Monday, March 11, 2019

Calling Upon God

'When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.'
--Deuteronomy 26: 1, 11

'For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."'
--Romans 10: 12:-13

'After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.'
--Luke 4: 1-13

What does it mean to call upon God?  At some point in our lives every one of us has done it.  Whether it was here in a church, clasping our hands in prayer, or in the middle of a sleepless night when the everyday stress gets to be too much, or in the final days of the life of a loved one who is dying, we’ve all been there, crying out to God.  But what does that mean, and what is it that we hope to achieve with those cries? 

What we did at the start of our worship on Sunday mirrored the actions of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, taking the long road—as the choir and ministers did when we entered—all the while crying out to the God of our ancestors to hear us as we lamented our sins and prayed for God's world.  In the text from Deuteronomy Moses instructs the people that they are to, upon entering the land that God is giving them, rejoice and celebrate because God had heard their cries while they were in captivity in Egypt.  God had delivered them out of bondage, given them bread from heaven to sustain them in their journey, and now God was fulfilling the promise made to a wandering Aramean—to Abraham and to his children.  Those cries, and the salvific response of God is what would serve to define the Hebrew people because their very existence was (and still is) predicated on the fact that they had cried out to God and had been delivered. 

Such a message of hope—of God hearing those cries and delivering God’s people—is enough to inspire anyone to jump on board with faith in the God of Abraham.  Such a message almost seems to suggest that God will allow nothing bad to happen to those who love God and call out to God in their distress.  Yet we cannot escape the fact that there are times when our cries to God seem to go unnoticed, when the road ahead looks so foggy that we cannot make out any of the twists and turns, and we wonder if God is even along for the ride with us.  In those moments our faith may begin to wane, and we might wonder what the point is in calling on a God who doesn’t seem to hear us or even be present.

Perhaps the takeaway is not so much that loving God and calling on God result in rescue in any and all circumstances, but rather that we are never without God, that there is never a moment when God gives up on us.  The devil tries really hard to get Jesus to think that God isn't there in the wilderness and that Jesus' relationship with God is all about God getting him out of trouble or fulfilling a need:  turn the stones to bread if you are hungry, jump off the temple and God will save you, since God isn't even out here, turn your back on God and gain all the power on earth.  Yet with each temptation Jesus offers a fierce rebuke:  one does not live by bread alone, do not put God to the test, worship only God.  

What Jesus understands is that God’s all-encompassing care is not a commodity to be gained by human beings through wheedling, through flattery or coaxing or deal-brokering.  Jesus articulates something that the Hebrew people constantly forgot in their wilderness: no one ventures outside the realm of God’s care.  Paul gives voice to this when he reminds the Roman community, which had tried to make stipulations on who could and could not be part of their body, that they cannot control the number or identity of those who call upon God, that there are no distinctions such as Jew or Greek, that ‘everyone’ means just that, and that the grace and mercy of God prevent any human effort at defining who does and does not get to be heard by God and receive God’s care.  To call upon God, as Jesus does, is not to ask for power to be dispensed for the purpose of fulfilling our earthly needs, but it is to acknowledge the correlation between human finitude and divine providence.  In short, it is to be reminded that God’s presence with us everlasting, that it is binding at all times and in all places. 

We are tempted, much like Jesus, to believe that calling upon God is akin to asking our parent to do something for us.  In our moments of desperation we so often make that call—as Jesus himself does later in the garden of Gethsemane when he asks God to take the cup of his crucifixion away from him.  To do so in such moments is quite natural.  It makes us human. Yet the good news that is there for us is that, as Jesus knew even there in the garden, we are never alone in our struggles, and God is always with us. All of us! That is what our Scriptures have to teach us today. The Hebrew people time and time again had to be reminded of it.  Many of the folks in the Roman church community attempted to keep people out because they didn’t believe it. The devil tried to get Jesus to forget it, and Lord knows the devil is still trying to get us to forget it, too! Any notion that God does not hear us when we call, that God abandons us in moments of distress, or that God is only accessible to some, and not all, is a lie, brothers and sisters! 

To call upon God, even in the whisper of a prayer, is a primal scream that gives voice to the truth that not a single one of us is beyond the love and mercy of God.  Not one!  Even when we are desperate, when we can’t see the road ahead, or when our cries are met with silence, God still does not give up on us.  No one is beyond God’s care.  No one is beyond God’s love.  No one is without God.  The grace, love, and mercy of God will always abide with you because you are the longing of God.  Yes, you!!

A dear clergy friend this week shared the prayerful poem from the late, great Trappist monk Thomas Merton called The Road Ahead, which speaks to the enterprise of calling upon God far greater than I can. 

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. 
I do not see the road ahead of me.
 I cannot know for certain where it will end.
 Nor do I really know myself, 
and the fact that I think that I am following your will 
does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to love as Christ loved does in fact please you. 
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
 I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always, 
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. 
I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone
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This, brothers and sisters, is what it means to call upon God.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Moving Through the Valley

'Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.'
--Luke 9: 28-43a

The first time I preached on Jesus’ Transfiguration I told the story of how I grew up on a mountain, how the majesty of the mountains connect us to God, but how, like Jesus and the disciples, we are so often compelled to come down from the mountaintops of our lives in order to live into who we are called to be.  I thought it was a pretty good sermon, but as the folks filed through the receiving line, one woman said to me:  “Oh I just love the mountains, too!  That was a wonderful sermon!"  Clearly, she didn’t really pay attention to the point of the sermon, which of course, was that we have to come DOWN from the mountain.  I guess folks hear what they want to hear.  So who knows what y’all will take away from this blog post today, taken from this past Sunday's sermon on the Transfiguration.

Image result for transfiguration 

The story of the Transfiguration is one of my favorites, partially because of my aforementioned affinity for the mountains, partially because we hear it every year, which forces the preacher to come up with something new to say, but perhaps mostly because of how the event plays out and what happens immediately after.  This is a euphoric story.  Peter is totally wowed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, so much so that he wants to build three tents and stay up there forever.  It is surreal to see Jesus conversing with the Law-Giver and the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, a portrait of how Jesus is the one on whom the Law and the Prophets hang.  The imagery of resplendent light echoes majesty and glory, and the mention of a cloud is significant, as the appearance of a cloud in Scripture always evokes the presence of God.  This is a really powerful moment, and then just like THAT it’s over.  The voice of God is silent, Moses and Elijah are gone, and Jesus stands alone.  Rather than spending anymore time up there, Jesus takes his disciples back down the mountain. 

And what does he find when he gets there?  It’s pandemonium.  Folks are running around like mad, and a man comes up to Jesus in desperation to cure his child’s epilepsy.  The disciples who had not gone up the mountain had tried to help, but they failed.  No one knows what to do, and Jesus’ frustration begins to show.  “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” he wonders out loud.  Have you ever seen the images of Facepalm Jesus

Image result for facepalm jesus

Yeah, that’s more or less what’s happening here.  Jesus doesn’t come down the mountain to find peace or quiet or people who have it together.  When he comes down the mountain, down into the valley, Jesus finds chaos and confusion. 

We can picture the glorious image of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, but have you ever stopped to realize that Jesus spent more time in valleys than he did on mountains?  Especially in the Gospel of Luke.  We heard a few weeks ago Luke's version of the Beatitudes, which are told in a valley, rather than on a mountainside.  Also, it is in Luke that we hear the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable about a man who is attacked and thrown into a ditch along the treacherous road between Galilee and Jerusalem. Throughout this Gospel Jesus can most often be found traversing those same treacherous highways and walking with people through some of the literally lowest places on earth.  I find that significant.  Luke's narrative serves as a reminder that Jesus travels with us through the low points of our lives.  Yes, he is there in the moments of joy atop the mountain, but he is also there in the chaos that comes after.  He’s there in the ditch when we stumble and fall in.  He’s there when the maddening crowds are too much to bear, and try as we might to cast out the demons we are unsuccessful.  He’s there trudging through the muck with us, all the while pointing us to what’s next, pointing us to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the journey that culminates in glory.

Another reason I love this story is because of when it falls every year in our church calendar; that is, right before Lent.  The season of Lent is long, and it’s tough.  It’s a grueling journey through fasting, temptation, prayer, study, and worship, and like Jesus’ own journey when he comes down the mountain, it too ends in the glory of Easter morning.  But oh boy sometimes it is hard to get there!  As we have now come down from the experiences of Christmas and Epiphany, we stand at the foot of the mountain, a long journey ahead of us. Jesus is there, too, setting his sights, and ours, on Jerusalem and the road that will lead to the cross. For some we enter this journey with euphoric spirits, like Peter, James, and John, who came down that mountain ecstatic about what Jesus was doing.  Maybe there are those of us who are feeling a similar exhalation over the birth of a new grandbaby, the baptism of a child, or a recent engagement.  That's wonderful!  Still, others may be looking at the long road of Lent with some trepidation over the burdens they are carrying:  addiction, unemployment, a family member whose demons they've tried casting out to no avail.  This week I cannot help but think of my brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church, who are beginning their Lent uncertain of the wilderness road that lies ahead of them.  Regardless of where we are, hearing this story year after year invites us to prepare ourselves for that journey that is to come.

We know not what the road will look like, but we do know that we do not travel alone.  We travel with Jesus, and we travel together as his Body in the world.  Traveling the way of love, we know that whatever valleys we traverse, whatever perils we face, whatever crosses we bear, Christ will raise us to glory on that happy morning along with himself, and all manner of things shall be well.