Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Call for action from the Bishop

TO: All United Methodists FROM: Joseph Harris, assistant to the bishop/director of communications, Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church

URGENT: You are asked to contact state officials TODAY, via email, about House Bill 2774, a proposal that would negatively affect our United Methodist camp ministries, particularly Canyon Camp near Hinton. HB 2774 would repeal legal protections for nonprofit church camps and recreational areas under Title 82 (water and water rights). The proposal has been introduced in the state House and referred to the Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Dale DeWitt. He has scheduled a meeting about the proposal for Tuesday. That timing causes Oklahoma Conference leaders to seek your quick response on this matter. Below is a copy of my letter, which you may choose to adapt for your own email message. In the subject line, put OPPOSE HB 2774. I am sending the letter to Rep. Dewitt, who is the author of HB 2774; to Rep. Chris Benge, speaker of the Oklahoma House; and to Jeanette Nance, who is the governor’s liaison to the Secretary of the Environment. Their e-mail addresses are: daledewitt@okhouse.gov Chrisbenge@okhouse.gov jeanette.nance@gov.ok.gov Your voice can be powerful to help stop this proposal in its early stages. Thank you. Joseph Harris

EMAIL MESSAGE-- The Honorable Rep. Dale DeWitt Natural Resources, Chairman Oklahoma State Capitol I oppose the passage of HB 2774, which seeks to repeal the protections afforded nonprofit camps and recreational areas in law under Title 82. There is no compelling reason to change the law, and I respectfully request that you withdraw this bill from consideration. HB 2774 would put legitimate recreational facilities in jeopardy, including destroying United Methodist Canyon Camp near Hinton, a ministry that has existed for more than 50 years, serving the people of Oklahoma. Title 82 protects our camps in unique ways because all swine-feeding operations require water permits, but not all swine operations require licenses from the Department of Agriculture. Procedures have become well established in the past 10 years and are working. The system is not broken. Respectfully, Rev. Dr. Joseph Harris Assistant to the Bishop, Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church E-mail: jharris@okumc.org Phone: 405-530-2077

Monday, February 25, 2008

Feb 24th sermon inspiration: High Noon

When I was thinking about what I was going to say this past Sunday, I was inspired by a sermon of my dad's from a couple years ago. Though my homily was much briefer, here's his sermon on the John 4 text.

Biblical scholars tell us this story of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is the longest recorded conversation of Jesus with anyone in scripture. Barbara Taylor expands that hermanuetical fact by saying, “Jesus talks… longer to the woman at the well than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to any of his own family!” (Christian Century, February 28, 1996)
In any other communications venue that fact alone would draw attention to itself, causing observers to focus on what is said, the context in which it is said, and what it might mean. In today’s world, notorious or famous people are often hounded by paparazzi and if they can’t get to the star himself, they try to at least get to the one the star talks to or is seen with the most. A frenzy of such is not associated with the story of the woman at the well, surprisingly enough. Perhaps there’s a reason
Being in “the wrong place at the wrong time” comes to mind as the story unfolds. It’s a centerpiece on the map that might chart the “tension” between peoples… yes, there’s some “history” between these people and they have “issues” based on years and years of hatred and distrust.
If we’re keeping a travel log with Jesus, John records the journey and says “Jesus left Judea (which is in the south) and started back to Galilee (which is in the north).” “But he had to go through Samaria.” Humm… Think of a place in your world that is fraught with tension between peoples—a place that is revered as the spot where that tension is memorialized and you might get a better picture of the tension Jesus’ disciples felt about being in Samaria. As to why Jesus had to go through Samaria and stop off at Sychar, who knows, but doing so wasn’t what typical Jews did. But then, what’s typical about Jesus? Because of the racial hatred of most Jews for Samaratins (and vice versa), most would have simply crossed the Jordan River and gone, out of their way, north, toward Galilee, to avoid any contact with these people who were considered half-breeds and hated since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Somehow, Jesus felt it was necessary to go straight through Samaria, ignoring custom. So yes, there Jesus was at what most would consider being at the “wrong place,” but what about the wrong time?
We learn immediately from the storyteller that it was “about noon,” straight up, sun at the top of the Palestinian sky, noon. Hot, I would presume. There Jesus sits, without a bucket, by Jacob’s well in the middle of Samaria, when a Samaritan woman walks up to the well with her own bucket, probably carried on top of her head. Nothing unusual about that…, right? High noon at Sychar by Jacob’s well? Humm… “Respectable women made their trips to the well in the cool of the morning, when they could greet one another and talk about ‘the news.’ But this woman was one of the people they talked about, and the fact that she showed up by herself at high noon was a sure sign that she was not welcome at their morning “go-to-the-well” social hour. (Taylor) So, before a word is even exchanged, the stage is set in this “wrong place at the wrong time” encounter in John’s symbolism-laden gospel for tension-filled moments.
The first person to speak is Jesus. “Give me a dink,” he says. Are you aware of some of the rabbinical tradition that surrounds what most of us would call such a simple request as his, “give me a drink?”
· “…A man should hold no conversation with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, still less with any other woman, lest other men should gossip!” (Humm… and you though only women gossiped!)
· “A common theological ‘argument’ in Jesus’ day was: does a woman have a soul?” Women certainly were not allowed to worship with men, and one of the men’s devotional prayers in the morning went something like, “Thank God I am not a woman.”
· “The rabbinical tradition from Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus was ‘…he that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to one that eats the bread of swine!”
That makes the instruction I grew up with as a child, “don’t drink after strangers,” sound pretty lame.
Needless to say, the dominant feeling on the Jews side was repugnance toward their Samaritan neighbors. So, understandable, Jesus’ simple request, “…Give me something to drink,” was enough to throw the woman off guard. While Jesus might have had no problem in breaking his own culture’s racism and sexism in order to ask for a drink, there was certainly no guarantee that the woman would reciprocate!
The central issue for the discussion at the well is obvious—water! For two thirsty people (Jesus and the unnamed woman) I find it a bit funny that they both spend an inordinate amount of time talking about water, something they both long for… but such is the style of John’s gospel, full of symbolism, irony, and, of course, words!
Jesus ignores the woman’s barbed comment, referring to the so-called impropriety of a man asking a woman for a drink. In fact, he still asks for a drink, certainly aware of the custom in Palestine that a weary traveler, sharing a drink of water with another person actually enters into a social contract with that person. According to that custom, Jesus, asking for a drink of water was offering the woman friendship. Yet she was a Samaritan, there at Jacob’s well at high noon. John would have us see that Jesus could see more in this situation than the woman realized, as he would reveal later.
Jesus mentions “living water.” She replies curtly—“Where do you get that, you don’t even have a bucket!” Or, as we might say, “Who do you think you are?” And, instead of living water, bubbling to the top, all those years of ethnic hatred and division bubble to the top, so she asks sarcastically, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?” Yet again, Jesus refuses to be pulled into the tension of ethnic squabbling. His reply is inclusive, “everyone who drinks this water I can give them will never be thirsty again!”
Who could blame her for her response… finding something which would quench a thirst eternally! Who wouldn’t want that? She wants it! Give it to me, so that I won’t have to keep coming here in the heat of the day when all the other women who judge me and scorn me come in the early morning cool of the day, leaving me to come here alone.
Then, it seems to me that Jesus says something that seems completely out of context for the story… “Go call your husband.” And with that, a Pandora’s Box is opened, revealing some of the saddest parts of this woman’s existence. She has no husband. While she may have longed for a relationship that would quench that thirst for companionship, love, and nurture, all she had found in five relationships was dryness, being used, and being used up… to the extent that even now, the relationship she is enduring is illicit. Little wonder that no townswomen have befriended her and invited her to the well to draw water at the more reasonable time of the day. She’s literally an outcast amongst the Samaratin outcasts! An outsider, as Taylor says, a “triple outsider”—a woman, a Samara- tin, and a woman whose relationships with men are in question. Yet she is the one Jesus talks to, longer than anyone else in the New Testament! She is the one to whom Jesus offers friendship, living water!
Her response is so revealing of the kind of people we are. First, she was bowed over that Jesus asked her for a drink of water in the first place, now he’s seeing right through her, it would seem, to the very depths of her soul, to her most intimate need; and she can’t take it! So, thank God for religion! She uses religion as a barrier for when things are get too personal! Sound familiar? No, she didn’t quibble about how to baptize or how much water to use. She didn’t talk about the nature of the Trinity or predestination or original sin, like we sometimes do. For her, there at Jacob’s well, a more relevant religious question was “What’s the most holy place, Jerusalem or Gerizim?” What a tactic! Hide from God and others behind religious quibbling.
“You can hardly blame her,” Taylor writes. “If he knows about all her husbands, there is no telling, what else he knows about her, and she decides she would rather not find out. It is time to introduce some mental static so that the man with the X-Ray eyes cannot read her so well, time to step back from him and cover herself up again. But it does not work. When she steps back, he steps toward her. When she steps out of the light, he steps into it. He will not let her retreat. If she is determined to show him less of herself, then he will show her more of himself. ‘I know that the Messiah is coming,’ she says, and he says, ‘I am he.’ It is the first time he has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.” (Taylor)
Understandably, she is changed! The disciples return from their go-for-lunch-run down the road, shocked (as any Jewish man would be) to see Jesus sitting by the well talking to a Samaratin women—but they don’t say a word about it.
And we see just what this evocative story is really all about. Belief in Jesus by a religiously ostracized group is what this story is all about. The story is about religious tensions and a church (the one to whom John addresses his gospel) which, in its origins, sought to overcome them, even while the attempt itself caused new tensions! (Interpretation Commentaries—John, Gerard Sloyan Fortress Press, p. 51)
The Church of the 21st century finds itself at high noon as well, midst some of the most controversial and tension filled places of our time. Our divisions have new names, but our self-righteousness and judgementalism are still the same. Like the Woman from Sychar, we too can engage in religious “dancing around the issues,” quibbling about this or that even when the Christ himself sits amongst us, ready to help us out of our parched, dry lives.
The woman’s testimony which was most compelling to even her fellow townspeople was: “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! Can he be the Messiah?” (John 4:39) The quench for her deepest thirst was found with that look into the very depths of her heart, as through Jesus’ love, he broke through all the barriers of racism, sexism, and even religion to find God! In so doing, she found her true self and found that that living water was there, within her, bubbling up to overflowing. God who made both Jew and Samaratin had put it there, though it was stifled and choked back by all of life’s “isms.” It mattered not that she was a woman. It mattered not that she was a sinner. It mattered not that she was a Samaritan. It mattered not that she could parrot religious arguments. She, like the apostle Paul, could say, “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:8)
I believe hers is that kind of testimony that makes a difference. It is that kind of testimony that draws others to Christ. It is that kind of testimony that breaks down all barriers… and, considering the tensions we face today, it’s the kind of testimony that must be made today.
If the ones making such a testimony today make you feel uncomfortable, remember the testimony of this woman who came to the well, dutifully seeking water but found living water. Many in her judgmental and self-righteous town became believers who truly knew that Jesus was the savior of the world. In the heat of the day and the tenseness of the moment we need such a savior. I pray we won’t turn his messengers away when they come shouting the good news… “I have found the Savior and he told me everything I have ever done!” If we do, we and our Church might die of thirst.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rest in Peace, Dilly

Dilly Russell, a resident of Okmulgee, went to be with the Lord on Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at the age of 90 years, 7 months and 21 days. She was born on Friday, June 29, 1917 to John and Orpha (Dye) Aggas in Morris, Oklahoma. On May 21, 1942, she married Jayrene Russell in Ayer, Massachusetts. She was lifetime member of the Morris United Methodist Church and she devoted her life to her family, church and her Lord.
She was preceded in death by her parents, John and Orpha Aggas; husband, Jayrene Russell in 1998; six sisters and five brothers.
Survivors include one son, Jim Russell and wife, Sofia of Tulsa; one daughter, Janet Ruckman and husband, Dean of Tulsa; five grandchildren; three great grandchildren; two step-grandchildren and five step-great grandchildren.
Services will be held at 2:00 p.m. Monday, February 25, 2008 at the Shurden Funeral Home Chapel in Okmulgee with Reverend Nathan Mattox officiating. Burial will follow the service at the Okmulgee Cemetery under the direction of the Shurden Funeral Home of Okmulgee.
Visitation will be held Sunday from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and Monday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Shurden Funeral Home Chapel in Okmulgee.
Friends may send their condolences to www.shurdenkelley.com

Monday, February 18, 2008

Feb. 17 sermon "Ready to Go"

Genesis 12: 1-4
John 3: 1-17

I remember when I felt a calling into the ministry. I had grown up in a minister’s family, so the terrain wasn’t unfamiliar for me. The calling was nourished through the efforts of the church. I had been to a national event where attendees explored a calling into ministry held in Los Angeles of all places.
The calling was a collection of experiences, really, and I’ve shared some of those experiences before. When the calling into ministry crystallized for me, it was in a hotel room in Dallas that I was sharing with my dad. He was a DS in Little Rock recruiting black ministers at a conference there to come to Arkansas, and I was a youth minister at Bartlesville attending a week long school for Youth Ministry at SMU. When my father suggested to me that ministry was a profession where I could utilize and pursue all of the various passions that I had for teaching and organizing and visioning, I heard the idea again as if for the first time. The invitation to consider ministry had a freshness to it. So, I followed. I went home to Bartlesville and talked about it with Lara, and then began doing the various things that our denomination requires of a candidate for ministry.
I applied to seminaries, and Lara applied to post-doctoral internships, and we left it in God’s hands. Lara’s process of application left less room for “choice” than did my seminary application process. She applied and interviewed at several locations around the country, and then ranked her preferences. The internship sights ranked the candidates, and wherever one was “matched” was where one went for their internship. And lo, it came to pass that Lara was matched at her first choice at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and the one seminary to offer me a full scholarship was Claremont School of Theology.
I remember envisioning I-40 as a Yellow Brick Road of sorts, that God had his hand in our journey and would give us guidance along the way. It was the kind of shepherding that even though I had heard the stories all my life, I didn’t realize I could actually depend on from God. I didn’t even panic when our U-haul broke down outside of Elk City!
Abram was called to go. God didn’t give the destination, He just called and asked if Abram was ready to go. God asked Abram to leave behind his country and clan and start over again. That is the theme of Lent. Are we ready to go? All of our self-examination should be oriented toward this question.
There is a promise involved. This is called the Abrahamic covenant. God does not give instructions for his journey, just a destination and a promise that God will make Abram great. Likewise we can’t rely on scripture to give us a detailed roadmap—instead what we find there is a promise of inheritance. But for this inheritance to be claimed, we must leave behind our self-constructed inheritances and reputations. We must not rely on our own efforts, but must learn to trust God’s promises.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about a journey as well. It is a journey from one state of being to another.
The Greek word an├Áthen can mean either "from above" or "again." Nicodemus takes it to mean "again," whereas Jesus has the first meaning in mind as is evident from the ensuing conversation. Nicodemus asks how anyone can be born again after having grown old. "Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?"
John is fond of having Jesus say something, only to be misunderstood by the hearers, which then provides an opportunity for Jesus (or John) to explain the true meaning of what was said. Nicodemus grossly misunderstands what Jesus has said. Yet what Nicodemus says is utterly true on another level. One cannot start all over again. In a crassly literal sense, it is unthinkable to reenter the mother’s womb and be born again.
But even when understood metaphorically, a new beginning is not too likely in human terms. Can there be newness of life? Can hereditary characteristics be changed? Can old habits be broken? As long as one thinks in human terms as Nicodemus does, the possibilities are slim. But Jesus offers another possibility: one can be born from above, or as v. 5 states it, one can be born of "water and Spirit.
Are new beginnings possible? Can human beings be transformed? Can an older person like Nicodemus find spiritual renewal? The answer, ironically in this case, is that a miracle from heaven is needed! "You must be born from above." Human self-improvement and determination will not suffice. Scrupulous, Pharisaic adherence to the law will not do it. How can one experience a new beginning after a lifetime of entrenched habits, solidified routines, and hardened character, not to mention hereditary and genetic traits? Can such a person experience the renewing power of the kingdom of God and be transformed by it? Apparently that is how John’s community has understood the message of Jesus and is bearing witness to that message.
So, Abram is given the promised land, and that is one way of understanding God’s promise—a place which is physically bound and identifiable. Jesus speaks of another destination where we are said to have our “second birth:” the Kingdom of God.
One who enters the kingdom of God by being born of the Spirit has experienced the reign of God, which cannot be experienced by someone who is simply born of the flesh. This is in keeping with John 1:12, which states that those who have received the power to become children of God were born "not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." This involves a complete reorientation of one’s goals, desires, affections, values, and the direction of life. Everything is oriented toward the kingdom of God as the center from which life is lived out.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Eugene Peterson translates Paul to speak of this journey or shift in orientation as relocating to a new continent. He says in chapter 6 1 So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? 2 I should hope not! If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? 3 Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace - a new life in a new land! 4 When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. 5 Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country. 6 Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life - no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: 7 8 If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. 9 We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. 10 When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. 11 From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did. 12 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don't give it the time of day. 13 Don't even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time - remember, you've been raised from the dead! - into God's way of doing things. 14 Sin can't tell you how to live. After all, you're not living under that old tyranny any longer. You're living in the freedom of God.
So, the life of faith is not a destination. It is the journey itself. God calls and then continues to call, always unveiling more and more grace. God’s call sometimes makes things become clear, and it sometimes stirs up the waters and causes us to be conflicted. But if we keep journeying on, trusting in God’s promises, we will not fall.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lent 1 Sermon, Feb. 10, 2008, "No Shortcuts"

Matthew 4: 1-11

If there’s one thing I love, it’s shortcuts. This is probably one reason I wouldn’t make a good farmer or rancher. Lara likes to repeat the dictum that her grandfather always said to the grandkids. “Do it right the first time,” and “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I can theoretically agree with those principles, but they aren’t the principles that come to me as naturally as they do to some, I suppose.
I get a big thrill out of finding a new and better way to do something than I knew previously existed. To me, trial and error is worth the effort if it yields a shorter, faster, or more fun path. Messing up doesn’t bother me too much. I recall as I have gone to visit Dilly Russell over at Baptist Village, which is on the furthest side of Okmulgee from here, I began to think, “hmm, I wonder where that road goes.” Sure enough, if you drive down by the bottling plant and then turn, you can get from Baptist Village to Morris and only wait through one stoplight! That’s one reason I like to try to find shortcuts: to bypass stoplights.
On the other hand, sometimes shortcuts lead me into dead ends or even worse, trouble. One time in Los Angeles I tried to find a shortcut and wound up in the Rampart neighborhood—you know the one that has a police crime ring scandal named after it! Fortunately I didn’t find any trouble, but it was an area where trouble certainly could have found me!
Today we hear a story about a man who didn’t take shortcuts. Jesus would have nodded his head if he overheard my wife telling me, “do it right the first time..” He would have been nodding his head because he didn’t have any room for error. He had to get it right the first time. For him, there was too much at stake to be finding an easier way.
He went into the wilderness because that’s where the Spirit led him. First, we need to hear that. The Spirit is always leading us, but more often than not we drown out her voice.
But when we do follow the Spirit’s guidance, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus, and it isn’t for us. The path of discipleship usually leads into the wilderness.
What are our wildernesses? Where are we tested?
Christ had just been baptized and had heard the voice of the Father saying, “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” After that, he went to the wilderness, perhaps to concentrate on what that proclamation meant for him and his life. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after all.
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus experienced not only hunger and loneliness and perhaps doubt but also the temptation to relieve his suffering by turning stones into bread (just for himself, of course), and by testing God (just to make sure what he had heard down by the river was really true), and by grabbing power and glory even if it cost him his loyalty to the one true God whose Child he was.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes the pressure from the devil, who "subtly suggested that Jesus deserved better than God was giving him." As followers of Jesus today, we may hear a "devilish voice in our heads [that] says things like, 'If you are a child of God, shouldn't things be going a little smoother for you? If you are really a Christian, I mean -- shouldn't you be happier, healthier, richer, safer?'" It's a huge challenge to reconcile the spirit of this kind of Lenten reflection with the spirit of many of today's theologies that seem to skip over the part of our spiritual journey that demands sacrifice ("the cost of discipleship"), taking a detour around Calvary to enjoy the sweet, comforting time in the garden, alone, with the risen and glorified Jesus. But that's getting ahead of the story.
If we are imagining some red horned figure with goat’s feet when we picture this encounter with the tempter and deceiver, we are probably doing a disservice to ourselves. Satan is far sleeker than that. I read one sermon this week called “Friend of the Devil,” which used the old Grateful Dead song title to make the point that the Devil and Jesus probably got well acquainted with each other out there in the wilderness, and that the temptations probably came very enticingly. They might have sounded to Jesus as if they were coming from that friendly voice inside us that so easily lets us off the hook when we’ve messed up or consoled us when we’re feeling down.
Most scholars say that the word “if” at the beginning of each of the first two temptations can also be translated “since.” So, in a way, there is less a tone of challenging the truth of the statement, “you are the son of God,” than a logical proposition. You are the son of God, you should begin your work by turning stones into bread. Moses, after all, was given manna in the wilderness, and he struck a rock and was given water. It was an expectation of the Jews that their messiah would usher in a time of plentiful food supply, like the manna in the wilderness, so it makes sense that Jesus would begin his ministry by showing the bounty and goodness of God, Right?
But this was taking a shortcut. The devil was tempting Jesus to take things into his own hands rather than wait for God’s plan. God’s plan was for Jesus to show the people a source of spiritual nourishment that would never run dry or short. He said to the woman at the well, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
It's not unusual for our focus to be limited, and perhaps it's understandable when the world holds so much possibility for pain over on the other side of our defenses. We'll take care of ourselves, and our family, and maybe our church, and perhaps the neighborhood around it, but we really don't have time or energy or ability to reach beyond those narrow lines drawn protectively around us and our loved ones, "the people we know."
Thomas Long sees the first temptation that way: "The devil is attempting to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his work too small – satisfying hunger – and the recipients of his work too few – only one, himself. As Messiah, Jesus is called to a ministry of great size...a sweeping ministry, encompassing the whole of humanity; but the tempter places before him another idea – make it narrow." It's important, Long says, that we, like Jesus, not give in to the temptation "to make the gospel too small.”
Next the Devil presents another shortcut for Jesus. “Since you are the son of God, throw yourself down from the top of the temple and the angels will then catch you, since it’s even written in scripture that this will happen.” This could very well have been the “easy button” that Christ desired. Remember, temptations don’t come out of no-where. The come from the seat of our hearts. This kind of stunt would have won converts pretty quickly. It probably would have put the Romans in their place, they might have bowed down on the spot too, who knows. How appealing! One act of clear-eyed confidence, and he’d have the people in his palm.
By the way, the phrase “if you are the son of God,” is used on Jesus again in his lifetime, but the next time it comes from those who are watching Jesus hang on a cross. “If you are the son of God, then come down from the cross.” Perhaps these words are one last temptation from the mouth of the deceiver. One last opportunity to take things into his own hands rather than yield his Spirit into the hands of the Father.
But before all of that transpired, Jesus had one more opportunity in the wilderness to rule the nations not by the cross, but by adopting the ways of the world. Satan speaks with authority here. He has the power to give. The world is his.
I’m reminded of that scene in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader reaches out his hand to Luke. “Join me and we’ll rule the galaxy together as father and son. Come to the dark side.” But Luke relents and in so doing brings his father back from the darkness and into the light. God has another plan too. It is his destiny to rule the world, but he’s going about it the long way. Jesus Doesn’t cut the corners. Shortcuts lead to shortcomings.
It is interesting that with all the Devil’s temptations, Jesus answers with the Scriptures. And if you go back and look where all these scriptures come from, they are all from the 6-8 chapters of Deuteronomy where Moses is addressing the people of Israel with Canan in their sights. They are at the end of their 40 year sojurn in the wilderness just like Jesus is at the end of his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness. Israel is about to enter it’s birthright, and Jesus is about to begin the ministry for which he was destined. But where Israel grasped so imperfectly the concepts of living not only on bread but on God’s word, of not putting God to the test, and of not worshipping anything but God, Jesus is faithful to them.
Fred Craddock writes, “Jesus survives the test in the desert … Not simply by quoting Scripture (Deut. 6:13; 6:16; 8:3) , although the Scriptures were for him an enormous source of strength. The sword of the spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17) . Neither was Jesus’ victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact. Rather, Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse to try to be like God or to be God. As Paul put it, he "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:6-7) . He did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.”
Those steps aren’t a shortcut. We understand that we are saved by free, unmerited grace. But that grace doesn’t just leave us where we are. It takes us and fills us and moves us into a way of living that reflects God’s image in the world. Oftentimes this makes things more difficult than if we were to just “blend in” to the darkness.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Online Labyrinth

Here's another spiritual discipline to use during Lent if you wish. Click the picture to go to an online Labyrinth.

Lectio Divina

Lent is almost upon us! If you are looking for a spiritual discipline to practice during Lent, you might check the "spiritual disciplines" link to the right. Or, you might try lectio divina. It is a very rewarding exercise with scripture. This site also seemed to have a lot of good ideas for being attentive to God during the Lenten season. Find a practice---and stick with it!

Join us on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 day period of Lent: when we remember the 40 days of fasting and prayer that Jesus spent in the wilderness to begin his ministry and the the 40 years that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness to begin their sojourn to the promised land. Our church will have an Ash Wednesday service at 6pm on February 6. Come and join us.

Transfiguration Midrash

I wrote this a couple years ago as an exercise to "get inside the scripture." Later I found out that this practice of "fleshing out the details" of a Biblical story was practiced by Jewish Rabbis in an art called "midrash." When we give ourselves the opportunity to put into words or on a canvas what our mind sees when we read a scripture, it sometimes illuminates more of the truth of that particular passage in our devotional life. I recommend doing this yourself as a discipline of Lent. Here's an example:

Transfiguration Mountain
One evening, a week after our master had asked us who we believed he was, we were all slumbering in a grove of trees outside Cesarea Phillippi. The night had the chill of crisp air and I had not yet drifted into sleep. I was still imagining if I would be one that Jesus spoke of when he had said earlier, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Lately, I could see that Jesus was beginning to get frustrated about something. He kept telling us that we weren’t getting the point of his stories. Then, as my eyelids were growing heavier, I heard the Master say out loud, “Who will accompany me up the mountain to pray?” Most of the disciples were asleep, but next to me James snapped out of a dream. He said to me, “Brother John, Am I dreaming? I thought I heard the teacher ask if someone would walk with him up the mountain, and I saw he was wearing a crown made of thorns!?” “You’re dreaming,” I answered, “but he did call for us to accompany him up the mountain, let’s go!” All of us usually argued over who of us would get to accompany the Master on walks alone. I relished the chance to walk at his side. Peter had been standing against a tree, away from the fire, so he could watch the woods and warn us if we were being approached by intruders. Jesus, James and I walked down to Peter and Jesus asked him if he wanted to come with us on a hike.

We were camped halfway up the mountain already, so the climb became tedious quickly. We were climbing around large rocks and the ground was not stable. Our feet kept stepping on loose areas and little landslides of rocks and dirt would slide down the mountain in clouds of dust. Soon we reached the snow. Jesus was walking a few paces ahead of us, and in the moonlight I saw that there were sets of footprints on either side of his! When I looked up, it seemed as though the moonlight had left the rest of the world and all concentrated on him. Then, I could see that in the light reflected from the Master, the owners of the other footprints had appeared! I could sense, much like you can hear your father’s sneeze in a busy marketplace, but in this same way I could see—I knew that the other footprints belonged to Moses and Elijah! They were speaking with one another, and I could tell by the looks on their faces that Moses and Elijah felt about as proud to be walking with Jesus as we did. I wondered if all the prophets and angels argued, like we did, over who got to accompany our Master different places.

We were all stupefied. Peter seemed to be the most effective at fishing his voice out of his stomach and stammered: “Master, it is most fortunate that we have come with you….I, I, I can pitch three tents for you and for Elijah, and for Moses.” Moses looked at Peter fondly. He understood that we were homeless and on the run with Jesus like he and his followers were homeless and on the run from the Egyptians—with Yahweh on the run with them in a tent of His own. It seemed that the tents were no longer the right idea---but the cloud of our unknowing grew thicker, and actually seemed to materialize around us. From it, I could feel the words surging through my body like I was standing inside a thundercloud and the lightening was entering my ears and grasping my heart. The words confirmed what Peter had exclaimed to the Master’s question a week earlier—“Who do you say that I am?” “My Son…My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” the voice uttered. “Listen to him!” I could not even turn my head to look at James, but I felt him grab my hand, and through it, I could feel that he was seeing and hearing the same thing. The voice sounded like the sweetest notes from the lyre—and like a person’s dying breath. We were all stuck, hearts pounding, breathing heavily. We began to pray the prayer that our Lord had taught us to pray. My knees hit the snow, then ----------I could feel his hand burning me like the electric words that had burned my heart. Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” It seemed that the cloud evaporated as I took in what I thought was going to be my last breath. I saw Jesus standing in front of us with his hands on our joined hands. The night was dark again, and in the moonlight I saw that a host of footprints were all around us in the snow. Jesus started back down the mountain, and we quickly followed. He turned his head and said, “Tell no one about this vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The questions were popping in my mind like a rabbit darts into her hole. As the rabbit feels safety and contentment in her hole though, the questions seemed to be put to rest as soon as they entered my mind. Peter, though, asked him question after question. He needed to hear from the mouth of our teacher what I felt in my heart. We were walking with the Savior!

Books at Lent

I've added a few books to "My Library" that you might consider reading during the season of Lent. They all have themes of struggle, journey, repentance, and the like. Go to "my library" and then click the "tags" tab at the top of the screen. You'll find them listed under the tag "Lent."

Transfiguration Sunday Sermon

Once again, I just have notes for you today. If you would like to complain, speak to the management.

Highlight a few things in this passage. I’m usually fixed on the odd suggestion to build three tents, and what that can mean to us in this present day, trying to shelter the divine, and I almost preached on that.

But last night I looked at this again and decided on another focus. I want us to fix our attention on two things: God’s instructions to “listen to Jesus,” and the path that Jesus takes down the mountain: what occurs afterward.

This is “transfiguration Sunday,” it is the last glimpse of power and glory before we give ourselves a 40 day hiatus from. It is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, when we celebrate the light of Christ before the seasonal “dark night of the soul” that is lent. This rhythm is important, because it reflects the spiritual life.

After this event we read about today, Jesus instructs his disciples to tell no one of it, and then plunges down the mountain to be met by disciples and a “faithless generation” that seems to frustrate and fatigue him.

Seasonally and spiritually, we are oftentimes led away from our mountaintop experiences into the valleys of darkness. Sometimes when I have had memorable and profound spiritual awakenings, the days that follow are often mundane and grey. I begin to experience the dull ache for a return to the mountaintop because by comparison, it is fleeting.

Annie Dillard notes: "The question from agnosticism is `Who turned on the lights?' The question from faith is `Whatever for?'" The mountaintop's holy light was meant not to dazzle or overwhelm, but to empower and set free. It was intended to aid those first disciples in putting into perspective Jesus' teachings about carrying one's cross, and suffering and death. It was meant to light the way of their journey with him to the cross and beyond. It enabled them to see in the dark by giving them the tools of night vision. Then they could rise at his command, like Lazarus, and pursue the fullness of life without fear.

Sometimes the light comes before the darkness in order to help us remember hope and freedom.

Mother Theresa started her career among the poor with an ecstatic, connected experience of God, and then her journals show that for the rest of her life she did not hear another word from God. She called Christ “the Silent One.”

As the Hebrew people marched across the Red Sea, with God’s power and glory abounding, could they imagine that they were embarking on a 40 year journey through the wilderness when many of them would begin to pine away for the “good ol’ days” of slavery?

The mountaintop is real, but so is the valley. There are many shadows for us to confront, and many dark places to reach with the message of light and goodness and love and forgiveness.

But we don’t begin work on others before we begin work on ourselves. God says to the disciples, “Listen to him,” and to listen to Jesus is to be changed by Jesus.

Listening to him involves us confronting our fears. Are we afraid to live our lives the way that he perceives is possible in us?

When we open our hearts to the transforming, transfiguring love of Christ, we’re blinded by the light—when we recover from this life changing event, it oftentimes means that we may find love in our heart for the very people we THOUGHT God hates.

Saul knew with all his heart that God hated the Christians. The scriptures tell us that he held the coats of those who stoned the early Christian martyrs. He was right there cheering them on, and probably even participated.

Then Christ shows up, blinds him with a vision of love he can’t quite wrap his mind around, then when the scales fall from his eyes, he loves Christ so much that he ends up finding him in groups of people that the early Christians didn’t even imagine could be possible! Do you recognize this?!

Are we ready and willing to be changed by and then bear the transforming power of Christ in the world? I’m not talking about Christ’s blinding power changing other people—I’m talking about that blinding power changing you!!!! And me!!!!

We don’t have any business saying someone else should be changed and healed and transformed by God until we step up to the plate and take a swing at what that means for us---for our rigid notions and our usual habits and our sacred cows. God smashes those things up and makes them into ashes and smears them on our face.

That’s what we’ll do this Wednesday—swallow our own finitude and accept God’s gracious everlastingness. Grace lasts forever—walls crumble!!!!!
CS Lewis writes that God makes us perfect, whether we like it or not. God doesn’t let us just make half changes. I find a good many people have been bothered by what I said in the previous chapter about Our Lord's words, `Be ye perfect.' Some people seem to think this means 'Unless you are perfect, I will not help you'; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant 'The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.'
Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother-at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took an ell.
Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.
That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake; He says, 'if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect-until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'
So, may we go headlong into Lent like the disciples follow Christ down from the mountain of Transfiguration.
May we understand that walking along with this man means that we will be perfected in him and by him and through him.
May the light of the transfiguration un-blind our eyes to the power and presence of Christ even in what seem like trying times and dark times.
May we hold the light of those times in our own experience when we have felt God closest to us as a powerful moment that compels us to charge into the valleys of darkness unwavering from our master’s footprints.
And may we begin this journey here, at the table, where the transfigured Christ meets us in the bread and wine that we believe is transfigured into Christ’s body and blood given for all of us.