reality, grief and hope part five
note; here are today's worship notes to conclude my series based on Brueggemann'sancient prophets of Israel and 21st century USA. A special thanks to the Rev. Dr. James Forbes' recent article in Sojourner's Magazine re: encouragement.
The Feast of the Transfiguration – Paul’s challenge to present our bodies as a living sacrifice – AND Psalm 37’s invitation to move from fretting to trusting in equanimity: what a GREAT Sunday for the grey-haired preacher! I love these texts – they are among my favorite – and it is the last Sunday before the start of Lent, too! What an incredible privilege to share all of this with you this day. I know some people are turned on by cars – or gadgets – maybe even the Super Bowl – but not me: I am a Bible-loving, spirituality hungry, church geek who, when given a winning hand like the texts for this morning ; well, let’s just say: my cup runneth over!
So on this day when I’m bringing to a close my worship series about what wisdom the ancient prophets of Israel have to offer 21st century Americans, I want to assure you that today we’re heading into the realm of hope. For the past four weeks, we’ve been addressing how reality pushes us into a necessary and potentially transformative grief – what the prophets like to call learning to wait upon the Lord or relinquishment. In the poetry of the Psalms, we are told: Let go of wrath and forsake rage, do not be incensed to do evil; but be still and wait upon the Lord. Do not fret, but trust God.
If you take away NOTHING from this series except the importance of waiting upon the Lord – refusing to rush towards simple-minded or self-centered solutions – I will feel blessed. But my heart wants you to also embrace one more insight: hope comes from God and is not manufactured by anything we think, say or do. We neither create hope with positive vibes and wishful thinking nor earn it by good behavior or pedigree. As Professor Brueggemann writes: the arrival of hope cannot “be filled with human plans, blueprints, schedules, budgets, creeds or six easy steps: hope only fills our hearts by that which God gives.”
But here’s the paradox – and it is particularly pertinent for 21st century people who are not only distracted by the countless diversions available everyday for our entertainment, but are also over-worked, over-stressed, over-extended and under-rested – these realities cloud our comprehension of a foundational spiritual truth: while hope is always born of the Lord, hope must also be nurtured by an obedient imagination and a radical trust of God’s grace. These two practices prepare the soil of our hearts for a harvest of the fruits of the Holy Spirit that will not wither and fade like desert grass.
That’s what St. Paul is emphasizing at the close of his career: an obedient imagination and a radical trust in God’s grace. When he started, like many of us, he was a hot-head: he knew better than everyone else – his tradition included. So he lived like his wisdom and his hardships were at the center of the universe. You can still find some of this unredeemed narcissism in his writings, but as he matured – and was humbled – it became less onerous.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Bible is full of characters just like Paul – good people who are too full of themselves – so they have to get knocked down a few notches before they can advance God’s kingdom? There’s Jonah who when asked by God to bring a word of hope to a sinful city not only ran away from God to avoid talking to people he believed were below him – during which time he was swallowed by a whale only to be dumped at the doorstep of those he despised – but then pouts and sulks like a petulant adolescent after the sinners he dislikes actually change their ways and respond to God’s grace! There’s the friends of Job who, rather than sit with their suffering comrade in silence and solidarity, decide to tell Job all the things he’s probably done wrong that warrant God’s wrath. Apparently these so-called friends were unmoved by Job’ physical agony, emotional distress and spiritual grief be-cause… they knew better.
And then there’s St. Peter in today’s gospel who often spoke before thinking and believed that his insights and troubles were more important than anyone else’s; he’ the kind of guy who had there been email in his day would have hit the send button well before thinking through the consequences of his arrogant advice and then complain when others became offended or upset by his callous insensitivity. There are a host of Biblical characters that enact this same story over and over in the Scriptures because it is part of the human condition. All of us, at one time or another, really do believe that our ideas and problems are more important, more demanding and more unique than anyone else’s.
This is, of course, foolish, hurtful and self-absorbed and the reason why the Bible also gives us the mature and humbled reflections of some of these souls – like Peter and Paul – both of whom came to see that our spiritual worship, that which is good, acceptable, mature and pleasing before the Lord, has to do with present-ing our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and our minds as an offering for trans-formation. Our bodies – that is our habits, actions, commitments, and lived values – are to become living proof of our radical trust. And our minds are to be bathed, baptized and cleansed in obedient imagination; transformed, if you will, rather than conformed and addicted to the culture’s lowest common denominator. I really appreciate Eugene Peterson’s retranslation of Romans 12 because it opens up the heart of this text:
Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God seeks to brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Nourish an obedient imagination and embody a radical trust in God’s grace. And as we’re just about to enter the journey of Lent, let me highlight three insights that this penitential season encourages us to embrace as both a faith community and individuals.
First, the whole “do not fret” business from Psalm 37: this is imperative. Now I know that most of us will never fully matriculate from the university of non-anxious living – we’ll most likely have to keep going back for refresher courses in trust and rest and prayer for our whole lives – but if we don’t cultivate a con-scious commitment to contemplation and altered thinking… than we are to blame for our perpetual anxiety, stress and exhaustion, not the Lord. God gives us the tools, but we have to use them. That’s what the apostle Paul is telling us when he writes present your bodies and minds as living sacrifices: something in us has to die and be reborn according to God’s grace and love before we will live more consistently within Christ’s peace. Prayer, quiet time, meditation, mantras, contemplation are all tools that cultivate the experience of serenity – and there is no substitute, short-cut or appeal because of extenuating circumstances. If we truthfully want to enter into the blessings of grace and have our strength renewed by God’s hope, then we have to do our part by using the tools God has given to us to end our fretting.
In some circles the story is told of a young woman who one day walked into a church and began to pray:' 'Listen Lord, I know I haven't been perfect but I really need to win the lottery. I don't have a lot of money. So please help me out.'' She left the church feeling she had been honest in her prayer so waited for the pay off.After a week went by, however, and it was clear that she hadn't won the lottery, she walked into a synagogue. ''Come on, Lord, I really need this money. My mom needs surgery and I have bills to pay. So please let me win the lottery.'' She left the synagogue confidently and waited. And after another week passed, and she still hadn’t won the lottery, she fumed into a mosque and started to pray: ''You are really starting to try my patience and disappoint me, God. I've prayed and prayed. If you just let me win the lottery, I'll be a better person. I don't have to win the jackpot, I just need enough to get out of debt. I'll even give some to charity if you just let me win.'' And with that, she got up and walked outside. Suddenly the clouds opened, thunder cracked and a booming voice from within the cosmos proclaimed, ''Hey, woman, help me out: at least buy a ticket?''
The first challenge when it comes to nourishing an obedient imagination and radical trust is clear: fret not. And the only way to learn this is to meet God in the regular practice of prayer, meditation or some type of contemplation that alters our traditional selfish and fear-filled habits.
The second challenge has to do with practicing silence. The gospel story about Peter shooting off his mouth before thinking holds great promise for those who want to live as Christ’s servants. And practicing biting our tongue, training our voices to speak from love rather than impulse, and learning to share the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our words rather than just what our passing emotions suggest is what being transformed rather than conformed to the lowest cultural common denominator is all about. Compare the talk you hear on so-called reality shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Bridezilla” or “Pawn Stars” alongside the humility and compassion of ancient Israel’s prophets. I’m not saying don’t watch TV – even the trashy stuff – just remember: garbage in, garbage out.
The perspective of the prophets was clear: if God’s people were ever to learn that being chosen had nothing to do with blood lines, ancestry or religious ritual and everything to do with a Sabbath-centered life that shared compassion and justice with their neighbors, they needed to practice being still and listening, watching and waiting to what was happening all around them. Most simply, the prophetic task has to do with shutting-up and paying attention rather than making pronouncements of control. This is hard for all people but it is especially complex for those who have become accustomed to getting their own way whether that’s white privilege or heterosexism, the habits of wealth or so-called American exceptionalism or just learning how to share resources and space with our multi-faith neighbors.
When Jesus went to pray upon Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in the region we now know as Lebanon, he had a mystical experience involving Moses and Elijah. Moses was the father of Jewish Law who gave us the commandments and the Sabbath and Elijah was the symbol of the ancient prophets. In this time of mystical prayer, Jesus was embraced by the Law and the Prophets – the heart of his tradition and ours – in a way that sounds like Psalm 133? Do you know it? It is one of the other places where Mt. Hermon is mentioned as goes: How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity… it is like the dew which falls on Mt. Hermon and waters the desert.
I see Jesus in numinous communion with the very heart of God’s truth – until Peter wakes up. And in typical Petrine fashion blurts out without thinking: let’s institutionalize all this goodness right now, Lord, then we can stay up on the mountain forever. Now, you may recall that while Jesus loved Peter, on another occasion after Peter shot off his mouth without thinking, Jesus told him: “Get thee behind me, Satan,” right? And don’t forget the time he said: “This very night before the cock crows three times you will betray me.” So learning to be still and humble – willing to be led rather than lead – is another resource for nourishing an obedient imagination and radical trust. So much so that this text concludes with God announcing: This is my beloved… LISTEN to him. Be still – be quiet – and then you will know!
And that leads to the third challenge: encouragement. None of this is easy. If we discern anything from today’s gospel it is that even Jesus needed divine and wise counsel and encouragement to do his ministry – so what about us? My professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, the Reverend Dr. James Forbes, recently published an article in Sojourners Magazine entitled “The Vocation of Encouragement” in which he wrote:
The gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus comes at a time when wedesperately need its powerful message of encouragement. Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of what I call “a degenerative discouragement syndrome.” The news cycle enumerates a list of issues and concerns which seem to resist remediation or repair. The causes we struggle to address will differ but somewhere, right now, people are frustrated in their efforts to solve the problems related to (is your pet peeve on this list?): crime, climate change, immigration, poverty, crumbling infrastructures, sexism, racism, political partisanship, terrorism, reproductive health concerns, reverence for life and respect for choice, drug abuse, failing schools, poor community/police relations, breakdown of family structure, healthcare systems, and the energy crisis.
Suffice it to say that there seems to be an ominous shadow of decay and decline falling across many paths before us.
In truth-telling, Brother Forbes is articulating the prophetic task as we have been considering it. And true to this calling, he carries us from reality and it’s nearly immobilizing grief to signs of hope born of the Lord when he says: When Jesus was turning towards Jerusalem and the life and death encounter he would be facing there, God provided him a faith-fortifying experience of encouragement which gave him the overcoming power of endurance which not even death could destroy.
There is, you see, a pattern of encouragement in God’s love that people of faith “can rely upon as we face the challenge of pressing on into the strong winds of opposition” with trust. A quick survey of the events in the short life of Jesus shows that “encouragement was a crucial element in sustaining him to persevere in his ministry of teaching, preaching, healing, and wrestling with principalities and powers.” Think of the encouragement of Mary and Joseph shared with their young son, the encouragement of the teachers of the law as they talked with Jesus at age 12. Consider the encouragement of the heavenly affirmation as Jesus arose from the waters of baptism and heard God proclaim yet again this is my beloved. Or the encouragement of the anointing Jesus received in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at Bethany before the Passion. Can you imagine the impact of such affirmations upon the spirit of Jesus?
Through the lens of a life-time of encouragement, the details of this story – the transfiguration – take on a heightened significance – all the more so as we are about to enter the observance of Lent. Back in the day we used to speak of the Lenten journey as a Trinity of spiritual disciplines: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Fasting is all about the emptiness – silence; prayer is all about listening to God’s grace rather than our fears – do not fret; and almsgiving, sharing, is using our resources to help another – encouragement.
What would it be like for you – for me – and for our faith community if we playfully embraced these practices this Lent? Specifically, what would it be like if we took a fast from complaining and filled up the emptiness with encourage-ment? If we listened to one another – and God – more than we spoke? And when we did speak, if it was to help one another on the journey of love and hope? Pope Francis recently asked believers to give up their indifference to the suffering of others this Lent – forget chocolate and booze – what about letting go of our indifference – and I think he’s on to something. So what would it mean if we – individually and as a church – made a commitment this year to 40 days of encouragement? I know I would be blessed – maybe you would be too?
So here’s what I want you to do: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Do not fret Do not remain so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, be still – encourage one another in love – and listen to the Lord’s beloved in faith.
Sing with me: Amen…