Rescue Dogs and Refugees

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly  — Matthew 15:22-28 (NRSV).  

**

If this story strikes you as strange, you are not alone.

Granted, the whole demon-possession thing always sounds foreign to post-modern western ears, and miracles are miraculous in any age. But any semi-regular church goer has heard stories of demons and miracles before.

It’s not the miracle that seems strange here. It’s the miracle worker. It’s Jesus, who seems strange here.

How often does Jesus tell anyone, nope, sorry, no miracles for you? But that’s what he tells the woman in this story. A woman approaches Jesus seeking help, not for herself, but for her daughter, and Jesus says, sorry. No time. Gotta go help my people.

It doesn’t sound very Jesus-like, does it?

To make matters worse, he follows this dismissal with the most insulting of metaphors: It’s not fair, he says, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Yeah, that’s right. A woman comes to him, desperately seeking aid, and he responds with a derogatory one-liner and an “Israel First” slogan. That sounds like someone I can think of, but it ain’t Jesus.

So what’s going on? Is Jesus just joking around? It seems a cruel joke. Is he testing her? Again, it seems a cruel test. Or did Jesus really believe, at that moment, that he was called to serve only his own people? Maybe it was this woman, who opened his eyes to a much wider call.

Because she doesn’t give up. The disciples turn her away, but she persists. Jesus turns her away, but she persists. He calls her a dog, but nevertheless she persists. She tells him, Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Surely God must have some leftover grace, for us?

**

The woman, Matthew tells us, was a Canaanite. The Canaanites, you may or may not recall, were the people who lived in the Holy Land before the Israelites got there. Before it was Israel, it was the land of Canaan. But, as the Bible tells it, these indigenous people, these First Nation folks, were subdued and displaced by the armies of Joshua.

Mark’s gospel also tells this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, except that, according to Mark, she was not Canaanite by Syrian. Apparently the disciples who witnessed the exchange weren’t entirely certain of her ethnicity. Which I suppose is telling, in and of itself. All they knew, all they needed to know, was that she wasn’t one of their own. And so as far as they were concerned, she was someone else’s problem.

There are all sorts of borders, then, separating her from Jesus and his disciples. Borders of gender, of ethnicity, of religion – by all of these measures, she is one of them, not one of us. She is an outsider, an outcaste, an immigrant, a foreigner. But she won’t be shut out. She persists, because she has faith – faith that God’s mercy crosses all boundaries, faith that God has grace enough to spare, faith that even a dog deserves a crumb of compassion.

**

I’m reminded, here, of a story I heard on the radio last week, about a group of folks in Atlanta that has been importing rescue dogs from Turkey. Apparently, golden retrievers are considered a status symbol in Turkey, so lots of people get golden puppies, only to dump them when they get tired of them. The big, goofy, sweet-tempered golden retrievers don’t do well as street dogs. They aren’t aggressive, so they are terrorized by the other feral dogs. So a group of dog lovers has been gathering up the Goldens into shelters, and shipping them to the US, where a long line of willing owners stands ready to adopt them. The dogs are given patriotic American names – like Liberty, Freedom, and Glory – and issued passports. Over a thousand dogs have been rescued in this way.

Meanwhile, there are 3 million human Syrian refugees in Turkey, all of whom are banned from travel to the United States.

If we can recognize a Golden Retriever, no matter where we may find it, why is it so hard to recognize a human being?

If even the dogs may eat the children’s crumbs, surely we can spare some bread for the children themselves?

**

Last Sunday was World Communion Sunday, a date chosen by global consensus for all Christian churches to break bread on the same day. The symbolism is obvious: that although we may be separated by great distances, still we are one at the table. This is what the Canaanite woman affirms, when she asks Jesus for help: that God’s table is open to all.

But Jesus says no. My nation comes first.

Too many American Christians act as if the Gospel story ended right there. As if our faith and our nation shared the same borders. We mistake our country for God’s kingdom, and our tribe for God’s people. We confuse church with state and vice versa; we put God on our currency and flags in our sanctuaries. We say “America First” and “God Bless America” in the same breath, as if they meant the same thing.

But when we hear that same creed on Jesus’ lips – “my country first” — it sounds strange, doesn’t it? We know this is not the voice of Christ. And the Canaanite woman knew it too.

And so the story does not end there, because the Canaanite woman persists. She crosses over all the boundaries that kept her in her place, and she demands that Jesus do the same. And he does.

Jesus calls her a woman of great faith.

And so she was. She had faith that there was a greater God, a greater love, a greater abundance of grace, than she had been told.

Indeed, it is always the ones who live outside our own borders, of tribe, of nation, of class, of race, who call us to greater faith. For they persistently remind us, that God is not limited to our own narrow horizons, that God’s table stretches clear around the world, and that there is enough grace there for all.

We are not, and never have been, Americans first, but rather earthlings first: the children of God, made in God’s image.

Come to the Table, and break bread with the World.

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, October 8, 2017.)

School of Love

Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not put my teaching into practice?
— Luke 6:46

 

Something has changed, here in Old Deerfield. Since last time we gathered, something has shifted. It’s as if our sleepy little village has, somehow, awakened.

School is back in session.

The renowned writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once described fall in America as that “fine and dangerous season [when] all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalog looks wonderful.”

My datebook tells me that the year begins in January, and my church lectionary tells me that the year begins in Advent, but I always thought the Jewish calendar got it right when it placed the new year in September. September has always seemed me a time for new beginnings, and not just because it’s the month I was born in. For the children among us, September is a time of new shoes, new teachers, new classmates, and new blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. Even for the rest of us who are no longer children, September can be a time of renewed energy. The air turns crisp, and suddenly our days have a bit more structure and purpose to them.

This is as true for churches as it is for schools. September is the time when travelers return to worship, children return to Sunday school, and choir members return to the choir loft (as ours will next Sunday). There’s a palpable shift, in September.

This is true for churches, and particularly true for us here at the Brick Church. Because this is one of the distinctive characteristics of the First Church of Deerfield: we are a church surrounded by students, and filled with teachers. English, French, Latin, Music, Technology, Drama, Medicine, English as a Second Language, Woodworking, Mathematics, Second Grade — we’ve got an entire curriculum represented here in this church. So let me ask you: what are we all doing here? What have we come here, to learn? What new course of study, are we hungry to pursue, here?

Last year, I read a remarkable book called The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren, and the most memorable passage for me, the part that really stayed with me, was his answer to the question I just asked. This is how Rev. McLaren describes his vision for the future of the church:

“What I believe can and should happen is that tens of thousands of congregations will become what I call schools or studios of love. That’s the desired future to which I am passionately committed. I’m not concerned about a congregations denomination, musical style, or liturgical taste; I don’t care if they meet weekly in a cathedral, monthly in a bar, annually at a retreat center, or daily online. I don’t care whether they are big or small, formal or casual, hip or unhip, or whether their style of worship is traditional or contemporary or whatever. What I care about is whether they are teaching people to live a life of love, from the heart, for God, for all people no exceptions, and for all creation. These churches would aim to take people at every age and ability level and help them become the most loving version of themselves possible. They would help people face the challenges of life – challenges that could make them better, self absorbed, callous, or hateful – with openness, courage, and generosity. They would help people recognize when they are straying from the way of love and help them get back on the path.”[i]

McLaren goes on to note that, although there’s plenty of research into the best methods of teaching mathematics — or reading or violin — the pedagogy of love remains elusive. How do we learn to love our neighbor? How do we learn to love our God? How do we learn to love creation?

How indeed?

Jesus has many titles in the gospels: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Son of God and Son of Man. But the title by which his own followers addressed him, was Rabbi — Teacher. And these followers themselves were called Disciples, which means students. The Jesus movement was essentially a school without walls, and its curriculum was love.

It was no lecture class. Jesus spoke to his disciples, yes; he preached to large groups, and held small discussion sections afterwards. But then he showed them what those words meant in practice, by healing the sick, feeding the poor, embracing the outcasts, challenging the powerful, and bearing the cross. And having demonstrated love, he told them, Now,  you try.

He didn’t quiz them — “Now, who remembers which kinds of people are blessed?” — he just sent them out to actually bless people. He sent his disciples out in pairs – with a lab partner! — with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead. And when the crowds were hungry, he told his disciples, You give them something to eat.

There are some subjects that just cannot be mastered by the intellect alone. They require our whole bodies, our whole selves. They require practice.

Take music, for example. Some of you may remember the old Broadway show, The Music Man. The main character, Harold Hill, is a traveling salesman / con artist who sells band instruments together with the promise that he will teach the youngsters how to play. Not actually being a music teacher, he cannot show them how to practice their instruments. instead, he employs what he calls “the think method” — he assures the kids that if they just think about the piece they are going to play, the notes will come out right.

But a musical instrument is not an abstract idea but a physical body, with which we must cultivate a physical relationship. And this takes practice. If we merely listen to music, but do not practice, then we are learning music appreciation, not actual musicianship.

The same is true when we are learning to drive. There’s a reason why you have to take a road test, and not just a written test, before you can get a license.

The same is true of sports, or art, or science.

The same is true of love.

On the last day before his arrest, Jesus told his students, I’m giving you a new assignment: “that you love one another, as I have loved you. “ It was their final exam. Not a written test, but a road test.

Love, you see, cannot be learned by rote. It is not a subject to be memorized or even a concept to be understood. It is a skill to be mastered. It requires practice.

Which is why it’s not enough, for us to gather here in this room, sitting in rows, listening to my sermon, which let’s face it is basically a lecture. If church is to be a school of love, then there needs to be a hands-on component. Which is why there’s a time every week when y’all get up out of your seats and take the hand of a person near you in a gesture of peace. It’s why there’s a time every month when we fill our arms with clothing and food and supplies to bring to the folks at the Greenfield Inn and the Recovery Center and the Food Pantry. It’s why we gather together in small groups, like our “Being Mortal” book group, to share our stories and talk about things that really matter. It’s why when one of us is in the hospital another of us goes to see them. It’s why we break bread together and sing together. It’s why we baptize our babies together and bury our dead together.

Church is the place where we learn to practice love, so that we may get better at it. We come to church, because we have heard love’s music, and we want to play in that orchestra.

So as we begin this new school year, this new church year, let us re-commit ourselves to be diligent students of love. To practice love daily. To seek always to improve and expand our capacity for love. To be open to feedback and criticism, knowing that this is how we improve. To turn this sanctuary into a school of love, a studio where we practice until the notes of love leap off the page, and the music spills out the window, to fill the streets.

That’s our syllabus, for the year ahead. And in case you forgot to write it down, here again is this week’s assignment (from Philippians 4:8-9):

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise:
dwell on these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen:
practice these things.

And may the God of peace be with you.

 

 

 

 

[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), pp. 53-54.

Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 10, 2017.

Image: from Pinterest; original source unknown. Zoom in and check out the sentences on the blackboard.

When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.

 

 

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.

Alleluia.

 

Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.

**

I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?

**

Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.

***

Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.

 

 

Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.

Love and Anarchy

Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.–Emma Goldman

You wouldn’t think that Saint Valentine and Emma Goldman would have a whole lot in common. Saint Valentine, after all, was a 3rd century Christian priest, while Emma Goldman was a 20th century Jewish anarchist. Valentine gave his life in support of Christian marriage, while Goldman was an advocate of free love unfettered by marriage. And yet when it came to love, they agreed about one thing: Love cannot be legislated. We can neither be forbidden, nor forced, to love.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot sweep it away.
(
Song of Songs 8:6-7)

In Valentine’s day, the emperor Claudius forbid soldiers to marry, just as the state of Alabama would later forbid interracial couples to marry, just as the US Congress would later forbid same-sex couples to marry. But in each case, there was absolutely nothing the state could do to prevent them from falling in love. As songwriter Holly Near puts it, “Kids are gonna love who they damn well please.”

The love we are speaking of here is passionate, sensual love, the love shared by lovers. There are of course, other kinds of love: love among friends, love among family. The ancient Greek language had different words for each: Eros, Philios, Storge. They are not wholly separate things, of course — lovers start families, friends become lovers – but there is a different quality to each. Both state and the church typically endorse and encourage familial love and friendship; but Eros – that one’s a troublemaker.

The Christian church has never really known what to do about Eros. It is never mentioned in the New Testament, although it is rapturously and lyrically celebrated in the Song of Songs. Jesus remained silent on the subject; the apostle Paul was famously celibate and urged others to follow his example. The church has historically been conflicted as to whether sexuality was a blessing or a curse. For this we can perhaps partly blame Saint Augustine, who came up with the idea that Original Sin was somehow passed on to each generation via sexual reproduction.

Yet here in the Bible we find the Song of Songs, these lush verses of scripture, extolling Eros – sensual, passionate Eros – in metaphors so sexually charged that the book would doubtless have been banned by some well-meaning school board, had it not been, you know, sacred.

Jesus did speak constantly of Love, exhorting us to love our neighbors, to love God, to love our enemies, even, but the love he spoke of was not romantic love, but unconditional love – not Eros, but Agape. The love of God, the Love that is God – that’s Agape.

Yet Eros, too, is a form of love, and bears the marks of divinity (as CS Lewis once said).

The love between lovers awakens us to beauty. It gives birth to joy and gratitude. It stirs us to generosity and tenderness. In this, it is like that Love which is God.

Love blesses that which the state condemns. It permits that which the law prohibits. It unites that which society divides. In this, too, it is like that Love which is God.

As Valentine and Goldman both knew, Love does not follow the rules. It does not stay within the lines. Love can blossom between black and white, Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, native and immigrant, Muslim and Christian, Montague and Capulet. There is an element of anarchy in Love. Love is a law unto itself.

Jesus understood this, for he told his disciples that love of God and love of neighbor was the sum total of the law. Saint Paul, that confirmed old bachelor that he was, understood this also. Even Augustine of Hippo – yes, the same Saint Augustine that I just blamed for that whole Original Sin thing –even Augustine knew this to be true. Augustine lived with a woman for many years, had a child with her, but never married her, because his mother forbid what she saw as an “unsuitable” match. One wonders what might have happened, had Augustine met Valentine.

Years later, Augustine preached this sermon:

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will… Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

And so, beloved, let these words be our benediction and our charge this day:

Love, and do what you will.

Both Emma and Valentine would agree.

 

by Liza B. Knapp, for February 12, 2017, ‘Love Sunday’ at First Church of Deerfield, MA

image credits:
Emma Goldman photo by Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1901 – Life and Conflict in the New World, Emma Goldman Papers, UC Berkeley, Public Domain.
Saint Valentine window cc.Flickr.TheRevSteve

 

Not Joseph’s Son

The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird found throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is less known for its appearance than for its call, made famous in songs, carols and countless cuckoo clocks. The cuckoo is famous also for its distinctive reproductive ecology: it is a notorious “brood parasite’ – meaning that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

A female cuckoo watches a nest until its rightful occupants are occupied elsewhere, and then flies down and lays her eggs. Most species of birds are too dim-witted to notice that this new egg is not theirs, and so they incubate the cuckoo’s egg along with their own. But cuckoo eggs are fast incubators; the young cuckoo typically hatches before its foster siblings, and its first action is to push their eggs out of the nest. The unsuspecting foster parents feed and raise the cuckoo’s chick as their own, and the biological parents are spared all that effort.

It is from the habits of the cuckoo that we get the Old English word cuckold, meaning a man whose wife has been unfaithful, and who – perhaps unwittingly – raises another man’s offspring as his own. It was, and is, a pejorative term. It was a favorite insult of Shakespeare’s, appearing in new fewer than fifteen of his plays.

Most of us have probably never hurled this particular insult at anyone, but in the past decade the insult has had a resurgence within the alt-right and white supremacist movements. Their blogs and tweets are full of references to cuckolds — or “cucks,” for short. In alt-right parlance, a “cuck” is any man who apologizes, compromises, hor in any way puts another’s interest ahead of his own. While there are numerous alt-right slurs for women and minorities, the most shameful insult they can hurl at a straight, white male, is to call him a “cuck.”

It is in this context, that I invite you to consider the story of Joseph.

Here we have a young man on the threshold of marriage, to a young woman named Mary. He is filled with expectation for the start of their life together. But before their wedding day, he discovers that Mary is pregnant — and not with his child.

A first-century Jewish betrothal was more binding than a modern-day engagement. A betrothed woman who had sex with another man was guilty of adultery, a crime that brought shame, not only upon her but upon her entire community, and especially upon her husband. According to the Torah, an adulterous woman was to be stoned to death, in order to purge the evil – the shame – from her people.  Joseph would have been within his rights to carry out such an honor killing.

And yet, Joseph pardons Mary. Not only that – he marries her, and raises her firstborn as his own.

So we must ask ourselves:

Is Joseph a saint, or just a cuck?

Matthew tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream. Not in a blinding flash of light, as Joseph was walking home from his carpenter’s shop. Not as a loud voice, booming from the clouds. In a dream.  This was an intimate, personal communication, seeping in through Joseph’s unconscious as he lay sleeping. This was his inner angel, the voice of God within. Upon awakening, Joseph still had a choice to make.  Would he believe this dream? Would he follow this angel within?

The angel tells Joseph: Do not be afraid, to take Mary as your wife.

Joseph’s dream affirms for him that his reluctance to put Mary to shame is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. It takes courage, to choose compassion. It takes courage, to risk ridicule and accept insult. It takes courage, to listen to the angel within, when you are the only one to hear it.

Do not be afraid. In a culture that shames forgiveness, tenderness demands fearlessness.

A friend of mine, a devoted father of twins, once wondered aloud to me why it is that there are so few nativity scenes in which Joseph is holding the baby. Joseph is so often depicted standing off to the side, reduced to an ineffectual bystander.

Yet, alone in the stable, far from home, who was there to help with the birth, besides Joseph?  Who was there to hold the baby, while Mary slept? Joseph was Mary’s midwife. The first hands to cradle Jesus, would have been Joseph’s.

And holding this newborn stranger, Joseph knows at last the truth of all that the angel told him: that this child is indeed a blessing, that he himself is blessed to be his parent – not by biology, but by love. And in that moment, Joseph becomes a saint indeed: the patron saint of male tenderness.

He is the patron saint of all men who love and care for children – including children who do not share their DNA. He is the patron saint of all men who understand that their honor depends on their own choices, not their ability to control others.He  is the patron saint of all men who choose forgiveness over vengeance, and second chances over judgment.

Joseph is the patron saint of Gentle Men, everywhere.

God rest you merry, gentle men. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day – into the hands of his father, Joseph, who had the courage to listen to a dream, and love shamelessly.

(sermon by Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, December 18, 2016)

(photo: Joseph holding Jesus, from a Georgia church. CNS photo / Michael Alexander)

Next of Kin

ALICE: Is it true that everyone is sisters and brothers?

ME: Well, not in the same way as you and Phoebe are sisters, but if you go back far enough, we all have the same ancestors. So, yes, all people are your relatives. We all come from the same family. It’s like everyone is cousins.

ALICE:  My friend says everyone is sisters and brothers, because everyone is God’s child

ME: [suddenly remembering I’m a pastor] And she’s absolutely right. God loves everyone as much as we love you, so that makes us all God’s children, which makes us all siblings.

ALICE: Just imagine if you are getting really mad at your enemy, grrr [punching the air] and then you think, Oh no! [hands on cheeks, eyes and mouth wide open in shock] That’s my SISTER!

Trust a seven-year-old to get right to the point.

In church we speak often of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In some congregations, most notably in the African American church tradition, fellow church members are actually addressed that way, as Brother Dennis or Sister Julie. Here at BUCC folks often refer to their church family. And today, through the sacrament of Baptism, we joyfully adopted two more little brothers into that family.

But Alice didn’t ask me if everyone at our church is brothers and sisters. She asked me if everyone is brothers and sisters. And she immediately saw the truly radical implications of that idea: Even my enemy?

The Book of Genesis tells the story of a God who creates all of humankind, beginning with one set of biological parents. We may not take this tale literally (after all, if Adam and EVe were the only two humans, where did their daughter-in-law come from?), but Genesis gets it right in the most important sense:

We are all kin.

We are all kin, in the strictly biological sense, for we share common ancestors. Scientists have calculated our common ancestors may have lived as recently as a few thousand years ago. As one researcher put it, “we may not be brothers, but we are all hundredth cousins or so.” Consider the world’s population from the perspective of that common grandparent. We are her children’s children. We are her family.

To say our common ancestors lived a few thousand years ago is not to say there was only one set of human parents alive at that time. Rather, it is to understand that the roots of our family trees spread wider as we go back in time – until at last, they all become tangled together. We all have ancestors of every color and creed.

We are all kin.

“Kin” is one of those great old English words, short of brisk. It has a different feel, doesn’t it, than “relatives” or even “family.” It conjures up images of Appalachia, or Scotland. Somewhere rough, and hilly. Someplace where it is important to know your clan, your people. Your own kind. Kin, in fact, comes from the same root as the word kind. As in “humankind.” Or, “kindness.”

Kindness, you see, is the way we treat our own kind. Our kin. To treat someone with kindness, is to treat them as one of your own.

And so right there, in our very language, we begin to see the implications of Alice’s question, the implications of our shared biology, the implications of that story from Genesis. For if we are all, everyone of us, kin, then to whom must we not show kindness?

And yet… Genesis tells another story, about the world’s first human brothers, Cain and Abel. It is also the story of the world’s first murder. And again, whatever your belief about the literal truth of these tales, Genesis gets it right in the most important sense: all human violence is ultimately fratricide. When we harm another human being, we harm our own kind. Our own kin. Our brothers and sisters.

History is filled with examples of human beings failing to recognize that kinship, and thus failing to show kindness. Or maybe it is the other way around; we justify our lack of kindness, by denying our essential kinship.

White slaveholders justified the enslavement of their African brothers and sisters by describing them as monkeys. The Nazi party justified the genocide of their Jewish brothers and sisters by describing them as rats. The Rwandan Hutus justified the genocide of their Tutsi brothers and sisters by describing them as cockroaches. As recently as this year, a major party candidate here in the US gave a speech comparing our immigrant brothers and sisters to venomous snakes. He was greeted with thunderous applause.

Anytime we describe another human being as something other than a human being, anytime we move them outside of the boundary of kinship, we give ourselves permission to treat them any way we want. The very concept of race is a human invention, and its purpose is to cut our brothers and sisters out of the family inheritance. Once we cut someone out of the family of humankind, we can plunder their land, their wealth, their bodies, even.

But fratricide by any other name is still fratricide.

We are all kin.

A couple of years ago I was guest preaching at the UCC church down the road in Hadley, and in my sermon I mentioned that I was related to Abraham Lincoln. To my surprise, one of the choir members replied: I am too! And we embraced as long-lost kin. But the truth is, everyone in that church was related to Abraham Lincoln, and every single one of us was long-lost kin.

Jesus understood this. When he saw how some of his people prided themselves on their lineage, he told them, do not boast that you are children of Abraham; God can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones. When Jesus was told that his brothers and his mother were waiting for him, he opened his arms to include everyone around him, and said, These are my brothers, and my sisters, and my mothers.

He had already figured out what modern science just recognized: that we are all kin. Of course, Jesus was talking about a family that was defined by more than just our common DNA. For as we all know, there are all kinds of families; families made by birth, and families made by adoption; families made by fate, and families made by choice. As the bumper sticker reminds us, love makes a family. Or, to put it another way: perhaps it is not kinship that creates kindness, but rather kindness that creates kinship.

A lawyer once asked Jesus, who is my neighbor? But he might just as well have been asking, who is my sister? The answer would have been the same. Anyone to whom you show kindness, is your kin. The size of your clan is limited only by your compassion.

“Open wide your curtain,” the ancient prophet sang, “stretch out your tent, lengthen the cords and strengthen the pegs; for your family will spread out to the left and the right, and your offspring shall possess all nations”  At the time I’m guessing everyone assumed Isaiah was speaking only in the future tense, about future descendants. But we forget that God’s perspective on time is a little different from ours, and prophecy is more insight than foresight. Our expanded family is here right now. Widen your tent, the prophet says. Make it wide enough to embrace all of your brothers and sisters.

Some of us have traveled halfway around the world to meet long-lost cousins in an ancestral homeland. But what about the long-lost cousins standing right next to us? Look around you right now. Look to the left. Look to the right. These are your long-lost cousins. These are your brothers and sisters, your fathers and your mothers. The person next to you in the pew, the person behind the sales counter, the teenager walking home from school, the woman in line behind you at the food pantry, even that guy who flipped you off in traffic.

They are all your brothers and sisters, and nothing would make your common Parent happier, than to see you at peace with one another.

So let us enlarge our tents. Stretch out the curtains, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the pegs.

Let’s have a family reunion.

 

(from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on June 12, 2016.)

(Photo: Liber Floridus photographed by Paul K. on flickr.com)

 

Unwanted Blessing: The Good Samaritan in an Age of Partisanship

In oral story-telling, things usually happen in threes — three bears, three pigs, three wishes. And so in this story, we have three travelers: A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

Mind you, Jesus could have told this story in a more generic way. The three travelers could have been simply that – three travelers, passing along the road to Jericho; two who did not stop, and one who did.

But no – Jesus is very specific here. The first traveler is a priest, the second a Levite, the third a Samaritan. It’s only the beaten man in the road who is left without any further identification. He alone is a generic everyman. When we are beaten and bloody and left for dead, we become no more – and no less – than a human body.

So perhaps this is the first lesson of this story. Those in need are, simply, human. We need know nothing more.

I say the first lesson of this story, because this is a parable, not a fable. A fable is a story with a clear moral at the end – a single lesson to teach. Like, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Or, “Never cry wolf.” A parable, on the other hand, that’s much less cut and dried. A parable has multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. It raises questions as much as it answers them. The message the parable has for us depends in part on who we are, and where we see ourselves in the narrative.

So let’s return to Jesus’ story.

Unlike the victim, the other travelers are given specific social identities. And with the naming of this cast of characters – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – Jesus’ tale becomes unavoidably political. I use this word, not in its usual sense of “partisan” – we have come to use these two words as synonyms because so much of our own politics is partisan – but in the way that Aristotle once defined it – to be political, is to be engaged in public conversation regarding the ordering of our common life.

When I say this parable is political, I mean it takes the lawyer’s abstract question – who is my neighbor? – and makes it specific and real and therefore controversial. It’s the difference between saying, “All Are Welcome,” and saying, “we welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.” It’s the difference between saying, All Lives Matter, and saying, Black Lives Matter. It’s easy to get folks to agree to some vaguely-defined, general moral principle; the devil lurks in the details.

When the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asks, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus doesn’t just say, “everyone.” He tells the lawyer a story – not about three generic travelers, but about a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

Now, the first two – the priest and the Levite – would both be considered pillars of the Jewish community, moral examplars to be emulated. So if the lawyer was looking for an out, Jesus seems to have handed him one. What’s good enough for the priest, is good enough for the people, right?

Well, maybe not. Not good enough, certainly, for the man lying on the side of the road. Thank God, then, for the third traveller. The one who stops, and binds his wounds, and carries him to safety. Does it matter, that this man is a Samaritan?

Geographically, Samaritans and Jews were, indeed, neighbors, but they were separated by a deep historical divide that was both political and religious. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how the two regions had once been one country, a united kingdom ruled over by David and Solomon. But after Solomon’s reign, the peoples were split by civil war. Samaria became the capital of the northern kingdom while Jerusalem remained the capital in the south. The two groups diverged in their religious practices and customs. They began to view each other with mistrust and contempt. Not long before he told this story, Jesus himself had been denied hospitality, while traveling through Samaria.

So it must have come as a shock for his listeners, when Jesus cast the Samaritan in the role of the hero. It still comes as a shock to me, today.

I mean, I get the idea that we should help those in need. I get the idea that compassion is more important than piety. I get the idea that racial and national and religious borders should not set limits on our common humanity.

But the really weird thing about this story, the thing that we so often don’t get, is that the Samaritan – the outsider, the enemy, the heretic – he isn’t the guy who needs help in this story. He’s the guy who offers help. The guy who needs help? That’s everyman. That’s us.

It is hard enough, to bless our enemies. But to be blessed by our enemies? That is nearly unbearable. After all, I can bless my enemy without ever giving up the moral high ground. I can pick my enemy off the ground, and pat myself on the back, saying “that’s more than they would do for me.” But when I am blessed by my enemy, my world turns upside down.

So I wonder, if Jesus were to tell this story today, to me – who might he cast in the roles of Priest, Levite, and Samaritan? It’s an activity I’ve done with youth groups, a sort of parable Mad Libs where I first have them write down the names of two people they admired, and one they despised, and then we read the parable with those names inserted. For the people they admired, they wrote the names of their favorite teachers, their best friends; one wrote down his own name. But for the person they despised, most of them wrote down – well, let’s just say a prominent political figure of the day.

In recent years, researchers have found that “both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents.” America is becoming as divided by political ideology as by religion, gender, or race. During my own lifetime, interracial and interfaith marriage have increased, but inter-party marriages have declined.  Our media, our news sources, our vocabulary, our voting districts are increasingly segregated by political affiliation. We may not have personal enemies; but we do have political enemies.

So let’s imagine a modern re-telling of this ancient parable, shall we?

One snowy morning, a traveler was driving to work when an aggressive driver forced her to swerve, and her car spun off the road into the ditch. The traveler reached for her cell phone but unfortunately she was in one of those dead zones between towns were there is no cell coverage. So instead she anxiously scanned the road for someone who might help her.

The first car to come by sped by on the opposite side of the road. As it passed, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on its rear bumper. The sticker said, [insert the name of your favorite Presidential candidate here].

A second car did the same, although this time the driver waved as they went past. As the car disappeared, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on the rear bumpers. It said, [insert the name of your second-favorite candidate here].

A third car came by, and the driver pulled over, to find out if she all right, and if she needed a ride anywhere. As she thanked him, she noticed the campaign sticker on the rear bumper of the car. The sticker said, [you guessed it: insert here the name of your least-favorite candidate – the one you truly despise.]

The truth is, sometimes we would almost rather hear that our opponents have done something truly despicable, than that they have done something good. We would rather be right, than reconciled.

But Jesus didn’t say, be better than the Samaritan. He said, be like the Samaritan. What a shock that must have been, to that pious lawyer. What a shock it still is, to us.

What a world it might be, if we all went and did likewise.

 

 

(sermon preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ on Feb 21, 2016)

freezing the moment

Close your eyes, for a moment, and try to remember some place, some time, some moment when you felt that you were in the presence of something sacred. How long ago was that moment? How long did it last?

I remember this one particular afternoon, a sunny spring afternoon at the home of some family friends, a farm in Columbia County, New York, where we often spent school vacations. On this particular day, I was maybe ten years old, and I had wandered by myself out to a hillside above the pond. I was lying on my back in the long grass, eyes closed, feeling the breeze above me and the sun on my face. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that any minute my parents would call to tell me it was time to go home. But for that moment, everything was perfect. I was completely at peace. I was basking in the glow of God.

And then my parents did call me, and the moment ended. You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before someone calls you, and you have to move on.

One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain. They leave the others far below, and climb up to a high place, a place apart from the crowds and the conflict that seemed to be following Jesus everywhere lately. And in that place apart, he is transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than bleach could bleach them, whiter than humanly possible.

Transfiguration isn’t a word you hear every day. Really most of us hear it only once a year, if we happen to be in church on the Sunday before Lent. Its meaning is similar to transformation, or metamorphosis. A transfiguration is a complete change in form or appearance, into something more exalted, more beautiful. Think of caterpillars, turning into butterflies. The only reason that doesn’t totally freak us out, is that we have come to expect it. But just imagine, if it caught you by surprise.

Now mind you, the disciples have seen a lot of wondrous things since they have been travelling in Jesus’ company. Healings, exorcisms, crowds of hungry people miraculously fed, storm waves miraculously stilled, a child miraculously restored to life. Signs of the kingdom, everywhere they looked. But now it is as if a veil has been torn open, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, because now they can actually see the light of God streaming from him. It catches them by surprise, and it takes their breath away.

Moreover, he is no longer alone with them, but appears to be in the company of the great leaders of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, the law-giver and the prophet. Not knowing what else to say, Peter offers to build them houses, tabernacles on the mountaintop. Because that is what humans do, in places where we have encountered the Holy: we build shrines. Jesus is transfigured, and now the only thing Peter can think of to do, is to stay there on the mountaintop, basking forever in the glow of God.

But Jesus declines Peter’s offer of a mountain-view home. Instead, they head back down the mountain together, and Jesus asks them to keep their peak experience to themselves. For ahead of them still lies the cross, and the empty tomb, and their vision of who Jesus is will be even more radically transfigured in the days ahead.

Moses and Elijah have this is in common: they, too, had profoundly vivid experiences of God on a mountaintop. Moses was on Mount Horeb, when he saw the burning bush, and heard the voice of God in the fire, telling him to return to his people in Egypt. Later, Moses again climbs Mount Horeb – it’s also called Mount Sinai, those are two names for the same place – and once again amid fire and smoke, God speaks to him giving him the Law to govern Israel.

But while Moses is up there on the mountain, the Israelites begin to get into trouble in the camps below, so God tells Moses he better get back down there to his people.

Generations later, Elijah, fleeing persecution, climbs the same mountain, and he too hears the voice of God there, not in the fire, but in silence. And that voice says, Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah comes to seek refuge in God; but like Moses before him, God sends Elijah back down the mountain, to serve the people of Israel.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

When I was in high school, we received word that our family friends would soon be selling the farm of my childhood. It was, after all, not really mine, not even my family’s property, but it was holy to me, and it was hard to imagine losing it. I was a budding photographer at the time, and I spent hours wandering the fields and barns, trying to freeze the farm in time, to capture it with the camera’s shutter. But looking through the lens was not like lying in the grass. Life is like that. Try to pin it down, and it turns into something different. The butterfly’s wings are never more beautiful than at the moment when they emerge fresh from the cocoon. But if we try to preserve it, to pin it down, we end up with something lifeless.

Butterflies exist in motion, just like moments exist in time. Pin them down, and they become something different.

Many of us have had mountaintop experiences, moments when the veil is torn open and we suddenly see things, not just by the light of day, but by the light of God. And it is tempting, in those moments of clarity, to think that perhaps we are done; that we have glimpsed not just the truth, but the whole truth. And so we want to linger on the mountain, to hold on to that particular moment in time. We want to pin it down, put it in a cabinet, and protect it from damage.

But the church is not a shrine, it’s a movement. There’s a reason why the first disciples referred to their faith as “the way.”

Jesus does not linger on the mountaintop; like Moses and Elijah before him, he returns to his people. We see Jesus, transfigured, in garments of dazzling white; but Jesus is ready to get his hands dirty. We try to pin him down, but he is on the move. We look for God on the mountaintop: but God, it turns out, is already down in the valley.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before Somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

(sermon preached by Liza Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, Transfiguration Sunday, 2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)