Friday, February 27, 2015

“Give Up Worrying” - March 1, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:25-34

Some churches have outdoor signs with those changeable sign boards that can be used to announce the coming week’s sermon title (as though that will draw the crowds in) or to advertise church events or share inspirational messages.  But those sign boards are also a good opportunity for bloopers.  One sign read: “Don’t let worry kill you – let the church help.”

Our scripture this morning addresses worry.  Jesus said a lot of hard things, a lot of deep things, and – let’s be honest – a lot of weird things.  “Love your enemies.”  “Turn the other cheek.”  “It is harder for a rich person to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”  “If you save your life you will lose it and if you lose your life you will find it.”  These are some of the more notable of the odd things Jesus said.

But this one would also have to be among the stranger things Jesus’ said: don’t worry.  Don’t worry?  Are you kidding me?

Worry comes pretty naturally to a lot of folks, and let’s face it: we have had a lot of practice.  There is a cartoon that shows a guy sitting up in bed, scribbling on a note pad while he talks on the phone.  He says, “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I find it’s sometimes helpful to jot down my anxieties.”  Then you notice the walls of his bedroom and they are just plastered with sticky notes listing all kinds of anxieties - war, recession, killer bees, hair loss, radon gas, on and on.

If we were to make a list, we could probably take most of the morning jotting down reasons for worry.  Just among my circle of family and friends and acquaintances, I can count unemployment, bad mortgages, struggling children, aging parents in poor health, cancer treatments, divorce, mental illness, student loans, inscrutable teachers, maddening neighbors, balky vehicles, and workplace problems.  We worry about our classes, about housing arrangements.  We worry about what other people think.  We could add to our list items ranging from icy roads to environmental disaster, from influenza to terrorism and climate change.  Not to mention the emotional state of the Cyclones and how they will do in the Big 12 tournament.  

It seems like we are just wired for worry.  And contemporary logic would seem to suggest that if you’re not worrying, then you must not be paying attention.  A news report this past week told us that terrorists in Somalia are encouraging like-minded people to attack shopping malls in North America.  I’m not sure what we are supposed to do about this, except that we are supposed to worry.  You turn on TV and there is breaking news.  It seems urgent.  It seems scary.  Never mind that they have been talking about the same breaking news all day long; it is designed to grab our attention.  Breaking news usually means bad that we should worry about.  Worry is a strategy for TV ratings. 

Worry can influence every part of our lives, even the fairly mundane things.  We worry whether we really did turn the iron off or lock the door.  We worry over whether our kids will have the good sense to wear a warm coat and gloves and a hat when it is 10 below outside.

And as much as anything, we worry about the future.  Students worry whether they will be able to get a decent job.  Families worry over whether they can pay the bills.  Adults worry over whether their retirement nest egg will be sufficient.  And churches worry.  A lot of churches look at their demographics, look at the saints who are providing a lot of the financial support and leadership, and wonder what kind of shape they will be in a few years down the road. 

We’ve all got reasons for worry, and most of us are pretty good at it.  But Jesus comes along and says, “Do not worry about your life.”

It sounds ridiculous.  What do you mean, don’t worry?  How can we not worry?

Right up front, we need to say is that there is no way we are going to be worry-free.  The apostle Paul once said that he was “harassed at every turn — conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (2 Corinthians 7:5)  Sounds like worry to me.  And he admitted that he worried about “all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28)  St. Makarios of Egypt, a 4th century monastic, was brutally realistic about it: “I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety.”

OK, everyday worries are always going to be around.  We will always have concerns over any number of things.  But Jesus’ familiar words strike a chord deep within us:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear... Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? …

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you…

Therefore do not worry... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

It is beautiful language, to be sure, but it is a lot more than that.  Jesus is speaking of a different way of living, a way of living that we long for.  We are not meant to live surrounded by worry and anxiety; we are meant to live with the certainty of God’s care and provision.

Do we give ourselves over to worry, or do we trust in God’s love and faithfulness, even in the hard times?  Do we become paralyzed by anxiety, or do we put our cares and concerns in the perspective of God’s goodness and grace?  At the root of it all, are we “worried about our lives,” as Jesus puts it, or are we able to trust in God’s providence?

Now, as I considered this passage this past week, I have to admit I was not in a very good frame of mind.  You might be surprised to hear that this passage of scripture just made me mad. 

Here’s the deal: Jesus casts the birds as examples for us.  As our moral exemplars, if you will, just living their lives, going about their business, unconcerned about where their next meal is coming from.  The birds have the right attitude, says Jesus.  Just trust in me, trust in God, and quit worrying.

I had always read this scripture and thought of the birds as God’s sweet, beautiful, trusting creatures.  You might think of cute little birds flying around with Bambi in a Disney movie.  You might think of the bluebird of happiness.    You might think of colorful finches or that beautiful red cardinal in the backyard against a backdrop of snow.

In the last couple of weeks, that is not what has come to mind for me when I have thought of birds.  I don’t know if you have noticed, but birds have been taking over the church yard this winter, and it isn’t pretty.  Let’s just say that I have had to take my car to the car wash a couple of times on account of the birds.  But the parking lot in back is nothing compared to the front of the church.

Has anybody been out in the front yard lately?  The sidewalk under the big oak tree is just disgusting.  I have never seen a sidewalk so thoroughly covered by bird droppings.  It is everywhere.  What we needed was a power washer, but it is hard to do that when it is 5 degrees outside.  So I was actually happy for the snow this week, just so that the bird dukie would get covered up.  My hope, my prayer, was that somehow with the snow, the snow blower would clean up the bird droppings on the sidewalk along with the snow – and to a large extent, it did.  Thank God for the snow.

So, I am not happy with birds right now, and I read this scripture where Jesus offers the birds to us as an example.  I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to hear it.  But upon further review, maybe it reads even better when you are mad at the birds.  It is one thing to think that God provides for those cute, frolicking, beautiful birds out there.  But apparently, God also provides for those punk birds out there, those thoughtless, destructive, disgusting jerks. 

Which means that God’s care and provision is not something we earn, it is not dependent on how good we are.  If God cares for the birds of the air – and even for the angry birds of the oak tree – then how much more does God care for us?

Now, you might read this passage of scripture and think that it really doesn’t have that much to offer to us.  We have all kinds of worries, but most of us are not worried about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear.  These are not our concerns.  I mean, we might have a hard time deciding where to go out to eat, or we might worry about having an unhealthy diet, but we don’t worry about having food to eat.  We might worry about making the right wardrobe choices, but we don’t worry about having clothes to wear.  These are not our big concerns.

Well, in Jesus’ day, these were the big worries.  These were the top concerns.  Most of the population lived at a bare subsistence level.  Having clothes to wear and food to eat could be a struggle.  What Jesus is addressing here is our deepest concerns.

Jesus says, “God gave us life, so surely we can trust God for the smaller things.  God cares for the birds and plants and flowers, so surely God cares for us that much more.  Our worrying does no one any good – it does not change things.  Don’t fret about the past or obsess about the future over which you have no control.  God knows your needs and God cares for you.  Learn to trust in God.  Learn to live in the present moment.”

Now we do need to understand what Jesus is not saying.  He is not simply saying “Don’t worry, be happy.”  He isn’t asking us to gloss over the pain in life.  And while the birds or the flowers might serve as object lessons, he is not saying we are to actually be like the birds.  We are not asked to quit working.  He spoke to those who sowed and reaped and toiled and spun, and he didn’t ask his followers to stop doing those things.

And it is not that Jesus is anti-planning.  Bill Malone died this past week.  The funeral will be tomorrow.  We knew and loved Bill as a longtime member and a wonderful, thoughtful, funny, encouraging guy.  Way back while Bill was still a student, he was the first City Planning Director for the City of Ames.  Bill was all about planning.  Well, Jesus is not against planning.  Jesus also told the parable of the wise bridesmaids who planned ahead.  In the middle of an Iowa winter, it is a good idea to have some forethought about what we wear.  What Jesus is asking his followers to understand is that their lives are not based on the things we have or the plans we make, important as they may be, but our lives are built on the bedrock of God’s providential care.  What we are to stay away from is the fearful worrying that can just sap the life from us.

And in any event, all of our worrying does no one any good.  Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  Worry is misplaced energy.  It is unproductive.  It can be debilitating.  We can become paralyzed with worry and fear.  Most of the things we worry about are things over which we have absolutely no control.  If we could do something, we would do it and then we wouldn’t have to worry about it.  But we worry about:

  • decisions someone else has to make
  • an action someone else might take
  • medical conditions we cannot control
  • future problems that may or may not come our way
  • whether it will rain or snow and mess up our plans
All of our worrying does not change things.  It does no good, and our worrying can do us harm.  Worrying takes our time, it takes our energy, it keeps us from thankfulness, it robs us of joy.  John Powell said that worry is “a mild form of atheism.”  And Jesus himself said it was “the Gentiles,” or unbelievers, who go around worrying.

Don’t worry, says Jesus, but focus on loving God and loving others, focus on following Jesus, and these other things will take care of themselves.

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic.  Of all people, she had reason to worry.  She lived during the Black Death that killed 75 million people in medieval Europe.  (And you thought you had it bad.)  Many people interpreted the plague as divine punishment, but not Julian.  She believed that God loved every person and that God would redeem every tear.

In her book of visions called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the first book published in the English language written by a woman, Julian wrote one of the best-known sentences in all of Christian history that is also the perfect antidote to worry.
Julian concluded that she was wrong to worry about the sins and sorrows of life.  Jesus told her that these trials and tribulations were simply a part of our human story.  And she said that in God’s love and providence, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And it will.  Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Amen.

Friday, February 20, 2015

“Give Up Impressing People” - February 22, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18

Our church is interesting in that we come from a variety of traditions.  Many of us grew up Baptist, some American Baptist and some of us were other brands of Baptist, but we also have folks whose heritage is Methodist or Lutheran or Catholic or United Church of Christ or nondenominational or something else, or maybe the family you grew up in didn’t go to church.  Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and because we come from different traditions, we may all have different backgrounds and experiences when it comes to Lent.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. There was a large Catholic community in Evansville, mostly German Catholic, and Lent seemed very much a Catholic thing. I remember that in high school, Catholic students got out of school so they could go to Ash Wednesday services, which I guess was one argument for being Catholic. At the time I certainly did not foresee that Ash Wednesday would one day be a part of my own religious experience in a Baptist church.

I have come to appreciate Lent as an important time in the life of the church and in my own life, a time for reflection on my faith and a time when worship takes on a different and more introspective tone. It is a time for heightened focus on spiritual disciplines, and one of those disciplines that a lot of people have traditionally followed is to give something up for Lent. The idea is that you give up a small pleasure or indulgence as a sacrifice and offer that to God, or you give up a bad habit or some behavior that allows you to live more in the way that God intends.

Maybe you give up ice cream or Coca-Cola, or maybe you give up your favorite electronic gadget for a few hours each day so that you can actually be present with the people around you.

It can seem trivial, and there are those who certainly do trivialize it. I had a friend who would give up watermelon for Lent. Which was not hard to do. Or you might choose to give up Brussels sprouts or liver or running marathons or watching soap operas, any of which would be pretty easy for me.

Rather than giving something up, another approach is to take something on for Lent – maybe a spiritual practice like greater attention to prayer or Bible reading or serving others, or maybe an exercise program. The point is not to be legalistic about it, but to take this time as an opportunity for focusing on our spiritual lives and making changes - which is basically what repentance means – to turn around, to change direction.

This year, in our worship during this season of Lent, we are going to think about this idea of giving something up with the very creative theme of “Give it Up.” (I thought of that all by myself.) We won’t be talking about giving up chocolate or wine or red meat, although you can certainly do those things if you would like. Instead we’ll be thinking about ways of thinking and worshiping and living that are not that helpful, whether it is Lent or any other time of year.

Our text today comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus warns about practicing our piety, or doing works of righteousness, before others – performing religious acts so that people will see you doing good and being all spiritual. Jesus mentions several instances of acting so that others will notice. There is the giving of alms so that others will know you are being generous and magnanimous. There is praying so that others will see how close to God you are. There is making a big show of fasting so that others will be wowed by the depth of your spirituality and commitment. He says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites who do these things.”

Jesus is not saying that everyone who gives or prays or fasts in public is a hypocrite, and the word hypocrite is actually a neutral word in Greek. It doesn’t have the completely negative connotation that it has for us today. The word refers to stage actors, and he is using it as a metaphor for those who do works of piety like an actor on the stage, playing to the crowd, looking for applause and approval.

Jesus is not against giving alms. He is not against offerings. He is not against prayer. He is not against fasting. He is not against spiritual disciplines and practices, whether private or public. He is speaking here about motivation.

Why do you do the things that you do? Why do you give, or pray, or do acts of service? Jesus’ observation was that there are those who do such things so that they will be seen. So that they will be esteemed. So that they will be held in high regard. I know, it’s shocking, but Jesus says that there are people will do good things just for the sake of impressing others.

Well, that was 2000 years ago. Thankfully, we have outgrown that. Thankfully, we have matured as human beings and as the Church to the point where we don’t do good things just to impress others.

Well, OK, I can think of a few examples where this still happens. And it is nice to be recognized. And most of us could use a little ego boost. OK, I can think of more than a few examples. To be honest, we aren’t really any different than the people in Jesus’ day. We still have this desire to try and impress others with how good and selfless and caring and spiritual we are. Who doesn’t want to look good and be highly thought of?

Jesus’ point is that if this is our motivation, then these acts of charity and faith are really empty. And so rather than being a compassionate act, helping others can actually be a self-serving act if we are just doing it to look good. Rather than drawing us closer to God, prayer or fasting can just be another act of self-promotion when done to impress others.

Longtime North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died two weeks ago after a long illness. There were a lot of accolades for Coach Smith. Colleagues and former players talked about him as a great and innovative coach, but an even better person. And they really meant it.

Smith was the one who started the tradition that when you make a shot, you point to the guy who made a good pass to set you up for the shot. It’s a team game and you need to remember your teammates and have a little humility. It’s not all about you. But Smith also said that if you are just trying to get a bunch of assists, that can also be a selfish way to play.

Some of you know that Dean grew up in an American Baptist church in Kansas. His dad was for many years an usher at First Baptist Church in Topeka. Dean went to North Carolina as an assistant coach and joined a new congregation that was just getting started, the Binkley Baptist Church, which was founded with a commitment to racial equality. It is one of a very few American Baptist churches in North Carolina, where Southern Baptists dominate the religious landscape.

Robert Seymour was Smith’s pastor for 30 years before retiring and at age 90 he is now Minister Emeritus at the church. Seymour encouraged Smith to recruit the best black player he could find to integrate the basketball team, and he did. In 1967 Smith signed Charlie Scott, the first black player in the ACC and maybe the first at any public university in the south. For Smith, this was a defining moral issue and a matter of faith.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed Congress, Rev. Seymour, Coach Smith, and a black theology student walked into the best restaurant in town, called The Pines, which had been strictly segregated, and asked to be served.

“When they saw Dean, they realized they had no choice,” Rev. Seymour said. The opening of a historically segregated restaurant signaled a major change in the history of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Veteran sportswriter John Feinstein interviewed Coach Smith a number of years ago. When he asked Smith to tell him more about that night, Smith shot him an angry look. “Who told you about that?” he asked. “Reverend Seymour,” Feinstein said. Smith said, “I wish he hadn’t done that.” Feinstein asked, “Why? You should be proud of doing something like that.”

Feinstein wrote, “He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

Now, I never rooted for North Carolina, at least not until Harrison Barnes started playing for them, but I always had great respect for Dean Smith. He got what Jesus was saying.

It is easy to live our lives in a constant effort to impress. Jesus seemed completely indifferent to the need to impress others. At times of his greatest popularity, he would tell some baffling parable that would leave people scratching their heads, or launch into a difficult and demanding teaching, or just walk away and move on to another town. Impressing people was not his mission.

When we live to impress, even to impress others with how good and kind and loving and faithful we are, we can leave our true selves behind. If impressing others is our motive, our goodness is not worth much. To paraphrase Paul just a bit, if our purpose is to impress, then our actions are like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

Now this business of impressing people can be hard because sometimes the situation demands that we try to impress somebody. You need a good grade so you need to impress the professor, or you want to get tenure so it is imperative that you impress your senior colleagues. You want a job so you need to be impressive at the interview, or you maybe you just want to impress that special person. The culture kind of forces us to try to impress people in certain situations. That’s just the way it is, right?

But more often than we would care to admit, the desire to impress others motivates our lives. This desire to impress people impacts the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the technology we embrace, the careers we choose, the people we associate with. If we aren’t careful, trying too hard to impress others can wind up being a way of letting others make choices for us.

The quest to impress others can be very elusive. Cars rust. Fashion changes. Technology advances. And the purchases that impressed your neighbor yesterday are not so impressive today. It takes a constant effort to be impressive. And the same can be true of our spiritual lives. We can try to impress others – to what end?

Just thinking here, for a minute… public acts of piety and good works - how often are these done just “for show?” (which is very close to the literal Greek meaning of hypocrite).

What about prayer in the legislature or before Congress? (I’m just raising the question.) When I was in Rotary club in Illinois, we opened each meeting with prayer, which made me a bit uncomfortable at times, to be honest – and the funny thing was, the least religious people in the group were the ones who would have a had a problem with not praying – to them, it wouldn’t have looked good.

Jesus says not to let others know how generous you are, not to do good so that others can see you doing it. Well, where do we draw the line? If you go to a performance or if you receive a magazine or newsletter from your college or from some community group, there will often be a list of donors in the publication. Friends who give $100, Sustainers who give $500, Founders who give $1000 or more – is this what Jesus is talking about?

Printing names of donors can be a way of encouraging folks to contribute and recognizing those who support the organization. Or for the donor, it might be a way of trying to impress others with your goodness and generosity. It all depends on motivation.

Some of you were here for our Ash Wednesday service as we received ashes on our foreheads, signs of our mortality and sinfulness and of our desire to follow Jesus. The ashes can be a powerful symbol of faith. Or they can be a way to show off your spirituality. It all depends on your motivation.

A trend has developed just in the last year or so in which apparently a good number of people go to Ash Wednesday services, take a picture of themselves – a selfie - and send it out over social media with the hashtag #ashtag. They have found a way to turn a spiritual act into an opportunity to impress.

But the fact is, we live in a different world than first-century Palestine. There aren’t many people praying on street corners, and if there were, they would definitely not be impressing others. Today, we may be more tempted to cover up our faith than to flaunt it.

In the current issue of Christian Century, U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware writes about why he went to seminary. He was in law school at Yale when a fellow student encouraged him to take a class at the divinity school, which he said would change his life. He took the class, and it did. He wound up pursuing both a law degree and a divinity degree. But when he enrolled at the divinity school, it alienated some of his friends in law school. They were a very progressive group that welcomed everyone – except, as it turned out, people of faith. His friends (who were maybe not very good friends) questioned how an intelligent person could be religious. They were very unimpressed.

 Living to impress others, in the end, is no way to live.  Vernon Howard wrote, “The need to impress others causes half the world’s woes.”  I don’t know if he was overstating it or not, but I know that if we would just give up the need to impress other people, the world would be a better place.

I look out at this congregation and I have to say, I see a lot of impressive people.  I look at our community and there are so many wonderful, talented, caring – impressive – individuals.  And the thing is, people are far more impressive when they just go about their lives, being themselves, than when they are trying to impress, trying to earn praise.

Maybe that American Baptist leader Dean Smith said it best.  “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”  Amen.  

Lenten Sermon Series

February 22: “Give Up Impressing People” - Matthew 6:1-8, 16-21
March 1: "Give Up Worrying" - Matthew 6:25-34
March 8: Give Up Going It Alone” – Hebrews 10:23-25    
March 15: Give Up Enemies” – Matthew 5:43-48
March 22: “Give Up Your Life” – Matthew 16:21-28            
March 29 (Palm Sunday): “Give Up Timid Faith” – Matthew 21:1-11, 27:57-75  
April 5 (Easter): “Give Up Death” – John 20:1-18

Here is a little promo of upcoming sermons.  Please join us on Sunday!

Friday, February 13, 2015

“Joy and Wonder” - February 15, 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-9

A few days ago, Susan and I were heading east on Lincoln Way when we noticed the vehicle in front of us, a red SUV, drifting into the right lane.  This happened a couple of times, and then a big truck started to pass the SUV on the right.  And sure enough, as this big delivery truck passed it, the SUV again drifted into the right lane.  The truck driver laid on the horn, but instead of quickly getting back where it belonged, the SUV just slowly drifted back into its own lane.  When we got to Grand Avenue, the SUV was in the left turn lane, and we pulled alongside it.  The young woman who was driving was busily texting, fairly oblivious to what was going on around her.

This happens all the time.  If you are putting on makeup or messing with the radio or arguing with the kids in the backseat, you will be distracted from the road and are much more likely to have an accident.  I am not trying to be holier than thou here – when traveling I will sometimes eat my lunch while driving, and I sometimes take a phone call, but at least I haven’t read a book while driving, as I have witnessed some drivers doing on the highway.

Our house is close to a four-way stop.  I can’t tell you how many times somebody has pulled out right in front of me and made a left turn at that intersection when it was clearly not their turn to go.  Or how many times one car on 24th Street will go through the intersection and then the next car in line behind that one will go too, even though three other vehicles were already at the intersection waiting.  It’s galling.  Invariably these people are chatting away on the phone, in their own world.

What can be done about this?  Maybe the problem is education.  Maybe people don’t know that they can be distracted by using the phone or sending a text while they are driving.  If people were just properly informed, then the problem would be solved. 

We could extend this to other driving habits.  Not just texting or talking on the phone while driving – but drinking and driving.  If people only knew that it was a bad idea and could be dangerous, they wouldn’t do it.  And if people only knew that they were much more likely to survive an accident if they were wearing seat belts, they would wear them.  

This need for more knowledge, for better information applies to so many other things.  If people only knew that cigarettes cause lung cancer, then they wouldn’t smoke.  If someone would just explain to us the benefits of exercise or of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables or why we should have a will, we would do it.  And this information problem must also be true for world problems.  If someone would just explain to us the dangers of polluting the air or the problems that come with building in flood plains, we would make changes.  If somebody could just explain to terrorists the advantages of a free and open society and the need to stop the violence, then disagreements could be resolved.

Hopefully you are getting the picture.  It is not that knowledge and information are unimportant.  They are very important, but information is not necessarily the best motivator.

Dr. Thomas Butts wrote (on
We generally assume that human beings are rational creatures who live in a world that is governed by rational behavior.  Therefore, our personal and public problems are the result of ignorance, the solution to which is the discovery and dissemination of correct information….
But then he goes on to say, however:
…It appears that simple, sensible information has a very low persuasive value.  We are far more likely to be motivated by some emotion than by information. Observing an accident on the roadside where someone was killed, or spotting a police car in our rearview mirror will likely get our attention far more quickly than a billboard or a radio ad on safe driving. 
Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston points out that motivations and habit patterns that underlie most of our behavior are seldom logical.  “We are much more driven by …emotions of which we are only dimly aware.  One is often confronted by the fact that some ignorance is invincible.”  What a quote: “some ignorance is invincible.”  People can become so wedded to their particular view of reality that they ignore all evidence to the contrary.

Information and logic are important, but it is inspiration and emotion that really motivate us to creative change.

Think for a minute about the life of Jesus.  Look at the people around him.  Look at how they learn and how they grow and how they change.  He teaches them – but not simply through rote memorization or class lectures.  Not simply through traditional or predictable means.  He’s not just disseminating information; he uses parables, stories, metaphors that grab their imagination.  And he teaches not only through his words but through his life.  He breaks social norms.  He confronts power brokers.  He is a person of absolute integrity.  He feeds the 5000.  He walks on water.  He turns water into wine.  After a day of striking out on the lake, he tells his disciples to put out their nets and there is a miraculous catch of fish.  He heals lepers.  These miracles are the sorts of things that break through preconceived ways of thinking – they break through the “invincibility of ignorance,” as Gordon Livingston so nicely puts it.  And Livingston is undoubtedly right; the invincibility of ignorance is so great that it takes several of these signs and miracles before Jesus’ disciples even start to get it.  We see miracle after miracle, sign after sign, and the disciples still struggle to understand.

When we come to today’s scripture, the story of the Transfiguration, we are faced with an event that is beyond mere fact.  We read the account and it just states it very simply, “He was transfigured before them.”  The word “transfigured” means to be changed into something more exalted or more glorified or more beautiful, but we don’t just throw the term around.  I don’t think I have ever heard it used to speak of anything but this moment in the life of Jesus. 

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the mountain.  It was a chance to get away from the crowds that followed him, a chance to catch his breath and reflect and meditate and spend time with God.  And in the midst of this time of prayer, something happened - something mysterious and powerful and wonderful.  Jesus’ face began to glow.  There was a dazzling white light.  Peter, James, and John had fallen asleep but they awoke and saw the light.  And with Jesus, in the light, they saw Moses and Elijah.  Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the greatest prophet of Israel. 

Peter and James and John didn’t know what to think or what to do.  They only knew that something incredible was happening, and they wanted to capture the moment.  They wanted to hold on to the glory.

Peter said to Jesus, “Let me build three dwellings--one for you, Moses, and Elijah.”  He wanted to bottle what they felt at that moment.  But he couldn’t.  It wasn’t something he could control. 

Immediately a cloud came upon them, and there was a Voice.  They were terrified.  The voice said, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him.”

In the Bible, mountains are often places of worship, places where God is experienced.  Moses goes to Mt. Sinai to receive the law.  We read that the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and Moses stays on mountain for forty days and forty nights.  Later, from the top of Mt. Pisgah, Moses can see the Promised Land.  Elijah goes to the top of Mt. Horeb and experiences God as a still, small voice.  And then it was on Mt. Carmel that Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal.  Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray.

And now, Jesus again goes to the mountain to pray.  He took his closest followers with him.  But they couldn’t stay awake.  While Jesus meditated, they began to sleep.  They awoke to a mystical, mountain-top experience, a powerful experience of the presence of God.

How about you?  Have you had a mountaintop experience?  A brush with the Holy in which God seemed especially real and near? 

Such times can be very important for us – they are times when it is reinforced for us that our faith is not simply a collection of beliefs that we sign on the bottom line.  These Holy Moments are times when faith is experienced, when faith is lived.  They teach us, they remind us, they grab us with the truth that faith is not just about the facts; it is about trust and wonder and awe and joy and relationship. 

We need these Holy Moments.  These are times when we may break out of that ignorance that can be invincible, experiencing God in a new way and seeing a bigger world out there.

These Holy Moments may not necessarily be big and dramatic.  God may speak to us in a still, small voice.  For me, some of those mountaintop moments have actually been on a mountain, or in the woods, or along the ocean or at least far away from my normal routine.  Last April, I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time and was just blown away – I experienced in a new, fresh way the power and the beauty of God’s creation. 

Holy moments may occur when we clear the distractions that are so much a part of our everyday lives and really have time for God.  It’s no accident that the Transfiguration took place on the mountain, a place where immediate worries and concerns could be set aside in order to focus on prayer.

But then again, Holy Moments may happen in the midst of the everyday when we somehow are enabled to see things – to see one another, to see life, to see God – in a new way.  We may experience God’s presence in the most mundane moments – while doing the laundry, or driving to work, or walking to class.  Holy Moments may happen even in some of the most difficult times of life as we are sustained by the love and care of God, often experienced through the love and compassion of others.

We cannot create or force these moments - they just happen.  Peter and James and John were not expecting this “brush with the holy.”  They did not plan it or make it happen.  It was God’s doing.  Those mountain-top experiences are not up to us.

Morton Kelsey did a study many years ago in which the majority of people reported that they had had mystical experiences with God.  But a majority also reported that they had never told this to anyone because it was too hard to explain and they were afraid no one would believe them.

The Transfiguration was a unique event in the life of Jesus, an event that affirmed for Jesus who he was and the path that he was taking.  And it was something so powerful and so mysterious, it obvious that the gospel writer is trying to describe something that is very hard to put into words. 

It is important that these mystical, mysterious stories are included in the scriptures because we can be tempted to give an overly rational explanation for faith.  We can be tempted to think of Christianity like we do trigonometry or algebra, as a largely intellectual enterprise in which these are the facts, these are the seven golden principles for living, and if we do “x” then God will respond with “y.”  We can come to think that we have it all figured out – or at least to rely on an authority who has it all figured out.  We can make faith into a neat, tidy, transactional endeavor.  But faith doesn’t work that way. 

The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has a wonderful prayer to be said for the newly baptized.  The prayer concludes with these words:
Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.

I love that last line: “The gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Faith is not simply about the facts.  Following Jesus is not about believing certain things and taking certain positions.  In the words of that prayer, following Jesus is about having an inquiring and discerning heart, about having the courage to will and to persevere, about knowing and loving God, about finding joy and wonder in all of God’s works.

Mike Gecan talked about going to his child’s Kindergarten class and seeing a bulletin board that listed what the students wanted to learn in school that year.  Most of the statements were things like “learn to sit still” or “follow the rules,” or “listen to the teacher better.”  But one child had said, “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.”

Wow.  Here is a kid who has the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works.  His goal for kindergarten was, “I want to know why the ocean shines like fire.”

Knowledge is important, but knowledge doesn’t necessarily turn your life upside down – or even change you.  Finding the joy and wonder in all of God’s works – that’s another story.

Our faith is about knowledge, to be sure.  It is about learning.  We are quick to say around here that you don’t have to check your brains at the door.  Faith engages the intellect, and it is important to think deeply, to use the minds God has given us.  But faith involves a lot more than “just the facts.”  Let us pray:

Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  Amen.