MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.

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)

Were you expecting someone else?

There is no due process here, no habeas corpus. No official charges will ever be made, and no public defender will ever be assigned. There is nothing for John to do but wait.

And as he waits, he wonders. He wonders what will become of his movement. He wonders what will become of him. He wonders, perhaps, if the kingdom of heaven is really as near as he told them.

But then he remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. And so John sends his disciples to ask The Question:

Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

It’s a funny question for John to ask.You’d think John, of all people, would recognize the messiah. After all, he was the one who told everyone that he was coming, the one of whom is was prophesied, Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead, to prepare the way before me. If John was the one who sent out the invitations, how is that he can’t recognize the guest of honor when he arrives?

**

Some of you may have heard the story of Tamika Cross, a young, African-American medical doctor who was on a flight from Detroit to Houston when one of her fellow passengers lost consciousness. When the flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board, Dr. Cross immediately raised a hand, but as she began to rise the attendant told her: “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down, we are looking for an actual physician.”

At that moment another passenger came forward – someone older, whiter, and male – and the attendant told Dr. Cross, “thank you for your help, but he can help us.”

My point is, that sometimes our preconceptions make it hard to recognize that the person right in front of us is the person we have been waiting for.

**

So anyway: John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

And Jesus replies: Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

That answer is classic Jesus.

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion, with all of its rules and regulations? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon those who had enslaved his people? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely physician, this itinerant healer who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?

**

So what about us? Who are we waiting for this Advent season?

It is easy to be a Christian in the weeks before Christmas. It is easy to share in the anticipation of Advent, as we await the arrival of the baby in the manger. But what happens when the baby arrives? There is an element of surprise in every birth. You never really know, just who it is you are waiting for. Just what sort of baby, what sort of child, what sort of adult will this particular human being, this long-awaited human Son of Man, turn out to be?

It’s easy to be hopeful on Christmas Eve, when the packages are still unopened and full of promise, when Santa may yet arrive with the very thing we wished for. But what happens when we open the package? Are we ready for what we will find inside?

Are we ready for this unlikely physician, this Jesus who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this Jesus, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah?

Or are we expecting someone else?

My friends, this is Advent, the season of expectation. And so like John, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies:

You tell me. Am I?

 

Thoughts Upon Going to Hell

Then I came to the story of the passion, and when I read Jesus’ death cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you… This was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection. — Jurgen Moltmann

As I walked this morning from my home to my customary coffee shop, I was brought up short by a voice. The voice came from above, its source invisible. It said, with perfect clarity, “Go to hell!”

It was not the voice of God, but presumably the voice of one of the residents of the multi-story apartment building I was passing at the time. The voice of a human woman, overcome with helpless fury. 

Wondering to whom she was speaking, I scanned the sidewalk ahead. I saw only two people: a thirty-ish man feeding his parking meter, and an elderly, white-haired woman preparing to cross the street. Both were clearly just passersby, like myself. With no singular target in sight, I could not help but feel that we were somehow all the targets of the curse issued from above. 

This particular morning, I was feeling blessed, not cursed, and my first impulse was to scatter some of that blessing. The old woman was already crossing the street and too far ahead to catch, but as I passed the guy at the parking meter I smiled and said, “I don’t know who just said that, but don’t go to hell, okay?” He grinned back. “You heard that all the way down the block?” 

But I couldn’t figure out how to get that blessing to the person who really needed it.  Because it seems pretty clear that one who most needed blessing was not the guy on the street, but the woman who shouted so angrily from above. Anyone who, shouts “Go to hell!” with such venom, is probably already living there. This, I think, is the very function of a curse: it is an attempt to pull the other down into hell with us.  

I run in fairly well-behaved circles and I have seldom had anyone tell me to go to hell. I have, however, heard many people proclaim in public that people like me are going to hell. These people like to phrase this as a statement of fact, a cautionary warning for my own benefit. But really, this is just a polite way of telling someone to go to hell. If you tell me that God will send me to hell — that your God will send me to hell — how is this not your will as well? 

These words can sink in after a while. They start to seem true. They start to seem true, because this is the function of a curse: to pull another down into our own hell of judgment. Curse someone enough, and they just may believe themselves cursed — and that is hell. I’ve been there.

So I tell everyone: if you hear someone telling you to go to hell, do not be afraid. It is not the voice of God. After all, the powers that be told Jesus to go to hell. They even crucified him, just to make sure. And what happened? He broke open the gates, and took the prisoners with him, on the way to resurrection.

When you hear someone telling you to go to hell, remember they are already there. Don’t let them pull you in; pull them out instead.

(Featured image: Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, “Descent of Christ to Limbo” (detail of Christ helping Adam to rise), 1533-34, affresco, Church of Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne (BS), Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Psalm 150

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in the banquet hall and night club.

Praise God for his mighty acts;

praise him according to his virtuoso sets.

Praise God with the sound of the trumpet;

praise him with the clarinet and sax.

Praise God with the hokey pokey and fox trot;

praise him with the bass and baby grand.

Praise God upon the loud cymbals;

praise him with the high hat and snare drum.

Let everything with a beat,

praise the Lord.

Amen.

(in memory of Raymond “Dutch” Wolff, 1925-2016)

(‘Saxophone’, Image by schuetz-mediendesign, Public Domain via Pixabay)

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)

 

Hymn for a Rough Passage

in memory of a dear friend

the Mystery and the Mud

The water is wide, I can’t cross over,
Nor have I wings, that I could fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both will row, my Love and I.

Though seas be deep, and waters rough,
Though stormy wind and tempest wail,
We will cast off for the farther shore
And let God’s Spirit swell the sail.

I cannot see the other side;
What lies ahead is mystery.
By grace alone shall my wand’ring soul
Come safe to land across the sea.

(Painting by Peggy Anderson)

(1st verse traditional, 2nd and 3rd by Liza Knapp).

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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)

If…

When my sister and I were kids, my Dad would buy two lottery tickets each week. Every Sunday, my sister and I would each get to hold one while he read out the winning numbers from the paper. We never won, of course, but we liked the game of imagining what we’d do if we did.

When I was small, I would imagine buying a pony, and a farm to keep it on. As I approached adulthood, I started to dream of making other people’s wishes come true. Maybe I’d buy a grand piano for my Dad, or a house on the beach for my Mom. Nowadays, I have to admit, my first thoughts are more practical: I dream of paying off the mortgage. But once the bills were taken care of, I imagine the rest going to some worthy cause – Doctors without Borders, perhaps.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

There are other versions of this game; a couple of years ago I remember driving in the car, listening to the call-in program Vox Pop on NPR, and the question for the day was, “What would you do if you were President Obama?” Most of those who called in said they would end the war, fix the economy, and institute universal health coverage.

What would you do, if you won the lottery?

What would you do, if you were President?

What would you do, if you were God?

The devil comes to Jesus, in the wilderness, playing this game. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, turn these stones to bread. The devil isn’t asking for proof of Jesus divinity. He’s really saying: If I were the Son of God, that’s what I’d do.

The scripture refers to this exchange as a temptation.

It is tempting to believe that we could change the world, if only we were wealthier, or more powerful. It is tempting to believe that we would somehow do better than those currently in power. It is tempting to believe that only the powerful can change the world.

But here is a true story: once upon time, a church youth group set up a table on a downtown street corner, with an empty soup pot on it. They were asking the people passing by for donations to help feed hungry kids. The first person to approach the table told us that he was homeless, and broke, but that he really wanted to help. He found thirteen cents in his pocket, and he dropped it into the soup pot. He gave whatever he had. And so did many other ordinary people. And by the end of the afternoon the soup pot contained enough money to buy a year’s worth of food.

The fantasy of changing the world by winning the lottery is perhaps at its heart a wish to do good without having to sacrifice anything. A wish to change the world at no cost to ourselves. But it turns out, even Jesus, couldn’t do that.

If you were the child of God, what would you do?

For so you are.

 

Photo: http://dominicanes.me/tag/satan/