to kneel at the rail, and I went to break off a piece of the body of Christ for my dad, my mind flashed back to another communion service when I was around five years old. In my memory, I was kneeling at the rail and my dad was about to serve communion to me, and from the lighting in the sanctuary, it had to be sunrise service on Easter Sunday. In my memory, which was happening in the split second before I handed the bread to my dad, as my dad handed the bread to me, the stained glass behind him glowed, and I heard a voice and sensed a presence that said, “This is what I want you to do.”

Or, think about what happened last Sunday in this place. Those of you who weren’t here missed something big. We had a healing service, and you could literally feel the presence of God in this place, and it was thick. 2/3 of the congregation responded and came forward to receive anointing and prayer for healing. I wish that you could have all had the view I had. I wish you could have seen all of your faces as you came down to the front of this church. Some of you were crying, some of you were rejoicing, but I saw something in each face that came forward. You all glowed. I looked at each of you, and I saw the glory of God reflected back. As your pastor, I hope you know how fulfilling it is for me to see the glory of God reflected in each of you.

God’s glory is all around. We have all had brushes with it, seen ever the faintest glimpse of its fullness and splendor. Imagine, then, how much brighter the full glory of God glows, brighter than these sideways glances you and I have seen. The fullness of God’s glory would be all-consuming, it burns with an unmatched intensity, and would be devastatingly frightening. Yet, it is something we would want to hang onto forever.

Peter – prolonging the mountaintop
We come back to Peter – remember I asked you to hang onto Peter for a little later? Well, here he is. As Jesus is consumed in the full brightness of God’s glory, Peter offers to build three dwellings. Was Peter simply confused? Maybe Peter didn’t know what to say? Some would say Peter didn’t even know what he was saying.

But I think Peter knew exactly what he was saying. Peter realized that he was an eyewitness to the wonderful, awesome work of God. Peter wanted to make the moment last. I think his inner-monologue went something like this: “If I make some shelters, then I can prolong this moment. Maybe I can control how long this thing will last.” Peter’s offer to build those three shelters was an attempt to stay up on the mountaintop forever.

Clearly, Peter had never read Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? If he had, he would know that life keeps changing. He would know that if you try to live as if time has stood still, then time will just pass you by. He would know that the sooner you let go of old, tired, and outdated ways of doing things, the sooner you can enjoy the wonderful new things that are constantly coming our way.

A few summers ago, I was fortunate to spend some time hiking in the Swiss Alps. The last day we were there was one of those perfect, crystal-clear days that only comes along every once in awhile. I sat on the top of the Stanserhorn, and felt like I was on top of the world. To the North, you could look into the black forest in Germany. At the base of the mountain, the residents of Lucerne went about their normal day, and to the South, the high Alps of Northern Italy appeared to scrape the sky. I wish I could explain to you just how beautiful it was, just how commanding the view was. I would have been happy to stay up on that mountain forever.

But the next day, I was on a train to Zurich, and then caught a flight out. Why? Because as beautiful, and moving, and spiritual as that experience was, we were not intended to stay on the mountaintop.

In our text, Jesus and his disciples come down off the mountain and immediately head into a village at its base, and encounter a boy possessed by demons. They could have chosen to stay up on that mountain, but there was still work to be done down in the valley – down in the real places of the real lives of real people. It was great to encounter God’s glory on that mountain, but down in the dark valleys were people who needed God’s light.

When you think about it, though, it’s not all that different from what you and I sometimes try to do. For us, the mountaintop could be likened to spiritual experiences we’ve had. I think every church and every person can point back in their history to a time when they were on the mountaintop. That’s often the heyday so fondly remembered. People begin to say, “If only we could re-create the environment we had back then, then we’d be back on top.” We can spend so much time living in our treasured, mountaintop memories that we’re unable to move forward.

The view keeps changing
One of the things I loved about living in Boone was driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I love those places where you stop and can see that famous “layered view,” where the mountain ridges seem to unfold infinitely in front of you off into the distance. What strikes me about so many of these places is that the view is never exactly the same. Sometimes it is sunny. Sometimes foggy. Sometimes only the highest peaks are poking up through the clouds. You can look from the same spot in the same direction, and the view will never be the same any two times you look at it. Every time you look, you see something different.

That’s how it is when we reach those mountaintops with God. God will never be revealed in exactly the same way each time. God does not invite us back to the mountaintops to simply reveal what we already know about God, for there is always much more for us to know about God, and countless ways for us to connect with God, and wonderful ways to continue to be filled with God.

Friends, I’ve been to the mountaintop! I know you have too. It’s a wonderful place, where our relationship with God is nurtured, where God’s presence surrounds us, where we have no choice but to bask in the radiance of God’s glory. But, I’ve also been through the valley. I’ve been through the darkness, where fear and uncertainty surround and we wonder where God has gone off to.

I’d like to quote one of the most profound theologians of our time: Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. "All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives, choosing the shiny ones instead." We routinely miss the signs of God's love and presence in the ordinary things of our lives.

Oh friends – God is not only on the mountaintop, where it’s easy to see God’s glory, where God’s presence surrounds us. God is in the valley, too.

God is not only found in those highs, but in the depths of the valleys and the mundane plains. There are new places God wishes to lead us through – sometimes through valleys and plains – but it requires coming down from those high places and trusting in the God who was revealed there.

When we meet God upon the mountain, the point is not to find some way to stay on the mountain. The point is that the mountain is a place of clarity – where we know God and know ourselves to be cherished by God, where we receive a clear vision of what God wants us to, and where we can get a good view of the terrain in front of us. Then, as we move from the mountaintop to the darkness of the valley, and the ordinariness of living in the plains, what we experienced on the mountain goes with us.

I like the way Scottish theologian Henry Drummond puts it. He says, “It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.”

You may recall another mountain in the Old Testament. When the people of Israel had just left Egypt, they gathered on a mountain overlooking the promised land. Twelve spies brought reports back on what they saw. Ten of the spies said “the land is difficult, it is full of giants, it is rugged, and it will be difficult for us to take. Let’s go back to Egypt.” But two of the spies said, “Yes, there are some challenges in our way, but God has promised to deliver this land to us. Therefore, let’s trust God to be God and move forward.”

If you remember the story, the “Back to Egypt” group won out, and the people wandered around for another forty years before coming into the land.

I think every church has a “Back to Egypt” committee in it that prevents the church from moving forward to a place God might be calling it to go. There is a group that always wants to retreat to what it is familiar and comfortable, even if they know it’s not good for them.

Let’s not be the group who shrugs our shoulders and says, “Let’s go back to Egypt. Let’s go back to the same old mountain time and time again, because we’re too afraid to go somewhere new.”

Friends, God is moving. God is doing new things. God is constantly sending fresh wind and fire on his people. We don’t have to live in yesterday’s anointing, because God is pouring a new blessing out yet again today. Our experiences on the mountaintops of life bring us glimpses of God’s glory, and I am so thankful for those experiences. I am thankful for those moments of clarity when I am assured of the presence of God.

But friends, I also realize this: there are a still many more mountains out there for us to climb, many more places where we will ascend and glimpse the glory of God, many more places where God’s Spirit will be poured into us yet again, just as full and just as fresh as it was the first time.

And so, we come and celebrate together one of those mountaintops – our Lord’s table. This is a place where our relationship with God is nourished, where we are invited into the very real presence of the risen and living Christ. We celebrate, because the one who we remember at this table is very much alive. We celebrate, not merely so we can have a pleasant memory or a nostalgic feeling about some time when we knew and experienced the love of God, but so that we can be literally filled with that love once again. We celebrate, not merely to symbolize Christ’s presence or his grace, but because Jesus promised that he would fill us to overflowing with a great big helping of grace every time we break this bread and take this cup. We celebrate, because Christ has met us at this table so many times. We celebrate, in the sure and certain hope that Christ will meet us here yet again.