After the Mountaintop: listening/following Jesus

a Sermon for Epiphany LastA
Text: Matthew 17:1-9

Photo Credit: L.Cheryl via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: L.Cheryl via Compfight cc

On another mountain

We skip ahead to another mountain; more climbing, more experience with Jesus. Not a place of preaching. No Sermon on the Mount. This time is supernatural. Three followers go; the inner circle. The executive committee. Jesus invites them to follow Him up the mountain. A high mountain.

They are there to witness something different. A change in Jesus. Not a public change, but private. They will be told not to talk about it.

What they see is an incredible light and the changing face of Jesus. What they hear is the booming voice of GOD. They see. They hear. And then they fear.

In the middle of the story, Moses and Elijah appear for a chit-chat with Jesus. Peter tries to suggest they stay awhile—a hospitable interruption, disruption, intrusion. They were brought there to witness. They see. They hear. And the words they hear are the same as the ones at Jesus’s baptism except these: “listen to him.”

It is not yet time to speak. It is time to listen. Jesus is teaching.

Interrupting Jesus

I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. Something about it. I always wonder how the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah. It’s not like there are dead prophet trading cards or a pictorial history of the faith or a Prophet University Yearbook that goes back 2000 years before them.

And yet I know this story is important. God’s voice is only heard twice in the gospels: in each baptism and transfiguration story.

I struggle most with what it is that the disciples are supposed to be witnessing. What is this strange family reunion? Why is GOD saying to listen to Jesus here? Why are they to keep this event a secret?

I’m drawn (always) to Peter who has a great (human) idea to be hospitable to these ghostly guests—to build them tents—to honor them. Make them comfortable. Maybe they can sit and talk for as long as they want. A kind thought. A good thing.

GOD resides in a tent, carried by the people when they were in the wilderness. Then GOD resides in the Temple. Then, as Jesus tells them, GOD resides in Him.

It seems that we, like Peter, and regardless of what Jesus actually tells us to do, lock GOD into a tent to carry around our necks or in our Temples of grandeur, or even locked into our prayer books or in our brains or in any metaphorical box that prevents GOD from showing us something new, something we don’t already know. Preventing us from doing what Jesus called us up the mountain to do: to witness a change. To listen to GOD.

Listen, Move

It is not yet time for Peter to speak. That will be soon enough. It is time to listen. Listen, rather than hear. Hearing is about words, doctrines, and creeds. Hearing is about eavesdropping on secrets to the universe whispered between prophets. Hearing is what your ears do when they pick up all the sounds around us. Listening, on the other hand, is when we give someone our attention. To hear only them.

Peter and his friends are to listen to Jesus. A Jesus who taught them how to love and who. A Jesus who has given them a mission to reconcile the world. A Jesus who has taught them what it means to follow the Law and that sometimes following the Law means breaking the Law. A Jesus who has told them what is to come: His death and resurrection. And theirs.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Peter’s interruption, his attempt to make it better, more comfortable is not listening, but ignoring. It is preserving. It is making permanent what is temporary. It is painting on the sidewalk over a chalk drawing. A moment/experience intended to be temporary.

Unlike Abram, who built altars to commemorate divine interactions and then moved on, Peter is preserving, protecting, making permanent. They are to move. They have a mission to fulfill. They are to climb down again and return to their work. Listening.

Down the Mountain

We, like Peter, want to stay on the mountain, preserving the moment, protecting our powerful GOD in a prison of minor profundity. A neither dead nor living GOD, but one incarcerated by eternal aphorisms about the human condition. As if he teaches us Please try to love each other, if it isn’t too much trouble and they don’t offend us, because then we should feel allowed to hate them. Rather than listen to His words to love each other. It isn’t a suggestion or negotiation.

Come down from this mountain and love. The mountain, the place where GOD speaks and we witness divine change, is not where we, or GOD, dwell. It is where we meet. Where we gather and worship and share and eat. But we are to go, so that we might live in the lowlands, loving GOD and our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus does not lead us to build tents or Temples to preserve mountaintop experiences, but to listen in the midst of them and return to following Jesus in all that we do. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t tell us to worship our Temple but to feed His sheep. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t argue about responsibilities, but sits and eats with the poor, and instructs his followers to serve them. The Jesus of the Bible doesn’t ask his disciples how to fit Him into their busy work schedules, but asked them to leave their lives behind and follow Him.

Listen to Him.

Know that He isn’t staying put. He’s moving again. He’s walking from here to Jerusalem. He isn’t to be locked in here, where we gather in a tent on the mountaintop. To listen, we have to follow Him where He’s going. Out. Away. To die. To rise. To ascend. Our path, following, listening, becoming.

Blood and Light: seeing, revealing, saying

a Sermon for The Presentation
Text: Luke 2:22-40

Embarrassment and Injustice

I was in the fifth grade. I’m not sure why I was out of my classroom and standing in the hall. Maybe I was feeling sick and waiting to be picked up. The front door to Ella White Elementary was near the office.

A teacher for another fifth grade class was bringing a friend of mine to the office, telling them to get her mother on the phone. I listened, watched with great curiosity. She wasn’t a close friend of mine. In fact, she was not in my “circle” if we are being honest. Already conscious of who were the people I was supposed to be friends with and who I was supposed to avoid.

The teacher said that the girl’s mother needed to bring a change of clothes. She had begun menstruating for the first time.

My face went red. I was embarrassed. I was also embarrassed for her because I could so easily imagine what had happened and how confusing it was. In the middle of class, her clothing, not knowing what to do.

As a boy, I couldn’t really know. My big sister and mother hid that. I had only practical knowledge of menstruation, not personal knowledge. In my head, I understood it, but I didn’t really know it.

Then my thinking turned from embarrassment to frustration. This girl didn’t plan this to happen. No doubt she didn’t really know what was going on and didn’t have anyone she could talk to about it. And yet some of her classmates, her teacher, much of the staff, a good half of the people she would encounter would have first-hand knowledge of this.

This private thing that we all know about. Something not at all private. A secret that can’t be told. A secret half of us keep. The other half is oblivious.

Ritual Purification

Today’s gospel is about dealing with nature and GOD. It has to do with blood and biology. Mary has two things to do, this fortieth day after the birth of her son. She is to become ritually pure and she is to give her son away.

Since Mary and Joseph are poor, they cannot sacrifice a lamb at the temple. So they buy two turtledoves. The first is a burnt sacrifice: firsts are always given to GOD. The second is a sin offering. It is what she needs to give to be purified.

She needs to do this, not because she has sinned. It’s because she had a baby.

This is the difficulty in the Law, for the rituals of purification cost money. And when your body makes you impure without your participation, one can ill-afford to become ritually pure on a monthly basis. So most poor women were perpetually impure. Their husbands, touching their arm, sitting near them, would become impure themselves. A Messiah that would remove that sin burden would certainly be more important to those living in a constant state of impurity—particularly when it isn’t intentional—it is the accident of birth and the injustice of poverty.

Mary and Joseph are then able to follow the Jewish custom, having given birth to Jesus, circumcised him on the 8th day, were now, on the fortieth day, handing Jesus over to GOD. The firstborn son, given to GOD to be a priest. To a mother at the time this would certainly be a greater sacrifice.

They receive two testimonies

In offering the doves and Jesus to GOD, they receive something immediately. A surprise. An unpredictable present of true immense value.

Simeon, a devout Jew, who had been given a sign of the coming Messiah, is called by the Spirit to come that day to the Temple. He is drawn there and when he sees the baby, this little, unassuming creation in their midst, he knows instantly why he was drawn there—who he was drawn to see.

He came to see Jesus. That Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah he had been called to find. Simeon testifies to the light: a light that is here and is coming; in a child that will be a man.

Then they receive Ana, a prophet, a ministry deprived more recently of women. And she has come, in the last seven years to live there, night and day. It seems as if she, too, is waiting to die. Like Simeon, waiting for the ministry she was called to: seeing the Messiah: proclaiming the coming of the Messiah: that her life’s work would be complete after she testifies. She tells the people who this is. This is no ordinary baby. This baby is the Messiah.

This baby is different. Different even than expectation. We hear Simeon’s description: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. Like Mary herself, singing last week: that GOD had “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…brought down the powerful from their thrones…sent the rich away empty.” Not simply that the Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, and Scribes would thirty years later conspire to kill him, that that their inner thoughts would be revealed. That the evil and corruption of Israel would be revealed—for the glory and rising of Israel.

Sunlight Disinfectant

Much like hiding what is natural and shaming people for being exposed—in making private those things which are universal—we should know that 80% of churches are in decline. And have been. More than 7,000 churches close their doors each year. Churches with much more than we have called it quits. There is no room to shame those things that are natural; common; part of what GOD is doing in our world.

Simeon declares that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart—because some will have trouble with the exposure of their thoughts. Jesus will reveal that the Jewish leaders like their wealth more than they like following GOD. And have him crucified—too weak to do the deed themselves.

But hear that Simeon and Ana call this coming of Jesus as good news to celebrate, even as it causes difficulty and pain.

How might we testify to the light that has come to enlighten the nations? How are the beginnings of the Kingdom being revealed in our midst? I see it in the Food Pantry in St. Clair. I see it in the industrious young entrepreneurs reclaiming the humanity in Port Huron. I see it in Flint’s amazing, long-term plan to build a healthy, safe, redeveloped city despite the cynicism of its naysayers.

Simeon and Ana could see something in Jesus that no one else could and announced it. Our job is to see something others can’t: in the midst of pain and confusion, others may be blind to see the Kingdom; but we see the good news that GOD is with us. We are called to see GOD where others see an empty building—to see GOD where others see a child—to see GOD where others see a church.

Jesus has gone swimming

the baptism

a Sermon for Epiphany 1A
Text: Matthew 3:13-17

I insist

This morning’s gospel story begins with the most unlikely of conversations. It is a titanic theological battle of

You go.
No, you go.
No, I insist.

John the Baptizer and Jesus dance over who baptizes who like two men arguing over which one gets to hold the door.

No, you go.
Please, go.

The wording, the situation, so absurd, so forced. So written to make us feel better about this shocking arrangement: John baptizing Jesus like the unwashed masses behind him—and the sinful people washed before Him.

Jesus tells John that this is the proper way. Jesus must submit and be baptized. He must walk into this mud-filled river with everyone else and be washed by someone else. He must receive baptism. It is John’s place as a human to clean the Godman.

So different from the Roman tradition of celebrating the Wise Men bowing to a toddler king as the real vision for The Epiphany. The Eastern Church celebrates The Baptism. We receive this compromise: a king worthy of wealthy gifts (earlier) sheds his clothes as an outcast, baptized as common (the following Sunday).

Submission to GOD

So many of us, but not all of us, received our baptism before we could accept it: a gift given to us without our consent or choosing. And it is probably safe to say that none of us waded into the water with a prophet, cleaned by the river, washed of the dirt, sand, and dust of labor and travels.

Most of us received a dainty sprinkle, symbolically; too young to know that symbols aren’t empty gestures, but bear the featherweight of grace. Oblivious to the Spirit descending upon us in that gathering so many years ago, and upon the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on, vowing to GOD that they would be responsible for us: that we would grow up to be this: who we are.

Our ritual is so full of the Spirit, so full of this moment of sacrifice and submission. That we admit to GOD, to the community, and to ourselves that we cannot live alone—we cannot be in GOD, full of the Holy Spirit if we refuse to do as Jesus did and submit: receive this grace.

And yet still we are so proud.

Redeeming Jesus

The challenge of the Baptism of Jesus remains these two thousand years. The challenge of our king swimming in the dirty water. Of our ruler submitting to the power of a commoner, even one given GOD’s prophetic work as John was. We receive this challenge in a life of submission to GOD, in eschewing desire and seeking repentance for a life we claim in our liturgy was sinless.

This is our struggle: that Jesus received redemption that we, like John, want to refuse Him. We grant Him power He refuses to receive. We raise Him to a seat at the table He did not take. Perhaps because we don’t want our pretty white gowns ruined by the redeeming waters. We want to be accepted as we are, as we always have been. And GOD says I love you, yes, just as you are. Come and see how beautiful I know you to be.

This is why Baptism is new life, because it contains death to the old. Jesus is baptized in the River and on the Cross. And with it Jesus ushers into the world a new path of love and grace.

Redeeming Us

This world that Jesus ushers in is not about supremacy, domination, or death. It is about compassion, generosity, and love.

We don’t receive these gifts because of baptism, with the water magically changing our brains to conform to GOD’s will. Nor do we use the water to confirm our beliefs and practices as good. Those waters don’t make us members of an elite club or excuse our club’s behavior.

We are baptized into life and death; a life of service and of hope. A life of recovery and transformation. A life that is so full that we give thanks for it.

A life we strive for every day. A life we make every day.

These waters are ours: in them, we are connected with GOD. Through the Spirit, we are always connected.

Let us receive them again. Let us receive them with the grace through which they are offered. Let us receive them so that we may be the very signs of GOD’s work in the world.

Manifesting in Story

Photo Credit: Drew Downs

Photo Credit: Drew Downs


Monday’s celebration of The Epiphany was unique in that it took place in the midst of a once-in-a-generation snow storm. That arctic vortex gave us sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall as we haven’t seen in the Midwest in a long time.

Feeling the cold on my face in the minutes I was out shoveling the drifted snow before the service, it reminded me of a time I now realize was the last time we had such a storm, over 20 years ago. Bundled up, taking the dog for a walk, it was so blisteringly cold, that it drove through my coat and burned my exposed face. Never have I found clothing so ineffective in stopping the cold.

I was preparing what I knew was a pretty knockout sermon–and beginning to wonder if no one would be there to work with me–to share in the homiletic exercise of exploring the text, the season, personal experience, and the call to service embedded in worship, and more importantly, to the very holiday itself.

At least thought it was a knockout. But I’m a geek for the Epiphany.

The Epiphany

The Epiphany is about GOD made manifest (as I wrote about Tuesday); not just in taking a human form at one time in our history, but in our world and in us.

For us, our understanding of GOD is swirled and made manifest in the Word and in story. Our church’s principal and major feasts are all associated with certain stories: Christmas with the birth story, Maundy Thursday with the foot washing at the Last Supper, Good Friday with the Passion and crucifixion, Easter with the empty tomb, Pentecost with the tongues of fire…

Epiphany has two different stories. It was originally associated with the Baptism of Jesus. Rome wanted a different message, relegating the Baptism to a lesser status (which is BS, if you ask me). Replacing it strangely with the story of three astrologers showing up in Matthew. This is what I usually preach about.

The Point

The swirling storm, the three that came to join me, the Wise Men and their crazy journey from Persia, The Baptism of Our Lord, the manifestation of GOD in the world, all of it is a potent moment of faith. True faith. A faith that Jesus articulates as being about doing, rather than thinking.

Not faith that or even faith in, but faith itself. Not a doctrinal test or creed, but the act of loving and sharing and being together. Sharing in stories, in revelation, in prayer, in communion.

Sharing in GOD’s presence with us. Then compelled to take that presence home. To our families. To our friends. To those loved ones hibernating, snuggled in under blankets before the fireplace or the TV. Taking back with them the fruits of our faith: love.

And giving it away. A manifestation of love and life itself.

GOD shared in kind words, a kiss, poetry, a flower, shoveling snow, putting the damn mailbox on its post again. Each an act of sharing. Each a part of us; a part of GOD.

We: our stories, our lives, our faith, our community.

We manifest GOD.


The Manifestation


Yesterday, we celebrated the Epiphany, often seen simply as the day the Wise men arrive to see Jesus. But the Epiphany has a deeper, more profound purpose for us. And the root is found in the word chosen more than 1,700 years ago for the day.

Epiphany, from the ancient Greek, means “manifestation”. For us, to celebrate the Epiphany means we celebrate the very manifestation of GOD in Christ: as in the Word made flesh.

Epiphany also has an awe-inducing, striking appearance character to the word. In the Epiphany, GOD provokes us to see that GOD has been revealed to us in Jesus.

BOOM! GOD is with us! Now!

Note how the “manifestation” of GOD is different than the “incarnation” of GOD we celebrate at Christmas. In the Incarnation, we celebrate that the Word became human in the form of a baby boy. In the Manifestation/Epiphany, we celebrate that GOD has been revealed to us in Jesus.

Photo Credit: concretecandy via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: concretecandy via Compfight cc

A Holy Trinity

Epiphany is the oldest of the church’s principal feasts. Dating to the Third Century, Epiphany held a most prominent place in the lives of early Christians, particularly in the East. Two other principal feasts arrived in the succeeding centuries, making a celebratory Trinity in worship of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.

Far from the more prominent feasts in many Christians’ minds, which focus on their literal character and captivating storylines, Christmas and Holy Week were a much later church development.

This trio of holidays: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost: have a less defined and amorphous character. They are much less appealing to the Modernist mind, which focuses on the metaphysics and scientific justifiability of our theology and practice. To the Modernist, the revelation of GOD made manifest is a question of how—as in how is GOD particularly revealed—rather than the striking notion that GOD is revealed.

In my thinking about these three feasts, they together reveal a big idea about GOD’s working in the world. In the Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation of GOD—as GOD reveals GOD to humanity. In Easter, we celebrate the transformation of the world—as GOD transforms the very nature of humanity in life and death. In Pentecost, we celebrate our partnership in transformation—that the Spirit has come into the world to provoke us as Her partners.

Taken together, these three feasts form a singular arc—a story of the new thing GOD has ushered into the world—a revealing of GOD’s participation, a new life in a new world, and a GOD/human partnership in future transformation. They reveal to us a provoking spirit and a powerful relationship between GOD and humanity.

This arc begins with a revelation of GOD: a manifestation.


a Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany C
Text: Luke 9:28-36


The Set-Up

There was GOD. And GOD found a man who was special. A man who would make the world new. So GOD invited the man to go on a journey. The man did. This man was named Abram and would be the source a new humanity. Though he didn’t know that yet.

Abram, his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot traveled to Canaan.

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:6-7)

Abram’s response to this moment is natural.

This place is special: GOD is giving it to me.
This moment is special: GOD is speaking to me.
I will mark it and keep it.

He builds a marker. Then he leaves.

In today’s gospel, we have one of the most important moments in Scripture. We call it the Transfiguration. Perhaps most important is that GOD the Father speaks. Not a common occurance in the gospels. And it occurs in the three Synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each, Jesus takes three disciples with him up a mountain, there is a blinding light, they see Moses and Elijah, and Peter, overwhelmed by the moment, wants to build something. He wants to mark this site as holy, that they might stay and worship.

But GOD has other plans.

You want us to listen?

When dealing with the Transfiguration, I am always struck by how Jesus doesn’t want a big response for this big moment. Here they are, having a literal mountain top experience and GOD shuts it down. If this moment isn’t the time to worship, then when is?

One difference between what Abram did and what Peter wants to do is that Abram marked the spot and moved on. Humans are responsible for naming things, after all. But Peter is looking to stay. He wants to stick around on the mountain top. GOD says listen. To do that, Peter has to stop talking.

We don’t have much patience for listening. Not real listening, any way. We want it packaged, easy. Prepared for us, wrapped in wax paper so we can ingest it while we drive through. We like our listening like our fast food.

Mostly it is that we don’t like silence. Silence is uncomfortable. It is inefficient. Our culture pushes and demands multitasking (what an evil word) and timeliness.

To us, listening is so passive. We want to do. We have much to fix. We have to move! we think. But GOD speaks and says “listen to him.”

Taking the time

GOD shows up in the old way—in a cloud. The booming voice, the statement about Jesus reminds us of the Baptism. In that story, the Holy Spirit comes down “in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:22) An experience of the divine so new, so different, it marks the path Jesus will follow. This moment with the divine is markedly different. It is of the past, with figures from the past. And GOD tells the three witnesses that Jesus was chosen; “listen to him.”

In this backward-looking moment, we are moved to listen. Not replicate. Not pause for three seconds and then keep moving. Listen. To hear from the chosen one, the one who was with GOD in the past, present, and future.

It is also not a place in which we stay. Always listening, worshiping, or doing. But it is important to do. To set aside the time.

GOD says to listen. Let’s take time now to listen. All of us. To do that, I’ll need to shut up. Let us be quiet. Let us sit and listen.