Archive for February, 2010

Second Sunday in Lent

When Dan and I are preaching on the same text we often try to write the sermon together.  This week our writing schedules did not allow for this.  Plus we both were inspired by a different part of the text.  I was drawn to the beauty of Jesus’ lament.  Dan was inspired to preach a more prophetic message.  What follows is my sermon from this Second Sunday in Lent.  But if you haven’t done so already, take some time to read Dan’s excellent sermon entitled, “Why We Kill Prophets.”  His sermon provides a thought-provoking and timely challenge to us all during this season of ‘self-examination and penitence.’

“A Hen and Her Brood”

Luke 13: 31-35

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2010

On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called the Dominus Flevit.  According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his prophetic ministry.

Inside the chapel, the altar is centered in front of a high arched window that overlooks the city of Jerusalem.  Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture representing what never happened there.  It is a mosaic of a white hen with a golden halo around her head.  Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet.  There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks.  They look happy to be there.  The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.

But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did.  The mosaic is rimmed with red words in Latin.  Translated into English they read, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The last phrase is set outside of the mosaic, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing.[1]

For me, the beauty of this scripture passage lies in the picture it conjures of Jesus standing on a hill outside of Jerusalem with tears rolling down his cheeks as he considers its people.  If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament here.  He is the mother hen crying out to her babies.  But the chicks have wandered far away, lost their sense of direction, and come under the influence of a wily-old fox.  And no matter how loudly that mother hen stands and clucks her babies cannot or will not hear her.

Have you ever stopped to think about mistakes you have made in your past and wondered what it must have been like for your parents to watch you making those mistakes?  I dated a man in college whom my father didn’t approve of.  He didn’t approve because he had seen this man break my heart over and over again and he was sure the relationship wasn’t going to work out.  But I wasn’t going to let Dad’s lack of approval stop me.  I mean what did he know?  I was in love!  This was the real deal!  My father didn’t know my boyfriend like I knew him.  So I kept right on dating him.  And he kept right on breaking my heart.  Looking back now I imagine that this mistake, as well as many others I made in my young life, was perhaps harder on my parents than it was on me. I imagine there may be no deeper grief than to watch someone whom you love and desire with all of your heart to protect head down a road that you know will lead to pain and heartbreak.

This is the grief Christ must bear every day of our lives.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The words of Jesus’ lament are not just meant for the inhabitants of this ancient holy city, but for us as well.   Jesus’ lament is meant for us when we choose to seek comfort in our things rather than under the shelter of his wings.  Jesus’ lament is for us when we turn away from his Kingdom in order to build kingdoms of our own.  Jesus’ lament is for us when we turn from his way of peace, and truth, and justice and become enamored with the fox’s way of violence, and manipulation, and oppression.  Jesus’ lament is for us when in our ignorance and in our arrogance we think we know better and we think we can do better and so we turn our backs on the one who is our life and our love.

But even in the midst of this betrayal, even in the midst of his lament, Jesus carries on.  Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today, tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’ Like any good parent, Jesus will not be deterred from his mission.  He will not let his chicks’ mistakes alter his course.  He will not compromise on what he knows to be right.  So he carries on, even though he knows that the deepest mistake, the deepest betrayal is still to come.

I have been warned that at some point in every parent’s life her children will turn on her.  It will happen in the midst of a tense, heated moment when the child wants his way but the parent says, “No.”  A battle of wills ensues and tempers flare, the child seeking greater independence and freedom, the parent trying desperately to protect and parent wisely.  The argument escalates until the child finally shouts, “I hate you!” or says it with the look in his eyes.  And the regrettable choice of the child’s words makes the parent die a little on the inside.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! Jesus’ lament is deepened by his knowledge that his chicks will not only make mistakes from which he cannot protect them, but also that they will eventually turn on him and kill him.  Jesus knows that when he sets foot in Jerusalem he will be killed.  He knows it is a city that kills its prophets.  He knows that his babies don’t want to hear what he has to say.  He knows that his babies are young, and vulnerable and impressionable and that the fox has led them astray.  He knows that he is the enemy in their eyes when all he really wants to do is love them well, when all he wants to do is save them.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the fire that consumed a small farm and many of its animals.  While cleaning up after the fire, the farmers made an incredible and poignant discovery.  They found a dead mother hen, her body all scorched and blackened by the fire that had taken her life.  But underneath her wings lay five baby chicks all alive and well and chirping away thanks to their mother’s incredible, sacrificial love.

As I paused to consider this story in relation to today’s text I wondered to myself what it took for the mother hen to get those babies under her wings.  Were her chicks more willing to accept her love and protection as the fire raged around them?  Or did their fear blind them to their only hope of salvation in the midst of the fire?  Were they running around wildly still looking for the fox?  Or did they finally wise up and accept their mother’s offer of help?

Whatever the case, I imagine this mother hen doing whatever was necessary to gather her chicks and save them.  I imagine her grabbing them and plucking them, pushing and nudging them, screaming and hollering at them, begging and pleading with them, if they would only, only gather themselves under her wings.  If they would only allow her to do what her heart was calling her to do.  If they would only allow her to love them as a mother loves her brood.

What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul, what wondrous love is this, o my soul!  What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the heavy cross for my soul, for my soul, to bear the heavy cross for my soul!

Thanks be to God for the wondrous love of Jesus Christ our Lord who loves us and saves us even when we are unwilling.

Now to the great God of grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, As a Hen Gathers Her Brood, The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, pg 201.  Found on http://www.textweek.com.

Read Full Post »

Why We Kill Prophets

Why We Kill Prophets

Luke 13: 31-35

Daniel J. Ott

Edward R. Murrow spoke these words as he watched the massive funeral progression of Mohandas K. Gandhi in India in 1948.  “The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived – a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not the commander of great armies nor a ruler of vast lands. He could not boast any scientific achievement or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind. He was a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Gandhi’s assassin was a man named Nathuram Godse.  He was one of Gandhi’s people; not a British or a British sympathizer, but an Indian and a Hindu.  He had supported Gandhi’s efforts to free India from British imperialism.  He may have even joined in Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts early on.  But he and his co-conspirators had grown angry with Gandhi’s efforts to make peace with Muslims and after three failed attempts, Godse shot Gandhi three times in broad daylight with many witnesses.

Scholars aren’t sure when and how the idea that Jerusalem kills its prophets emerged.  The books of the prophets don’t really tell us about the prophets’ fate.  Jeremiah, at one point, was thrown into a cistern and left for dead.[1] And surely all the prophets took on their vocation with trepidation, knowing that to speak truth to power is risky business.  But the idea that Jerusalem kills the prophets develops in Jewish tradition not in scripture.[2] What’s clear is that Jesus anticipates being killed by his own because of the prophetic word that he is called to enact.  He doesn’t weep for Rome or for Herod, though they will play crucial roles in his death.  He weeps because his own people will kill him; because his own people will reject him.  He weeps because the word of God and the love of God will be rejected by the very people who need it most.

The question that I would like for us to consider this morning is, “Why do we kill the prophets?”  Why do WE close our ears to the word of God and run away from the love of God?  Why do we kill the bearers of God’s truth among us?  Why do we, like Jerusalem, kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to us?

The first thing that can be said in answer to this question is perhaps the most obvious:  prophets make us uncomfortable – very uncomfortable.  Even when they’re on our side prophets make us uncomfortable.  Prophets are idealistic.  They are not adverse to conflict.  They push and when they don’t get a response, they push harder.  Even when we agree with what they are saying, we wish they would say it a bit more softly.

Can you imagine the response of the people to Jesus in our story?  They come telling him that the client-king, Herod has caught wind of him and wants to kill him.  Herod is in with the Romans. He’s very powerful.  He’s already beheaded John the Baptist. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  “Go tell that fox, that conniver, that he can come get me if he wants. But I have business to do, I have work to finish, and I won’t be intimidated or bullied.”  I can imagine even those close to Jesus thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, but now we’re playing with the big boys.  Let’s cool off here a minute and think this thing through.”  But Jesus doesn’t seem to have that pragmatic bone in his body.  He presses on to speak truth to power.  Jesus is a whistleblower and whistleblowers make us uncomfortable.

Can you imagine being a friend or coworker of Sherron Watkins as she began to expose the unthinkable corruption and abuse of power at Enron, where high ups literally plotted to steal from the purses of ‘little old ladies in California.’  Surely, her friends pleaded with her to take a minute to think through what she was doing.  Surely, coworkers had to be thinking of their own fate as the truth emerged.

What if Erin Brokovich were your sister or daughter or mother?  Wouldn’t you have urged caution as she bull-headedly exposed the poisonous pollution that Pacific Gas and Electric loosed on Hinkley, CA.  Or, coming a little closer to home, what counsel would you have given Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco executive who exposed the industry’s knowledge of smoking’s deleterious effects and the industry’s research and development that sought to increase the addictiveness of their products?

These whistleblowers make us uncomfortable because they boldly do what they take to be right and they do so with little thought to the consequences – the consequence to them – or us.  Why do we kill the prophets?

Another possible answer to the question is that we are not always sure the truth that the prophet brings is in fact the truth.  Jesus tells the Pharisees to tell Herod that he is casting out demons and performing cures.  He is overcoming evil and curing people, not only of their physical ailments, but of their spiritual and social ailments.  The prophets come to us and point out the evil that needs to be overcome.  They tell us that we are sick and need to be cured.  But very often we aren’t even aware that we’re sick.  We haven’t realized that we are participating in evil until the prophet tells us so.

Late in his short life, Martin Luther King widened his message.  Early on he devoted himself exclusively to the abolition of segregation.  But later he began to see that we are caught up in illnesses much larger and more complex than mere white supremacy.  In several of his later speeches he talked about the three interlocking evils of racism, materialism and militarism.

Now we moderate white folks have learned to accept King because none of us considers ourselves racists.  We like the dream speech and have grown comfortable with King over the years.  But when we consider the illnesses of materialism and militarism, we will probably wonder if we want the whole cure that King perscribed.

The problem with all three evils is that they strip people of their personhood.  Racism reduces a person to a skin tone, to an outward appearance, and then ascribes attributes to the person based on assumptions.  It allows people of one ethnicity to assert that people of another ethnicity are less than full persons and therefore do not need to be treated equally.

Materialism reduces us to producers and consumers – homo economicus.  People become cogs in a mass system of buy and sell.  Materialism makes us forget that we are created for faith, hope, and love and makes us think we were made for profit, greed, and pleasure.  We forget that we are persons created in God’s image, created for loving relation with God, and we reduce ourselves to our appetites and our material desires.

Militarism denies personhood, too.  Bodies created in God’s image are blown apart and mutilated.  And we talk about these poor souls as casualties rather than victims.  Innocent bystanders become collatoral damage.  Our enemies, of course, need to be depersonalized too.  So they become krauts or japs, gooks, towel-heads.  Resorting to violence becomes too easy when we forget our personhood and the personhood of others; when we forget that all humanity is created good in God’s image.  A sickness overtakes us and we lose sight of the horror and evil that war really is.

But we like our security and our comfort.  I do.  I like my big house and the ability to buy most anything I desire.  I benefit from living in a rich nation with enormous power and endless reach.  And so why would I want to hear that I’m sick and need to be cured?  Why would I want the prophet to tell me that I participate in evil?  Why do we kill the prophets?

I have one last possible answer to our question.  And it may be the most difficult to accept and the most tragic.  Could it be that God’s truth is not the most difficult for us to receive from the prophet, but God’s love?  Could it be that the prophets bring us a radical message of God’s deep and powerful love, and it is this overwhelming love of God that we reject?

Jesus sang his lament over his people Jerusalem, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…  and you were not willing.”

Nikos Kazantzakis in his beautiful, fictional telling of the life of Saint Francis, pictures Francis similarly conveying a message of love but meeting with rejection.

“Saturday evening… The clouds had scattered, a cool breeze was blowing, the ribbons in the girls’ hair were fluttering, and the young men grew excited and eyed the women with longing and desire.  The first lutes already resounded within the taverns.

Suddenly: laughter, shouts, jeering.  Everyone turned to look.  Francis was visible at the edge of the square, hopping, dancing, his robe tucked up.  “Come one, come all!” he was calling.  “Come, brothers, come to hear the new madness!”

Behind him ran a horde of laughing children chasing him and throwing stones… more appeared from every street, and soon they all joined together and charged Francis.  He, calm and laughing, turned from time to time, held out his arms to the children and shouted, “Whoever throws one stone at me, may he be once blessed by God; whoever throws two stones at me, may he be twice blessed by God; whoever throws three stones at me, may he be thrice blessed by God” – whereupon a continuous stream of stones rained down upon him.

Blood was now flowing from his forehead and chin.  The citizens rushed out from the taverns, guffawing…  He was jumping and dancing rapturously, all covered with blood.

“Hear, brothers,” he sang, “hear the new madness!”…

“Tell us, tell us, tell us!” came from every side, accompanied by a chorus of guffaws.

Francis mounted the steps of the temple, opened his arms to the jeering crowd, and screamed:  “Love, love, love.”[3]

“Peace,” he shouted, “peace be unto your hearts, your houses, your enemies.  Peace be to the world!  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

His voice broke continually.  He said the same things over and over again, and whenever he could no longer speak, he began to weep.  “Peace, peace,” he cried, exhorting his listeners to make peace with God, with men, with their hearts.  How?  There was but one way:  by loving.

“Love!  Love!” he shouted, and then began to weep once again.”[4]

Why do we kill the prophets?  Why do we stone the messenger of love?

Does this amazing love make us uncomfortable?  Do we fear that this love will demand the truth and worry about the consequences of that truth?  Are we worried that this love will expose our sicknesses and the evils to which we are addicted?

Or is it because God’s love is just too overwhelming?  Do we take it to be madness?  Perhaps it seems to us too fantastic, too idealistic, too foolish that there is only one way to make peace with God, and with each other and with our own hearts… love.

The prophets come to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Jesus comes to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Why do we kill the prophets?

[1] Jeremiah 38

[2] Leslie J. Hoppe, “Luke13:31-35: Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word:  Year C, Volume 2, (Westminster/ John Knox, 2009), pg.  71.

[3] Saint Francis, pp. 110-111

[4] Ibid., p. 180

Read Full Post »

First Sunday in Lent

After finishing this sermon I read an article in the Christian Century entitled, “There is no ‘I’ in preach: Enough about Me” which criticized pastors who preach in the first person and who share their own personal experiences. The article was aggravating, to say the least, especially after having just finished a sermon where I frequently used the word “I”. But it feels more authentic and honest and humble to include myself in my preaching. Like I’m not just standing up there in the pulpit preaching down to the congregation, but rather that I am including myself in the sermon too. My hope is that as I preach from my own experience and my own faith-wrestling, that my parishioners will recognize their experience and wrestling as well. I prefer the way Barbara brown Taylor approaches her preaching when she says, “When I speak out of my humanity, I want my listeners to recognize their own. When I say ‘I’ from the pulpit, I want them to say, ‘Me too.’ The sermon is a place for believers to explore together their common experience before God.”[1]

So, with that said, here’s the sermon from the first Sunday in Lent.

“My God, in Whom I Trust”

Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16 and Luke 4: 1-13

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 21st, 2010 – First Sunday in Lent

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York around 1797 with the name Isabella Baumfree. The girl who would become Sojourner had ten or twelve sisters whom she only knew from stories told by her mother. Their slaveholder had sold away all the children except for Isabella and her younger brother Peter. In 1828, after being sold herself and later escaping, Isabella was emancipated and moved to New York City.[2]

“After living there for more than a decade, Isabella experienced a call from the Spirit to travel and lecture. She desired a new name that would reflect her new vocation. Saying that she had left everything behind, and wasn’t going to keep anything of Egypt on her, she went to the Lord and asked him for a new name. ‘And the Lord gave me Sojourner,’ she said, ‘because I was to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins, and being a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, because everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare truth to the people.’ Sojourner Truth became a fiery preacher, orator, and abolitionist.”[3]

One day, while preparing for a speech at the townhouse in Angola, Indiana, she heard that someone had threatened to burn down the building if she spoke there. Such a dangerous threat would deter many from following through on what they felt called to do. But not Sojourner Truth. After hearing the threat to burn down the building where she would speak, she simply replied, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.”[4]

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear stories such as this I marvel at the trust spiritual greats such as Sojourner Truth have in God. I marvel at the way such spiritual greats can seemingly cast their fears and doubts aside in order to do the right thing, the Godly thing. I marvel at this, because trusting in God does not come so easy for me.

Psalm 91 is a psalm of trust. Some scholars believe that Psalm 91 was written by a person who was saved from his persecutors after seeking refuge in the Temple. Other scholars believe that the psalm was written by someone who wanted to offer a grateful testimony after recovering from a serious illness. Whoever the author was, though, it is obvious that he has placed his trust in God to be his refuge and his fortress, to protect him from evil and to guard him in all of his ways.

Psalm 91 has an interesting history. Many Jews and Christians have copied passages of this psalm and worn them in amulets around their necks in order to magically ward off danger. This practice was especially popular for soldiers on the battlefield who believed that carrying the words of this psalm would keep them safe. The words of this psalm have also led some Christians to test God’s protection of them by deliberately exposing themselves to danger assuming that God’s angels would bear them up, so that they would not even so much as dash their foot against a stone.

We don’t have to delve too deeply into this theological use of Psalm 91 in order to reveal its flaws. All we have to do is recall the many poor and persecuted people of our world who, in spite of their enduring faith, are still poor and persecuted. And all we have to do is recall the thousands of soldiers who have been hurt or killed on the battlefield in spite of their great faith in God. Jesus also reveals that using this psalm as a magical way to ward off danger isn’t appropriate in his response to the devil while in the wilderness. The devil wants Jesus to test God’s protection of him. The devil wants him to use Psalm 91 to ward off danger when he places Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” But Jesus isn’t having any of it. He’s not going to test God. He’s not going to misuse Psalm 91. And so he responds to the temptation by saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So we shouldn’t use Psalm 91 as some sort of a magical guarantee against danger, threat or difficulty. But we can read it as an incredibly comforting reminder that God is for us rather than against us, that God is present with us in our times of trial, and that God does provide for us a refuge and a shelter in which we can abide. Psalm 91 reminds us that God is worthy of our trust.

But do we trust God? Of this psalm pastor Lindsay Armstrong writes, “Who among us has truly made God their refuge? It’s often easier to cling to the safety found in competency, wealth, health, friends, busyness, or work. Who among us lives in the shadow of the Almighty, making the Most High their dwelling place? Many of us would like to and are able to do so at times. We just can’t do it all the time. It is difficult to trust God perfectly, wholly, and persistently.”[5]

Gosh, isn’t that the truth? Pastor Armstrong’s words really hit me this week as I recalled all those nights that I lay awake worrying about things that I have absolutely no control over. How I lay awake at night worried, and afraid, and full of doubt. Why can’t I trust God more? Why can’t I abide in the shadow of the Almighty and make God my refuge and my fortress?

Well, part of the reason why I don’t trust God fully is because I know that faith isn’t magic. I know that faith doesn’t ward off danger. I know that good people get hurt all the time and that things don’t always work out. I know that I should trust in God, but the realities of life keep me from trusting fully.

And I don’t believe I’m alone in this. In fact, I believe the only human who has ever been able to fully trust in God was Jesus Christ. During Jesus’ time in the wilderness the realities of life hit him head on. He was tempted by hunger. He was tempted by power. He was tempted to treat God as some magical quick fix. But to all of these temptations Jesus said, “No.” In the face of all of these temptations, Jesus chose to place his trust in God.

Life is one big wilderness, I believe, one big stretch of temptation, one big land of doubt and fear and turmoil. But, as Jesus teaches us on this first Sunday of Lent, the wilderness is also a place of choice. It is a place where we are presented with the opportunity to say, “No!” to all the things in life that corrupt, and destroy, and kill and say, “Yes!” to all that heals, and builds, and saves. The wilderness presents us with the opportunity to say, “No!” to all the doubt, and fear, and turmoil and say, “Yes!” to finding shelter in the Most High, say “Yes!” to making the Lord our refuge, say “Yes!” to placing our trust in God.

Now the cynics of the world (or perhaps even the cynics within us) might stop here to ask the question, “What’s the point?” Why choose faith when it doesn’t offer a quick fix? Why choose to trust when you know you can still get hurt? What good does saying, “Yes!” to God really do?

And to these questions I would have to respond by painting a picture of what life would be like without God. What life would be like without the hope that good will eventually trump evil, that justice will eventually roll down, that righteousness will eventually flow like a never-ending stream. Life without God means life without hope. Life without God means life that is a never-ending wilderness. Life without God is hell on earth.

Yes, Jesus’ choice did not keep him from danger, it did not keep him from pain, it did not keep him from facing continual temptations. But it did help him survive in the wilderness, it did give him the strength, and the hope, and the faith he needed to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

And so I choose to trust in God too. I choose to pray with the psalmist, My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust. I choose to turn to Jesus in my wilderness. I choose to trust, albeit an imperfect, unsteady, and all too human trust. I choose to trust because the wilderness is too barren a place, too dangerous a place without the help, and the guidance, and the grace of the One who saves me daily.

And so I invite you to join me as I pray the great prayer from the Gospel according to Mark:[6]

I believe; help my unbelief!

I believe; help my unbelief!

I believe; help my unbelief!

And may the great God of grace grant us such belief and such trust today.

Now to this God in whom we trust be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, as quoted in Richard Lischer’s The Company of Preachers.

[2]Jan L. Richardson at http://paintedprayerbook.com

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Lindsay P. Armstrong, Preaching the Lenten Texts, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2010, pg 4.

[6] Mark 9:24

Read Full Post »

Ash Wednesday

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “Our baptisms are our ordinations, the moments at which we are set apart as God’s people to share Christ’s ministry…the instant we rise dripping from the waters of baptism and the sign of the cross is made upon our foreheads, we are marked as Christ’s own forever.  I have often wondered whether the church would be even smaller than it is if that cross were made not with water but with permanent ink—a nice deep purple, perhaps—so that all who bore Christ’s mark bore it openly, visibly, for the rest of their lives.”[1]

Today, on Ash Wednesday, I will trace the invisible sign of the cross on my congregants’ foreheads with a very visible, dark ash.  We will leave the sanctuary with dirt on our foreheads and risk people noticing the fact that there is something different about us.  Perhaps we will meet someone after worship and they will glance at our foreheads with a question in their eyes.  Will he or she be so bold as to ask?  Or will I offer an explanation before he or she can get the question out?  “I just came from church.  It’s Ash Wednesday.  The day we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

It’s good for us to have to explain.  It’s good for us to be so visible.

Our Ash Wednesday service is always a hard one for me to get through without crying.  How can you not cry when you touch the forehead of a parishioner you love, or of your husband, or of your 2-year-old son, and say the words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return?”  I don’t want to face their mortality.  I don’t want to think about all of these people whom I love dying.  But it certainly does bring things into perspective.  It certainly does make me want to go home and cherish every moment of every day I have with them.  And it certainly does make me praise the God who formed them from the dust of the earth and brought them into life.

May our great God of grace be with you on this Ash Wednesday.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, Boston, MA, 1993, pgs. 29-30.

Read Full Post »

Exodus 34: Reflecting God

“Reflecting God”

Exodus 34: 29-35

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 14th, 2010 – Transfiguration Sunday

You can tell a lot by a person’s face.  They say the eyes are the windows to the soul.  But a person’s facial expressions are also very revealing.  As much as we try to hide, it’s pretty easy to look at a person’s face and see if he is interested or only feigning interest.  We can tell if she is angry, or upset, or ashamed.  We can tell if he is filled with love and joy.  People used to give me a hard time at my first church when Dan would sing during worship.  Sitting up front on the chancel in full view of the congregation everyone said my face would just light up every time he sang.  I will admit it is hard for me not to swoon when that man sings.  You can tell a lot by a person’s face.

When Moses came down from the mountain after his encounter with God his face spoke volumes.  Moses was beaming, or as our text from Exodus puts it, the skin of his face shone. Moses had climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai in search of God and in search of guidance for his people.  And when he came down from the mountain, it was clear by the new appearance of his face, it was clear by the way he was radiating God’s glory, that the experience had transformed him.

Moses’ encounter with God reaffirms our belief that we can experience God, that we can know God as human beings.  On this Transfiguration Sunday both of our scripture texts describe events where God was experienced in the midst of a bright, dazzling light.  These stories are not unique, though, as we recall when the risen Christ spoke to Saul out of a bright, intense light and converted him in the midst of it.  And we remember when the shepherds received the good news of Christ’s birth by way of the glory of the Lord that shone around them.[1] And we have probably all heard more modern stories where God was experienced in a vision where the person was surrounded by light.

In the Medieval period, a group of monks called the Hesychast Monks dedicated their lives to experiencing this Divine Light of which our scriptures speak.  They considered such experiences the highest experience of God for which all Christians should strive.  Through some special prayer techniques and controlled breathing these monks claimed to have a special gift for experiencing the light of God.  One of these monks, named Symeon, wrote about his experience.  He wrote,

“one day he was saying the [Jesus] prayer…when suddenly a divine light shone on him from above, filling the place entirely.  [He] lost all awareness, he forgot that he was in a house or under a roof, for he saw, all around him, nothing but light…and he himself, so it seemed to him, had become light.”[2]

Perhaps you have never had such an extravagant experience of God, but I pray that you have experienced God.  I pray that God’s light has broken into your darkness in some way because such experiences remind us that our God is knowable.  The light of God does break into the darkness of our world.  It illumines us.  It illumines all that surrounds us.  It is bright and dazzling and powerful. The light shines in the darkness, reports the gospel of John, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So Moses’ story reminds us that we can experience God, but his story also reminds us that we must seek God.  We must climb the mountain as Moses did.  We must go to God in prayer.  We must worship, and watch, and practice attentiveness.

For years I made an annual pilgrimage to the mountains of Montreat as a youth pastor with my youth group.  Every summer thousands of Presbyterian youth gather on the campus of Montreat College in search of an experience with God.  During these week-long youth conferences we worshipped twice a day, singing music that touched our hearts, listening to sermons that were profound, and participating in liturgy that was truly transformative.  After worship our youth would split off into a variety of small groups where they would continue to study and discuss the relevance of the message they received during worship.

During these retreats I witnessed many youth have profound experiences with God.  They allowed God to break into their darkness on the mountaintop in a way that they had apparently not been able to do back home. Montreat was such a ‘spiritual’ place I would hear them say.  Montreat wasn’t like home, they would say.  They could really know God in Montreat.

All this was great, in a sense.  It was wonderful that these young people had this experience of God.  It was wonderful that they could go to the mountaintop and know God in such a powerful way.  But it did concern me when I witnessed that many of them couldn’t translate their experience on the mountain back into their regular, not-so-extraordinary, not so mountaintop-like lives back home.  When they returned home all I kept hearing was how the worship in their home church wasn’t like it was in Montreat.  And the bible studies weren’t like it was in Montreat.  And about how they couldn’t wait for next year’s conference when they could go and know God once again.  After their mountaintop experience, it seemed as if they could only experience God through the extraordinary, leaving everything else feeling incredibly plain, boring, and ordinary.

But God does not just speak to us through the extraordinary.  It may take more effort to know God, to experience God at the bottom of the mountain.  It may take more seeking, more attentiveness, to know God in the ordinary, in the every day, or in the every Sunday worship experience.  But we can know God here too.  We can know God at the bottom of the mountain as well as the top.

“Brother David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk wrote a book called gratefulness, the heart of prayer, which he said could be summarized in two words:  Wake up!  Borrowing the words of the poet Kabir, he explained what he meant:

Do you have a body?  Don’t sit on the porch!

Go out and walk in the rain!

If you are in love,

Then why are you asleep?

Wake up, wake up!

You have slept millions and millions of years.

Why not wake up this morning?”[3]

The heart of prayer, the essence of seeking God, is about waking up.  Waking up to all the ways in which God’s light is breaking into our darkness.  Waking up to our God in the midst of the rain.  Waking up to our God in the midst of loving relationships. Waking up to our God in the midst of a faithful community gathered every Sunday for worship.  Waking up to our God in the midst of the words of a hymn, or a prayer, or a sermon.  Waking up to all the ways we can experience God in the midst of our everyday, ordinary lives.

So Moses’ story reminds us that we can experience God, but that we must seek God both at the top of the mountain and at the bottom.  We must seek God’s light, allow it to fill us, and then, like Moses, let it shine.  This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Have you ever felt yourself reflecting God’s light?  Have you ever felt yourself beaming like Moses after an encounter with God?  I’ve left worship feeling that way. I’ve left worship having experienced the risen Christ through Word and sacrament and I know my experience was written all over my face.  I’ve witnessed people who radiated God’s glory after experiencing God while working among the poor.  I’ve known people whose faces were physically transformed and brightened by the joy of recognizing God in the birth of a child.  I’ve witnessed people who radiated God’s light and love on their death beds, people who glowed as the veil between their world and God’s world got thinner and thinner.  We reflect our experiences with God.  God makes us shine. The light that we receive from God becomes the light that we share with others as God calls upon each of us to be that bright star, to be that ray of sunlight, to be that flickering candle flame that brings hope to a dark, dark world.

Mary Oliver, a poet and a person of faith, most often experiences God in nature.  I will close by reading her poem called, When I Am Among the Trees.

When I am among the trees,

especially the willows and the honey locust,

equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,

in which I have goodness, and discernment,

and never hurry through the world

but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves

and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,

“and you too have come

into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled

with light, and to shine.”[4]

May we all leave this house of worship today ready to go easy, to be filled with God’s divine light, and to shine.

Now to our great God of light, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.

[1] Luke 2:9

[2] Placher, William, A History of Christian Theology, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1983, pg. 98.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, Harper Collins Publisher, New York, NY, 2009, pgs. 176-177.

[4] Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2006, pg. 4.

Read Full Post »

Transfiguration Sunday

When Moses came down from the mountain after his encounter with God he was beaming, or as our text for Sunday puts it, the skin of his face shone. Have you ever felt yourself beam after an encounter with God?  Have you ever had a spiritual experience after which you felt like you were radiating God’s glory?  I’ve left worship feeling that way.  I’ve witnessed youth who beamed after a spiritual experience on a retreat.  I’ve witnessed people whose face radiated God’s light and love on their death beds.

Moses’ encounter with God reaffirms two beliefs.  First, it reaffirms our belief that we can experience God, we can know God as human beings, even if it is knowing God in a limited way.  Secondly, Moses’ story reaffirms the belief that we can reflect God, or God’s light (or divine energeiai as Eastern theologian Gregory Palamas would say) to others and to the world.

But, Moses’ story also teaches us that in order for these things to occur (experiencing God and reflecting God) we must seek God.  We must climb the mountain.  We must go to God in prayer.  We must seek our Creator’s light, and presence, and divine energeiai. Also, as we seek God, we must do so willing to be changed, willing to be transfigured (this is Transfiguration Sunday), willing to be molded into the vessel God intends us to be.

Transfiguration is the last Sunday before Lent begins.  It is a good Sunday to be reminded that we must seek God in order to know God.  Lent is an opportunity.  It is consecrated time, or time set apart, to get to know God again, to bring God close.  During the season of Lent we Christians go on a pilgrimage with Jesus, seeking God in all that we do.  I pray that we might all know God this Lent so that we might better reflect God’s love, glory, light to the world.

Read Full Post »

Jeremiah 1: Reluctant Prophets

“Reluctant Prophets”

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 7th, 2010

I took a year off from my studies in seminary to do a full-time internship as the chaplain of a small, liberal arts college.  As a young seminary student I really had yet to find my voice or my way in ministry and so I struggled to overcome my shyness whenever I was around all those intimidating, Ph.D.-holding, professors.  But there was one professor whom I really admired and felt comfortable around because he was always so encouraging and supportive.  He was an older man who taught religious studies and he had been at the college for a long time.  He was getting ready to retire, though, and the college community was already mourning the loss of his presence and his voice.  He was the one at faculty meetings, or community gatherings who, when he stood up to speak, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen because they knew that he would have something wise and truthful to share.  I admired this professor so much because he was the one everyone counted on to say the things that needed to be said.  He would stand up to speak when no one else would and he would choose his words so well that he never came across as angry, rude, or hurtful.  He would simply tell the truth, as he saw it, and the people listened.  He was a prophet in our midst.

We have probably all encountered a prophet or two in our life.  These are the people in our families, our churches, and our communities, who do what needs to be done, or say what needs to be said, regardless of what others may think of them, and regardless of the personal (sometimes professional) risks.  Because of their courage and their wisdom, our prophets are typically the most respected, most revered members of our community.

Why, then, we might ask, are prophets so reluctant?  Today’s scripture story when Jeremiah shows great reluctance to accept God’s prophetic call is not unique.  After Jeremiah learns that God has appointed him as a prophet to the nations he replies, “Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah doesn’t want to be God’s prophet.  He can’t speak well in front of others.  He’s too young for the job.  He is very, very reluctant.  And he’s not the only one.

Moses also had his excuses as to why he couldn’t be God’s prophet, the one God appointed to bring God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.  The fear of public speaking is obviously not new because Moses’ final excuse for why he couldn’t be God’s prophet was the fact that he had always been, “slow of speech and slow of tongue.”[1]

Modern day prophets such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. also wrote about the many dark nights that they lay awake trying to set aside their reluctance and muster up the necessary moral courage to follow God’s call.

Even Jesus, in a very human moment, knew reluctance before his arrest.  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,”[2] Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives.

Why are God’s prophets so reluctant?  Well, perhaps it’s the big scary job description.  At the end of today’s passage God tells Jeremiah that his job will be to “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by such a job?  Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the job of plucking up and pulling down all that threatens to choke and kill God’s new Kingdom?  Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the task of plucking up all the apathy and selfishness, or pulling down all the blind desire and all the fear that keep God’s people from being faithful?  And who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the job of destroying and overthrowing?  Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the job of trying to destroy the many injustices of our world or of trying to overthrow the powerful who are hell bent on doing evil?  And who wouldn’t feel intimidated by all the building and planting that needs to be done, all the building of grace-filled relationships, all the planting of seeds of peace, all the building of justice and righteousness and truthfulness?  The job of the prophet is quite a job!  No wonder so many are so reluctant.

Perhaps prophets are also reluctant, though, because so few are willing to travel down that prophetic road with them.  More than once I have heard a pastor tell me that God has never called upon them to preach a prophetic word, that he or she has been called to be “pastoral” but not “prophetic.”  Wow!  I am always struck by such statements because if we pastors are not willing to proclaim God’s prophetic Word how can we expect others to do so?  It can’t always be someone else’s calling to be the prophet.

I believe the root of the reluctance, though, stems from the prophet’s feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.  “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” says Jeremiah.  In this honest moment, Jeremiah is someone to whom we can all relate.  We can relate to Jeremiah because when God calls upon us to do or say something prophetic we usually feel pretty inadequate too.  When God calls upon us to be prophetic we would probably add a few excuses of our own.  Excuses such as:

I just don’t know enough, God, I’m not educated enough for this task.

I don’t have the time or the energy right now, God, try me again later.

There are more qualified people to ask, God, I’m not the one for you.

And perhaps the biggest, most honest excuse…I’m afraid, afraid, afraid, God, so please, please, won’t you call on someone else?

But in Jeremiah’s case, as well as in our own, God doesn’t respond well to excuses.  Instead God continues to issue the call, claiming to have anointed us for the task even before we were born.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Yes, God continues to issue the call in spite of our excuses because we are all called to a prophetic ministry in some way, shape or form.

You might feel God calling you to address a problem that has plagued your family for years.  And when God calls God doesn’t accept any excuses.

You might feel God calling you to raise your community’s awareness about global poverty and international debt.  And when God calls God doesn’t accept any excuses.

You might feel God calling you to make a difference by supporting a public official or running for office yourself.  And when God calls God doesn’t accept any excuses.

You might feel God calling you to speak words of challenge, said with care, to a friend or a loved one who could do better and be better.  And when God calls God doesn’t accept any excuses.

God doesn’t accept our excuses.  God doesn’t accept our reluctance because whether we feel up to the task or not, God needs people who are willing to be prophetic.  God needs servants who are willing to say, “Yes!” no matter the call.

God doesn’t leave us to work out our prophetic calling alone, though.  The good news is that God goes with us, equipping us for the ministry to which we are called. “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid,” God says, “for I am with you.”

Do not be afraid…for I am with you.  The job of the prophet may be intimidating, scary, lonely, and even risky, but we do not answer this call alone.  We are not without guidance.  We are not without a friend.  So may we all consider our prophetic calling today.  And may we all find the courage within ourselves and within the church to not be so reluctant.

Now to this God who calls all of us to a prophetic ministry in some way, shape, or form, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] Luke 22:42

Read Full Post »

Isaiah 6: Encountering God

Encountering God

Isaiah 6:1-13

Daniel J. Ott

Why did you come here today?  What are you looking for?  Did you come here looking for an encounter with God?  Were you hoping maybe the choir would do a rousing rendition of one of your favorite songs and your heart would start to leap in your chest?  Were you wishing the Holy Spirit would visit again and wash over you and give you peace?  Were you thinking maybe the preacher would have an inspiring word that would stir your soul and make you want to shout, “Amen!”?  Were you hungering to be fed at the Lord’s Table and yearning for the bread and the juice to bring you into communion with Christ?  Were you longing to meet God here this morning?  Were you hoping for an encounter with God?

Well – be careful for what you hope for!

Isaiah had an encounter with God and it wasn’t an altogether affirming, peaceful and inspiring experience.  He went to the temple and maybe he, too, was looking to meet God, or maybe he was just going through the motions like so many in Israel (and maybe even a few here this morning).  Whatever he was looking for, soon enough Isaiah was transported from his worship in the temple to God’s throne room in the heavens.  The smoke from the sacrifice soon filled God’s house and mercifully masked just a bit of God’s holiness.  The chanting of the priests soon became the seraphs singing God’s praises.   “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  And the sight was truly one of holiness.  So holy was God in Isaiah’s vision, in fact, that Isaiah becomes terrified and distraught.

My translation has Isaiah saying, “Woe is me!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  This translation seems a bit to English to me, a bit to reserved.  I imagine Isaiah tearing at his robes and crying, “I’m ruined.  I’m doomed.  In the light of God’s holiness, it’s obvious, I’m not worth a crap.  I don’t even now how to speak the truth.  Every word I utter is blasphemy.  And look around me.  Look at my people.  They’re just like me – maybe worse.  We spend our time gossiping and backbiting.  Our leaders and our politicians lie to us.  And we say nothing to stand up for the poor.  We all say, “Lord, Lord,” but deep in our hearts we know that we are hypocrites, full of fear and hate.  I’ve looked at God in the face, and now I know just how unworthy I am, how unclean, how sinful. What a wretch I am!”

You know sometimes in the church, I think we loose this sense of God’s holiness.  God becomes too much a buddy and a daddy, and we forget how unworthy we are.  Maybe we need somebody from the outside to remind us what truth before God looks like.  I’m often reminded of a song by folk singer Greg Brown:

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart

among the rags and the bones and the dirt.

There’s piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,

and old moving boxes full of hurt.

Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.

I got whiskey, you’re welcome to some.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,

but I don’t reckon you’re gonna come.

I’ve tried to fix up the place, I know it’s a disgrace,

you get used to it after a while –

with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out

with their IOU’s and their smiles.

bare naked women keep coming in

and they dance like you wouldn’t believe.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,

so take a good look – and then leave.

God doesn’t leave Isaiah, though.  God decides to blot out his sin and cast off his guilt.  But this, too, is not the most pleasant of scenes.  A seraph picks up a hot coal with a pair of tongs and presses it to Isaiah’s lips.  He doesn’t mention the pain, but can you imagine?  Is this what it takes?  Is this what forgiveness looks like?  Maybe we’ve made this part a bit too easy too.  God’s grace has become cheap for us.  God’s judgment is fleeting in our faith and we move too quickly to forgiveness.

The turning pointing in Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, asks us to reconsider the matter of forgiveness.  The novel centers around a seventeen year-old named Ian Bedloe.  Ian came to think that everything he touched went wrong.  He blamed himself for the death of his older brother Danny and Danny’s wife Lucy.  Truth was he may have been at least partly guilty.  He told Danny that he thought Lucy was cheating on him.  Danny left the house half-drunk, crashed his car and died.  Two months later Lucy was found dead from an overdose of pills.  The most tragic part of the story was that they had three young children.  Ian’s parents were now caring for them.  For his part, Ian was working and going to school and trying to shake off his deep sense of guilt.

The novel turns when one evening Ian happens upon the Church of the Second Chance.  Ian, perhaps a Presbyterian, feels a bit uncomfortable in this store-front church filled with heartfelt song and spontaneous prayer.  But something also feels very authentic about it, so at the end of the service when the pastor invites people forward for prayer, Ian goes.  Ian simply asks to be good again, to be forgiven.  And the congregation prays for him.

After the service Ian meets the pastor.  And he’s a bit startled when the pastor asks him why he needs to be forgiven, but even more startled when the pastor asks him if he got an answer to his prayer.  Ian hems and haws a bit, but finally says, “I honestly believe it might have worked.  Oh, it’s not like I got an answer in plain English, of course, but… don’t you think?  Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”

“Goodness, no,” replied the pastor briskly.

Ian’s mouth fell open.  He wondered if he’d misunderstood.  He said, “I’m not forgiven?”

“Oh, no” said the pastor.

“But… I thought that was kind of the point,” Ian said.  “I thought God forgives everything.”

“He does,” the pastor said.  “But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’  Why, anyone could do that much!  You have to offer reparation, according to the rules of our church – concrete, practical reparation.”  … “Jesus helps with what you can’t undo.  But only after you’ve tried to undo it.”

“Tried?  Tried how?”  Ian asked.  “What would it take?”

“Well, first you’ll need to see to those children,” the pastor said.[1]

The rest of the novel recounts how Ian quits school and begins to raise his brother’s children.  It is certainly a story of redemption and forgiveness, but one that insists forgiveness and grace are not cheap.

Well… back to old Isaiah’s story… after the hot coal is pressed to his lips and he receives his forgiveness, he receives something else.  He receives a call to be God’s prophet.  By now Isaiah must be completely overwhelmed and transfixed, so when God asks, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?,” Isaiah answers quickly, “Here am I send me!”

And now, believe it or not, comes the hardest part of this encounter with God.  As quickly as Isaiah responds to the call, God gives him the message to deliver and it is a terrible message.  It is a message of judgment and nullification.  There is no grace in it.  Unlike other prophetic passages in scripture that call for the people to turn from their sin and be healed, this passage condemns the people and calls for the hardening of their hearts.

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend.  Keep looking, but do not understand.  Make the mind of this people dull, stop up their ears, and shut their eyes so that they may NOT turn and be healed.”

And Isaiah is surprised and shocked.  He objects, “How long, O Lord?”  And the message goes from bad to worse.

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant and houses without people and the land is utterly desolate.  Until I send everyone far away.  Even if only 10% survive, I’ll burn the land again until all that’s left is a stump.”

God has had enough.  God’s mercy is at an end.  God can no longer tolerate the sin of the people.  His judgment is complete and the people are found guilty.

We don’t like to see this part of God, but haven’t you ever wondered when God might decide enough is enough?

When God sees little boys and girls sold into slavery for some rich man’s sexual gratification.  Don’t you think God must curl his lip and say, “Enough!”?  When 1.2 million little precious children of God are traded as if they are as much salt, don’t you think God’s judgment must be final?

When God sees how we hate and fear our brothers and sisters, how we strike down our neighbors for profit, how violence and war come so easily to us, don’t you think God must be weeping, “Enough, please enough!”?  When our bullets and our bombs tear apart bodies made in God’s image, only to serve our ‘economic interests’ or to give us a ‘sense of security,’ don’t you think that God is right to judge?

When God hears the cries of the poor and sobs of a mother who can’t feed her children, don’t you think that God cries, “Enough!”?  When fifteen million children die each year of starvation while we get fat and spend what could saved them on bombs, don’t you think we’re deserving of God’s judgment?

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand… until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away… and all that’s left is a stump”

God’s judgment is fierce and complete.  God says, “Enough!”

And here we all sit with our heads held low.  But notice the one little line inserted in our text after God’s diatribe.  Somebody has the courage to whisper a line of hope.  Is it Isaiah?  Is it one of God’s retinue?  Is it me?  Is it you?  Though God declares he will leave only a stump standing, somebody has the nerve to whisper, “The holy seed is its stump.”  In other words, even the stump eventually will grow a branch or perhaps at least some weeds will grow out of it.  Even when God has laid everything waist, there’s still just a glimmer of hope.

And why should we have the guts to voice this hope after receiving God’s condemnation?  Well… perhaps it’s because we know this God.  We know that while God cannot look on our sin lightly, God’s mercy is everlasting.  We know that while God has condemned us before, he promised never to destroy us.  We know that despite the fact that we are an unclean, sinful, wretched and faithless people, God is faithful still.

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.  Amen.

[1] Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe, 1991.

Read Full Post »

Encountering God

Seems like most of us would expect an encounter with God to be an affirming experience.  We expect that we’ll be affirmed as good sons and daughters, that we’ll be given a warming of the heart, or even that we’ll be inspired to ecstasy in God’s presence.  We never expect to find a word of judgment in an encounter with God.

Isaiah got lost in the sights and sounds of worship in the temple and found himself caught up in God’s presence.  The smoke of the sacrifice became a smoke filling God’s house and the chanting of the priests became the songs of the seraphs.  He saw God in all his holiness and it wasn’t an altogether affirming experience.  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips.”

Then after Isaiah’s famous willing capitulation to God’s calling, “Here am I; send me.”  God proceeds to ask Isaiah to deliver one of the most damning judgments in all of scripture.  “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand… until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away…”

How do we receive such a message of judgment?  Well, for me the answer is… not very well.  I don’t want God to judge me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to have hot coals placed on my lips if that’s what it takes to be made clean.  I’m not sure I’m ready for an encounter with God if it’s going to look anything like Isaiah’s.

Greg Brown’s song is rolling around in my head as I think about writing a sermon about this sort of encounter with God:

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart

among the rags and the bones and the dirt.

There’s piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,

and old moving boxes full of hurt.

Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.

I got whiskey, you’re welcome to some.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart, but I don’t reckon you’re gonna come.

I’ve tried to fix up the place,

I know it’s a disgrace,

you get used to it after a while –

with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out

with their IOU’s and their smiles.

bare naked women keep coming in

and they dance like you wouldn’t believe.

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart, so take a good look – and then leave.

Read Full Post »

Subtext for the Apostles’ Creed


I BELIEVE… Who cares what ‘I believe?’ We believe! We trust. We follow. We base our life on this stuff. IN GOD THE FATHER… A 4th century, Syrian monk named Ephrem said that metaphors are like clothes that God tries on. When they don’t fit or aren’t appropriate God casts them off. I imagine that this ‘father’ title is like a shirt and tie that we gave dear old Dad for Father’s day long ago. The problem is that we won’t let him take it off. It’s tattered and tight now. It no longer fits nor is it appropriate. Maybe God and other feminists are starting to tear it off. ALMIGHTY… most high, most wonderful, most beyond our imagining. MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH… Ixne ex nihilo. AND IN JESUS CHRIST HIS ONLY SON… Too much talk of substances and natures made us lose the beautiful poetry in this. God’s only son – there’s a tenderness here and preciousness. Can’t you just picture a mother holding her only, precious son? OUR LORD… I must confess: I’m not real sure what a Lord even is. Does this make us vassals or serfs or… Might this be a worn out metaphor too? WHO WAS CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY GHOST… Don’t take this one too literally. BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY… Ever wonder what’s so fully human about spiritual conception and virgin birth? SUFFERED UNDER PONTIUS PILATE… Roman imperialists, not the Jews, Mr. Gibson! WAS CRUCIFIED, DEAD, AND BURIED… Whoa! Wait a minute! What just happened? Didn’t we leave something out? What about a beautiful life devoted to peace and wholeness and healing? What about a message from God about a New Creation? What about a prophetic word about the proud and the powerful being laid low? HE DESCENDED INTO HELL… Don’t get too excited. He went to Hades, to Sheol, where dead people go. He was really dead. He didn’t appear to die. Jesus’ love and conviction was so great that he really suffered and died for his friends. THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN FROM THE DEAD… as the first-fruits, the vanguard of a New Day, a New Creation, a New Heaven and New Earth. HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN… This one’s not a literal place either. Hell is where the dead go. Heaven is where God is. AND SITTETH ON THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD THE FATHER ALMIGHTY… Told ya. FROM THENCE HE SHALL COME TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD… Be among the living. Be ready for God’s New Creation, which is an affirmation of life and living. I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY GHOST… Not a magical hobgoblin or a divine afterthought (or a cute little bird), but a real force for wisdom and righteousness, God at work among us. THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH… O that the church in every place would be more holy. THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS… Our sisters and brothers are not lost to us. They are the great cloud of witnesses spurring us on to finish the race. THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS… Thank God! THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY… The body, the body, the body… not a disembodied soul, but the body, the body, the body. The body matters!!! AND THE LIFE EVERLASTING… Caught up in the God of Life. AMEN and Amen!

Read Full Post »