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.       

THE FARTHEST LIMITS OF THE SEA

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Genesis 28:10-19a

Jennifer Hosler

Have you ever run from God? Have you ever felt emotionally and spiritually unsettled, disturbed, not knowing what you needed—and then realized that God is providing exactly what you need? I have. Psalm 139, which we used as a call to worship, is one of my favorite psalms. When I am feeling confused, when I’m feeling distant from God (perhaps because my prayer life or my reading of the Bible have been minimal) or when I’m avoiding sitting down with God because of something I don’t want to face or acknowledge, this psalm somehow comes to mind and brings me back. I might not realize my own emotional or spiritual state—I might be a hot mess running on empty—but, as we see in the psalm, God knows what we need and when we need it. God is with us wherever we go, whether or not we recognize it.

This psalm helps me recognize my desperation, my hunger, my need for God—for the Creator who knows me better than I know myself, who has crafted me with tender care and who is concerned for my life.

Somehow, it prompts me to stop, it takes away the façade, it opens my heart: “What can I say, God?” I’ve been running. Or I’ve been complacent. Or I’ve been consumed with things that are frivolous or I’ve been thinking that I can do everything on my own, without remembering or acknowledging that my strength and peace come from You. You. You with a Capital Y.

The Psalm starts with, O LORD—LORD in all caps, meaning David was using the special name for God, Yahweh, the I AM. He writes, “O LORD, You have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You discern my thoughts from afar—You know what’s going on in my head and my heart, what is consuming my mind and energy, my fears and hopes. You, God, are watching my every move”—but not in the creepy way, in the loving and protective parent way. You know what I’ve been doing/thinking/feeling, where I’ve been walking and journeying. You are acquainted with all of my ways. God, You know me better than I know myself. You go before me and behind me, and You put Your hand upon me.

I honestly can’t fathom this, God knowing me so intimately and carefully. It blows my mind. And David says that too: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, is so high that I cannot attain it.” I can’t wrap my head around the fact that the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life. Can you? Can you repeat after me: the Creator of the Universe is intimately concerned with my life.

No matter how hard we try to flee—flee from facing our need for God, relying on God, following God’s call for our lives, God is still with us. We can’t outrun God. David asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

The psalm continues on in this vein. David ends his song with what seems like repentance, or a reorientation to the Way of God. David writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

We don’t know in what part of David’s life this psalm was written. It could have been after a wayward moment (the Uriah/Bathsheba incident or another one). It could have been that David wasn’t worshipping or praying or talking to the prophets or priests much at the time. Perhaps David is just so caught up in the affairs and riches of his kingdom that he lost his spiritual centering. Whatever the case, David realizes he needs to reorient his life to God.

He recognizes the closeness, the intimacy, and the faithfulness of God—who would not leave him no matter how hard he tried. David understands this and says, “God, I’m Yours. Take my life. Lead me on Your path.” When we recognize God’s pervasive love, it draws us to pivot and to orient or reorient our lives to know, love, and serve God more deeply. [repeat]

Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It

Psalm 139 describes how God pursues us wherever we go and how the Creator of the universe is deeply concerned with our well-being. Our other passage, Genesis 28, is a narrative that illustrates these truths. It presents the story of the patriarch Jacob, who has a surprise encounter with God. Jacob remarks after this meeting with God: “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!”

If you’ve been here the past two months, you may know we’ve been popping in and out of Genesis. We heard from Micah about Abraham and Sarah with some visitors, about Abraham and the almost sacrifice of Isaac. Nate preached on Abraham’s servant going on a quest to find a wife for Isaac. There’s a lot of neat and bizarre stuff in Genesis, that can be both perplexing and encouraging. It’s worth your time, even though the Hebrew scriptures can be a little harder to directly apply sometimes, especially with narrative books. The Hebrew Scriptures were Jesus’ bible and are indeed part of our Bible, even if we say things like the New Testament is our creed. It lays out foundational truths about the Creator, about God’s plan to reconcile and restore the world.

Assuming that we all don’t know Genesis cover-to-cover, I’m going to give a little crash course on the context of Jacob’s life, connecting him to some of the characters we’ve heard about in past sermons. We’ve heard about Abraham, God’s promise, and the miraculous conception of Isaac despite Sarah and Abraham’s ages. God commits to bringing forward the promise through Isaac, testing Abraham’s faith. Isaac marries Rebekah, who was willing to water the servant’s camels. Isaac and Rebekah then have problems conceiving, though they aren’t as old as Abraham and Sarah were. Isaac prays and the LORD provides, doubly: Rebekah has twins.

The pregnancy is curious. We learn of an ominous tussling: the babies in her womb are thrashing about and Rebekah is perplexed. She hears a prophecy that her babies will end up as two competing nations, with the older serving the younger. A nice message to welcome you to parenthood. Rebekah delivers her babies and again, things are a bit odd. The first one comes out red and hairy; he is named Esau. The second baby (smooth-skinned) exits the womb while holding onto the heel of his big brother. Named Jacob, or “he grasps the heel, or he supplants,” the rivalry is already starting.

Jacob and Esau are very different kids. Esau is a hunter and farmer who loves the outdoors. Isaac loves Esau especially. Or, rather, Isaac loves the deer and other game that Esau brings and cooks for his dad. The way to the dad’s heart is the belly in this story. Jacob is quieter and is an indoors-type (staying in tents, the text says). Mom loves Jacob more. Parents, child favoritism doesn’t seem to bode well, according to scripture.

In a strange turn of events, Esau gives up his first-born status in exchange for some stew cooked by Jacob. Exactly why Esau was so famished or why Jacob was inside cooking—I don’t know. The stage is being set to paint their characters. Esau is rash and Jacob is cunning. Esau marries two Hittite (Canaanite) ladies and that doesn’t make the parents happy. Papa Isaac gets sick and decides to give his blessing to his oldest son—after Esau cooks up a good meal. Momma Rebekah hears this and crafts a plan to disguise Jacob as hairy Esau, cook a good meal, and get all the blessings. Which happens.

Jacob gets blessed and Esau is left with almost nothing. Esau plots to kill Jacob. Rebekah hears and convinces Jacob to flee, under the guise that he should find a wife from her extended family back home (where the camels were watered). Isaac agrees to this and, interestingly, blesses Jacob again, but with a different blessing. This blessing connects Jacob to the promise to Abraham: “May God go with you and bless you, allowing you to multiply. May God give you the blessing to Abraham, so that the land we are on can be yours.”

And now, with that context of trickery and plotting and rivalry, with the threat of sibling murder and some blessing thrown in, we come to our passage. Let’s say it again: Genesis isn’t boring. We meet Jacob just after he has left home, going to his Uncle Laban’s house in Haran. One commentary says the journey would have been about 400 miles, or 20 days’ journey (Rigsby). Imagine your brother might kill you. Yikes. You’re going to look for a spouse. Yay. Which leads me to think there was a verifiable mixture of emotions on a lonely 20-day journey.

On one of those twenty days, Jacob stops for the night and prepares to lay down. He finds the softest looking rock and uses it as a pillow. If this was a play, the stage directions would say, cue the DREAM SEQUENCE; enter the ANGEL ESCALATOR. Jacob dreams a fantastic dream, with a ramp or a stairway reaching from earth to heaven. Angels of God (probably shiny messengers as opposed to winged creatures) are going up and down. Heaven and earth are connected! While the vision is important, the words spoken are more important than the setting, so don’t get too distracted by the stairway to heaven (Brueggemann). I’m not sure if there were guitar solos.

The LORD, Yahweh, shows up next to Jacob and reiterates the promise that was made to Abraham: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

I’m going with you. I will keep you. I will bring you back. I will not leave you. At that, Jacob wakes up and exclaims, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I didn’t know it!” Jacob is awoken from sleep but also from his inner monologue about his tricks and their consequences.

Walter Brueggemann notes that Jacob encounters God in a vulnerable state—a deep sleep. Perhaps, at other times, Jacob had his guard up. God shows up in a way that can grab Jacob’s attention. Jacob is surprised that God would be present in the wilderness, on the journey.

Jacob proceeds to set up his rock pillow as a pillar, pours oil on it, and has a ceremony to mark the occasion, to remember God’s revelation and promise.

There are several lessons that I see from Psalm 139 and our story of Jacob and the angel escalator. Lesson 1: When you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God shows up. God showed up for Jacob in a place where Jacob had no clue that God could do so. We saw David the psalmist write that you can’t run from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you.

What circumstances or settings do you think are the least likely for God to show up? In your individual life? In your family life? In our church life together? In our neighborhood, city, or country?

Lesson 2: God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. God promised not to leave or forsake a weird, shifty scoundrel like Jacob, who had a death threat against him and a very uncertain future. God took this unlikely protagonist and used him to create a people for God. Jacob’s name eventually gets changed to Israel, he has 12 sons, who became the 12 tribes, and so on. Joseph, Egypt, Moses, Red Sea, Promised Land. God is willing to take you and me and all of us, and walk with us into a future that we cannot imagine, a future where we are witnessing to God’s freedom, deliverance, mercy, and love.

Lesson 3: Recognizing the presence of God, comprehending God’s immense love and care for us, involves a response from us. David asks God to transform and purify his heart, leading him forward into God’s path. Jacob recognizes that God is present, and worships. When God shows up, what will you do? How will you mark it? How will we mark it, as a church? Are you listening, are we listening enough to recognize when God shows up? “Surely God is in this Place—and I didn’t Know It.” How will you respond, when God shows up?

Sisters and brothers, if you’re wandering, or when you least expect it, God will show up. Maybe God is showing up for you today, right now. Maybe it is on your commute or when you are laying your head down on, what I hope is, a softer pillow. Maybe you are running from God. No matter where you end up—the deepest part of the sea, the sky, the bowels of the earth—God will find you. God will show up and God promises to be faithful. God will not leave us. God will see you and me and all of us through, even if the future is uncertain or bleak. When God shows up, when you are confronted with God’s immense love and care for you, how will you respond?

 Benediction: Sisters and brothers, God is seeking and calling you. God is showing up. Can you see it?

Great is Your Faithfulness, O LORD. From ages past, You have shown Your faithfulness and care, revealing Yourself to Jacob, to David, and revealing Yourself most fully—in the flesh—through Jesus. Open our eyes to Your love and care for us. Search us, know our hearts, and lead us in Your way everlasting. AMEN.

ROOTS

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Monica McFadden

While I was studying abroad in London this past year, I got completely hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown.” If you haven’t heard of it, the show follows the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II and her experience acclimating to her role as Queen, including the many struggles involved with politics, the royal family, her marriage, and the country as a whole. Watching it as an American, someone coming from a background where the idea of a monarchy seems so foreign, a concept that goes against the very nature of the founding of our country, was pretty fascinating. The series touches on many aspects of the monarchy that aren’t often discussed, one of the most intriguing for me being the relationship between the Sovereign, or the reigning monarch, and Parliament. The Queen and Churchill would have conversations where he would reference her duties as the Sovereign and how she was appointed by God to her position. The viewers can see the weight of this responsibility in her wide-eyed gaze.

Of course I, being extremely curious about all of this, turned to my flatmates, classmates, any native Brits I could, and asked them about their thoughts on the monarchy. I got a variety of answers, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from “no one cares about the monarchy” to “I absolutely love the royal family.” Most people in my generation in the United Kingdom seem to fall somewhere in between—they kind of see the cultural significance, but for the most part, it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives, and it feels a little outdated and pointless. However, one person I asked had a different opinion. Partly, perhaps, because he held some more traditional beliefs about these types of things, but he had a deep respect for the Queen, somewhat mirroring that of the older generation.

Basically what he said was this: the reason the Queen means so much is that she, a woman who has been raised to be an expert in her role, has seen the fluctuations throughout multiple eras of political turmoil, from the aftermath of WWII through Thatcher, and even Brexit; she’s the constant through all of it. When I asked if he believed she was appointed by God he said, after a moment of thinking, that no, he didn’t, namely because he didn’t believe in God, but that she may as well have been. Because she has a incredible wealth of knowledge, and although she has seen political waves come and go, she must remain unbiased and solid.

There was something mesmerizing about hearing it described this way. The American tradition has nothing like this, which makes the monarchy feel like living relics bearing the shiny worth of an ancient history.  The United States has somewhat of a fascination with the British monarchy and the royal family; millions of people tuned into William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I think this fascination has a lot to do with the lack of a type of sacred history in many American traditions—the thing that makes the monarchy so enchanting is its promise that it’s something bigger, connected to God, these people tap into a larger knowledge, they’ve been trained for this since birth, they’re mysterious. It can feel like a massive, sacred thing, even if, in reality, it’s mostly political and carefully crafted.

In many ways, I think our generation and our country has lost touch with the sacred. But people seem to be searching for it, grasping at experiences and traditions of other peoples to get back to some sort of root, something to reach out into the earth and connect with our past and with others.

Many people have taken to using the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe their faith. Scholars and theologians have spoken about why this concept is inadequate, and I agree with many of these arguments, but it’s understandable why people feel more comfortable with this phrase at times. Being frustrated with the church, being frustrated with God, isn’t just normal, it’s basically required for being part of the church—frustration is laced throughout the Bible, and sometimes just identifying as “spiritual” is easier, less of a commitment to a specific history that you may or may not agree with.

In this passage from Jeremiah that was read this morning, the prophet’s lament can feel quite familiar. Not because of any similarity in circumstance—I’m not exactly overwhelmed with the word of God “like a burning fire shut up in my bones” attempting to warn people about violence and destruction—but instead, it feels familiar because he’s upset with God, which is quite relatable.

My relationship with religion and with the church is largely characterized by doubt, frustration, or confusion. I spent the majority of my teenage years identifying as agnostic, something I often still relate to. But after a few years, I realized that, growing up in the church, regardless of my wavering beliefs, I still had a home and a community there; I still felt very Brethren. The sacred things I grew up with were still sacred.

There is a deep comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in my faith journey, anointing will still be there to bless me at important times, the hymns will still be there to offer words of courage and beauty, Love Feast will still be there to surround me with a strong community. These things don’t change, and that’s what the church is about. Providing roots, sacredness, a history, to a spirituality that is ever-fluctuating. It requires a community to support you and hold you accountable, to be challenged, part of something larger than just you.

Hearing my friend talk about the monarchy felt like reaching for something like this—it’s bigger than you, older than you, has seen more of the world than you, generations upon generations, and has withstood the test of time. There aren’t many histories like that in America anymore, and people are desperate to find one. Some look to the monarchy, some look to other cultures and religions, many end up with Frankenstein practices stolen from a variety of places: “I have the ohm symbol tattooed on my wrist, I’m really into crystal healing, I have a Buddha head on my shelf…” None of these practices are wrong on their own, but it becomes clear that many are missing a deeper connection, a true recognition that each of these have sacred beginnings.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in this—go to Urban Outfitters and buy yourself a sacred starter kit, if you will. Especially when we’re disillusioned with the church or with God.

Jeremiah’s lament to God eventually evolves into praising him, as he works through his frustrations. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers,” he says at the end of the passage. I may not be very good at this part, I’ll admit. I don’t work through my doubts very quickly, and often times “singing praises” can feel very foreign to me. I tend to quietly mull things over, notice the sacred begin to creep in again.

Last year at Annual Conference, a place that can be too often filled with anxiety and anger, there was a moment during worship when a video played, mostly overlaid with a pretty, anonymous piano song. In the middle of the stock music, the song transitioned into a few verses of the old hymn “It is well with my soul,” and slowly, quietly rising out of the congregation, people began to hum and sing along. It happened naturally and spontaneously, and soon the whole room was singing. We, who had spent business sessions frustrated and speaking across a chasm, were reminded of what we had in common; why we were really there together.

Sometimes, this is what sacred means. Sometimes, this is what it means to have the same roots.

Sometimes, it means rediscovering old traditions and old tales in new ways.

And so I leave you with this: a reimagining of a familiar story, something I wrote my senior year of high school, a reminder of our sacred roots together.

Beginning

The darkness, the great wind, surrounded her in the open air. Her hands were vast and set the sun, tweaking out the rays and coaxing the hydrogen into helium; her hands were delicate and stenciled in the constellations. She slowly crafted planets, small and cold, gargantuan and swirling with gases. She painted nebulas onto black velvet, the blueprints captured from her eyes.

A light breath rolled back seas, revealing a rich black earth beneath, laced with the seeping aroma of a musty rain hanging in the atmosphere as a simple vapor. Her baton flicked swirling symphonies of emerald, magenta, and gold, the deep bass notes crawling in as indigo and sienna. Fluttery mint and whispering ivory petals burst along the ground in a smattering of marimba strokes, the lowest spreading ivy up timber fortresses.

The tiny, intricate beings of the waters grew before her eyes as millennia passed. They emerged onto the land as new creatures admiring each other’s gleaming limbs. They threw out newfound feathers and bones of air and leapt onto eddies of passing wind. From an alto melody of her lips sprang legions of lithe, galloping beings.

Many of her creations fell back to the soil. New ones took their place.

She had not created anything that had the same stars fueling her being as she did. None to search the azure above for her and to sing back her arias. She tried many times to assemble these new creatures, basing them from the ones that already graced the earth. She became frustrated and sailed to neighboring galaxies. She gathered dust and particles from the dying stars and from the newest stars and with the same elements formed the wise, with skin like the earth they tread on. They spoke to her among the trees and dreamt of her in the wind. They saw everything on the earth for its origins and its future; every particle.

They took control of the flames that flowed through volcanoes and forests. They painted as she had before, preserving all her work. They taught her new things she had not predicted; stories sewn together as she had never known before. She had formed the mind for thought, but emotion came where she had not foreseen. Their veins pumped their hearts with roots, tying them to one another.

Slowly, one followed by another, roots were torn out, some with vigor and others accidentally cut away in pruning. For the first time, she saw stars go out of their eyes, the first thing in her universe that felt truly dark. They began to tend to these roots very carefully, adjusting their footing, and gave the soil sweet river water to drink. Those with too-dark eyes sometimes disrupted these delicate ecosystems but, if one opened them up, they’d find equally mangled roots threaded into their veins. If these roots were untangled and cared for, the stars crept back into their irises, softly blinking in violets and blues. 

Prayer

Please pray with me.

God, who crafted the deepest parts of the Earth and the furthest reaches of the stars,

Help us to come to you with our frustrations and anger, sifting through our everyday lives to see your sacred, holy touch.

Roots, hold us close, show us our shared histories and our shared futures together.

Amen.

Benediction

May you see God’s ancient roots in traditions old and new.

Go in peace.

UNKNOWN AND UNSEEN

Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

Jeff Davidson

Today’s reading from Acts is about Paul’s visit to Washington, DC.

Okay, it’s not about Paul’s visit to Washington, DC – but it could be. Let’s set the scene and step back to a few verses before our Scripture reading begins. Paul is in the Greek city of Athens because he is fleeing from Jews who want to imprison and kill him. This didn’t start out as a missionary trip; it was an escape arranged and financed by some of the believers in Berea.

After Paul arrives in Athens, verse 16 says that he was distressed to see that the city was full of idols, and so he began going out into the city and discussing things with some of the philosophers there. Some people weren’t sure of what Paul was trying to say, and other folks kind of got it but didn’t’ understand all of it, and so Paul was taken to the Areopagus.

The Areopagus was a cultural center in Athens. There were a lot of temples, there were debates, and there was a court that met there. Some scholars think that Paul was there as a kind of guest lecturer and others think that this was something of a trial for preaching about a foreign god. That’s not clear from the Biblical text.

Either way, when Paul got to the Areopagus the folks there invited him to speak. Starting at the end of verse 19, they said “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’” The Bible then adds, (“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”)

I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me a little like DC. In terms of religion, there are all kinds of churches and temples to all kinds of gods around town. The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington includes nearly a dozen different faiths – and by faiths I don’t mean denominations, I mean Muslim, Jain, Christian, Zoroastrian, large faith groupings. If we broke each of those down into various denominations and sects and sub-groups, there would be hundreds, let alone the number of buildings and gatherings and synagogues and temples and churches and whatever that you could find. I couldn’t begin to guess how many thousands of buildings like that are around town.

And then we get into other kinds of temples. There are plenty of secular temples and idols around DC. We call them statues, or memorials. We don’t think of them as objects of worship, and for most people they really aren’t, but think about it. When you see a Christian cross someplace, what is the person who put that cross there hoping you will do? Broadly speaking they’re probably hoping that you will take a moment and reflect on Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. They’re intending you to think about Jesus and his meaning in your life and how you should respond to him.

Isn’t that what people do at the Lincoln Memorial, except that there’s no resurrection there? Isn’t that at least one of the points of the Einstein Memorial, or the statue of Robert Taft, or the Vietnam memorial? I’m not saying those are churches, but people sometimes treat them as if they are and while there aren’t people that I know of who literally worship Robert Taft or Albert Einstein there are a lot of people who could see them as idols, as people to be followed and emulated. And that’s not even getting into the secular temples that are government buildings, buildings that are designed to inspire the same awe as a magnificent church or a temple in ancient Greece.

It’s not just the buildings, either. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” That sounds kind of like DC, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t say people here do nothing but talk about ideas, but it is a popular pastime and for lots of people it’s their job, this is one of the think tank capitals of the entire world and one of the media capitals of the world. That’s good work and valuable work. And that’s just policy and law type stuff, before we get into gossip and entertainment and everything else. Yes, I think that when Paul was in Athens, in many ways he might as well have been in Washington, DC.

The difference is that here in DC, God is not unknown. Jesus is not unknown. I mean, here we are, right? We’re Christians, we know about Jesus, we’re in DC. There’s another Christian church a half block that way, and another one a half block that way. Jesus is not unknown in DC. God is not unspoken of in this town. Many policymakers and many who lobby policymakers invoke God and their own moral code to support one policy or another, whether they are of the left or the right. Jesus is not unknown in DC.

Or is he? I have to admit that it sure feels like Jesus is unknown sometimes. There are times when I read the news and I think that none of our political leaders have ever heard of Jesus. That making Christ real in the world around us is impossible. That whatever I have done or anyone else has done to make Christ real has been in vain, that my efforts are hopeless, and that I should just give up.

David Lose, the president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, writes words of hope when we feel that way. “You have an advocate! Someone who is looking out for you. Someone who is on your side. Someone who encourages you and supports you. Someone who speaks up for you and is willing to hang in there with you through thick and thin.

“So, before going forward, take a moment and think about what it feels like to hear that – that someone has your back, that someone is invested in your future, that someone will not give up on you…no matter what.

“It feels good. More than that, it feels like a relief, especially when you feel like your back is up against the wall. Even more than that, it feels empowering, like when someone is with you and for you, you can take risks, you can try things you didn’t think you’d try, not because you won’t ever fail, but because failure won’t destroy you when you’ve got this kind of support. You can try, and try again, and try yet again because you have an advocate.”  (www.davidlose.net)        

That’s true. I know that’s true. In our reading from John, Jesus is about to go to Gethsemane. He is trying to prepare the disciples for what is to come. Hear again what he says to them: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

I know that is true. I know that Jesus left us the gift of the Holy Spirit. I don’t always live like it, though. I don’t always live like I believe God is with me. I don’t always live like I think the Advocate has my back. I don’t always live with that kind of courage, that kind of strength, that kind of faith.

People in DC today have it all over people in Athens a couple of thousand years ago because we know about Jesus. Many of us even know about the Spirit. Yet despite that Jesus and the Spirit can remain unknown and unseen.

They remain unknown and unseen when we don’t have the courage to live out of our faith. They remain unknown and unseen when we don’t claim the power of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate, when we don’t put our faith above our comfort, above our convenience, above our kin, above any other consideration we may have. They remain unknown and unseen, even though we may know them and may have seen them at one time or another.

The only way that Washington DC will truly see and know Jesus and his Spirit is through the way we live out of our faith. That’s how it was for Paul. Athens knew nothing of Christ before Paul’s arrival. Even though Paul had just gotten chased out of Berea, and he was in Berea because he had been chased out of Thessalonica. Nevertheless, when Paul found himself in Athens he went to the marketplace and preached and he went to the Areopagus and preached and he made Jesus known. He made Jesus real through his words and his actions and because of that, people believed.

How do we make Jesus real? How is Jesus seen through our words and through our actions? That’s our call not just as Christians but as members of this congregation. We are a congregation who seeks justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. We are a congregation, we are a people who seek justice, wholeness, and community by living out the good news of Jesus, by making Jesus real.

We cannot do that alone. We need the Spirit, the Advocate, to help us be advocates. And just as the Spirit advocates for us before God, we can advocate for others in a variety of settings and we can advocate for Jesus and his values wherever we are.

I’ve heard folks say that they can tell everything they need to know about a person by looking at their library. If you look at mine you’ll see a lot of books on baseball, and a lot of mystery books, and some short story collections. You’ll see a few history books, a dozen or so theological or devotional books, a half dozen Bibles in different translations, and some humor books. What you won’t see is Jesus.

You don’t see Jesus by looking at books. You can learn about Jesus in books, you can pick up some of Jesus’ history in books, you can gain information about Peter and Paul and Israel and Moses and all of that from books, but to truly see Jesus you have to look at people. You have to look at people who claim Jesus is their Lord and see how it is they live their lives.

When people look at us, what do they learn about Jesus and the Spirit? Do we make Jesus real with our lives, or does Jesus remain unseen and unknown here in the metro DC area? Amen.