Tag Archives: An Altar in the World

Theophany: Encountering God

A Sermon for 11 February 2018 – Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:2-9.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Christ.

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Scripture is filled with theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine when it’s best to take notice.  Just three chapters into the history of the people in Egypt, the man Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.  He goes out beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb, known as God’s, with the presence of mind to turn aside when a bush was on fire but not consumed.  There God appears to Moses.  In the great theophany, Moses encounters God.  His life’s work is re-directed, as he learns the very name of the Divine:  Yahweh, I will be what I will be!  (Exodus 3:1-15)

When at last Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, another great theophany takes place.  This time Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.  The mountain shook like a volcano waiting to erupt when God called Moses to ascend.  The LORD gave command after command, as the terrified people waiting below begged for mercy.  They could not tolerate the tumultuous event directly.  “Stand in our stead,” they told Moses, “lest we encounter God and die” (Exodus 20:18-21).  The theophany – the appearance of the Divine – scared them so.

Isaiah records a similar awe-provoking event.  When he saw the pivots of the temple shaking.  The throne of the LORD filled with the Presence as seraphs rejoiced:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!  The whole earth is full of God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).  And before that, again at Horeb.  When the prophet Elijah is worn out from fighting the prophets of the idol Baal who had been welcomed by the wicked queen Jezebel.  Elijah flees for the wilderness only to find himself fed that he might prepare himself to stand outside the entrance of the cave.  The winds rush.  The earth quakes.  A fire blazes.  At last sheer silence prevails from which the Voice queries:  “what are you doing here Elijah?”  The theophany instructs, until restored; Elijah returns to his post  (1 Kings 19:1-18).

Three of the four gospels of the New Testament record the theophany read of today.  Second Peter 1:16-18 refers to it as well.  Six days after Jesus has begun to teach his disciples that the Way he’s on leads to death before resurrection, the gospel of Mark records Jesus taking Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain.  What they see stands in the long line of biblical theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine that instruct even as they demand.  In Mark’s gospel the experience is pretty straight forward, of course – as little detail as possible for this gospel’s rush to record the whole story.  Like Moses on Sinai for the commandments, a thick cloud overtakes them all.  The Voice proclaims:  “this is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him! – exclamation point, meaning:  emphasis intentionally added.  To be sure they don’t challenge Jesus on his teaching again.  And like that, the flash is gone.  Theophany over so that Peter, James, and John can spend the rest of their lives seeking to make sense of just what they saw.

Yes, scripture is filled with theophanies.  Times when the Divine is seen.  It’s a wonder we don’t talk about them more.  The times in our lives when God appears.  When we know deep inside that the ground on which we stand indeed is holy.  The Presence has slipped into our midst – rather we have slipped into the awareness of the One who is ever-present.  As English mystic Evelyn Underhill says:  God always is coming to us in the Sacrament of the present moment.  Carl Jung put it simply:  Summoned or not God is present.  In An Altar in the World – a book that would be a wonderful read during the upcoming season of Lent – Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure (the treasure that is connection with God).  They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens.  They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize.  The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives.”  She continues:  “the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.  . . .  The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are” (2009, p. xiv-xv).

Perhaps with our consent to be where we are, opportunities will arise for us to be enveloped by God’s Presence – even if for a mere second.  We talked about it at the most recent Renewal Team meeting.  Because whether or not the tradition has emphasized the importance of Divine encounter, the great mystics of the faith long have known.  Encounter with God is what truly matters.  Connection, as one philosopher has written, with “something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding” (Paul Woodruff as quoted by Rev. Cathlynn Law, 20 Sept. 2015 at http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/the-practice-of-paying-attention-sermon-series-on-altar-in-the-world-by-barbara-brown-taylor/).  It’s what the whole spiritual but not religious movement is all about.  Encountering the Divine who appears everywhere – not just in the ritual of Sunday morning worship in a sanctuary.  But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  right under our feet – in things like “a trip to the grocery store . . . (or) something as common as a toothache” (An Altar in the World, p. xiv).

Perhaps God is met in various ways and places – because God’s people have been created for such connection.  “Having hearts that are restless until they rest in You,” Saint Augustine of the Fourth century professed.  No one way fits us all and no one way can sustain us all throughout all the days of our lives.  Thankfully, there are seven classic ways of encountering the Divine.  It’s best we try them all:  ritual – hence the heavy emphasis on worship, nature, art, community – which is why we Presbyterians love such times of fellowship like potluck dinners, dreams, the body, and one that life ensures we’ve got down pat:  suffering.  Ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering all are ways to open our eyes to the Divine in whose Presence we are saturated – like fish that happily live in water, but whose Presence we so seldom glimpse – like fish in the water who no longer recognize that in which they swim.

We call the liturgical feast celebrated today Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.  And long have we focused on what was going on with Jesus.  When we step into the shoes of those first disciples gathered around, to see as they might have seen; we begin to notice the theophany – the appearance of the Divine come to instruct, even as it confounds.  To connect with our restless hearts that thirst for something More.  To remember that encounter happens on mountain tops, deserts, and banks of rivers.  In dreams of the night and visions of the day.  In the process of creating and the pain housed in our bodies.  In what happens between people in community and what happens in the quiet recesses of our own hearts.  In the acts we do with intention together in here as we reach beyond ourselves for the Divine.  And in the places we walk out there as we live and move and have our being in the world.

In a few days we will enter the season of Lent.  Forty days for intentional practices that become the portal through which God appears.  We’re invited to remember the wisdom of the mystics as we choose how we’ll inhabit this Lent.  Looking for God to appear, open to theophanies of the Divine in ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering.  God waits to be encountered afresh – where we haven’t yet dared to tread.  . . .  Every moment offers the opportunity to see the God who is Present.  To give thanks for the Divine who appears.  This year, may we observe a holy Lent paying attention to the God all around.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Mark of Discipleship: The Way of Love

A Sermon for 13 April 2017 – Maundy Thursday

A reading from the gospel of John 13:1-17, 31b-35.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear the gospel of John’s rendering of Jesus’ last night with his disciples.

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.  And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you.”  For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”  After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.  . . .

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Christians all over the world tonight are gathering.  In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this.  On Maundy Thursday, we hear the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end.  While most tonight will just get a taste of the bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine in remembrance; some actually will sit with their bare feet in a basin.  The pastor or other spiritual leader of the congregation will kneel before them, likely with a pitcher and towel in hand.  Water will be poured.  The worshipper will feel the cool liquid as it hits their feet’s skin.  Soap may accompany the wash and maybe even a relaxing massage to soothe tired toes.  I wish I could be in a place that included a soak with reviving essential oils – a little rosemary and eucalyptus to include all the senses in the defining act.

I don’t know about you, but other than family members when I was a small child and pedicures which don’t really count, only twice in my lifetime have I had my feet washed by another person.  Once was at the beginning of a much needed massage during a pilgrimage in the Holy Land.  Though we didn’t speak the same language, the therapist brought out a basin of warm water and indicated to me to put my feet in it.  She gently stroked my feet with a wash cloth to make sure any dirt from the road was gone.  It was wonderful!  . . .  Another time was in a sanctuary not that far from this one.  The night was Maundy Thursday.  A woman of the congregation who grew up with regular experiences of foot washings in worship, volunteered to wash everyone’s feet that night.  On our way up to communion together around the Table, we could sit down in a chair.  Silently then, the woman would indicate to hold your feet out over the bowl.  She would pour water over them, then reverently wipe dry each foot with a towel.  We all put our shoes back on before proceeding up front to get the bread and the juice, but I really wanted to leave them off.  The act seemed so holy.  Besides:  Moses stood barefoot before the Presence of God in that bush that was aflame but not burning up.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to approach the Table of the Lord clean-footed, nothing between the skin of our feet and the ground right under us?

We’re not including foot washing as a part of this service tonight.  You can relax.  You don’t have to worry that anyone will see that toe you think is ugly or that scar you got from some risky childhood stunt.  Few among us really want to be that known in worship – our bare feet hanging out for all the world to see.  Which is too bad because just hearing about the act that marks this night doesn’t go far enough to communicate the depth of what Christ did.  The humility of bending, touching, smelling through it all.  The intimacy of holding in this hands bare foot after bare foot.  I wonder if he looked deep into each person’s eyes while he washed them.  Maybe smiling as wide as a proud parent when he considered all the places those feet had followed behind him.  Knowing the feet of his disciples had so much further yet to travel to enact God’s good news all around the world.  . . .  This is the act that defines tonight.  The mark of the new command he gives to us all.  The towel and basin still prominent in the room, Jesus says:  “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).  This is the way all will know you are mine, he proclaims.  Bending, touching, holding tenderly – as if the most precious treasure.  This is the mark of one who bears his name.  That night, that last fate-filled night; Jesus preaches a silent sermon as he bends.  Touches.  Washes them all – including Judas, who, according to the gospel of John, still is in the room.

One commentator claims:  “the mission and strategy of Jesus” is “symbolized in his washing of the disciples’ feet” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Trygve David Johnson, p. 275).  For “in the washing . . . Jesus chooses to empty himself rather that to promote himself” (Ibid.).  He shows that the path of love is serving another.  Willingly fulfilling all God intends.  . . .  This is the night the church sees in full what it means to be the church, the body of Christ for the world.  The body of Christ willing to stoop in humility to do what others don’t want to do.  To feed those who hunger, visit those who are sick, loose that which is unjust in this world because from a position at his disciples’ feet; this is what our Lord shows us to do.  . . .  Priest and profound author Barbara Brown Taylor writes this about the night Jesus gathered one last time with his friends.  She writes:  “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, (Jesus) did not give them something to think about together when he was gone.  Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.  . . .  “Do this,” he said, not believe this but do this – “in remembrance of me.’” (An Altar in the World, pp. 43-44).  Taylor insists Christ did so because “the last thing any of us needs is more information about God.  We need the practice of incarnation,” she writes, “by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies.  Not more about God.  More God” (Ibid., p. 45).  Through practices like washing feet.  And taking bread in order to sit down together for a feast of fellowship.  . . .  Christians all over the world tonight are gathering.  In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this.  We are seeing the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end.  After we partake of the bread and drink of the fruit of the vine, the question remains:  will we go to do likewise?

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Freedom and Rest

A Sermon for 21 August 2016

A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:10-17. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Remember the Blue Laws? Some fifty or more years ago in the United States, no matter where you went on Sundays, most everything was closed. The doors of sanctuaries were open and it was expected everyone who was anyone had their entire family with them in a pew. Laws throughout the United States banned such things on Sundays as open restaurants, open department stores, open car lots, and open liquor shops. “You did not even hear the whistle of freight trains . . . on Sundays, because it was illegal to haul goods on the Sabbath” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 128). Sunday had become the day you did not! Radically, to this day, a county in New Jersey still bans “the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies, and appliances on Sundays” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_law). And of course, we all know that if you want to enjoy some wine over Sunday dinner or a beer for the afternoon ballgame, you better be sure to stock up before Sunday morning arrives.

Ironically, the fourth of the infamous Ten Commandments begins not with shall not but with this: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). . . . Remember the Sabbath day? Way back in Genesis 1 and 2, the Great Creator went about all the work of making this amazing world. Separating light and darkness, crafting an environment in which creation could thrive – waters above, waters below, with dry land in there too. Fruit trees and pines and, as the story was told from the perspective of the land tucked between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, certainly there were figs and pomegranates and grapes galore. The stars twinkled in the brilliant night sky and the moon waxed and waned to keep track of all the seasons. Fish and cattle and creeping things of every kind came into being until earth was mixed with the divine breath to concoct such a creature as had never been before: humankind came into this world! And then, at last – not because we wore God out in our making, though the news each day might cause us to wonder – then, the Great Creator stopped. It was finished. The Great Creator paused in delight declaring: “Ah! Very good! Very, very good indeed!” . . . Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy – because God wants everyone of us to stop too. To pause, if just from one sundown to sundown, to declare in delight: “Ah! Very good! It all is very, very good indeed!” Set apart in this way, we too make the rest holy.

That was the purpose of Sabbath, at least until the Exodus when Sabbath took on another meaning as well. Observant Jewish brothers and sisters welcome Sabbath in their homes each week with the lighting of two candles when at least three stars can be seen in the sky. One is this candle command of creation – the pause for creatures to delight. To rest. The other is the candle of freedom. Once we were enslaved by the ways of the Pharaoh. But God heard the cries of the people. The wringing of hands over if there would be enough this month to feed the children. Would we ever get a break from the boss who has been breathing down our necks these past several months over our performance on the job? Is that all it all is: toil for a paycheck and worry everything shall work out? . . . Will we ever get a break from defining ourselves by what we do and being defined by others in that way too, instead of simply being accepted for who we are – warts and all? God hears all those cries. Every wonder and weary worry. In response, once a week for a whole 24 hours; we are free! None of it matters. We are invited to put down such heavy burdens to take a walk in the park with someone we love who loves us back just as well. We can take a nap no matter the piles of dirty dishes or chores to do outside. Lay in a hammock or rock out on the front porch if only for 20 minutes just to listen and observe. Rest from the pecking order of this world at least for one whole night and one whole day and see if you wake ready to worship the next morning. Do it on a Saturday, as was first the plan; so that the next day you can gather with others in the faith to swop stories over how good it was for just one night and day this week to rest in the freedom of God.

That is what has Jesus all incensed in the story before us in the gospel of Luke. At a glance it might appear all is well, but the Sabbath command is violated. Not by the one accused of doing the healing. Rather, this particular synagogue leader failed to see the burden on the shoulders of a woman bound by her body for eighteen long years. They would untie their ox or donkey every Sabbath that the animals might get what they needed – even on the day of rest and freedom. But that synagogue leader would not have it that a child of the covenant might get a bit better treatment than beasts of burden on the weekly day to live God’s freedom and rest! . . . Notice that this woman didn’t seek out Jesus. The text says nothing of her coming to the synagogue expecting any sort of healing that day. The author gives great detail that the woman was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (Luke 13:11). So that even if she wanted to seek out Jesus, about all she’d be able to see as an identifying mark in her search would be feet. Some of you live with back problems that have hindered you to stand up tall to look another straight in the eye. You know the pain that becomes the constant companion. The desperation of wanting to be well. And if you’ve been dealing with it for nearly twenty years, you know too how crushed a spirit can get. So crushed, it would seem, this woman just goes to the synagogue – no indication she’s expecting any sort of release, even there among religious folk you might hope would be concerned enough to find a way to help. . . . Though the leader might spit in his criticism that she was in the wrong for seeking healing on the Sabbath; the story never questions her motives or throws any sort of blame her way. Jesus who has stop to rest and remember – to delight in the goodness of it all and to be free from anyone else’s expectations – while Jesus is observing this day of Sabbath in the synagogue, he sees someone who needs immediately to be set free. Likely, he saw a whole synagogue full of faithful Sabbath-keepers who desperately needed to be free. Free from law over grace. Free from rules trumping compassion. Free from external expectations over the will of God. Free from mental, emotional, and spiritual ailments that weigh heavy upon the backs of every last one –even if those burdens haven’t yet imprinted physically on the body. None of it is ok with this faithful Sabbath-keeper. Keeping his eye on the true intent of the fourth command; with one word, much like the Great Creator at the beginning of it all, Jesus releases the chains upon this woman’s back. He lays his hand upon her and in an instant she is set free. With a full body alleluia, she stands upright, for the first time in eighteen years, to praise God! . . . True Sabbath. True freedom. True joy-filled rest as a beloved child of God! In the whole room, they’re the only two rightly practicing Sabbath. The only two resting in the delightful freedom of the LORD!

In An Altar in the World, the book we’ve been reading this summer in Home Book Club, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds that Sabbath is a “’palace in time’ . . . into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives. The question is: “Why are we so reluctant to go?” (p. 127) . . . I get it. For far too long we’ve been told it’s all about thou shall not. For far too long we’ve let the world around us demand our time and attention. Maybe you’ve been taught to believe Sabbath is all about Sunday and “going to church” – which is not at all what the bible records anywhere! Sabbath is about entering the beautiful palace in time each week to sit a spell, not in an effort to do anything holy, but just to be. Just to rest and remember that we are free. Free from it all because the Great Creator hears us and loves us and commands us just to stop. That in itself is holy! . . . If one sundown to the next sundown is too long for you each week, then at least begin with an hour – preferably sometime Saturday so you at least have some bit of gratitude in your tank when you race in to worship on Sundays. Give it a try, if you don’t already. And enjoy the freedom and rest of God! It is so good. So very, very good indeed!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)