Lent 5 C
April 7, 2019

Personal Devotion and Prophetic Witness

When I was in seminary, I took a course on Judaism from Rabbi Murray Rothman. He totally fit the “rabbi” stereotype I didn’t even know I held: old, long white hair and beard, in no hurry, wise and gracious and faithful. He would come into the classroom where the dozen or so of us were seated at tables in a square, sit down, look around, and ask, “What did I talk about last time?” Someone would tell him; he’d nod his head; and he’d pick up where he had left off. It was quite engaging.

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Lent 5 C   April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21   Pastor Susan Henry

Philippians 3:4b-14   House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 12:1-8   Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Personal Devotion and Prophetic Witness

When I was in seminary, I took a course on Judaism from Rabbi Murray Rothman.  He totally fit the “rabbi” stereotype I didn’t even know I held:  old, long white hair and beard, in no hurry, wise and gracious and faithful.  He would come into the classroom where the dozen or so of us were seated at tables in a square, sit down, look around, and ask, “What did I talk about last time?”  Someone would tell him; he’d nod his head; and he’d pick up where he had left off.  It was quite engaging.

When Yitzak Rabin was assassinated in Israel, Rabbi Rothman arrived in class with grief etched on his face, and, astoundingly, he asked our permission to speak publicly for the first time about Rabin’s death and its implications, and about his own deep and personal sense of loss.  We simply sat and listened, knowing that we were on holy ground.

In a less fraught moment, Rabbi Rothman had told us how, as he once spoke with some of the synagogue’s children about Solomon and his 300 concubines, a little girl had asked, “What is a concubine?”  He had replied, “A concubine is . . . a very, very, very good friend.”  A few months later, on February 14, a card from that same little girl arrived.  It read, “If you will be my Valentine, I will be your concubine.”  In that little story, we could feel her affection for him, and his for her.

As the semester drew to a close and we handed in our required papers, Rabbi Rothman patted his briefcase and said, “I’ll take all of these to Florida next week, and I’ll enjoy reading them on the beach there.”  In a slight panic, someone said, “Uh -- but grades are due at the end of this week.”  “Not to worry,” he said; “Not to worry.”  I suspect that meant that he simply gave every one of us an A before he took our papers to Florida to leisurely read them on the beach.

By the end of that semester, I loved Rabbi Rothman.  I would have taken any course he taught, gone to any lecture he gave on any topic, availed myself of any opportunity to just be in his presence.  There was something extraordinary about him – something so clearly “of God,” something incredibly gracious and remarkably compelling.  As I marveled at my own surprising response to him, a classmate said, “I think that’s what it was like with Jesus.  People just wanted to be with him, just wanted to be in his presence.”  That sounds right to me.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus wanted to be with Jesus, wanted to be in his presence.  And why not?  They love him.  They are his friends, and he is theirs.  Six days before the Passover, at their home in Bethany, which is just a couple miles from Jerusalem, they give a dinner for Jesus.  They gather for a banquet in the turbulent wake of his undoing Lazarus’ death by calling him out of the tomb he had been buried in for four days.  At this dinner, Lazarus is silent and still, perhaps learning how to be in the world alive again, or perhaps aware that not only are the religious and political leaders plotting Jesus’ death but also his own.  With the raising of Lazarus, Jesus has rocked the boat one too many times. 

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus want to be with Jesus, want to be in his presence, I think, for their own sakes and also for his sake.  Perhaps, there around the table, words don’t matter all that much.  Lazarus sits.  Martha serves.  And Mary?  Mary does an apparently crazy thing, an extraordinary, gracious, loving, lavish, compelling thing.  That evening in Bethany, extravagance is in the air.  Literally.  The air is filled with the fragrance of nard, filled with a sharp scent “somewhere between mint and ginseng,” as Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor describes it.  Mary has opened a container filled with outrageously expensive perfume.  She has anointed Jesus’ feet with it, and she is wiping them with her hair. 

There’s more than fragrance in the air, however.  We don’t know how the others respond, but Judas is appalled.  His criticism, judgment, and self-interest mingle with that sharp, sweet smell, and he wants to know if Mary is out of her ever-loving mind.  But Jesus shuts Judas down, saying “Leave her alone.”

I’m going to quote Barbara Brown Taylor at some length here, because I don’t know how to say any better what she has already said.  She writes, “Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever anyone else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God – not [as] the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but [as] the carefully performed act of a prophet.  Everything around Mary smacked of signficance – Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard – wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral? – and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant.  The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt about whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.

“She was anointing Jesus for his burial, and while her behavior may have seemed strange to those standing around, it was no more strange than that of the prophets who went before her – Ezekiel eating the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him (Ezekiel 2), or Jeremiah smashing the clay jar to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19) or Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations (Isaiah 20).  Prophets do things like that.  They act out.  They act out the truth that no one else can see, and those standing around either write them off as nuts or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.

“When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way.  She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king.  But she did not do that.  When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing.  The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it.  ‘Leave her alone,’ he said to those who would have prevented her.  Let her finish delivering the message.

“So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy.  There will be nothing economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life.  In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh.  In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

“This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired.  This precious substance will not be saved.  It will be opened, offered and used, at great price.  It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.  Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time.  At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will strip, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples’ feet.  Then he will give them a new commandment:  Love one another, as I have loved you.

“At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind.  But a few will watch him working on their feet and remember Mary bending over his feet like that – the prophet Mary – who knew how to respond to Jesus without being told, the one who acted out his last, new commandment before he ever said it.  Remembering her might help them leave him alone while he finishes delivering his message. 

“At home in Bethany, the storm clouds are still piling up against the door when Mary gives the forecast:  it will be bad, very bad, but that’s no reason for Jesus’ friends to lock their hearts and head for the cellar.  Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around.  Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over.  There is no reason to fear running out – of nard or of life, either one – for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine – gifts from our lavish, lavish Lord.”

This is the Lord whom Mary and Martha and Lazarus and we ourselves love – and maybe want to love more.  This is the Lord whom Mary and Martha and Lazarus and we ourselves treasure as our friend.  This is the Lord in whose company we come to better know ourselves as loved and loving.

We do not have the opportunity to offer Jesus extravagant gestures of personal devotion and prophetic witness in the same way that Mary did, but we are not bereft of opportunities to care for Jesus.  He comes to us not just in bread and wine, but in the poor.  Ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that “The poor that we always have with us is Jesus” and that “It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given.”  That is so countercultural a premise that it may be hard for us to wrap our minds around, but I am convinced that Jesus can love us into its truth and into extravagant acts of love and mercy for his sake. 

In a world where 766 million people live on less than $2 a day, we have numberless opportunities to love Jesus in the poor who are with us on this planet.  The Lenten packets you received invite extravagant giving for the sake of women who can nourish their families and communities because they’ve been able to go to farming field school.  Jesus’ extravagant love for us draws us to love the girls who can’t go to school because they have to take care of siblings or walk miles for water or don’t have enough money for tuition or uniforms.  Jesus’ dreams for a kingdom of love and mercy come closer to fulfillment when, through our lavish giving to ELCA World Hunger, women with skills and their own dreams can receive a microloan to start of small business.  As they repay their loans, the money is available for other women to borrow,  A steady source of income helps families move out of poverty and gives life and hope to communities.

Throughout Lent, we’ve been journeying with Jesus, and in today’s gospel, we are in the company of his friends and followers – one of whom does not count the cost as she anoints his body with precious perfume.  Surely we are being drawn to love extravagantly -- as Mary did – and as Jesus did.  Opportunities to lavishly care for women and girls who are poor are as close as our coin jars, our wallets, and our checkbooks during these forty days of giving.

  May the witness and the company of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, of Rabbi Rothman, and of all who are God’s friends encourage and inspire us to live and to love as extravagantly and lavishly as we ourselves are loved.

Amen             

             

    

      

Lent 4 C
March 31, 2019
Scandalous Compassion

When we meet Jesus in this week’s gospel reading, he’s telling stories about being lost and found, and the writer of Luke’s gospel wants us to know the context for these parables. This chapter begins, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]."

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Lent 4 C           March 31, 2019

Joshua 5:9-12           Pastor Susan Henry

Psalm 32           House of Prayer Lutheran Church

2 Corinthians 5:16-21           Hingham MA

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Scandalous Compassion

When we meet Jesus in this week’s gospel reading, he’s telling stories about being lost and found, and the writer of Luke’s gospel wants us to know the context for these parables.  This chapter begins, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].”  “Tax collectors” – people who work for the hated Romans and who might extract more taxes than are really due.  And “sinners” – people whose actions break rather than build up the community.  Those are the folks Jesus is hanging out with and eating meals with and welcoming – and the Pharisees and scribes are “grumbling” about the company Jesus keeps.  It’s not seemly.  It’s just not right.  It’s scandalous.    

Jesus tells them two little parables – one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin – and then he tells the story we’ve just heard.  This one is usually called “The Prodigal Son,” but Jesus didn’t give it that title.  He simply told a story that might just as well be called “The Loving Father” or “The Lost Sons.”  “Sons” – plural.  There are two children in that family, and each – in his own way – gets lost.

Now, we know from experience that there’s more than one way to be lost.  There’s the “no satellite reception”-on-our-GPS way, and there’s the unwilling-to-stop-and-ask-for-directions way.  There’s “lost in thought,” and there’s losing ourselves in something that’s creative and life-giving.  But there are also many ways of being lost that take their toll on us . . . and on those we love . . . and on the world we live in . . . and on our relationship with God.  We can find ourselves lost in sin and stupidity or lost in all our “stuff” or our crazy schedules.  Or maybe we’re lost in fear or pain or grief.  However we’re feeling lost, Jesus’ parables about sheep, coins, and sons remind us that being lost is only part of the story.

The younger son in this parable is intent on going his own way, and when his father agrees to give him the portion of their family’s estate that will eventually come to him, the son sets out on what begins as a grand adventure but lands him in a foreign country feeding somebody’s pigs but going hungry himself.  Talk about being lost!

Luke says, “When he came to himself,” he realized that even the people who work for his father have more than enough to eat while here he is, a member of the family, starving.  What’s wrong with this picture, he wonders, and he decides to go home and ask his father to take him on as a hired hand.  That way, at least he won’t go hungry.

Given that we’re in Lent, a season when repentance is a theme, we might assume that this son feels great remorse, that he’s sorry for the pain he has caused his father and his family, that he repents of his foolish ways.  But Jesus doesn’t actually say that.  As Jesus tells the story, the son rehearses what he will say when he gets home:  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  Maybe that speech reflects genuine remorse for how he has broken his relationship with his father or maybe he’s just desperate for something to eat.  We don’t really know.

What we do know is that he never gets to the part in his speech about being treated like a hired hand.  While he is still far off, his father sees him coming and “is filled with compassion.”  Filled with compassion.  His father’s heart goes out to him, and he takes off, running to welcome his son -- and before the father knows anything of this young man’s story or his screw-ups, he knows this:  joy.  Father-joy, welcome-home-my-son joy, let’s-have-a-party joy, we-just-have-to-celebrate joy.  Sheer joy.

What would it be like if we could trust that whenever God sees us coming, God’s heart goes out to us and God knows joy?  Even before we pour out our stories, explain ourselves or acknowledge how we’ve screwed up or fallen short, God delights in us.  Before we can say “I am so not worthy of your love,” God says, “I am unbelievably glad to see you, my child.”  Before we begin to explain just how hungry we are – and why, God says, “We have to celebrate.  Let’s have a feast.”

Now, I did not grow up believing that when God looks at me, God is filled with compassion and joy and delight.  I grew up thinking that when God looked at me, God was not happy about what God saw – flaws, failings, sins, all the falling-short I knew about and more.  I did believe that God had compassion for me -- but that it was a lost-again-tsk-tsk begrudging kind of compassion, not the unfettered-boundless-love-and-joy kind.  I heard that good Lutheran word “grace,” but I didn’t experience it.  How could that be?  But now, one reason I love this story in Luke’s gospel is because it has been for me so liberating and so stunning and so grace-full.  It has helped me see myself and see you through the eyes of that loving father. 

I wonder what experiencing his father’s joy, compassion, and delight evoked from that once-lost younger son.  Maybe it broke through that formal, rehearsed speech he had planned, surprising him into giving voice not just to his physical hunger but to his deepest hungers – for belonging, being loved, being reconciled, being home.  Maybe his father’s compassion, joy, and delight in him simply shattered his resistance to acknowledging how lost he really was -- and then maybe his father’s love began to do its healing work in him.  No matter what, it was time to rejoice, time to celebrate, time to enjoy a feast.

The father’s heart went out to the son he saw coming home, and the father’s body went there, too.  He ran to him, put his arms around him, and kissed him.  The father’s heart went out to his other son, too.  Surprised to hear that his younger brother had shown up and shocked to learn that a ‘Welcome Home’ party was in progress, the elder son refused to join in.  “What the heck?” he must have thought; “Doesn’t being responsible and obedient and doing the right things count for anything around here?”  His response -- and one we’re almost guaranteed to agree with – is this: “It’s not fair.” 

His father leaves the party and comes out to him.  He begins to plead with him to come in, but this son is having none of it.  “I’ve worked like a slave for you,” he says in self-righteous anger.  And perhaps overstating just a bit, he adds, “I’ve never disobeyed you.  You throw a big party for ‘that son of yours’ but did I ever get to have even a little party for my friends?  It’s not fair.”  Looking on this son too with compassion and delight and joy, the father says, “My son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

And that’s the end of Jesus’ story.  We don’t know what happened next.  Did the older brother begrudgingly join the celebration or did he dig in his heels, hang onto his resentment, and stay outside alone?  Did that son, at first scandalized by his father’s love and compassion for his brother, come to feel embraced by that same compassionate love?  Did he too experience grace first-hand?  We don’t know.    

The thing about stories is that we can all relate to them, just like the people who first heard Jesus tell this parable.  Tax collector, sinner, Pharisee, scribe, younger brother, elder brother, you, me – really, the loving father comes running out to meet us or he leaves the celebration to plead with us to come join in.  Picture him filled with compassion, looking at all his children with delight, knowing joy in us, throwing a party, preparing a feast and celebration intended for all of us to enjoy.

It is in Jesus that God’s heart goes out to us who are so often, in our own ways, lost daughters and sons.  God runs to meet us, to welcome us home from our joyless wandering or our tedious work.  God comes to us, revealing God’s and joy in us, loving us out of our resentment and into rejoicing along with brothers and sisters who are just as beloved of God as we ourselves are.  God gives us way more than we deserve and exactly what we need.  It’s scandalous -- grace upon grace upon grace.  There may not be a fatted calf, a goat, a ring, or a robe for us, but there is a feast – the body and blood of Jesus Christ that satisfies our deepest hungers -- to belong, to be loved, to be reconciled, to be home.

Amen

                                 

        

Lent 3 C
March 24, 2019
Unsettling Us

Throughout Lent, we’re aware that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem – and to all that implies. On the way, he continues to heal, teach, set free, and often unsettle those who follow him. Jesus and his friends know what inevitably happens to those who challenge the powers-that-be. Rome doesn’t tolerate someone who stirs up people living under its rule.

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Lent 3 C March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 13:1-9 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Unsettling Us

Throughout Lent, we’re aware that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem – and to all that implies.  On the way, he continues to heal, teach, set free, and often unsettle those who follow him.  Jesus and his friends know what inevitably happens to those who challenge the powers-that-be.  Rome doesn’t tolerate someone who stirs up people living under its rule.  And Jewish leaders get nervous when someone’s words or actions seem likely to attract Rome’s attention and call down the empire’s heavy hand on God’s people.  What’s in the air along the way to Jerusalem weighs on people’s minds and on Jesus’ heart. 

People want to talk with him about what’s going on around them – and about the meaning of these things.  “Did you hear about that atrocity?” they ask; “Do you know about that tragedy?  Does everything happen for a reason?”  If we were on the road with Jesus, we would have our own questions to ask about undeserved suffering or random, senseless violence, about someone dear to us whose life is a constant struggle or about the brutal attacks in New Zealand or the devastating floods in Nebraska and in Africa.  Bad things do indeed happen to good people – and sometimes those people are us -- and, although we’d like a satisfying answer to why such things happen to anybody, we don’t quite get that here from Jesus.

We get kind of an answer, though – a partial answer:  “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No.”  And Jesus goes on, “Or do you think that the people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them ‘were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?’  No.”  That such things happened to them doesn’t mean they deserved them.  No, Jesus says.    

As David Lose puts it simply:  “Tragedy is not a punishment for sin.”1  Sometimes sin does result in calamity, though.  If the tower of Siloam fell because of the shoddy workmanship that went into it or because whoever oversaw the job cut corners in order to maximize their profit, then some bad human choices contributed to a lot of human misery.  Sin still has consequences for our lives, others’ lives, and the life of the earth itself.  Sin abounded in Jesus’ time, and it does so in ours as well.

Lose wants us to notice that “Jesus doesn’t sever the connection between sin and calamity.  Instead, Jesus severs the connection between calamity and punishment.”2  Tragedy is not a punishment for sin.  God is not doling out cancer or flooded farmland or Ebola outbreaks as punishment for someone’s sin.  The calamities and tragedies that may befall us or others are not God’s punishment for our particular, individual sins.

That’s a good thing to know, a really important thing to hear -- but we might still be unsettled by this gospel reading.  Maybe that’s because Jesus doesn’t stop after he says, “Those people weren’t any worse than you are.”  Well, that’s good news -- but it’s also a reminder of everybody’s sin – everybody’s wounds and brokenness and separation from one another and from God.  Sin is a given in a fallen world.  That, we know.  Then Jesus goes on to say, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This is hard to hear and even harder to understand.  As best I can tell, nobody is quite sure what Jesus meant by this.   His first listeners might also have been confused or unsettled by Jesus’ words because he adds to them with a story -- the parable of the fig tree.  Of course, it’s a story that is – and isn’t – about figs.  It’s somehow about timing . . . and being tended to . . . and having the abundant life you were meant for become more than a mere possibility.  It’s somehow about the power of grace to open up the future.

Perhaps there’s a connection between sin and repentance and the potential for fruitfulness.  Maybe repentance is a turning away from our preoccupation with “whose sin is responsible for what” and our turning toward whatever fosters life in all kinds of ways.  And, of course there is the work of a patient and caring gardener to consider.

Jesus knows that sin is real and powerful in our lives and in our world, and that it can make for a miserable, self-focused, unfruitful way of living.  And Jesus knows that God has far better things in mind for us than that.  In John’s gospel, he tells us, “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly.”  Often in worship we are reminded that “neither death nor life . . . nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

Speaking out of that deep love, Jesus insists that repentance matters.  Repentance changes our perspective on life.  It sees beyond where sin has brought us.  Repentance turns us away, but also turns us toward -- away from sin and death, toward God and life.  Our sin doesn’t define who we are.  Our lack of trust in God, our pettiness or arrogance or judgment, our failure to help our neighbor in need, and a million other garden-variety sins do not define us.  The love of God is what defines us.

God’s grace is more powerful than our sin, and the repentance Jesus desires for us brings us back to that realization again and again and again.  It brings us back to the waters of baptism and the promise that we have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  What a gift repentance is!  Drawn out of our own darkness into God’s marvelous light, we see more of God’s possibilities for us, more ways in which we can bear fruit, more places where we can love and serve our neighbors.  There is life in all of that – life for us and for our neighbors and for our world.

Yes, there are events that horrify us and struggles that confound us and headlines that depress us, and we recognize that tragedy might befall us.  But if we allow ourselves to remain captive to the ‘when’ or the ‘what’ or the ‘why’ -- or captive to fear -- we will squander numberless opportunities to love God and to serve our neighbors.  We will miss chances to live out of gratitude and with passion and joy.  What’s surely at the heart of the gardener’s desire to tend to that fig tree a little longer is the fervent hope that it will soon bloom and grow and bear sweet fruit to feed a hungry world.  We don’t actually know what happens to the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, but I’m rooting for it to become what God intends for it to be – and for us to do the same.  My heartfelt prayer is that the gardener’s gracious, patient care will unsettle us in the best possible way, nourish the life within us, and turn us toward bearing sweet and abundant fruit.

Amen            

  1.  David Lose, “When Bad Things Happen,” blog post February 27, 2013 at workingpreacher.org
  2. Ibid

                       

Lent 2 C
March 17, 2019
Persisting in the Promises

Four thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, and still today, God is faithful to God’s promises. Today, tomorrow, and on the third day, Jesus is faithful to God’s purposes.

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Lent 2 C March 17, 2019

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Pastor Susan Henry

Luke 13:31-35 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Persisting in the Promises

Four thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, and still today, God is faithful to God’s promises.  Today, tomorrow, and on the third day, Jesus is faithful to God’s purposes.

As much as we might like to ignore or deny it, all of that has political implications.  Four thousand years or so ago, God promised both heirs and a land to Abram, and that very land continues to be fought over today.  That land is home to Jews, Christians, and Moslems, to Israelis and Arabs, and it has a long and complicated history.  Two thousand years or so ago, Jesus challenged the reign of Herod for the sake of the reign of God, and he died the kind of death that political criminals in the Roman empire died.  Today, the reign of God is here but not fully here, as is painfully obvious when Moslems at prayer are killed in New Zealand, when students plead for adults to address the future of life on our planet, and when poor and frightened people seeking asylum are labeled “invaders.”

When it seemed that God had forgotten Abram and Sarai, how did they persist?  When Jesus’ life was in danger, how did he persist?  And when the news cycle revolves endlessly around violence, hatred, seemingly impossible challenges, racism, and relentless fearmongering, how are we to persist? 

As people of faith, we first of all have stories like Abram’s and Jesus’ from scripture to encourage us.  Second, we have the example of faithful people over the centuries like St. Patrick of Ireland, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like sisters and brothers in Christ today who feed people who are hungry and who also advocate for justice, for policies that will address food insecurity and poverty.  Sacred stories and the witness of faithful saints-and-sinners-at-the-same-time help us persist in living as friends and followers of Jesus.

Third, as people of faith, we trust in God’s own persistence, God’s own determination to bring about a kingdom of justice and mercy, a gracious reign of life and love.  And, finally, as Jesus’ followers, we have the promise of his presence with us.  And so, for the sake of the future toward which God is drawing us, we persist.

How did Abram do that?  In our reading from Genesis, he has a visionary experience of God.  It’s not the first.  Many years earlier, God had called Abram to leave the place he called home and go to the land that God would show him.  God had promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”   But now, still without an heir, Abram has finally taken things into his own hands and designated a slave born into his household as his rightful heir.  God has other plans, though.  God takes Abram out to gaze at the star-strewn sky and to count the stars: “So shall your descendants be.”  And Abram believes God.  He takes God at God’s word.  He is sustained by God’s promise.

Abram’s not without a question for God, though.  “O Lord God, how am I know that I shall possess [the land you promised]?”  God’s response is, to us, more than a little strange, but it’s in keeping with how people in the ancient Near East sealed agreements.  They didn’t shake hands, swear on a holy book, or sign a contract, but instead they made a covenant – literally “cut” a covenant – by walking between the two halves of animals they’d slaughtered and laid out, thereby promising that, if they did not keep their word, the other party to the covenant could do to them exactly what had been done to those animals.  It may sound bizarre to us, but four thousand years ago, it was how two parties sealed an agreement.

What’s remarkable in the covenant God makes with Abram is that only God says the equivalent of “You can take me apart if I don’t keep my promises.”  Abram simply bears witness to God’s determination to give Abram the land, and he is witness to God’s vision for Abram’s future and that of “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed through Abram’s descendants.  After a “deep and terrifying darkness” settles on Abram, he perceives God’s holy presence in “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passes between [the] pieces” of the animals.  God seals God’s promises to Abram with this extraordinary gesture.  Surely, remembering this experience sustained Abram and Sarai and enabled them to be patient and to persist in living faithfully while they waited for the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

Today, Jewish, Christian and Moslem believers all trace their lineage back to Abram and to God’s promises to him.  No wonder land in the Middle East remains a contested issue.  No wonder people of three faiths count themselves among those through whom God wants to continue to bless the earth.  And no wonder religion and politics are fraught subjects when religious and secular discourse intersect.  God’s determination to bless “all the families of the earth” persists, despite humankind’s ongoing struggle to recognize or comprehend or realize what God’s blessing is meant to look like in the world in which we live.  Nevertheless, God persists and God is faithful to God’s promises.

  How is it that Jesus persists in the face of Herod’s threats and the danger to his life?  This Herod is the son the king whom the wise men had asked directions from when they were seeking the new king whose star had risen in the east.  That Herod, you may remember, was responsible for what’s often called “the massacre of the innocents,” and this Herod is just as intent on protecting his power and position.  He is tetrarch, not king, because his father left him in charge of a fourth of the territory he  had ruled over – the regions of Galilee and Perea.

Galilee is where Jesus is teaching, healing, setting people free from what torments them, and gathering quite a following.  The Pharisees know him, and some of them come to warn him to leave Galilee because Herod wants to kill him.  The Pharisees aren’t all of the same mind, and it’s hard to know why they warn Jesus.  Some recognize him as a teacher and healer and as a worthy conversation partner about how to live faithfully.  Others are curious about him, but not antagonistic.  They might genuinely care about his well-being.  Others are condescending or see him as a threat to their own authority.  Protecting their position sometimes led to their working with Herod, so getting rid of Jesus might serve their purposes and Herod’s, too.  Let the ruler in some other place deal with Jesus so they (and Herod) won’t have to. 

Whatever the reason for their warning, Jesus doesn’t scare easily.  He says, “Go tell that fox I have work to do, and I’m doing it today and tomorrow and then I’m going to finish it on the third day.”  The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming was in conflict with the kingdom Herod was invested in continuing to rule, so no wonder Herod was out to get him.  But despite the danger from Herod, Jesus persists.  How did he do that?  He’d been baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, and tested in the wilderness.  He’d resisted the lure of living a safe and easy life, of accepting earthly power and privilege, and of taking God’s protection for granted.  He knew who and whose he was, and so he persisted.  In prayer, he tended to his intimate relationship with God, and perhaps that gave him courage and strengthened his determination to be faithful to God’s purposes.  He had compassion for Jerusalem, for those who refused to be gathered into the reign of God, and he lamented, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Jesus’ compassion and his hope for their repentance and return to God surely helped him persist as he continued on his journey.

Abram experienced God’s presence, trusted God’s promises, and with patience lived into God’s future.  When we are anxious about our own or the planet’s future, what helped Abram might help us persist, too.  We know God’s presence in Word and sacrament, and we can trust Jesus’ promise to be with us always.  When God’s vision of a future where justice and mercy rule seems more like an impossible dream, we can live lives of patient and persistent love that make such a realm more real here and now.

  Jesus knew himself to be beloved of God, and, in carefully tending to that relationship through prayer, he lived with courage and determination and faithfulness.  He felt compassion for those who resisted the reign of God, and he owned both his sorrow over the present and his confidence in God’s future.  When we are weary or worried or worn down by the world’s resistance to the reign of God, what helped Jesus persist may help us, too.

Saints and sinners though we are, we too are beloved of God.  We remember that we are baptized, and we belong to God who has compassion for us, calling us to repentance when we resist or give up on God’s future and forgiving us, mending us, and filling us with courage and hope.

When we are discouraged by the depth of evil that is at work in the world, we can pray.  Knowing that Jesus faced evil head-on, we can ask him, “How did you do it?”  and then we can be still long enough to listen to what he wants us to know and to receive what he wants to give us.             

  We can also be sustained by the words and wisdom of others who’ve sought and found strength and courage through prayer.  This particular prayer is attributed to Patrick, bishop and missionary to Ireland, who died on this day in the year 461:

I arise today

Through the strength of Heaven

Light of sun

Radiance of moon

Splendor of fire

Speed of lightning

Swiftness of wind

Depth of the sea

Stability of earth

Firmness of rock

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me

God’s eye to look before me

God’s wisdom to guide me

God’s way to lie before me

God’s shield to protect me

From all who shall wish me ill

Afar and anear

Alone and in a multitude

Against every cruel

Merciless power

That may oppose my body and soul

Christ with me, Christ before me,

Christ behind me, Christ in me

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me

I arise today.

Such bold prayer will see us through today and any day.  Such trusting prayer will remind us who we are and whose we are.  Such fervent prayer will enable us to more faithfully follow Jesus and to wait for, work for, and welcome the kingdom he proclaims.

Amen      

Transfiguration C
March 3, 2019
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Shining Like the Sun

In Luke’s telling of the strange story of Jesus’ transfiguration, we hear something really surprising -- that Peter, James, and John almost missed it! A week or so after Peter had confessed Jesus as “the Messiah of God,” and after Jesus had for the first time revealed to his disciples what lay ahead for him, he took Peter, James, and John with him and went up on the mountain to pray.

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Transfiguration C March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35 Pastor Susan Henry

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 9:28-43a Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Shining Like the Sun

In Luke’s telling of the strange story of Jesus’ transfiguration, we hear something really surprising -- that Peter, James, and John almost missed it!  A week or so after Peter had confessed Jesus as “the Messiah of God,” and after Jesus had for the first time revealed to his disciples what lay ahead for him, he took Peter, James, and John with him and went up on the mountain to pray.

You know what happens there.  While Jesus is praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  Moses and Elijah appear with him “in glory,” and they talk to Jesus about “his departure,” about his going up to Jerusalem and about what will be accomplished there.  Only the writer of Luke tells us not only what is seen, but what is said.

Here is Jesus, himself “in glory,” with these two central figures in Jewish history.  Moses knows of departures, of leading God’s people

out of Egypt in the exodus, and of how the glory of God went before them in the wilderness – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Moses knows about glory, having himself been on the mountain with God and coming down shining like the sun, unsettling God’s people by his appearance.

Elijah knows God intimately, too, from the stunning experience of God’s presence not in earthquake, wind, or fire, but in a still, small voice, in the sound of sheer silence. Elijah knows of departures, too, of being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  It’s presence, presence, presence and glory, glory, glory up there on the mountain.

And Peter, James, and John almost miss it!  Luke says that “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”  We might now and then catch ourselves pretty much sleepwalking through our days because we’re distracted or overwhelmed or feel disconnected from our own lives.  And we know what it’s like to be barely able to keep our eyes open, to be so exhausted or bored or unable to focus that we catch ourselves nodding off at inopportune moments.  That sounds like what Peter, James, and John are experiencing.

All too soon, Jesus will again take them with him, this time as he prays in a garden, and there they will be unable to stay awake, to watch with him, to keep him company.  But on this day, even half-asleep, they catch a glimpse of the glory of God.  They see Jesus’ glory, and they see Moses and Elijah reflecting the glory of the God in whose presence they now live fully and completely.  This is strange, incredible, and full of mystery.  Half-asleep, Peter, James, and John are overshadowed by a cloud, and from within it, they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Terrified, and stunned into silence by what they hear and see, they tell no one anything about it. 

There is a liminal state between sleeping and waking, a time when we are less defended, more vulnerable, less ego-driven, more open.  On the half-asleep side of that liminal state, God’s glory was revealed to the three who were in Jesus’ prayerful presence.  As a result, I think they must have begun to wake up more, to feel the shift to the half-awake side of that liminal state, to stand in awe of how close the glory of God came to them in that moment on the mountain with Jesus when some veil was lifted.  They went from half-asleep to half-awake.

It took the rest of their time with Jesus as he taught and healed and set people free -- plus their experiences of the risen Jesus’ presence with them -- to keep waking them up more and more.  The more awake, alert and alive they became, the more their own lives reflected God’s glory.  They experienced an ongoing conversion, a continuing transformation.  But even half-awake, they could begin to reflect the glory of God in their ordinary, everyday lives. 

One of the early church fathers -- Irenaeus, I think -- said that “The glory of God is a person fully alive.”  I wonder what might it mean for you and for me to become “fully alive.”  What relationships in our lives would be more loving?  What God-given gifts would we use more fully?  What just cause might we stick with more persistently and what mindless, time-wasting, destructive habits might we let go of?  Maybe we would take more risks as friends and followers of Jesus.  Surely, as we become more awake and more alive, the world will glimpse the glory of God reflected in us and through us. 

If we’re tempted to believe we’re not likely candidates for going around shining like the sun, we’re wrong.  When we’re most awake, most alive, most fully the people God intends for us to be, we can’t help but shine, can’t help but be radiant, can’t help but reflect God’s glory.  Even half-awake, we reflect it.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton had an unexpected “mountaintop experience” just walking down the street one day.  He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.  As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire not self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

The “peculiar gift” that Merton was given there on the corner of Fourth and Walnut changed him.  He woke up to engaging with the world rather than withdrawing from it.  What he experienced that day gave him eyes to see the glory of God not only in Jesus or reflected in Moses or Elijah, but also in total strangers who were unaware of the glory of God that pervades our very being and the world in which we live.

Peter, James and John were privileged to see the glory of God in Jesus, and they became ever more fully alive in him.  Most of us don’t have mountaintop experiences, but we might have, now and then, some profound moment in which we know the glorious and gracious presence of God with us.  And even if we don’t experience that, we trust the promise of God’s glorious and gracious presence with us.  It comes in word and sacrament, in scripture and sermons and song, in water and in bread and wine, in our compassionate presence with one another.  And sometimes it comes as a gift in which, like Merton, we perceive what is usually hidden from us. 

As our new members today and last month affirmed their baptism, we recall the glorious and gracious presence of God in baptism where we are given new life in Christ and awakened to our baptismal life, a here-and-now life of conversion and transformation, a journeying together, a greater and greater awakening to the glory of God reflected through one another and to the world.  We go from half-asleep to half-awake to more fully awake as we live out our baptism.  It takes time.  It takes trust in the promises of God.  It takes the transforming work of the Holy Spirit within us.  As scholar Robert Warden Prim puts it, “No one falls headlong into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ.”

I really love that observation.  It reminds us that we’re always “on the way,” that we believe we will be “changed from glory into glory ‘til in heaven we see [God’s] face.”  The disciples had not been able to heal that father’s only child – the one at the end of our gospel reading today.  And they hated hearing Jesus speak of what would happen to him, and they none-too-gloriously abandoned him at the end.  But Peter, James and John could still remember that glimpse of God’s glory they were given on the mountain there with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. 

Maybe we can glimpse a little of that glory in the transfiguration on the mountain and in that “peculiar gift” Merton was given at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky.  Even a tiny glimpse will do.  Wake us up, God, more and more, so that our lives more fully reflect your glory as it is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  Wake us up, God, so we see who you want us to love and where you want us to go and how you want us to live.  Wake us up, God, and give us eyes to see that we are all shining like the sun.

Amen