Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, "Voices: Woman at the Well"

Sermon 3/27/11
John 4:5-42

Voices: Woman at the Well

            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
Today we encounter this fascinating story from the gospel of John, the only gospel where we find this passage, the woman at the well. As I was reading over this passage I began to suspect and had to check up this, and found I was right: This passage gives us the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another person. That should peak our interest - something important happens here.
Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. They had common religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have different religious beliefs, and their differences caused prejudices on both sides, conflicts. Samaritans believed that only the Pentateuch was scripture – only the first five books of our Bible – the law of Moses. They didn’t hold the prophets and other writings as scripture. And they believed that Mount Sinai, not Jerusalem, was the holy place of worship. But Jews and Samaritans didn’t just have different views on religious beliefs. Relations between the two groups were tense and unfriendly, with Jews typically viewing Samaritans as lower and unclean. Maybe those differences in belief don’t’ seem very significant enough – not enough to cause so much hostility – but goodness knows we fight with each other over less significant divides.
But, still, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well, tired from his journey. A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. The passage mentions the time of the day that she comes to the well – noon. Since most passages don’t give us a time, we can guess again that it is significant. Noon would have been the hottest hour – not usually the hour to come to the well. So this unnamed woman, coming to the well at noon – it suggests she’s an outcast, or wants to void the eyes of others. She’s surprised that Jesus even speaks to her. As a rabbi, a teacher, a man, Jesus wouldn’t have initiated conversation with a woman in a public place. And as a Jew, Jesus wouldn’t have initiated conversation with a Samaritan, as she notes. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jacob, their revered forefather got water from a well with the help of God. Can this man Jesus do that? Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself, her history. The woman asks if Jesus is a prophet – an interesting question from a Samaritan, since they don’t hold the writings of prophets as scripture. They debate a bit, about their different religious views. But Jesus tells her, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the truth worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
The passage goes on. The disciples show up, surprised at Jesus’ conversation partner, but wise enough apparently after long enough with Jesus to keep their thoughts to themselves. Jesus says something to them about food to eat, and they, like the woman, are confused by his talk. But Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to proclaim his work.” He talks about the Samaritans being ready for the harvest, ready to receive the good news. Indeed, the passage closes with the woman bringing others to meet Jesus, this man who knew all about her, and they believe that he is the savior because of her witness.

            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            I am struck by the fact that the woman does not bristle when Jesus calls her out for her five husbands. She doesn’t deny it or justify it or get upset. Perhaps she doesn’t react badly because Jesus doesn’t say it with judgment – he just states it as fact about her. But indeed, the woman takes Jesus’ words to her and uses them as a reason to compel others to come to meet Jesus: “This man told me everything I have ever done.” Now of course, unless we’re missing a big chunk of conversation, Jesus didn’t exactly tell her about her life from birth to present – but for the woman, Jesus captured the facts that have defined her life so far.
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            Do we have to change in order to be loved? If someone really knew us, would we still be lovable? Or are we only lovable in so far as we can meet certain expectations? Do we have to keep people at arm’s length from really knowing us in order to be loved? I think these are maybe the voices this woman was used to hearing. And they’re certainly voices we are used to hearing, aren’t they?
            You only need to spend about five minutes watching commercials, or drive down the highway and look at the billboards, or check out the advertisements in magazines and online, or basically just exist in this world to be bombarded with messages that all say one basic thing: You are not good enough how you are to be of value, worthy of love. But if you buy this, if you change yourself, if you put on the right mask – then, then, you might be loveable. But as you are – you’re too thin, too tall, too fat, too short, too poor, bad skin, bad hair, not dressed in the right style, in the right brands, not shopping at the right stores, not driving the right car, not living in a nice enough home, a clean enough home, not a good enough parent – and you won’t really be lovable – desirable, admirable, interesting – worth someone’s time, attention, care, or love, until you can make some changes in yourself.
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            Do we have to change in order to be loved? What if we don’t? What if we are totally lovable, totally valuable, totally of sacred worth already, just because we are, just because we have already been created in God’s image, just because we exist? I think, at the well, for the first time this woman hears another voice, offering another truth than the one she has been told, has been living for so long. She’s known. And she is loved. Loved and known. Jesus knows everything about her, and he still spends time with her. Knows everything about her, and still offers her living water. Knows everything about her, and yet makes no demands of her. Jesus doesn’t say that living water is hers after she makes amends for her sins or changes something about herself. He just offers, and it is hers for the taking. He knows her. He loves her. What if we are already lovable?
            To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.
            The woman at the well – she does change. She hears Jesus’ voice, she wants the living water, and what’s more, she’s compelled to share it. “Come and see” she says to those in town – perhaps the very ones who have made her feel like an outsider. “Come and see” – see the one who knows me. We don’t have to change to be loved. But love changes us – being loved changes us, being known changes us. Not into some picture-perfect Christian – but love can changes us, move us to be fully ourselves, fully disciples, fully God’s.
            God knows you. Knows your heart. Knows your nature. Knows your soul. Knows you and loves you. Does that love change you? I hope so. Real love always changes us. But God’s love is there already to ground you, to guide you, to quench your thirsting soul. Come and see. Amen. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Voices: Nicodemus"

Sermon 3/20/11
John 3:1-17

Voices: Nicodemus

            When I was little, the small country church I went to in Westernville had a big emphasis in Sunday School on memorizing Bible verses. Every week we’d spend some time going over verses, and in the older classes, we’d actually get 5 cents for every verse we could memorize. I was certainly inspired by promise of such riches, and could memorize quite a lot of verses! Today we don’t focus so much on memorizing verses, which has some pros and cons – a single verse taken out of context doesn’t always do you much good, and in fact, can lead you to wrong conclusions when you don’t know the rest of what’s happened in a passage! So we tend today to focus more on teaching whole stories, rather than memorizing single verses. Nonetheless, you probably still know this verse by heart, in the King James Version even – John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet, even though we know that verse so well, here’s a perfect example of what I was talking about – do you know the context? How does Jesus come to say these words? As we continue our Lenten journey, and listen in on the voices pulling at our gospel characters, today we meet up with a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the scholars and interpreters of the law with whom Jesus was most often in conflict, because the Pharisees, Jesus argued, tried to put too many rules and regulations on the people for being “good Jews,” while managing to miss the heart and soul of it – that is, relationship with God. Nicodemus is sort of stepping out of the pack by coming to see Jesus – he’s taking a risk because he has some questions that he really wants Jesus to answer. But also note that he’s protecting himself and his position too – he comes to see Jesus at night, when he can meet with Jesus without drawing attention to himself.
            Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ legitimacy – “no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God,” he says. But Jesus pushes him: “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Remember, the kingdom of God being here and now – that’s the core of Jesus’ message. Jesus turns the focus away from himself and his power, and to Nicodemus – and whether or not Nicodemus wants to be part of the kingdom of God. Jesus is always an outside-the-box thinker, but Nicodemus can’t understand what Jesus is getting at – “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he wonders. Can you enter the womb again and be born? But Jesus explains that he means that we have to be Spirit-born as well as born in flesh, and wonders how one who is a teacher of Israel can’t get it.
            Then Jesus says, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a strange verse if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites, still wandering in the desert, were complaining to God and Moses about food and water, when poisonous snakes were sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So they came to Moses and confessed their sinfulness, and asked Moses for help. Moses prayed for the people, and heard God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
            Jesus says “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent, raised up for the Israelites, gave them earthly life. Jesus, raised up – and the word here for raised up is actually the same as “crucified” – Jesus, raised up, gives life too – real life, eternal life. Then, finally the verse that we know so well, and its match –  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is the life-giver – that is his purpose – to give life, not to condemn and judge, but to save, and make whole, to help people see, be part of the kingdom of God.
            What we don’t know is how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him. It is a lot to take in. And the scriptures record no response. What we do see in the gospels in Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. So we know that Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees – willing to raise his voice amongst his peers on Jesus’ behalf, and then, at the end, participating in honoring Jesus for his burial.
            In some ways I related to Nicodemus more than others who encounter Jesus in the gospels. When Jesus calls Simon Peter, for example, Peter just drops his nets and follows. I find it hard to imagine that kind of complete, life-changing response, so immediate and total. No time to think or plan or process. It is so hard to imagine being like that, when it seems a struggle to make just the simplest of lasting changes in my life. But Nicodemus – a skeptic maybe, confused, believing and not yet acting on what he’s beginning to believe, what he knows to be true somewhere buried inside – I find I can relate to Nicodemus. The people who already have nothing, like fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes and poor folk, who already have been told they count for nothing – embracing Jesus makes sense. But for those who have something to lose, some power to give up, some control to hand over to God in order to enter this kingdom as peers, co-workers with the “least of these” – well, the choice is a challenge, the conflicting voices – called to the status quo or called to God and new life that requires being born, spiritually, all over again.
            You might wonder why we celebrate the baptisms of children and infants. In baptism we affirm what Jesus speaks of here – born of water and Spirit. But don’t we have to wait until we can know for ourselves, claim for ourselves that we want to be reborn? Renewed? Recreated? But what we do in baptism, when her parents and godparents and all of us take vows on Ella’s behalf – what we do is commit to helping her hear God’s voice, when we know how hard that will be sometimes in her life. And we acknowledge that even now, even already, even as she came into being, God’s voice was already calling to her, offering life. We commit to helping her claim that gift. Like Nicodemus we struggle with letting Jesus change us, even when we believe what Jesus says – and so we begin now with Ella, that she might have a whole lifetime to be a disciple.
            For God so loves Ella – for God so loves me – for God so loves you, that God gave Jesus, that you who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. Amen.   

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Voices: Tempted"

Sermon 3/13/11

Voices: Tempted

On Wednesday night this past week, at our Ash Wednesday service, I introduced our Lenten theme for this year – Voices. We talked about how many voices are clamoring for our attention in this world. Throughout the season of Lent, we’ll try to listen in on those voices, and in particular, listen for the voice of God in the midst of all the other noise. That’s really what Lent is about – that’s why Lent is a season of reflection, repentance, renewal, why people focus on sacrifice, austerity, a lifestyle that is perhaps a little less indulgent than usual. It’s a time to tune everything else out so we can tune in to God. So throughout Lent, we’ll listen in to the gospel stories where we see examples of just that – characters trying to decide which voices to listen to. We begin with one who sets the example for us – Jesus.  
In our gospel lesson, Jesus has just been baptized by John, his cousin. And he’s heard God’s voice saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He’s grounded already in the truth of that voice. But Jesus has not yet taught and preached or called his disciples. It’s a retreat time, a preparation time for him. He takes this journey into the wilderness as a last time apart before a three year period of ministry that will bring him relentlessly closer to the cross, to his death. Jesus follows the Spirit of God to the wilderness, “to be tempted by the devil” we’re told. He fasts for 40 days and nights, and is weak and famished.
With Jesus in this vulnerable state, another voice calls to Jesus. We read that the tempter comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus responds with scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, and tells him to throw himself down, quoting scriptures right back at Jesus: “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, their hands will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus responds that the scripture says we’re not to put God to the test. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain peak, and offers Jesus all the kingdoms he can see if only Jesus will worship the devil.” But Jesus sends him away, saying, “it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only [God.]’” Finally, the devil departs, unsuccessful in his quest to lead Jesus off God’s path.
The voice of the devil tempts Jesus with power. Jesus has power, of course. But what kind of power does Jesus have, and how does Jesus use it? How does the voice of the devil want Jesus to use his power? That’s what’s at stake in this passage. I’ve always struggled with the story of Jesus’ temptation because what the devil offers Jesus doesn’t seem very tempting for Jesus. Jesus already has the power to do what the devil offers. We see Jesus multiply loaves and make water into wine. We see at the end of this passage that angels attend to him. We know that Jesus could be an earthly king if he chose – he talks about this frequently in the gospels. What’s so tempting for him in this passage, since the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already?
I think they are tempting to Jesus because they are easy for him, and they would directly benefit Jesus, no one else, and they wouldn’t cost Jesus in the way that the path Jesus is on will cost him. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. It’s the easy way, what the devil offers, and the easy way is always alluring, isn’t it? What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get essentially the same things in a supposedly easier way. And that, I think, is the true temptation, the temptation that shows Jesus to be one of us, the temptation that Jesus withstands and calls us to withstand too.  
I think that the biggest temptations we face are not temptations that would lead us to break one of the ten commandments for instance, though of course these things can all be tough temptations. I think the biggest temptation is the temptation to forget – to forget who we are, and what “who we are” means. It is easy to listen to the voices that ell us to think more of what benefits us than what will help others. It is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged. It is easier to just glide along in life without really making an attempt to follow Jesus and live as he lived. To be “basically nice people” instead of being disciples – I think this is the biggest temptation we face. We’re tempted to forget that we’re beloved children of God, created uniquely, and created with a purpose, to love and to serve God and one another.   
In the end, what God has in store for Jesus and what the devil seems to offer to Jesus aren’t that different from one another. The devil offers Jesus power and rule of kingdoms, but this is already what Jesus has as God’s child, even if it is not in the way that the devil imagines. If both God and Satan are making the same promises to us – how can we tell whose voice is whose? Think of two stones: diamonds, and cubic zirconium. They can look pretty similar, if you’re not looking carefully enough. But one stone is highly valuable, while another is thought of as a cheap imitation. That’s what we have to do with our temptations: remember that one path is worthwhile, and the other will only offer a cheap imitation of the life that we can have with God. Telling them apart – that’s probably easier than we think, even if we don’t like the answer. I’ve generally found in my own life, that God’s voice, God’s promises, God’s path – these things usually involve doing something that I don’t want to do, don’t feel prepared to do, don’t like doing, am afraid to do, am reluctant to do, something that is harder, requires me to give, to risk, to go against the flow, to work with people I don’t like – but ultimately fills my life in a way nothing else can. Following the alternative path – the imitation path - is usually easier – requires less thought. Has more immediate rewards. Lets you shut others out. And ultimately, leaves that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. That feeling that your life is missing something essential. That feeling that despite having money, or possessions, or security, or whatever else you bargained for – you’re still coming up short – still unsatisfied.
We might wish for a way to solve the world's problems, to actually turn stones into bread, to cure problems like hunger and disease. Instead, God calls us to work to feed our neighbor, clothe the naked, visit the sick: not by magic powers, but with our own two hands, our own time, our own resources. We might wish that we could control the nations of this world, so that everything could be done our way, even a good way. Instead, God call us to work for peace, to build relationships, to go through long and difficult dialogues across racial, ethnic, and global boundaries, to see our neighbors near and far. We might wish that God would give us a sign, proof of existence, proof of care for us, a map of our future blessings. Instead, God reminds us evidence of God's existence is all around us - it is our discipleship that needs to be tested more often than not!
Today, voices offer us tempting promises and a huge amount of power. Both the voice of God and the voice of evil promise to give us more than we can imagine. Both will give us and expect us to use power. Both promise us a full, abundant life. But only one deal can live up to our expectations. Only one path can satisfy the deepest longings of our heart. Which voice will you listen to? Which path will you choose?
Jesus calls us to resist the temptation to underestimate ourselves, to think that we can't make change without taking the easy path offered by the devil. The forty days of Lent we take as a journey with Jesus in the wilderness. God has blessed us so greatly that when we journey with Jesus we can do amazing things. We can change the world. We can change lives. We can bring joy. We can end pain. We can share God. We can challenge the status quo. We can tear down walls of oppression. We can change ourselves. That's a lot of ability that God has given into such faulty creatures. So much potential to do what is wrong, what is evil, what is easy, what is tempting. Yet so much potential to do what is challenging, what is difficult, what is right, what is good, what is demanded and required of us by our Creator. God is speaking. Are you listening?

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Ash Wednesday, Year ABC

Readings for Ash Wednesday, 3/8/11:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17:
  • "Rend your hearts and not your clothing." This verse ties into Psalm 51's theme: it is our heart, our inside, our soul that God wants us to worry about most - not sacrifices, not outward signs. (theme of the gospel as well) Inside, not outside.
  • "[God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." I like these descriptions, especially in the midst of the Old Testament, which can have a different image of God.
  • "Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast." Joel urges the people to gather together, to plead to God as a community for forgiveness. When do we do that? Gather as a community and ask God to have mercy on us?
Psalm 51:1-17:
  • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really. 
  • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.
  • "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Inside, not outside. Rituals are meaningless to God if they are not accompanied by real change in who we are and how we live!
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10:
  • "an acceptable time" - The Greek word here is one of my favorites, one I learned during my freshman year of college when I felt like I had just uncovered one of the great mysteries of the world: kairos, or "God's right time for action" as Dr. Emmanuel Twesigye taught. This is as opposed to chronos, regular ol' time.
  •  Paul describes a paradox/contradictory state - imposters yet true, unknown yet known, dying yet alive. Sometimes being a disciple can feel like this: pulled constantly between to states of being you never thought could go together.
  • Paul gives himself quite a list of things that make him and colleagues "servants of God." Stuff like this is always what makes me think Paul has such a boastful side. Oh well, I guess he's entitled a fault...
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21:
  • Again the Lenten theme: God wants our insides, not our outsides.
  • Interesting, isn't it, to compare Jesus' words to our current practices of worship - we still like to "sound the trumpet" when we give, we like to pray with fancy words in long winded ways. We like to be rewarded, preferably instantly, for our good and holy behavior.
  • "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also." Notice that it is not where you heart is, there you will find your treasure. But first look to what you treasure - and that's where your heart, your whole person is. So what do you treasure? Possessions? Then that is what you are: your things. 

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year A, "On the Mountain"

Sermon 3/6/11
Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18

On the Mountain

This Sunday is the last Sunday in our series about goals for the church. On Wednesday, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and our focus will change for a forty day journey. But today, the goal I want us to focus on serves as sort of a transition between where we are and where we’re going. This week, we’re talking about worship. One of our goals is to have meaningful worship that is relevant and powerful for people of all generations. Of course, as human beings, we are all so unique and different, and what is meaningful to me in worship may not be meaningful to you. As a church, we incorporate worshippers from infancy to older adulthood, and that means we try to make worship meaningful for children and teens, for young adults and young parents, for baby boomers and retirees. It is a challenge to find a balance in worship – we try to balance traditional hymns with newer music. We try to use different styles of prayer, different types of liturgy. We serve communion in different styles. We try to incorporate imagery and sounds into our worship and learning. We try to make things relevant for today’s world, while making sure that we pass on a faith that has been nurtured for thousands of years. We try to keep familiar practices while introducing new ones that respond to where we are now.
As it happens, our focus on worship this Sunday falls on a special day in the liturgical year. The last Sunday before the start of Lent is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experience – and I think that’s what’s key for us.
The text opens with “six days later.” Six days after what? The previous chapter tells us it is six days after Peter both answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Messiah” to Jesus, and was rebuked by Jesus, who said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan,” when Peter didn’t want to hear about the suffering and death Jesus would soon face. So six days after this, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. There he is transfigured, changed in some way, face shining like the sun, and seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of Judaism. The three disciples are afraid and confused, but yet Peter still offers to build dwellings so that they can all stay there on the mountain. But God speaks from the overshadowing cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Jesus, back to normal, and alone again with the three, tells them to get up, not to be afraid. And they return back down the mountain.
Our Exodus text has some similar themes today – we read about Moses going up the mountain where he receives the Ten Commandments and other law from God. We read, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” Again, we don’t know exactly what happens “in the cloud” – but clearly a deeply spiritual holy experience happens on the mountain.
From texts like these we can easily see why we might talk about having mountain-top experiences. We generally use this phrase to describe a particular time when we feel close to God. I know with the conference youth I’ve worked with, they often speak of our events, our gatherings, as mountain-top experiences – these intense, spiritual times where it seems so much easier to see God, understand what God wants them to do. It’s how I used to feel spending a week at summer camp when I was little – I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to go back when it was over. It seemed pretty hard to capture that mountain-top experience when in the real world. Something about being on the mountain-top helps makes God’s voice seem clear.
One of my favorite series of books is C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and one book in the series has a mountain-top scene that seems on task: in book four, The Silver Chair, a young girl named Jill finds herself on a high mountain, being given a task by Aslan, the Christ-like figure of the series. Though she likes being on the mountain, near to Aslan, she soon must travel down into the world to set about the tasks he appointed for her. As she is traveling into the world, he speaks these words to her. "I give you a warning," he says, "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters."
So what does all of this, what does the transfiguration have to do with worship? I think worship is a time when we particularly seek to draw close to God. It’s like going up on a mountain, where we hope we will find God’s voice to be a bit clearer. And hopefully, like Aslan said to Jill in The Silver Chair, we can remember the Signs when we’re not on the mountain. In other words, we take our experience of closeness to God in worship and let it permeate our whole lives.
We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. We worship because as God chooses us, creates us, we in turn want to say that we’ve chosen God above all else. It is God who we promise to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And because of that, and to show that, we love our neighbors, our fellow human creations. We worship because God is who God is. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. In his book chapter about passionate worship, Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “People are searching for worship that is authentic, alive, creative, and comprehensible, where they experience the life-changing presence of God in the presence of others . . . Worship [is when] we gather deliberately seeking to encounter God in Christ. We cultivate our relationship with God and with one another as the people of God. We don’t attend worship to squeeze God into our lives; we seek to meld our lives into God’s.” (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, 33-34, emphasis mine.) We come to the mountain to seek God’s voice. We come down from the mountain and seek to share God’s voice in the world and let it shape our lives.
            Over the last few weeks I’ve been giving you challenges – giving us challenges, concrete ways to live out our goals for ministry in the year ahead. I hope by now, you are getting familiar enough with them that you know them – hopefully you aren’t sick of them yet!  - but hopefully you are starting to remember them well! Our first goal is about being welcoming and sharing the good news. Our challenge is to invite and bring at least one person to worship with you in the year ahead and hopefully help that person become part of the life of this congregation. I hope you’ve already started thinking about who you want to invite. Our second challenge relates to our commitment to mission and our belief that we see Jesus when we truly see one another. So our challenge is to engage in or go deeper with a face-to-face mission, a mission that is relationship-centered. And last week we talked about stewardship and our relationship with God – our task, easy or hard – is to give, every time we give, with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, so that every time we give it is a celebration of God at work in us.
The challenge that I want to give to you this week is for you to commit to, to fully engage in worship in the season of Lent.  Lent is a season that is just forty days long. Forty days. And during this season we begin with an Ash Wednesday service this week. We will have mid-week services all season where we’ll celebrate with a meal and communion and fellowship and conversation about mission. We have Holy Week services that are unique and special – from Palm/Passion Sunday, to Maundy Thursday with communion and stripping the sanctuary, to Good Friday and a tenebrae service or a time for prayer in the sanctuary, and finally, Easter Sunday. I guarantee to you that you will find Easter worship more meaningful if you have been part of the entire Lenten journey – you will appreciate the destination more if you know what it took to get there. If for some reason you can’t get here to worship during Lent, I encourage you to worship where you are, or to be intentional about your devotional life during the season of Lent.
            If you are interested in talking more about worship and styles of worship and what makes worship meaningful, I invite you to join a small group conversation on Friday, March 25th, at 6pm. If you want to participate in worship – behind the scenes, up front, in designing worship, or leading worship, please let me or a member of the worship committee know. Worship is the work of all God’s people, and I want you to be invested in our time together with God.
            On Wednesday Lent begins, and worship is at the heart of our Lenten journey. Come, let us worship. Amen.