Sunday, August 13, 2017

Presence in the Storms

PROPERS:          PROPER 14, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 GENESIS 37:1-4, 12-28; MATTHEW 14:22-33

ONE SENTENCE:        Even though it is may be unseen, God’s presence remains with us during the storms of life.      

            Four years ago, I was leading a pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel.  It was something I did every couple of years.

            As a usual part of the pilgrimage, we were taking a sailing trip on the Sea of Galilee.  We were in a boat, probably 40-feet long, fashioned to look like a larger fishing boat from Jesus’ time.

            We would always stop the boat mid-lake and celebrate the Eucharist.  We would give thanks, break the bread, and sing my favorite hymn, “They cast their nets in Galilee.”  It was all very appropriate for that setting.

            But this time was different.  Even though there were clear skies, the wind was strong and the waves on the inland sea were high.  An east wind, from the adjacent land of Syria, was pouring over the Golan Heights and causing havoc on the lake. More than any other time, we were tossed about by the waters.  The boat heaved to and fro.  I could hardly maintain my footing.

            It was not the same as the storm on the sea that the disciples encountered, but it was enough for the landlubbers on the boat.

            Despite the rough waters and the pitching boat, we went ahead and offered our prayers of thanksgiving to God.

            It was, for me, a metaphorical moment.

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            The disciples likely wondered where their master had gone, as the storm rose and tossed their small fishing boat about.

            I suspect Joseph, the favored son from the first lesson, wondered where his God had gone, as he was sold into slavery by his brothers.  He must have felt alone, abandoned.  The Psalmist’s words from Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I called to you,” no doubt, would express his feelings.

            Have you ever had such a feeling?  Have you ever wondered, “Where has God gone”?
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            Elie Weisel was a 15-year-old Romanian Jew when he, his father, mother, and three sisters were rounded-up and taken to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.  His mother and youngest sister were immediately murdered.

            Elie and his father, Shlomo, were transferred to Buchenwald, where they were assigned as laborers.

            One day, the prisoners were all called together.  It seems a young boy had been accused of stealing some bread – out of his experience of starvation.  The assembled body of prisoners were to stand and watch his execution.

            The boy was taken up to the gallows as his fellow Jews watched.  A noose was placed around his neck and the chair on which he was standing was kicked out from under him.  His death was not quick in coming. He lingered at the rope’s end for 30 minutes.

            Wiesel and the other prisoners were forced to stand there – in shocked silence.  Finally, someone standing near Wiesel, uttered these words quietly: “For God’s sake, where is God?”

            Wiesel’s words gave his silent response: And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
‘Where is He? This is where--hanging here from this gallows...’"

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            I suspect all of us here have experienced something which would compare to the great range of experiences between being tossed by a storm on the sea, being betrayed by siblings, and being a prisoner for unjust reasons. That’s a pretty wide range.

            Most of our experiences could probably be classified as the storms of life. Under that description we could include illness, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, depression, divorce, alienation from those we love, addiction, or just plain old disappointment.

            It would be normal human nature in those moments to say, “Where is God?”. And we would be right to wonder.

            Joseph must have asked that question. Certainly, Peter and the others in the boat had a sense of abandonment. Why shouldn’t you?

            Of course, God did amazing things through Joseph, after his being sold into slavery.  And we have 27 New Testament books and volumes of church history that were written after the storm on the sea.  Neither one of those episodes was the last word.

            Nor do we experience the last word. The truth that comes through – from the story of Joseph being sold into bondage, the storm on the sea, and, yes, the tragedy of Good Friday – is that God is with us always, in the midst of those experiences.

            To paraphrase Elie Wiesel, God is at the bedside, at the graveside, when we are clearing out our desk, in the brokenness of addiction, in the depths of depression, in the tears of betrayal… and in all moments of life.

            You may feel alone at that moment – as so many have.  But that does not change the divine reality that is so elegantly expressed in Psalm 139:

6Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
    where can I flee from your presence?

7If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
    if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

8If I take the wings of the morning *
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

9Even there your hand will lead me *
    and your right hand hold me fast.

10If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, *
    and the light around me turn to night,"

11Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
    darkness and light to you are both alike.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Learning from the Transfiguration

TEXT:                 LUKE 9:28-36

ONE SENTENCE:        The Feast of the Transfiguration is instructive for us on at least three different levels.     

            Today is one of the major feast days in the Christian year – the Feast of the Transfiguration.

            This day is instructive for us on at least three different levels. Let me share those three levels with you.

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            Look at the first lesson – from Exodus – and the gospel, from Luke.  They connect in a very important way today.

            The first lesson tells of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, having spoken with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.  We are told that his face is glowing from being in the presence of the Holy.  The glow is called the shekinah – it is a sign of having been in the presence of God.  Something akin to radiation.

            In the gospel, we have the story of Jesus, along with what I call his Executive Committee – Peter, James, and John – climbing a mountain to find solitude and to pray.  Even Jesus needed a break.

            Tradition holds that the mountain is Mt. Tabor, which rises sharply out of the rolling Galilean countryside.  It would not have been a simple, short walk.

While they are apart, atop the mountain, the event known as the Transfiguration takes place. It is recorded in the three synoptic gospels, in very similar forms.

            Because the disciples were sleepy, it is believed that this moment occurred at night.  The gospel tells us that suddenly Jesus’ face was altered, and his clothes became a brilliant white.  Mark’s account says that they became whiter than any fuller could bleach them.

            Suddenly and mysteriously, the scene changes focus. Jesus is seated with two others from the past – Moses and Elijah.  These are two of the greatest figures from the Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament.

            Moses, of course, was the heroic figure who – chosen by God and against all odds – led the Jews out of captivity in Egypt, on a 40-year journey, to the edge of the Promised Land. Moses was considered the great deliverer – the dominant figure in Jewish history.

            Elijah is different, but also significant in Jewish history. He was considered the greatest of the prophets.  His confrontations with the supporters of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, King Ahab, and Jezebel are well-chronicled.  And remarkably, he is the great figure of the Old Testament who did not die.  As his successor, Elisha, watched, he was taken up in a whirlwind near Jericho. Elisha, witnessing this momentous event, cried out, “My father!  My father! The chariots of Israel and their horsemen!”

            It must be noted that Moses and Elijah were not contemporaries of Jesus. This was not just a matter of Moses and Elijah happening by the mountain at the time Jesus was there.  This was a supernatural, mystical event. Moses predated the time of Jesus by some 1,200 years. Elijah came some 800 years before Jesus.

            One of the major purposes of numinous event atop Mt. Tabor was to connect Jesus to two of the great figures in Jewish history.  The author was intending to show that Jesus was no ordinary prophet – and people who defined themselves as prophets in that era were a dime-a-dozen.

            Luke is conveying to us this truth:  Jesus is a significant figure in faith history.  He is on-par with Moses and Elijah, and is to be revered.

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            That is the first point I want to convey to you:  The gospel writer wanted to get across the point that Jesus is a continuation of God’s work in the world.

            My second point has to do with Peter – who is impulsive and always seems to speak before he thinks. A way I might describe him: He never had an unspoken thought.

            The gospel tells us that Peter sees this amazing sight – Jesus, all aglow, in the presence of two great figures, long-since gone from this earth.  Instead of standing in awe of this wondrous and mysterious sight, Peter ecstatically exclaims, “Master, it is well that we are here.  Let us built three booths – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

            A way of looking at this is to say that Peter wanted to formalize this mystical moment.  He wished to frame it. He wanted to live in it. That he wanted to make something concrete of the experience.  To institutionalize it.

            But, as soon as he had spoken those words, he was disabused of the notion.  A cloud enveloped them and when the cloud was gone, all that was left was Jesus and his three disciples. Peter would not have his booths.

            The experience – the mystical moment – had been fleeting.  Like our experiences of the holy: Here and there; now and again.

            The lesson for us is this: We are to cherish those moments of transcendence, when we experience, unambiguously, the love, presence, and grace of God.  But we have to move on with life.

            Yes, those experiences, those moments of joy, may feed us for many years to come – but they are precisely that: moments.  We may see them in the Latin word viaticum – provisions for the journey.

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            Tied in with that second point is my third.  It is analogous to the overall theme of today.

            Mountaintop moments are not meant to be ends in themselves.  They are not simple treasures which we hoard and keep to ourselves.  They are meant to transform our lives. They are to make a difference.

            When we experience those mountaintop moments we should allow them to impact our lives in a manner that brings us closer to God and one another. Rather than be transfigured, we should be transformed.

            The great stories of salvation history and our own individual moments of God’s grace are not meant to be our private experiences to build up a sense of self-worth.  They are meant to mold us, form us, redeem us, and renew us in ways that remake us more fully into the image of God.

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            Remember these three lessons:

  • ·      The mountaintop experiences connect us to the movement of God throughout history – and the sacred figures of those events.

  • ·      We are not meant to linger on the mountaintop, building booths in which we can enshrine our experiences.  We are called – even expected – to leave the mountaintop, nourished by that experience.

  • ·      And we are to allow our lives to be transformed by those experiences – molded and formed to become more fully who we are called to be.