LISTEN TO HIM!

 

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.

BLUE, PURPLE, AND CRIMSON YARNS

Exodus 35:4-34

Monica McFadden

In my first ever art history class in college (World Art I), my wild professor, Scott Montgomery (who looked exactly like you want your art professor to look—long white Dumbledore hair and beard, barefoot but wearing a suit), introduced the class to the very beginnings of Christian art. Back when Christianity was still an underground, secret group of believers going against the cultural and religious norm in Rome, meeting in catacombs and people’s homes.

The thing is, I really wasn’t that interested in early Christian art, or most Christian art for that matter. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the traditional iconography, frescoes, biblical characters who all look the same, strange muscle-y baby Jesuses, Medieval and Renaissance paintings that are too easy to mix up. I was much more interested in the free-flowing forms of post-Impressionism, modern and contemporary art that was stirring things up, non-Western art. And it didn’t help that the Brethren tend to lean away from the ostentatious art traditions of other Christian groups; I was fairly critical of all the relics and dramatic, gilded altarpieces. But the thing about Scott is he’s so genuinely excited about everything he teaches that you can’t help but get excited as well.

Once, when he was lecturing about early church buildings in class, he told a story. He (along with, I believe, a group of other art scholars) was visiting the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. It’s a small, old building from 425 B.C.E.; relatively simple-looking brick from the outside, but dripping in rich, vivid Byzantine mosaics on the inside. A deep indigo covers the ceiling and walls, with swirls of olive green and gold stars, florets, and vines reaching every corner. Little concentric circles of light blue and silvery gold form snowflake-like patterns on one dome, and various images and scenes play out in arches: Christ as the Good Shepherd, stoic animals, saints and angels, all surrounded by detailed borders of jewel-toned tiles.

Now, when tours are given at the museum, the mosaics are lit with typical electric lights. But my professor’s group was made up of indignant art scholars who insisted they be allowed to see the interior of the building as it would have been viewed centuries ago, lit with just a few candles. They proved to be convincing, and the small space was soon filled with the warm light of the candles, little flames flickering back and forth and casting their glow onto the mosaic tiles.

If you look closely at old mosaics, they first appear as though they were carelessly laid, with tiles all at slightly different angles, rippling across the walls and looking rather hand-done; you’d think it would look better if they were aligned properly. But this was done very intentionally, because if you view mosaics in candlelight, the dancing light of the flames reflecting off the tiles all laid a little askew, the mosaics look as if they’re magically glittering and flickering, and every part of the image is aglow. The stars and saints and vines all pulse with life. Suddenly, my professor said, these simple materials are awash with holy light.

In the scripture text in Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to make every part of the tabernacle and bring offerings to the Lord. This tabernacle, with its finely crafted altar and oil stands and all the gold, silver, and bronze, can feel a little foreign to those with humble Brethren roots. Brethren have come a long way in terms of opinions about art. The Brethren Encyclopedia notes that “It could be said of these Brethren, as it was of the Society of Friends, that they had no time for art and no place for it in their priorities. Their understanding of humility and nonconformity placed emphasis on simplicity and plainness.”[1] One paragraph is somewhat amusing to me in summing up Brethren aesthetics: “Obviously Brethren did share to a degree in the folk culture of German-speaking farmers and artisans. Except for an occasional illustration (one art book pictures wrought-iron hinges on the door of the Blooming Grove Brethren Meetinghouse) there is little tangible evidence of Brethren artistic interest. Yet Brethren, like their neighbors, used favorite patterns and designs in quilts and coverlets, on butter molds, clocks, chests, and other household implements. Many of their meetinghouses had a good sense of proportion in their simple, utilitarian lines.”[2] “A good sense of proportion” is fairly indicative of where Brethren stood on artistic flair. It seems much of Brethren involvement in art was connected to publications and embellishment of manuscripts, documents, and books.

However, there are still a number of interesting Brethren connections to art, and over the years as reception to art grew more favorable, Brethren artists emerged. Interestingly, in 1880, Howard Pyle (who was not Brethren and went on to become a recognized American artist) visited the Pennsylvania Germans to write an article for Harper’s Magazine, and became fascinated with the Brethren and their way of life. His article, titled “A Peculiar People,” is rather wonderful and well worth a read for an outsider’s view on the Brethren in the late 19th century. Pyle carefully describes the buildings and dress in the community, and takes the readers through the ordinances of the church, including Love Feast, anointing, and baptism. He is clearly charmed by the Brethren, and made a series of etchings documenting his time and illustrating his article. One passage reads, with an accompanying image to illustrate:

“The first visit we ever made to a Dunker meeting was on a cold day in the latter part of November. The wind piped across the snow-clad hills and over the level white valleys, nipping the nose and making the cheeks feel stiff like leather. As we neared the straggling, old-fashioned-looking town we passed an old farmer of the neighborhood and his wife trudging toward the meeting-house, the long gray beard of the former tangling in the wind or wrapping itself around the neck and breast, and further on a young couple in the quaint costume of the people, picturesque figures against the white of the broad-stretching road.”[3]

This Brethren way of life looks very different from the typical Brethren way of life now, and yet there’s something in reading Pyle’s article that feels like home. The whitewashed walls, long beards, the “matronly faces stamped with humility and gentleness” as he describes—they all feel very familiar. Pyle’s etchings accurately represent the simplicity of the buildings and people, but also highlight a certain beauty it all—the pure white of the snow and whitewashed walls, light coming in through a window and onto the wood furniture of a plain bedroom, the old-fashioned houses with brick and white shutters. Sometimes, having an artist look in helps bring to light the subtle elements that make a tradition lovely.

One of the few art forms that was prevalent in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities was a style called Fraktur, which was a type of manuscript illumination used for certificates, house blessings, and other lettered objects. Pyle noted these hanging on the walls of the Sisters’ House in the Cloister:

“Around the walls were a number of curious antique-looking cards about three feet square, bearing mottoes and texts, all printed by hand, with a beauty of design and delicacy of execution that might rank among them with the lost art of vellum manuscript printing. Some of the designs were very unique, and all of them were aged, even medieval looking.”[4]

Artistic ability is clearly a wonderful gift from God, but Christian art is more than that as well—there’s a sort of magic in many people, over centuries and from all different parts of the world, creating art that is some kind of visual response or interpretation of the many stories and passages enclosed in the Bible. This is not to be confused with creating idols and worshipping images, but rather it’s this incredibly human need to take sacred words and stories that they love and create something new, imbued with the beauty they see in God’s creation surrounding them. As the Brethren Encyclopedia says of the Pennsylvania Dutch, “students of this unique culture, who continue to publish lavishly illustrated books detailing its artifacts, insist that in rejecting the fashions and frivolities of European and American society, plain people did not reject the natural world, that they loved color and design, and that they developed a symbolic art that found its vivid imagery in their pietistic hymns.”[5]

Art is an inherently human way to process truth, and when God asked the Israelites to craft the adornments for the tabernacle, the tent, the altar, the hangings, the vestments; and to bring offerings of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and gems,” what he asked for was the word of God as seen through the skilled craftsmanship of God’s people.

It is also a notably egalitarian call. Verse 22 says that “they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” Craft art was a skill that could be developed by men and women alike, and it’s only been much more recently, when art forms like painting and sculpture with artists’ names attached became more highly valued, that these skills were left unrecognized. But in the Kingdom of God, beauty is for all people, and gifts are given in abundance.

Whether it’s the awe-inspiring mosaics of early Christianity or the clean architecture of the humble Brethren, aesthetics and art are vital parts of experiencing life. If God gives us the ability to make beautiful things “in blue, purple, and crimson yarns,” we should seek to create as much as possible, for it gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as it lives here on Earth.

[1] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 59.

[2] Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 61.

[3] Howard Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, p. 778-9.

[4] Pyle, “A Peculiar People,” p. 783-4.

[5]  Brethren Encyclopedia, Art, p. 60.

KING JESUS AND THE DEEDS OF POWER

 Luke 19:28-40

Jennifer Hosler

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about—and therefore framing the context for how we follow him.

The Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. Second, the Triumphal Entry points us to Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. For followers of Jesus, calling Jesus “King” turns the world’s understanding of allegiance and citizenship upside down, causing us to question our relationship to the society that we live in. Really, what the Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

Jesus and the Deeds of Power

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are some surprising parallels (but definitely also contrasts) between Harry’s story and Jesus’, in how they understand their identity and purpose in relation to their deeds of power. For Jesus, there is a miraculous conception and a virgin birth; we see angels, shepherds, Magi, and an angry murderous King out to kill an infant. Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is.

In fact, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that when he starts his ministry, they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?” But then the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has spread around. The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks those around him to bring the man over. Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus heals the man, and the man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree.

As Jesus walks by, he looks up, calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down from the tree but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich and his wealth is ill-gotten gain. As a chief tax collector, he’s been taking money on behalf of the enemy and likely was also forcing his fellow Jews to give him money beyond their taxes. Zacchaeus was involved in oppression and economic injustice—and was even doing it to his own people.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. You could say that Jesus transforms two blind people—the physically blind man and the spiritually blind man, Zacchaeus—enabling them to see by the power of God. These were two deeds of power that would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved with materialistic greed. Both men are described as “saved.”  Jesus’ deeds of power are not just something having to do with individual beliefs or spiritual healing: salvation that comes through Jesus is spiritual, and also social, economic, and physical.

Donkey-riding, coat-throwing, palm-waving king making

Beyond reminding us about Jesus’ deeds of power, the Triumphal Entry also, especially, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. To understand why it was provocative, it’s helpful to get an overview of the sociohistorical context. Pilgrims are journeying from all over the land and making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Like all of what was called Judea, the area is occupied by the Roman Empire. Whenever there were Jewish feast days, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, would come to Jerusalem from his outpost at Caesarea and bring with him extra military reinforcements.

So while Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward the city, Roman soldiers are also piling into the city, just “in case national fervor and religious fanaticism threaten the Roman peace” (Craddock, p. 223). The Jewish people, after all, had a history of uprisings and rebellions against their previous Greek and current Roman occupiers. In Jesus’ day, there were nationalist movements—zealots—who wanted to kick out Roman rule once and for all.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” This seems really strange to us, but this donkey request actually fits into a “common procedure of a ruler (or a rabbi) procuring transportation, using the royal right of impressment,” or the act of borrowing something for a specific purpose for an important person (Losie, p. 859). It also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air. Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.” Why exactly were the Pharisees nervous? What exactly does the donkey-riding and coat-throwing and palm-waving mean?

The processional entry had cultural significance for people in Jesus’ day. Roman and Jewish history each had a background of emperors or rebel military leaders entering cities in triumph. After they’d completed victories in battle, they’d come into the city on horseback, together with their soldiers.

With this history in mind, the Triumphal Entry procession would have been seen as subversive, as a challenge to the existing rule and authority of Rome—potentially as one of those scenarios that Pontius Pilate was in town to subdue. If someone’s followers are declaring them to be King and all the signs and symbols point to kingship, thoughts of a coup or a revolt are inevitable. And yet at the same time, Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. He’s not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but offering his message of God’s Kingdom for people to either accept or reject.

The cloaks on the road also serve as important symbols – harkening back to another King-making time in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 9, a man named Jehu is anointed King of Israel by a prophet under Elisha’s orders. When Jehu’s followers hear about the anointing, they enthusiastically proclaim him King, blow trumpets, and spread their cloaks down before him.

While there are parallels, Jesus’ story actually differs from Jehu’s. After Jehu is celebrated as King, Jehu and his followers go and kill the existing king and wipe out his whole family line. Jesus doesn’t head into the city to slaughter the existing ruler; instead, Jesus himself is the one who is sentenced to death and dies, without a fight, after coming in peace to heal the sick and save the lost.

While it’s called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, Jesus’ triumph actually comes after the procession. The victory involves nonviolence and self-sacrifice. While Jesus’ followers declare him King on the way into Jerusalem, they don’t fully understand that it is only after Jesus is willing to die—and dies a real physical death—that God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life in victory.

Salvation and Allegiance

I said at the beginning that the Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. This shows us what he was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Good News that Jesus preached was sight for the blind, repentance for the rich, freedom from the captive, healing for the sick. The salvation that Jesus brought affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The gospel that we celebrate in Holy Week is one that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

I also said that the Triumphal Entry does a second thing: it points us to Jesus’ role as King, and I said it was a provocative notion in both his day and our own. In Jesus’ day, Jesus being King meant that his followers stood apart of the allegiances, protections, and statuses in their society. The early church was loyal to Jesus, instead of Caesar, and by saying that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar is Lord, they were persecuted and marginalized. For followers of Jesus today, calling Jesus Lord or King should turn our understanding allegiance, citizenship, privilege, and status upside down, causing us to question our relationship and roles to the society that we live in.

As followers of Jesus, we commit to proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, to enacting the deeds of power that transform souls and wallets and bodies and relationships. We commit to proclaiming Jesus as King over our lives and circumstances—even when some leading rulers and authorities might say, “You’d better settle down. We don’t want any trouble. We don’t want to hear your talk about justice or mercy or peace.” Yet we are called to boldly and loudly proclaim how Jesus’ deeds of power can transform our hearts and relationships and economy and society.

We don’t know what lies ahead for our country: uncertainty, hatred, unrest, bigotry, and violence. But standing here on Palm Sunday, we know we have a humble, peaceful servant king whose gospel transforms us spiritually, politically, socially, and economically, and as we’ll see this week, this King walked through injustice, beatings, and death, that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice in this world.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.

SPARROWS, ROCKS, AND SHINING GLORY

Psalm 84; Psalm 27; Luke 9:28-36

Jennifer Hosler

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart. Waiting. It’s hard to wait, at least in the manner we mean in the song. There are a few ways to define “waiting.” According to one definition, to wait is to “stay where one is or delay action until a particular time or until something else happens” (google). In this sense, waiting is not the part with any meaning or any value. I think this is the common understanding of waiting. Waiting today involves just finding ways to amuse oneself, to get through the in-between part, to distract oneself, or to not have to make chitchat with those around you. This waiting is flipping mindlessly through Facebook or Instagram or the news while you wait for the train, or the metro, or in a line. This waiting tides you over until the good thing, the thing you are waiting for, arrives.

There’s another definition that, I believe, fits better with the song we sang about waiting on the Lord. To wait in this sense is “to remain in readiness for some purpose.” To remain in readiness for some purpose. Waiting on the Lord, then, is not a passive experience but something active; it’s being ready to encounter the presence of God.

Today we have three scriptures and each of these passages describes waiting on the Lord—dwelling, sitting, meditating in God’s presence. We see in each of them that waiting on the Lord is active, involving a readiness to encounter God’s presence in our hearts and lives.

Sparrows (nourishment)

Food is a necessity for life, a basic need. When it comes down to the bare essentials, we need food, water, clothing, and shelter to survive. There are other needs—social needs, personal growth—but these are difficult to work on when our basic needs aren’t met. It’s hard to support a friend or learn a new skill when you’re hungry.

It’s a bit puzzling to me, then, how often I forget to eat. Whether I’m working at home on my studies or I’m in class or doing research work, time ticks by. 11, 12, 1, 2, 2:30 and somehow I still haven’t eaten my sandwich or carrots or apple. I forget to do what nourishes me and sustains me—and my strength becomes sapped. Sometimes, I even get faint or a little woozy. I’m trying to get better at this, because I realize that my work suffers and I get less productive. Our bodies and minds are designed to be fueled.

Hunger. Yearning. Nourishment. These are themes that we see in one of today’s passages, but the focus isn’t on food. Our call to worship today came from Psalm 84. The psalm writer begins by singing about the beauty of God’s temple, then starts describing a yearning, a hunger within the soul. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (vv. 1-2, NRSV). The implication here is that, beyond our basic needs, we have an inner need to commune with God. The psalmist continues, saying, even the birds recognize how wonderful God’s presence is. The sparrows are lucky, because they can build their nests in the Temple, making the place where God dwells their own dwelling place.

The psalmist also expresses that being in God’s presence is matchless in its worth. We sang these words: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (v. 10). Why is God’s presence so valuable? Because the psalmist understands the LORD to be the source of life and strength—you can see this in the names that are used for God. God is called “the living God” and “a sun and shield,” the source of life, nourishment, warmth, and protection. Going up to God’s presence—spending even a moment is valuable, because the LORD’s presence is precious nourishment that the soul needs.

Lent is a time of focusing on God, encountering Christ in new ways as we head towards the triumphal entry, the last supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. During Lent, some people fast, limiting their food or temporarily cutting out other things like television or some other activity. Fasting (intentional fasting, not silly forgetting to eat like what I do) creates a longing. We long for what we cut out, whether food or sweets or meat or Netflix. The goal is to reorient that longing into a yearning for the presence of God.

In the sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, we read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” How can we cultivate a yearning, a hunger for God’s presence during Lent this year? What can we do to remind ourselves that our souls need to be nourished by God’s presence, just as much as our bodies need nutrients to function? Waiting on the Lord is active, it involves a readiness to encounter God’s presence in our hearts and lives. Are you ready to wait on the LORD?

Rocks (resting in the steadfastness of God)

Some of you have been to our house before and have met our cats. Yes, this is a cat illustration. We have two cats, Scruff and Ursula. Scruff is all black and Ursula is all white. Scruff was in our family for more than two years when we realized his lonely heart needed a friend to play with. He’s pretty needy kitty, even getting mopey when we’re home but just haven’t held him enough. Scruff likes to be held by sitting like a baby facing outwards, in a slouchy way, with his back on our lap. He’ll often sigh a sigh of contentment and stretch out a little bit and close his eyes. I find human-animal relationships to be so marvelous and curious—this little furry being wants to be held by me. I’m not sure if he feels safe, likes the warmth, just loves being close to us, or all three. Whatever the reason, Scruff just wants to be held.

Our second psalm this morning is Psalm 27. The author, King David, begins by declaring who the LORD is: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” (v. 1). In other words, David is saying, “God is safety and deliverance, the One who shows me the way and drives away the darkness. When God is my stronghold, the place where I find my solace and safety. I don’t need to fear” (paraphrase). David continues his song, saying that those who come up against him will fall. The reason? Because the LORD is his protection and deliverer.

Like Psalm 84, David also talks about spending time in the presence of the LORD. “This is what I ask, the only thing I’m seeking: to be able to spend time in God’s dwelling place for all of my life, to see the beauty of God’s presence, to learn from God. I know that when trouble comes, God will be my refuge and keep me safe; I’ll be hidden from view or set up high upon a rock” (paraphrase). David sings about immersing himself in God’s presence, being held by God, seeking the wisdom, safety, and strength that come from God.

When I sent in my sermon title to Care, a lot of things were still undefined (i.e. my sermon wasn’t written). But several images had stood out to me from the scriptures: sparrows nesting in God’s presence, rocks up high where no bad things can reach you, and the shining glory of the Transfiguration, which we’ll get to in a few moments. “Set me high upon a rock.” David seeks to be in God’s presence. He trusts that resting in God’s presence will be like a high rock, a place where no one and nothing can touch him. The psalm closes with words we sang for our prayer song this morning. David writes, “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (vv. 13-14).

David was intentional about encountering God. Whether it was seeking God in the barren wilderness on the run from Saul, or listening to the words of a prophet Nathan and hearing about his sin, David’s heart was ready to meet God. In 1 Samuel and the book of Acts (13:22), David is referred to a person “after God’s own heart.” He sang, danced before God, asked the LORD for wisdom and protection, found quiet places in solitude, and prayed—as we read in Psalm 27—to dwell in the presence of God all the days of his life. In times of turmoil and doubt, David sought the LORD as his rock, the steadfast immovable force to cling to, that would give him hope even when it seemed like his enemies surrounded him.

When things are overwhelming and we feel like our legs will give out under us, whether spiritually or physically, whom do we cling to? Do we try to muddle through on our own strength? Or do we seek solace, wisdom, and strength from our Creator, the One who can give us a firm place to stand, who can hide us in the shelter of his tent and set us high upon a rock? Do we come to God in prayer, resting in God’s arms and trusting in God’s steadfastness? Waiting on the Lord is active, it involves a readiness to seek God’s presence, protection, and strength. Are you ready to wait for the LORD?

Shining Glory (God’s presence)

Our third and final passage this morning comes from the gospel of Luke. It’s a passage of mystery, of dazzling clothes and shining glory. Throughout the gospels, we see that Jesus likes to go up mountains and pray. He usually goes by himself but, this time, he picks three of the disciples to come with him. This prayer hike, however, doesn’t stay within the bounds of the expected.

Jesus’ disciples journey with him up a mountain, watching, waiting, and praying, and then getting pretty sleepy as Jesus continues praying. Peter, James, and John wake up from their sleepy prayers and, suddenly, they see a shiny face and white clothes; two guys long dead (Moses and Elijah?) are chatting with the teacher. A bright shiny cloud gets way too close for comfort and out of the cloud comes the voice of God. This is no ordinary prayer hike in the mountains. During this journey up a mountainside (referred to as the Transfiguration) an encounter with Jesus starts out ordinary but ends up extraordinary and a bit terrifying, with shining glory and the voice of God. In the transfiguration, the disciples encounter the holiness and presence of God—startling, breathtaking, and a little scary.

At times, I’ve noticed a hesitance in myself—and in others—to sit in the silence of God’s presence. It can be unnerving, coming before God in silence: you realize that you can’t hide from the One who made you and knows you. You don’t know what voice you’re going to hear out of the cloud. Yet as scary as silence can be, the disciplines of solitude and silence are ones that have brought some of the most depth to my inner life. Richard Foster writes that “It is in solitude that we come to experience the ‘silence of God’ and so receive the inner silence that is the craving of our hearts” (Foster, p. 102).

It is in the silence that I recognize that I am fully known, fully loved, fully cared for. It is in the silence when my hard heart starts to have its layers peeled back, when I start to see others’ good intentions and my own selfishness, when I feel the Spirit’s leading to pray or to act. It is in the silence and the solitude that I see I’ve been relying on myself, that I haven’t been so loving, that I’ve been consumed with frivolous things instead of yearning after God’s presence, which nourishes me and sustains me for love and action.

When we spend time in silence and solitude, when we go up the mountainside—whether it’s a quiet place in our apartment or our house, whether it’s a time we’re quiet on the train or in the car, or a few moments standing outside and staring at the trees during a busy day—when we do this, we open ourselves up to being transformed and seeing God work in our lives and the world around us. When we enter into silence and solitude, we can encounter the glory of God.

Sisters and brothers, how can we find ways to cultivate our souls during this Lent? How can we start yearning for God’s presence? Can we implement a fast to hunger and thirst for righteousness? How can we look to Christ for strength and solace amidst the turmoil of each day? What strategies can we find that center us, point us to the One who can hide us in the shelter of his tent and set us high upon a rock? How can we journey with Jesus up the mountainside, encountering God’s shining glory in silence and solitude? Waiting on the Lord is active, it is a readiness to encounter God’s presence and be transformed. Wait for the Lord, friends, be strong, take heart, and wait for the Lord. Amen.

References

Foster, R. (1998). A celebration of discipline. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Who is That Shiny Person?

 

Who is That Shiny Person? – Jennifer Hosler

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

When thinking about today’s gospel passage, I spent time musing on surprise encounters: those times when you run into someone you know, in a place where you least expect them to be. Running into someone you know is delightful in a city and happens more often than I would expect. Bumping into someone an ocean away from where you met them is pretty astounding.

Shortly after Nate and I moved to DC, I was out for a run and waiting for a light to change so that I could cross Florida Avenue. While I jogged on the spot, I looked twice at the other person on the corner who was talking on her cell phone. It couldn’t be. Val? It WAS Val, my college roommate. She is from Michigan and we went to school in Chicago but she just happened to live in the same neighborhood as me in Washington, DC.

In January last year, amidst one million people on the National Mall for Obama’s 2nd Presidential Inauguration, Nate and I were stuck in a crowd of thousands, inching our way out of the Mall. We looked up and happened to see Bob just a few meters away! His bright yellow jacket certainly helped us recognize him—but it was still a one in a million encounter!

Several years ago, Nate’s brother Phil was at Mount Rushmore as part of a sightseeing trip on the way to National Youth Conference. He happened to look over and spot his second cousin (who was not a part of the same trip) sightseeing there too.

Another surprise encounter happened to me and Nate when we were in Austria, an ocean away from the US. We were exploring Vienna and took the Metro to the Opera House. Going up the stairs, we heard, “Hosler!” It was someone who had shared the same dormitory floor with Nate in college. We met him in Chicago and he randomly happened to be in the same Viennese Metro station as us… an ocean away from where we knew him.

In our passage today, Jesus and his disciples Peter, James, and John also have an unexpected encounter. They run into a few people that they wouldn’t have expected to find at the top of a mountain near Galilee. Yet it is much more than a random occurrence or a happy meeting serendipity: this encounter is clearly supernatural and strange in a mystical, Spirit-moving kind of way.

From Peter, James, and John’s perspective, the events probably started out fairly typical. Jesus likes to go up mountains and pray. He usually goes by himself but, this time, he picks three of the twelve disciples to come up with him up a high mountain. I myself would definitely say yes to a hike with Jesus.

This prayer hike, however, doesn’t stay within the bounds of the expected. Suddenly, there’s a shiny face and white clothes; two guys long dead (Moses and Elijah?) are chatting with the teacher, a bright shiny cloud gets way too close for comfort and there is a voice so overwhelming that Peter, James, and John fall face-first on the ground. This is no ordinary hike in the mountains.

Jesus touches them and tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” Peter, James, and John look up and it is just them and Jesus. No more cloud, no more voice, no more dead guys standing with Jesus. They hike back down the mountain and, on the way, Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell others what happened, at least for now.

This event, as you might know, is referred to by Christians as the Transfiguration. If you’ve read Calvin & Hobbes, transfiguration sounds a little bit like Transmogrifier. It actually comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word metamorphoō, from which our English word for transformation—metamorphosis—is descended (Liefield, 1992).

When I was preparing for this Sunday, I thought about avoiding Matthew 17 because I didn’t quite know how to preach the Transfiguration. I wasn’t completely sure what it meant or how to use it to find applications to our lives as Christians. However, since my preference is often for the hard texts, I eventually came around and decided to choose today’s lectionary texts. Many Christian churches recognize today specifically as Transfiguration Sunday since it comes up each year in the Lectionary cycle of Scriptures on the Sunday before the season of Lent (which starts this Wednesday).

It is hard to know what exactly the theological “lesson” of the Transfiguration is. This passage isn’t an epistle where the teaching is clearly laid out for us. For example, “Love one another as Christ as loved you.” Maybe not easy to put into practice but the main meaning is straight forward. Matthew 17 is narrative. Matthew narrates what happened, not why. We are watching them watch their teacher Jesus become a shiny and be joined by Moses and Elijah.

As we stand back watching (well, reading), our impulse is to try to figure out what it all means. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal Priest, author, and speaker, isn’t sure that “trying to figure it out” is the best way to approach the Transfiguration. In a Day 1 Radio sermon she says,

I am not sure where we got this idea, but it seems to dominate the way that many of us read the Bible. Give us a passage of scripture and we will put on our thinking caps, doing our best to decipher the symbols, read between the lines and come up with the encoded message that Jesus

or Luke or God has hidden in the passage for us to find. The idea seems to be that the story itself

is chiefly a suitcase for conveying the meaning inside of it. Discern the content of the story and you do not have to go rummaging around inside of it every time it comes up. Instead, you can pull the meaning out of it and place it neatly folded in a drawer where you can find it the next time you need it.

(Brown Taylor, 2014)

There are indeed symbols we can find in the Transfiguration: the Law and the Prophets are represented in Moses and Elijah; the cloud and mountain are images that hark back to Mount Sinai and Moses receiving the Law, to the glory of YHWH dwelling with the people. Yet Brown Taylor argues that we need to focus on the event as it was: a strange and mystical encounter with Jesus.

What is very clear in the narrative is that the disciples understand that it is a holy and important moment. Peter doesn’t know what is going on—but he wants it to keep going. He suggests building booths so that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah can all stick around for a while.

When the cloud comes and the voice within it booms, Peter, James, and John fall face first on the ground: the time-honored Israelite response that indicates, “Ohmygoodness! God is here and he is holy.”

The Transfiguration, first and foremost, should impress upon us an encounter with Jesus that started out ordinary—and ended up extraordinary, overwhelming, and shiny. It is helpful to spend time meditating on that hike up the mountains and imagine what the disciples might have expected: we go up, Jesus prays, we pray, we go down. It is useful to our spiritual imaginations to ponder an ordinary experience being disrupted by the presence of God.

One of the things that we can take away from the Transfiguration is the need to cultivate moments in our lives that open us up to encountering the Holy: periods of silence, time alone in nature, specific periods of prayer. Not that these are the only times we can encounter God: I think we meet God in other people, we can experience God while we are doing service, and in many other circumstances. Yet with the busyness and distractedness of life, it is more likely during the hike up that mountain or time alone in that park or quiet spot kneeling in that room that we can open our hearts to God moving and revealing Himself through His Holy Spirit and through His word.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, a time when many Christians focus on repentance and also on intentionally turning towards God. The word for repentance in Hebrew literally means “Turn!” Turn away from the past and orient your life towards God. Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, a 40 day period before Holy Week, the week of Easter. If we are interested in searching or seeking God (or seeking more of God), then we can use this Lenten season to find times for our own encounter with God, where we can enter into “the bright cloud of unknowing”, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it (Brown Taylor, 2014). This week and during Lent, how can you set apart times to seek God on the mountaintop?

One of the restaurants that Nate and I enjoy is called Kenny’s BBQ, located at 8th and Maryland NE. Hickory smoked BBQ, collards, sweet potatoes, corn bread: Kenny’s is a treat that we both love and we know that most of our family will enjoy.

When we took my sister and nephew there, Richie wanted to sit in the same spot that President Obama sat when he ate at Kenny’s. As I’m sure you can guess, the President didn’t just slip into Kenny’s unnoticed. He apparently hasn’t yet taken to disguises as a form of security; the pictures on the wall showed part of his 24/7 security detail. I can’t quite imagine being so famous (and important) that I could never ever go anywhere without anyone noticing or without a pack of armed guards. But if I try to imagine it, I like to think I’d try a disguise at some point along the way.

Jesus wasn’t exactly disguised on earth—but apparently people didn’t find him completely forthright about who exactly he was. There is a context to the Transfiguration that I hadn’t realized before studying for this sermon. In all three synoptic gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking the disciples, “Who do people say that the son of Man is?” Jesus asks this in Matthew 16 and the disciples give several answers.

Apparently, there were diverse opinions as to who exactly this Jesus person was: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus responded, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” While the crowds, the Scribes, and the Pharisees aren’t exactly sure who Jesus is, the people right beside him—there when he heals and feed and brings the dead back to life—they can see that he is the One, the Messiah sent from God to bring deliverance to Israel.

After this discussion, Jesus tells the disciples not to put the word out about him being the Messiah. Jesus then teaches them about his need to suffer, die, and be raised back to life. This is difficult for them to understand but Jesus teaches that it is essential for him to suffer—and also for the disciples to take up their own crosses, following him.

The next scene in Matthew brings us to the hike up the mountain, where the disciples see and hear the presence of God confirm exactly who this Jesus is. “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples seen and hear that Jesus is from God. His work is not counter that of Moses and Elijah but the continuation of God’s work with Israel. Jesus is one to be followed, to be listened to on the path to life.

For at least Peter, James, and John, this encounter must have added confirmation to Jesus’ true identity. The exhortation to “Listen to him” should have reinforced Jesus’ teaching that his suffering was within God’s plan. Nevertheless, the disciples still couldn’t quite believe that the Messiah was supposed to be crucified. Even after this supernatural experience on the mountain, Peter and the other disciples were crestfallen and hopeless at Jesus’ actual death.

We come as folks today with tools that help us understand our world around us. Physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, engineering: the world is much more knowable than it was during Roman times. Yet these tools don’t give us knowledge about the bright cloud or tell us the answer to the question, “Who is that shiny person?” Who is that Jesus, glowing on the mountainside? We as a human race still do not understand souls or the life forces that animate our physical bodies.

So we come to a passage like the Transfiguration or days like Good Friday and Easter Sunday and everything isn’t air tight or explainable with undeniable proof. We encounter Jesus in Scripture and we need to answer some questions for ourselves. “Who is that shiny person?” Who really is he? Is he kooky? Is he a good teacher? Is he a sage and a prophet? Or is he the Son of God, the Christ, sent from God and of God to transform our hearts and this world? Should we listen to him?

After the mountaintop, Jesus and his disciples moved down to Galilee and then towards Jerusalem even though Jesus knew it would mean his own suffering and death. These next few weeks, we are moving toward Good Friday and also toward Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day. I think that Lent, these 40 days before Holy Week, is a good time to ask ourselves the question, “Who is that shiny person?”

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Lent is a time to stop and consider our answers, to pray and seek through Scripture, asking the question, “Jesus, who are you and how does the answer change my life? How does it affect the way that I interact with my family, the jobs I take, where I live, the way I spend my money, or the way I treat every human being I encounter? Who is that shiny person, standing on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah?”

Sisters and brothers, may we journey up to the mountaintop this Lent. Let’s set aside time to encounter Jesus, to ponder and discern anew, “Who is that shiny person?” AMEN.

 

 

References

Brown Taylor, B. (2014, March 2). The bright cloud of unknowing. Day One Radio Podcast. Retrieved from http://day1.org/5560-the_bright_cloud_of_unknowing

Liefeld, W.L. (1992). Transfiguration. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 834-841). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

 

 

The Unity of the Church, the Manifestation of Glory

Nate and Jenn Hosler – The Unity of the Church, the Manifestation of Glory (John 17:20-23)

            As all of you know, our current Congress is certainly dysfunctional.  The two parties do not get along.  Many on each side do not like some on the other side (or even those in their own party). Senators and representatives bicker and lurch to grab status or power.  They divide into factions.  Small groups within the larger body undermine the priorities of the whole.  Politicians threaten and hold the government hostage with their particular wants and priorities.  While they are defined as a singular body – “Congress” – they do not function or act in a way that is united, whether united in identity or united in purpose.

At various times, our churches are no better than Congress.  They are dysfunctional and without life, vitality, or productivity. Congregations, like Congress, can be consumed by bickering and church people at times lurch to grab status and power.  They divide into factions and small groups undermine the priorities of the whole.  Church members also threaten and hold the congregation hostage with individual wants and priorities. While they are defined as a singular body – the “Church” – they do not function or act in a way that is united, whether united in identity or united in purpose.

Today’s passage drops us into the middle of Jesus praying.   Like passing by a conversation, we catch just a glimpse of the whole scene. We know that Jesus prayed many times.  Out of all the times that Jesus prayed and the prayers could have been remembered, somehow, Jesus’ prayers before his death are the only extensive ones we have.  In John 17, we have a whole chapter of Jesus praying.  When interpreting Scripture, we learn from both what is said and what is not said.  Jesus is not recorded praying about sexuality, not recorded talking about church governance, certainly not recorded talking about what worship styles or preaching modes are best.  Clearly, as Brethren, we should learn from what Jesus didn’t mention and to value what he did say as extremely important for the church.  In John 17, Jesus prays for the disciples and the followers who would come after.

In Jesus’ prayer, there is a connection between God’s unity, our unity, and the glory of God.  It is when we are in unity that we are able to demonstrate God’s glory—that is, be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth through our relationships with each other and through continuing Jesus’ acts on this earth.

In understanding this scripture, it is helpful to place it within its context in the gospel of John.  The context begins in John 13, where Jesus celebrates the “last supper” with his disciples. During this time he washes the disciples’ feet and predicts Peter denying him. Continuing chapters show Jesus teaching his disciples. Among other things, he predicts both the world’s hatred and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus alludes to his coming death and the disciples are distraught and confused.  Jesus tells his disciples to have courage and that in him they would have peace.  He then proceeds to pray.  While our verses specifically are John 17: 20-23, it is helpful to understand what Jesus prays in all of chapter 17.

Jesus asks the Father to glorify His Son, that the Father might be glorified.  Jesus says that He has been working on earth and glorifying the Father through His work.  “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.  So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed” (17:4-5).

Jesus prays about his disciples – saying that he has worked to reveal the name of God to them.  Jesus declares that he has been glorified in the disciples and asks the Father to protect them.  “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one” (v. 11). Jesus prays not only for the disciples around him but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (vv. 20-21a).

So Jesus prayed that we, the church, might have unity.  What is unity?  Unity sounds like something we should all know.  It isn’t a big theological word like transubstantiation.  Unity is derived from the Latin for “one”. We see Jesus saying “one” a lot in the passage.  As a dictionary definition, unity generally means “the state of being united or joined as a whole, esp. in a political context” such as the European Union (New Oxford American Dictionary).  Unity also involves “harmony or agreement between people or groups”.  It has an artistic nuance: “the state of forming a complete or pleasing whole” (ibid).  In writing, coherence and unity are important traits of any work.  Unity in literature is understood as “The quality of oneness in a paragraph or essay that results when all the words and sentences contribute to a single main idea” (About.com).  A mathematical definition also exists, where unity means the number 1 (an indivisible number).  Broadly, unity tends to involve a united identity, function, and purpose.

Jesus doesn’t provide an exact definition of what unity looks like in our everyday lives or congregations.  He uses a metaphor that is both understandable and indecipherable at the same time.  Jesus prays that we would be one as he and the Father are One.  Jesus prays that we would be one together as the Father and Son are united and also that we would be one with the Father and the Son.  In verse 21, Jesus prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (v. 21).  In verse 23, Jesus asks “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (v. 23).

Jesus calls for us to be united and connects this with glory—glory that the Father gave Jesus and he is giving to his followers. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (v. 22).  Why is there this connection between unity and glory?  When thinking about unity and glory, a tale of two kitchens came to mind.

The kitchen in our home is quite small.  As a 100 year old row house in DC, there are some oddities.  The backdoor is in the kitchen, along with normal appliances like the fridge, stove, and dishwasher, and abnormal appliances like the stacked washer and dryer.  With the fridge, the sink, the washer /dryer combo, and the oven in the 8 foot wide space, there is little room for anyone or anything beyond a solitary cook.  If our cat enters into the kitchen, he is at risk of getting stepped on.  So, needless to say, when we cook at home, it is ideally a one person operation: one person with one plan and some vegetables. We physically can’t work together. Cooking in our tiny kitchen isn’t where we can demonstrate how well we work together as a team (but we have preaching, so it’s okay).

At the Brethren Nutrition Program, Washington City’s soup kitchen ministry, the preparation of meals takes on a more complex nature. With more eaters, we need more preparers and, thankfully, we have more space. The introduction of more cooks, however, introduces the possibility of chaos.  On a good day, these many cooks, choppers, stirrers, and servers act as a unified machine to complete the task.  Unified, they manifest the glory of a team.  There is glory in unity—and also pots of gumbo, mashed potatoes, and salad.

In Jesus’ prayer, we see that Jesus has given us God’s glory.  God’s glory is the Holy Spirit power to do God’s work in the world. It is God’s presence that gives us a share identity, shared function, a shared purpose, that makes us the church. God’s manifesting presence in the Holy Spirit has been given so that we might be united, so that we might be one.  Unity isn’t just nice or something mildly helpful.  Unity is how we manifest God’s glory, his indwelling presence on this earth.

In this passage, glory is not so much described as mentioned with the assumption of common understanding.  When recounting Jesus’ prayer, the gospel writer John knew that his audience would hear glory and connect with kavod, or God’s glory as presented in the Old Testament. There are numerous instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where the appearance of God’s glory is described. 

In Exodus 34, after encountering the LORD on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments, Moses descends from the mountain and returns to the people of Israel.  Somehow, the presence of God was reflected in Moses’ face, which shined so brightly that the people were afraid and Moses needed to wear a veil.  In Exodus 40, upon the building of the tabernacle, the glory of Yahweh settles in the Tabernacle and Yahweh dwells with his people.

In the book of Ezekiel, God’s glory departs before the impending judgment.

In the New Testament, God’s glory is manifest through God incarnate, through the person of Jesus.   “The Word became flesh and walked among us” as John said in chapter 1, “and we beheld his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has been God’s active presence on earth.  Jesus mentions in John 17 that he has brought the Father glory by his work on earth.  He also says that his glory was given to him by the Father and that he is passing the glory onto his followers.  Jesus’ followers are promised the Holy Spirit and become the current manifestation of God on earth.  We, as the church, are now tasked with manifesting God’s presence and continuing the work of Jesus.  A key part of this is our unity.

            Just as the Father and the Son are one, so we too are to be one—unified in identity, function, and purpose.  In this way, we demonstrate God’s glory.  The primary manifestation of God’s glory today is the church: the body of Christ is Christ’s present presence.  What does this mean?  God is great and glorious always. He doesn’t change.  But we do not manifest God’s glory when we are not in unity.

The glory of God is made manifest in our unity. Do our own actions, does our own disunity affect how well God’s glory is overtly manifest on this earth?  It seems to be so.  If we do not have unity, then the primary ongoing exhibit of God’s glory is hidden.  This is somewhat scary—as it should be. For some reason, Jesus was willing to handover, to transfer the task of being God’s presence on earth over to us, as followers of Jesus indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

We as the church, the body of Christ, should understand it to be our weighty calling and burden.  We must labor diligently to put aside divisions and power grabbing and hostage taking and factionalism.  We must learn how to constructively work through conflict, learn to talk with one another, understand one another, love one another, and serve together continuing Jesus’ work so that God’s love might be known.  The manifestation of God’s glory depends on it; continuing Jesus’ mission and sharing God’s love depend on it.  Jesus prayed “may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Sisters and brothers, we must labor diligently to make unity in our own congregations, which have a tendency to die or be torn apart or to push pastors out by our infighting.  We must diligently labor as congregations in the same district to partner together, worship together, and learn from each other.  We must diligently labor as a denomination to fellowship together, serve together, and genuinely love each other despite deep theological differences.

To be clear, unity is not uniformity.  Our unity involves understanding our common essence (indwelled by the Spirit), common function (called to be the hands and feet of Jesus), and common purpose (to share the love of God together).   Our mission in this world depends on our unity.  The manifestation of God’s glory on this earth depends on our unity.

In Jesus’ prayer, there is a connection between God’s unity, our unity, and the glory of God. It is when we are in unity that we are able to demonstrate God’s glory—that is, be the manifestation of God’s presence on earth through our relationships with each other and through continuing Jesus’ acts on this earth.