UP AND DOWN

Mark 9:2-9

Jeff Davidson

What was the best day of your life? Was it the day you got that puppy or kitten for Christmas? Was it the day you graduated from high school, or from college? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you got the promotion at work? The day you retired? The day you won the lottery? If it was that one you’ve been holding out on me.

As maybe you could tell from the timeline of my suggestions, you might have lots of best days in your life. What the best day ever is right now could be eclipsed by some other day yet to come. I still remember when I was a kid and we got our first dog, a dachshund that we named Fritzie. I remember waiting in the car with my mom and my sister while Dad went into the house of the people we got her from. I remember how excited I was watching him walk back to the car holding her, and how wonderful it was to hold on to her wiggly little body while she licked my face. That may have been the best day in my life, at least to that point.

Would I trade graduating from college, though, or from seminary, or marrying Julia for that day again? No. But even though it’s no longer the best day of my life, it was a great day.

Sometimes we refer to wonderful days, fantastic events like that as “mountain top experiences.” A mountain top experience is a moment of transcendent joy and happiness, a moment of supreme importance in life. I wondered where that expression came from, so I played around on google for a while and I couldn’t find a firm background for it, but most of what I read said that the phrase came from the number of important things in the Bible that happened on mountain tops.

Noah’s ark settled on Mt. Ararat after the flood, and God made a covenant with Noah there. It was on Mt. Moriah that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, and then provided a ram as a substitute. Mt. Moriah is also where Solomon built the temple, where sacrifices would be offered for the forgiveness of sins until Jesus came.

On Mt, Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. On Mt. Carmel Elijah and the prophets of Baal had their great contest to see whose prayers would be answered by fire. And after the contest when Elijah ran for his life he travelled to Mt. Horeb and God spoke to him in the still small voice. David built up Jerusalem on Mt. Zion.

Jesus taught His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today’s reading is about Jesus being transfigured on a mountain while Moses and Elijah (who both had their own mountain top experiences) were seen talking with Jesus. And it certainly was a mountain top experience for James and John and Peter too. I cannot imagine what it must have been like.

On April 3, 1968 – the day before he was assassinated – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last public speech. It’s known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” because of its most famous section. It’s a great speech, and toward the end of it King says:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That’s a powerful speech. Some of the power, of course, is because King was murdered the next day. Even if that hadn’t happened, though, it would be a great speech. King said that he climbed up to the top of the mountain; what did he do from there? 

I said that I remembered picking up our first dog, Fritzie. What happened next? Well, we took her home. Dad had built a little bed for her, and it went under the sink in the half-bath. It had a cushion in it, and some blankets, and a clock wrapped up because we’d read that the ticking of the clock would remind her of the heartbeats of her brothers and sisters.

I don’t remember the next day exactly – this was maybe when I was in kindergarten. But I’m sure that someone fed her, and someone let her out, and someone walked her. It was probably Mom, since she wasn’t working outside the home then.  After we brought Fritzie home and played with her that first night is when the work of actually owning and caring for a dog really began.

I remember what it was like after my wedding day. We went to Atwood Lake for a few days for a honeymoon. After that we came back home and opened gifts, and then Julia went back to work and I went back to class.

What did Moses do after he went up the mountain? He came back down with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to break them in frustration at the sin and depravity he found. He then went back to the hard work of leading the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness. What did Noah do after leaving the Ark? He came down the mountain and lived another 350 years. He was a farmer and he had a vineyard. He drank too much. He lived his life.

 To answer my earlier question, what did Martin Luther King Jr. do after he had gone up to the mountaintop? He came back down, and continued the struggle even though it cost him his life.

In that, King and Jesus were alike. What happens after Jesus and James and Peter and John go up to the mountain top? They come back down, and Jesus heals a boy possessed by an unclean spirit, and then Jesus discusses his impending death and resurrection.

You can’t live on the mountain top. Sooner or later you have to come back down and get on with the rest of your life. Eventually you have to do your work, earn a living, share your gifts, and do whatever it is God has called you to do.

Even if you could live on the mountain top the rest of your life, would you want to? My wedding was a mountain top experience for me. Do I really want to live the rest of my life in a perpetual wedding? I don’t even have that same charcoal gray suit anymore. Imagine how much sooner it would have worn out if I’d worn it every day after the wedding. I don’t remember exactly what kind of food we had for our wedding reception, but whatever it was I guarantee I would be sick of it if I had eaten it for every meal from then until now.

If I had spent the rest of my life trying to recapture the happiness of that one particular day, I would have missed a lot of growth and a lot of joy and a lot of love in my own life as I have lived it. I would have missed the chance to deepen my love and my relationship with Julia. I would not have become the person that I am, for better or for worse, and would not have touched whatever lives I have touched since then.

In verse 5 of our reading Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Suppose Jesus had taken him up on it. What next? Well, that might have been okay for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but there would have been no shelter there for Peter or James or John, so they would have been out in the cold until they could have gotten some. And would they have had food and drink? Jesus and Moses and Elijah would probably have been fine without wine or fish, but mortal men like Peter? Not so much.

No, Peter didn’t really want to stay up there. He’d have realized that if he’d thought it through for a bit. And if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain top, then that boy would never have had the demon cast out. And there would have been no cross. And no resurrection. And no salvation. No kingdom of God to share, no justice to proclaim. No release for the captives, no food for the hungry, no comfort for the mourning.

It was essential for Jesus’s ministry that if he went up the mountain, then eventually he should come down. It was essential for everyone else that we talked about earlier. Moses went up on the mountain and saw the promised land, but he had to come down before the people could enter it. King went up to the mountain top and echoed Moses in saying that he might not get there, but he came down to continue the journey no matter what it would bring. It is essential for us that when we are on the mountain top that we come down to continue to work that needs to be done, to continue moving towards the goal that we see in the distance.

There’s something else that’s essential that we don’t always think about. We need to be ready not just to come down from the mountaintop ourselves, but we need to be ready when we are waiting on the ground for others to come down from the mountaintop.

I remember a young man who went to the Church of the Brethren’s National Youth Conference or NYC. That’s a nationwide gathering of high school youth in the church. It’s once every four years, and about 3,000 youth gather for fun, prayer, worship, learning, service, and a lot more. It’s usually held in Colorado and it is a mountain top experience for most people who go there both literally and figuratively.

The young man I knew was the only high school aged person in his congregation. He came back from NYC excited, enthusiastic, on fire to share and to serve. His congregation, though, didn’t have any outlets for him to do that. There was no youth group for him to be a part of. There were no college age youth. There were no particular opportunities for service. There wasn’t much institutional support.

I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. I do know that he came down from the mountain ready to serve God, but the people waiting for him weren’t prepared to help him turn that energy and that drive and that fire into positive action.

Maybe you have mountain top experiences yet to come. I hope you do. I hope you’re ready to come back down from the mountain and move towards what you saw while you were up there. Maybe you’re not going up the mountain right now. I hope you’re ready to help those who are coming down from the mountain, ready to equip them and support them and strengthen them as they put their dreams and visions into action.

Sometimes we’re going up, but sooner or later we will come down. Whether we are up or down, we can serve God. We can share the kingdom. We can work towards seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. Amen.       

STARTLING, UNEXPECTED, STRANGE

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:46b-55

Jennifer Hosler

The fourth Sunday in Advent

Last year at this time, our nephew was acting in a stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The theatre version was not a typical re-enactment – but was re-framed as a live, 1940s radio production, complete with sound effects created by Foley artists. The setup enabled my nephew to play both a young George Bailey (Hot dog!) and, later, George Bailey’s son Tommy. It’s a Wonderful Life, while one could say it’s a little sappy, is a pretty great secular Christmas story. One man realizes how his life and actions affect the community around him. It’s about re-framing from hopelessness to hope.

The movie was successful upon its release in 1946 and it continues to be a classic. It’s even playing today in several movie theatres around the city. What I learned yesterday surprised me: upon it’s release, the FBI suspected that the movie was part of a broader Communist plot. Apparently, according to a recent Washington Post article, “J. Edgar Hoover’s Communist-hunting agents thought it was a Trojan horse sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses” (Andrews, 2017). Many in Hollywood were under surveillance and more than 200 movies were examined for “Communist Propaganda.”  Some of the screenwriters for It’s a Wonderful Life were “known” to eat lunch with people who were “known Communists” (this, of course, is in the paranoid FBI assessment of the time).

The agent was tasked with scrutinizing the movie “wrote a report claiming it ‘represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’” (Andrews, 2017). Of course, this is true – Mr. Potter is greedy and cruel. The agent also wrote that the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” This was considered “subversive” and reported to the House Un-American Activities Committee which, thankfully, allowed the movie to keep playing.

While J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy were paranoid about the Communist threat, they clearly hadn’t understood that the true, biblical meaning of Christmas is rather subversive. It’s right there – right in our readings. Today, I imagine that most Christmas or holiday movies are what people would deem to be “wholesome” (aka. not radical). They might talk about family or love or generosity, which are all good things, of course. But as a church, we can’t focus only on a feel-good, sentimental Christmas because that would be a false picture from what we see in Scripture.

The biblical message we see in Luke isn’t wholesome. It’s startling, unexpected, and strange. It’s scandalous. It’s feminist. It’s radical and subversive. It’s mystical. It’s full of outcasts and folks who are on the margins of society. The Christmas story we see in Luke 1 is about God doing something that was considered obscene (knocking up an unmarried mother) – and working to turn the world as we know it upside down.

If the FBI wanted to find a subversive Christmas story, Mary’s song to Elizabeth is exactly so. It highlights what God regularly does and will do again: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. The Commie Committee really should have looked inside those bibles that everyone was swearing on back then, to truly weed out the message that, today, most subversive to the American way of life.

There are many ways to preach our passages today and I had hoped to focus on both Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and Mary and Elizabeth – but then we’d be here all afternoon. As this sermon came together, what came out most distinctly was a focus on Mary, seeing her encounter God in a way that is startling, unexpected, and strange—and still say yes to all that would follow. Mary has been both neglected and hyper-idealized; I’m trying to aim for something in the middle.

 Setting the Stage of Luke 1

Our passage in Luke 1, though it is not far from the beginning of the chapter, has a fair bit of storyline before it. First, I should say that the broadest context of the gospels is a drought: the people of Israel and Judah have had 400 years without a prophet, without hearing a word from Yahweh as they did during the days in exile or when they returned from exile. There is a drought in hearing from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The people are now under Roman rule, suffering under an occupation. This oppression and marginalization, this hunger for spiritual and social deliverance, is the big context of Luke and the Christmas story.

Earlier in Luke 1 (what we didn’t read) is a story about a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage, did not have children, which was a significant and sad circumstance in the ancient near east and in Greco-Roman times. As all priests did, Zechariah rotates to serve in the temple. A once in a life-time opportunity comes to him: he is selected by lot to offer incense in the holiest of holies, in an inner sanctuary part of the temple. Zechariah goes in while the whole temple is full of people waiting for him and praying outside. While offering incense, an angel of the Lord appears next to the altar. Zechariah is terrified and overcome with fear.

The Hebrew word for angel simply means messenger, while the Greek word specifically connotes a messenger from a deity. Contrary to popular fascination with angels, angels don’t take up a lot of space in the Bible. Prophets and priests and ordinary humans do most of the LORD’s work, with angels popping up occasionally. Yet after 400 years of silence, it makes sense to have a clear-cut, unearthly messenger to deliver the good news that God is speaking again.

Zechariah is cowering, but the angel reassures him, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel then delivers a message that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, will finally conceive in her old age, and the son would be a special part of God’s plan – a prophet like Elijah, full of the Holy Spirit (who later becomes John the Baptizer).

Zechariah isn’t certain that this is the real deal. You’d think, though, that an angel in the temple, in the holy of holies, would be kind of legit. Dude, look at the setting around you. Zechariah asks for a sign (as if an angel isn’t enough) and the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one who serves in the presence of God. The sign that Zechariah gets, after not believing the word, is that his own words won’t come out. Zechariah goes on mute for the next 9 months.

People realize, when Zechariah comes out of the inner sanctuary, that something unexpected has happened. Zechariah’s gesturing and can’t speak. But then things go back to “normal,” he goes home, and reunites with his wife. Miraculously, the promised baby John takes hold in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth begins preparing at home for the baby, in “seclusion.” This was probably a mix of cultural expectations with pregnancy and taking it easy because of the risks of miscarriage in any pregnancy (let alone in an elderly woman).

Here am I

Luke’s readers would have had all this in their minds when they get to verse 26. Our passage begins at Elizabeth’s 6th month (as an author, Luke likes to date things specifically). We learn that this scene is north of Jerusalem, in a town called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. While the names don’t mean much to us, it would be clear to the reader that the setting is not anywhere important in either the Roman world or in Israel.

The readers have already been introduced to Gabriel, so Luke uses his name and continues with Gabriel’s second mission: he’s been sent by God to Nazareth to go talk to a young, unmarried woman named Mary, who’s engaged to a man named Joseph, from the lineage of King David. Again, it would be clear to the reader that this Mary lady is not someone who is important, well-known, or with any real status of her own. Young, unmarried women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, pretty much equated to children.

Gabriel greets Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” The person and the greeting are startling, unexpected, and strange. My paraphrase of Mary’s internal response is, “Um… what is this?” Luke says that she was reflective in the awkward silence post-angel greeting: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Poignantly, Mary is not worded as being terrified or scared and is certainly not overcome with fear. She doesn’t know what this startling, unexpected greeting, by a strange messenger, means exactly—but she’s definitely hanging around to find out. Contrast adolescent Mary’s response with that of Zechariah and, later in Luke 2, the male shepherds in the fields. Mary doesn’t lose her cool while everyone else freaks out when they encounter angels.

Gabriel, having just dealt with a terrified Zechariah, says, “don’t be afraid!” and gives her a rather startling, unexpected, and strange revelation. “It’s good news! You’ve found favor with God.” I should mention that finding favor with God in the Bible typically brings with it some type of call or burden—a task to complete or a mission to fulfill—and it’s not all roses. It’s usually something heavy, with great personal risk, like the calls of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Mary, this nobody from a backwater part of Israel, is being drawn in to something much bigger than herself, into the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation, deliverance, and reconciliation.

Gabriel continues, “You’ve found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, which means deliverer or saving one). He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s one detail that catches Mary’s eye, and rightfully so, since she’s a young, unwed woman who is engaged to a man: “How does this work, since I have never slept with a man?” Culturally and religiously, she presumably would not until she married Joseph, the wedding date for which was likely not yet set.

Gabriel explains: “The power of the Holy Spirit will cause the baby to be miraculously conceived within you, making the child holy and set apart for God. And though you didn’t ask for a sign, I’ll give you one: your relative Elizabeth is also expecting a child and is six months along. For nothing will be impossible with God” (paraphrase). With this information, Mary decides. It’s not assumed, after all, that she’ll say yes – she’s not a helpless tool, but a human with agency and even the ability to say no to God.  But Mary doesn’t say no. She answers using the language of many faithful people before her in Scripture (like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah), “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The words, “Here am I,” are used throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the faithful response to God’s call—one that involves complete availability for God to work, even in startling, unexpected, and strange ways. At this commitment by Mary, Gabriel departs.

There are many things to pull out from this text. One of the most important, particularly considering how women have been treated by society and the church over the centuries, is that here (here!) is an example of a faithful follower of God who undertakes an enormous task for the good of God’s plan. She believes this wild and absurd message from the angel and trusts that Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who worked through Moses to lead to Israelites from Egypt—is that same God who will lead her through the ridicule and shame of her pregnancy to deliver and raise the Messiah. Several commentators emphasize that Mary’s call here matches the pattern for other “heroes of the faith,” the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.  

And yet we Protestants don’t typically put Mary up there as our example of discipleship along with Moses or Isaiah or others. It’s clear from the literary context and pattern of her call that we should value Mary more. Mary is blessed – not because she’s a woman. Not because she was pregnant and had a baby, but because she believed the word of God and said, “Here I am – ready to be an agent of God’s work in this world.” This text is radical and liberating for women, but it stands for all people (men and women) as an example of saying yes, agreeing that God can make you an agent of God’s reconciling and redeeming work in this broken, sinful, and hurting world.

From Bilbo and Harry to Mary and to Us

Across literature, storytellers have often depicted people from humble or despised circumstances getting drawn into something bigger than themselves. Their humble origins—their nobody-ness—stirs up our imagination and helps us picture that we, too, could be in their place. That we could be brave and fulfill difficult and unimaginable quests.

Bilbo is an ordinary hobbit, who likes things that are comfortable and warm, with a close supply of provisions always at hand. Harry Potter is a twerpy, orphaned kid who is belittled by his caretakers and lives in a closet under some stairs. Dorothy is also an orphan and lives with her aunt and uncle in Kansas, of all places. Each of these figures steps out into something more than they could have ever dreamed, into a big arc of good versus evil. There’s something biblical about all of that.

We see in the Bible that Yahweh regularly works through small-town nobodies (or, more accurately, that the Creator of the universe disregards the world’s “wisdom” on who is important). God repeatedly does things that are startling, unexpected, and strange, calls people we wouldn’t expect and brings them in as agents in God’s story. That story is the Christmas story, of Immanuel, God coming to be with us in Jesus, to bring justice, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the universe.

Sisters and brothers, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves – if we are willing, like Mary, to say yes to God. For some people, saying yes might involve something flashy (like preaching or speaking prophet truths directly in front of powerful people), but most often it involves quiet faithfulness.

The angels and virgin birth are kind of flashy, but parents know that 30 years of parenting Jesus until his ministry started was definitely not at all glamorous. Love and kindness, mercy, building relationships, doing administrative tasks, mowing a lawn: these quiet tasks are what fills out the story, defining us as workers and agents in God’s Kingdom, in bringing all people and all creation into the healing, reconciliation, and justice of Jesus.

Saying yes to God can lead to startling, unexpected, and strange things. If you look through scripture, it’s never easy – but the rewards involve being part of this grand, universal story of God making all things new. Whatever the world says about your status, rest assured that God regularly and consistently reels in the world’s “nobodies” to make them important agents in God’s work of healing and reconciliation. God calls each of us to take up our role in the work. Have you said yes to God? Are you continuing to say yes to God, on this journey?

If you don’t have a congregation or a community around you to explore God’s call on your life, we at Washington City Church of the Brethren would love to walk with you on this journey together with Jesus. Questions and questioning highly welcome.

Sisters and brothers, may we take heart and take courage in the faithful example of Mary, who trusted that God would do what was promised and stepped out in faith, courage, and hope.

 

References

Andrews, T.M. (2017, December 21). ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a holiday classic. The FBI thought it was communist propaganda. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/12/21/its-a-wonderful-life-is-a-holiday-classic-the-fbi-thought-it-was-communist-propaganda/?utm_term=.f34784cefbae

 

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.

O PRISONERS OF HOPE

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Zechariah 9:9-12, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Nate Hosler

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

O prisoners of hope! You will likely recognize the Messianic strain. This riding triumphant and victorious—humble and riding a donkey shows up again. Matthew 21 references the first part as Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphant and humble on a donkey in fulfillment. The hope of the prisoners of hope is pinned on him. Jesus, the Messiah, the revelation of God, rides in ushering the kingdom of God, which is not the same as others. “He shall command peace to the nations…Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Jesus is the revelation of God. The revelation of God changes things.

When standing on the Mt of Olives, the direction from which Jesus road this donkey one can see a gate blocked shut. The Ottomans recognized that the entrance of the Anointed One, the Messiah, would be through the Golden Gate, and it is thought that for this reason it was sealed for the third and final time in 1541. This is taking the revelation seriously—perhaps not appropriately, but seriously.

Sarah dies at 127 years old. Abraham wants to bury her and there is a back and forth about him paying or not paying for the land. In the end, he pays and buries her in Hebron. This place is still revered as the “Tomb of the Patriarchs” – This site has been a place of struggle. The structure is a divided worship space. Massacre of worshippers in of 1994. Occupation of Hebron from the Six-Days war of ’67.  Christian Peacemaker Teams have been working there for years. History, particularly religious history—the sites of revelation—continue weigh down on the land.

Abraham then calls a servant and says go get my son a wife but from among our people—which, since he followed God’s call to go from his homeland, is not just down the street. The servant loads camels, which are either included in the text anachronistically, or were some of the earlier domesticated camels (At least according to the archeological notes in our Archeological Bible) and sets out on his mission.

There are several verses that would seem to fit a particular pious/romantic sort of genre. A sampling of these verses:

“ I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’

15 Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, … coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. 16 The girl was very fair to look upon..” 

The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.”

 While describing the passage at dinner to our neighbor Fabian on Friday—Jenn described the servant’s asking for water and Rebekah’s response—Fabian, nearly unprompted, noted that it sounded rather suggestive.  Our college had version of this. At least the joke was that people went there to find a spouse and since everyone was there training for ministry there was a particular way of talking. Now of course, many of you know that Jenn and I met almost immediately and even got married while still in college—so given this reputation and how it went for us, we (at least for a while) felt the need to say that this stereotype was not us. For one, when I came to school I was dating someone back in Pennsylvania. She even stayed in Jenn’s room while when she came for a visit the first semester. Additionally, upon arriving on campus I was feeling rather grumpy about needing to meet an entirely new group of people after shifting communities about 4 times in the two years between high school and college (being an introvert and having lived in the same spot my entire life up until this point made these moves quite tiresome).

So, my first (joke) point is–Pious romanticism is biblical-what I hear in this passage in some way  feels like a pick-up line or TV drama but inflected through a very particular spiritual vocabular. This was the joke—which had some truth in it from college—so instead of a questionable line about ___it was about prowess in biblical interpretation or perhaps instead of a cheesy line about destiny it is about God intending for us to be together. More generally (and more seriously), however, the narrative does two things. It gets us further along the journey of God fulfilling the promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will be made a nation (ya’ gotta have babies) and more specifically God revealing and leading the way into finding a wife for Isaac—which is the next step in this promise after the birth of Isaac. God reveals the way forward.

God reveals the way.

God reveals the way but we don’t always (often?) hear it.

Our Matthew passage has always felt literarily pleasant or at least brings up a nice if somewhat cryptic mental image. A group of children in a market place fluting and urging to dance. It would seem odd that I’d never quite focused on it but as I focused on it this week the very simple teaching became clear. The passage reads,

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

The response of the hearers did not match. To fluting or piping one dances. To dirging one mourns. The next section lists cities where teaching happened, noting that even the most infamous example of Sodom and Gommorah (which were burned by fire from heaven for not listening in Genesis 19), saying that if the things done in these cities were done there, they would have listened and repented.

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 

God reveals.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Jesus is the revelation of God. God reveals. This is not general insight. But, as seen in Genesis, it is not necessarily only in some sort of esoteric subject matter. There have been a number of books and articles written in the past 10 (?) years considering the creative process. Though I was quite interested, I was apparently never quite interested enough to get around to reading any of the actual books but merely hit a few articles. What seemed to be a central debate or fascination was the possibility that there was either something inside certain people (say a type of creative genius) or that there was a type of “secret” trick to having a sudden flash of insight versus those who asserted that the “insight” came from focusing on a problem or subject matter for a long time. Though the insight might come in a particular moment it is because one has become intimately connected to the situation, subject, or problem.

There is a fine line between persisting through challenges and stubbornly not changing or stopping long after this or that is no longer viable, feasible, or a good idea. Of course, the insight might be seeing that in fact hope is not lost. Or recognizing that we are now just burning our last bit of resource. In a movie, it would be the hero pushing through and in the end, being victorious—in real life this might just be failure.

But what does the Spirit factor into this? How does God’s revealing play into this?

A few weeks ago Micah suggested and then invited those who take part in planning worship to meet to discuss and think about next steps as a church. We met on a Saturday morning and I was not feeling it. He rightly noted that there had been some definite changes in the past months and that though we have been getting to a more stable place it seemed critical to take a step back and reassess. I went into it feeling tired and discouraged. Afterwards I felt a distinct lightness of spirit.

On Tuesday night we embarked on a heavy conversation about the future of the soup kitchen. I began feeling extremely tired and discouraged. Again, as we finished, I felt a distinct lightness of being. Was this the Spirit nudging? Was it the simply the prospect of relief from something or a decision that creates anxiety? Was it clarity after looking a “problem” for a long while? In Zechariah, the coming of the humble king—who we now know as Jesus—reveals. In Genesis, the servant of Abraham is sent to find a wife for Isaac, and Rebekah is revealed through her answer to his request for water. In Matthew Jesus exhorts paying attention and responding rightly to the revelation of God. God reveals. Let us wait and listen. The passage concludes,

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

SEEDS, TREES, AND THE UNEXPECTED

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Jennifer Hosler

As most of you know, this congregation has been going through a visioning process. Why did we start a visioning process? We recognized that the church had gone through transition and that it was moving away from uncertainty toward wholeness, healthy relationships, and vitality. During our visioning conversations, we thought about our past, present, and future strengths: who we are now and who we want to be in the future. During this process, we’ve discerned that we want to be an “inviting church.” We want others to feel welcomed and drawn in. We also want to actively invite people to get to know who we are and who Jesus is. We want to invite people into God’s story: a story of grace, of community, of simplicity, of peace, and of love.

Last week, we held a recap session where we asked, “What’s next?” How do we move forward in our visioning? One step is crafting a tagline—a description kind of like a mission statement that can illuminate who we are as a church. Beyond a tagline, we thought the Ministry Team could assist the visioning process by preaching through the themes raised in our visioning conversations. Two weeks ago, I spoke about love and arrogance—topics important to consider when shaping the ethos and values of our community. Last week, Jeff preached about simplicity and caring for God’s creation.

Today, I’m going to lead us through a few vignettes related to inviting. They may not seem connected at first, but trust me—we’ll get there. Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God calls His followers to be a part of a big Story, God’s story. In our 1st Samuel passage, we see that being part of God’s story can sometimes be terrifying—but we also see God providing enough strength and courage to see His people through.

In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations. Finally, in our 2 Corinthians text, the apostle Paul teaches that the hope we have in the Gospel is what compels us to share the Good News with others. Having become a part of God’s Story, we invite others to join in and experience the same grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love.

Fear and the Scariness of Being Part of God’s Story

When Nate and I were working in northern Nigeria, our supervisor encouraged us to take a vacation in northern Cameroon, the border of which was only 10 to 20 miles away. A big highlight was our stay at Waza National Park, a wildlife refuge that hosted giraffes, water buffalo, lions, jackals, and elephants. One afternoon, we weren’t able to go on a safari because of the heat, so we explored the area around Waza. Waza had these big rounded mountains that looked like someone dropped half of a moon on the open savannah. Big rocky circles rose up out of the flat lands. Since the mountains looked like an interesting adventure, Nate and I set out to climb one to the top.

One particular thing to note about this mountain is that there was no specific path up: the mountain was pretty much solid rock. Rounded rock, not sheer or cliff-like, but rock nonetheless. Another important piece of the story is that I sometimes have issues with heights. I was a clumsy kid growing up and I think my body learned to tell me, in the interest of self-preservation, “you shouldn’t be here because you’re going to fall and we’re going to die.” While I grew out of the clumsiness, I can still get pretty wobbly when I’m high up.

Climbing up the mountain went well at first—until it started to get steeper and it was still just all rock. No trees to grab onto. No railings. No ropes. Just smooth, rounded rock getting steeper and steeper. I froze up, way too afraid to go further. Seeing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, Nate took my hand to give me stability and we continued our way to the top. From the top, the view of the Cameroonian savannah was spectacular. It had been scary—but it was definitely worth it.

Fear can often be a barrier. It can be a barrier to beautiful views and exciting adventures. Fear can stop people from making new friends or committing to relationships. Fear can also be a barrier to faithfulness. There are times when we may feel God’s calling on our lives and fear causes us to withdraw and play it safe in our comfort zones—missing out on extending God’s love or building God’s Kingdom.

Fear is a very common human experience. We see people wrestle with fear in scripture. Numerous characters in the Bible struggled with fear and were almost overcome by it. Fear was a barrier for Moses—Moses, of all people. Moses saw a burning bush and heard the voice of the LORD. The LORD gave him a calling, “Go down and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!” Yet Moses was afraid to fulfill the task that the LORD gave him, to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the LORD.

Another Israelite leader, Samuel, whom we’ve talked about these past few weeks, was also afraid to fulfill God’s call. Samuel had already had a significant part in God’s story. His mom had been childless and the Lord answered her prayer, allowing Samuel to be conceived. Samuel had heard God’s voice at an early age, had spoken on behalf of the Lord, and even anointed Israel’s first king. Yet after all that, he was scared to fulfill a task that the LORD had given him.

Let’s set the context of 1 Samuel 15 and 16. Israel’s first King, Saul, made a bunch of bad decisions and the LORD regretted that he chose Saul as King over the Israelites. The LORD announces to Samuel that a new king needs to be chosen to replace Saul, a king who will be devoted to the LORD. Samuel, who had been close to Saul and knew that Saul had some violent tendencies, is terrified. Samuel says, “I can’t do what you’re saying, Lord. Saul is going to find out and it will be horrible. He’ll probably kill me.” The LORD convinces Samuel that he can indeed fulfill the task. “Samuel, I’ll work with you. This is what you should say.” Samuel is instructed to go to Jesse’s house and to sacrifice an offering with them.

Samuel meets with Jesse and his sons. One by one they come and Samuel sees handsome, tall sons and thinks, “This is it! This is the new king of Israel.” But the Lord says, “No. It isn’t who you would expect.” They all pass by but none of them are chosen and Samuel asks, “Uh, Jesse, got any more sons?” Jesse does have one more son – apparently not important enough to include when you’re introducing “all of my sons.”

Jesse calls for the youngest, a shepherd named David, who arrives in from the fields, probably stinky, yet noted as handsome. He’s somewhat “ruddy” or weathered from all his time in the sun. Though David is the last one who was expected, he is anointed king over Israel. With God’s guidance, Samuel worked through his fear—and it led to a new and unexpected chapter in God’s story. David becomes the most famous of all Israel’s kings. Being a part of God’s Story can sometimes be scary and terrifying but God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see His people through.

 Faithfully Planted Seeds Grow Beyond Our Control and Expectations

Our gospel passage this morning takes a different direction than our Old Testament passage. In Mark 4, we meet Jesus by the sea. He is telling parables to his disciples and there are crowds gathered around them. Parables in Jesus’ day were commonly used by religious teachers as both illustrations, riddles, and metaphors. Jesus told stories in order to get his message across, especially to his disciples. He wanted them to think so he used parables to paint image pictures of God’s Kingdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches about how the Kingdom of God plays out in ways we wouldn’t expect, things like the last will be first, the poor will be rich, or the small will be made mighty.

In Mark 4, Jesus tells several parables about the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells his listeners that the Kingdom of God is like sown seed. A farmer sows seed on a field.  The farmer rises and goes to sleep but really doesn’t do much besides watching the grain grow. The sower sows the seed – but there is an unseen force and process in nature that causes the growth, the maturity, and brings the grain ripe for the harvest.

Jesus tells another parable, still about seeds – but a specific type of seed this time. Jesus tells his hearers that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all the seeds (at least known to them during that time), it grows into the biggest plant in the garden – so big it is almost like a tree – and all types of birds can make their nest in there.

It is pretty astounding: a tiny seed, just two millimeters big, can produce a huge, tree-like shrub. Let’s put Jesus’ parable another way, the Kingdom of God is a place where the tiniest acts of faithfulness can lead to unexpected and marvelous growth. In our gospel passages, we learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Being Part of the Story Prompts Us to Bring Others In

Numerous companies know that free advertising is the best advertising. I sometimes see companies trying to gauge my opinion and encourage me to spread the word about them. On our anniversary vacation last month, Nate and I stayed at an Airbnb rental. As you may know, Airbnb is a website where people can rent out rooms or homes or other types of accommodations, booking them solely online. Guests rate hosts and hosts rate guests—and that helps everyone to know whether someone is creepy or gross.

After our vacation, I filled out a review on several aspects of our stay and, at the end, Airbnb asked me how likely I was to recommend them to my friends and family, on a scale of 1 to 10. Airbnb does this because they know an important truth: if you have had an amazing experience, you are probably going to tell someone about it. If you loved your stay or the process of booking or something else about Airbnb, you are going to recommend the company to others.

We see something similar in our 2nd Corinthians passage today. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 (and I’m paraphrasing), “Because we know who the Lord Jesus is, because we are a part of God’s story, we try to persuade others. We don’t want to make it about ourselves—it’s not about Paul being awesome. But the love of Christ is what urges us on and we’re convinced about the gospel of Jesus! The message is that God became flesh, that Jesus died and was raised that everyone might die to sin and brokenness and be raised again to new life.”

“Jesus died and was raised for everybody,” Paul says, “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but live to be a part of God’s great story” (paraphrased, 2 Cor. 5:11-15). Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope prompts us to invite other people into God’s story of grace, community, simplicity, peace, and love. This inviting should happen at multiple levels—we invite as individuals, as families, and as a congregation.

During our visioning process, we tried to define what we mean by inviting. We want to invite people to get to know us as a congregation (who we are), and we want to do this through hospitality, events, and worship. We want to invite people to learn about God’s great story, of what it means to experience community, grace, simple living, and love. We want to invite people to become part of our covenant community, a group of Jesus followers bound together by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Friends, these vignettes of scriptures give us three lessons for today. First, becoming an inviting church, becoming inviting people, will probably not be easy and it may likely be scary.  It might mean that we share more of our lives with others, make new friends, or explore new ways to serve and minister. Being a part of God’s Story can be scary and terrifying. Yet God is able to provide enough strength and courage to see us through.

Second, you might be discouraged that you don’t have a lot to give to God. You may not know how or what you can do for the church or God’s Kingdom, but God is willing and able to bless and make fruitful what you offer.  We learn from Jesus’ parables that faithfully planted seeds—however small—can grow in marvelous ways, beyond our control and often exceeding our expectations.

Third, God has called us to be a part of His great Story. In order to be “an inviting church,” we need to reflect on how God’s Story gives us hope, joy, peace, reconciliation, rest from weariness and busyness, and provides us with community and love. Because we are part of God’s great story, our hope should prompt us to invite other people into God’s great story.  Sisters and brothers, let us be filled with God’s courage for the sometimes scary journey of becoming an inviting church. Let us remember that we serve a Living God whose Kingdom takes small seeds planted in faith and makes them into trees. Let us live into God’s great Story and work to welcome others in. AMEN.