23 February 2020

"On the Mountaintop" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday February 23, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 17:1-9 (with a brief reference to Exodus 24:12-18)

I love the story of the Transfiguration – the story that we read each year on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent – this story that is told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, ascend a mountain and Jesus’ physical body is transformed, is transfigured into a body that shines as brightly as the sun, and then is joined by Moses and Elijah, leaders of the Israelite people from many many centuries earlier, and there they hear the voice of God speaking from a shining cloud.

I love this story, but I have to confess that it is almost impossible to preach about this story, because how can I put human words to the holiness of God?  God is so very obviously and overwhelmingly present with and in Jesus at this moment in time – beyond anything that I can describe with human words, and beyond anything that I can even imagine.

This isn’t the only time in the gospel story when we encounter God a bit more directly, but most of the other times we seem to have tamed or domesticated so that maybe they begin to lose their impact.

At Christmas, we encounter the mystery of God who created the heavens and the earth choosing to be born as a vulnerable human baby; and yet we domesticate this mystery by cooing over a cute baby lying in a manger and focusing on feasting and gift-giving.

At Easter, we also encounter the mystery of God who shows us that God has power over everything in the world, even death itself; and yet again we domesticate this story with Easter Eggs and Easter bonnets.

At the Baptism of Jesus and at Pentecost, again we encounter the visible, audible presence of God; and again we celebrate with water and with fire and by wearing red clothing.

But today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we have another encounter with the Holy, annother encounter with Mystery that we can’t explain away or solve.  And we don’t exchange Transfiguration cards today, and we don’t have a Transfiguration feast later on today – or I should say that I have never heard of a Transfiguration feast, but if anyone is hosting one, please let me know! There are no special foods or sweets associated with the Transfiguration, and we don’t decorate our homes for the Transfiguration.

And so the only thing that we are left with is the story.  This peculiar story where Jesus and three of his disciples climbed the mountain and the veil that separates us from God was lifted.

We are left with this story, and we are left with our imaginations.  With our imaginations we can climb that mountain along with Jesus, and imagine what it must have been like to witness his transfiguration.

Can you imagine what it would have been like?  You have started your life fishing on the great lake known as the Sea of Galilee.  One day, this itinerant preacher and teacher and healer came through your village and called you to follow him.  You must have seen something special in him, because you drop your fishing nets and you leave your family and your home, and you join him on his journey from place to place.  You have heard his preaching as he taught people about God’s kingdom of peace and love.  You have witnessed him heal people.  You have even seen him perform miracles, like walking on water and feeding a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

And today he has invited you and two others from the inner circle of disciples to accompany him up a mountain.  I wonder why these three were chosen?  And when you get to the top, you witness this transformation – Jesus shining as brightly as the sun, so brightly that your eyes are dazzled and you need to either close your eyes or turn away.  And then standing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  Moses who led your ancestors to freedom and who also encountered God on top of a mountain.  Elijah who was one of the great prophets who never died but was carried up to heaven.  And then you are engulfed in a bright cloud and you hear the voice of the Creator of the universe saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

How do you feel in this moment?  Are you afraid?  Are you overwhelmed?  Are you filled with joy?  Do you feel loved?  Does the peace of God fill your heart?

We get a hint of how Peter was feeling, based on his reaction.  Peter seems to have been overwhelmed by the encounter – so overwhelmed that he needs to fill the holy silence with babbling words.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter doesn’t know what to do with the moment and so he fills it with words.  But at the same time he seems to want to prolong the moment by putting up tents there on the mountaintop.

And in a twinkling of an eye – in one of those moments that seems to last forever but is over before you know it – Jesus has returned to his normal appearance, and he is placing his hand on your shoulder, telling you to get up and to not be afraid.

No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to put language to encounters like these; and when we do, our language often contradicts itself.  When the disciples hear God speaking, it comes from a “bright cloud” – instead of casting shadows like a regular cloud, this cloud seems to cast light.  In our reading from Exodus when Moses encounters God, we get a similar contradiction in the description of the glory of God which is both hidden by a dark cloud but burning brightly like a fire that devours everything around it.

Language fails us in moments like these, and we have to fall back on being and feeling.

If we are lucky, once or twice in our lifetimes we might have a mountaintop experience where the veil that separates us from God is briefly lifted; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s mystery and holiness.  We can’t make these moments happen, and if we seek after them, they become ever more elusive.

But when they happen, they transform us.

It wasn’t only Jesus who was transformed there on the mountaintop – the disciples who went up with him were also changed by the experience.  They didn’t become perfect after that – remember that Peter is going to deny knowing Jesus when Jesus is put on trial and tortured – but they were surely changed and would go on to be leaders in the earliest church after Jesus’ resurrection.  These fishermen from the backwater of Galilee would go on to lead a church that would eventually encircle the world.  This moment on the mountaintop changed them.

And so we too are changed by our encounters with God.  If you have been fortunate enough to have a mountaintop experience, a moment when the veil that separates us was lifted and God was overwhelmingly present; once you’ve experienced it, you can’t un-experience it.  That moment, that experience stays with you forever.

And yet God is also present in the valleys of our every day lives as well.  God is present in our lives even when we can’t hear God’s voice or see God’s face.  God is present with us when we are sitting here in church, when we are driving, when we are washing the dishes, when we are drifting off to sleep.  These mountaintop experiences – they come and go; and as Peter experienced, trying to hold on to them makes them slip away.  But even when the veil is lowered again, God is still there.

And so my prayer today is that each one of us might have a mountaintop experience at some point in our lifetime, in whatever form it might take – a moment when we come face-to-face with God; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s presence.  And may that experience stay with us and change us, even as we return to the valley of everyday life.  Amen.

View From the Top of Mount Sinai 
Photo Credit:  Kate Jones

16 February 2020

"Turning Away from Fear" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday February 16, 2020
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Has anyone else noticed that the world around us seems designed to make us afraid?  Fear seems to be so much a part of the world these days.  These can be global-scale fears like the fear of outsiders that seems to be infecting so many governments around the world; or the fear of the climate crisis that can paralyze people in to inaction.  These days, there is the fear of the new Corona Virus that is making people act in irrational ways, and discriminate against people who look like they or their ancestors maybe came from east Asia.  Or the fears can be smaller scale personal fears like the fear of being bullied, either in-person or online, or the fear of failing at a task that you want to try.

You can see fear used in advertising – a common strategy that advertisers use is to make you afraid of something, then promising that if you trust the person or the company advertising, then you don’t need to be afraid.  One ad that I’ve seen several times recently comes from FCNB – the Financial and Consumer Services Commission of New Brunswick.  And while this is a Crown Corporation that provides needed oversight to the financial sector, their current advertising campaign around preventing fraud is completely fear-based.

The first 2/3 of the commercial has no words as the camera moves through a family’s home; but the music and the slightly wonky filming give you the impression of being in a haunted house. Then the voice comes on to tell the viewer, “It’s scary, how many ways fraud and scams can enter your home.”  There – they’ve built their case by making the viewer afraid.  And then they offer the solution by directing you to their website.

You see the same strategy being used by political parties of all stripes and colours during an election campaign.  The party will choose an issue, whether it be the economy, the environment, national security, or something else, and they will make you afraid of that issue.  And then they will promise you that only their party is qualified to protect you from that fear.

Fear is a very powerful motivator.  Fear can make you act in ways that you wouldn’t normally act.  But do you really want to live your life being driven by your fears?

Last week at our annual meeting, we started exploring the book of Deuteronomy a bit, and I mentioned that this book is set right on the edge of the Promised Land.  The Israelite people had been wandering in the desert wilderness for 40 years, and they are about to cross over the Jordan River to enter in to the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.

Think back to the story of Joseph, and how Joseph and his brothers ended up in Egypt in a time of famine, and how they and their descendants stayed there.  And remember that eventually a new king, a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt, one who didn’t know Joseph or remember how Joseph had helped the Egyptians; and as a result of this new king, the Israelite people ended up as slaves in the land of Egypt.

Remember how eventually Moses went to the Pharaoh and demanded that he let the people go; remember how God worked through Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could cross over to safety on the other side; remember how Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai and God gave to him the Ten Commandments along with the rest of the law.  And then the people set out to cross the desert to the Promised Land.

Then we come to the part of the story that we don’t hear very often.  It doesn’t actually take 40 years to cross the Sinai Peninsula to get from Egypt to the Jordan River, even if you’re traveling on foot.  It took the people three months to get from Pharaoh’s palace to Mt. Sinai, and then they camped out there for a year or so.  And then as they left the camp there, Moses sent 12 people ahead of the group, one from each of the 12 tribes, to scout out this land that God had promised to them.

When they were re-united, these scouts told them that yes, it was a beautiful and fertile land on the other side of the River, but that there were people living there who must be descended from giants, and it was much to scary a land to move to.  And so rather than trusting in God and crossing over the river into the land that God had promised to them, the people listened to their fear and turned away.  They turned back in to the desert.  Because of their fear, they spent the next 38 ½ years wandering through the desert wilderness.

And while they were there, they had to learn to trust God rather than listening to their fears.  God was visibly present with them in the wilderness, leading them as a pillar of smoke in the daytime and by a pillar of fire at night.  God fed them with manna and quails, even though there was no food to be found elsewhere.  God made water flow out of a rock so that they didn’t die of dehydration.  And slowly, slowly, the people learned to trust God – they learned to put their faith in God.

And 38 ½ years later, they once again return to the edge of the Jordan River.  And this is the setting of the book of Deuteronomy.

The book begins with Moses recalling and recounting their journey so far; but then the majority of the book is God speaking through Moses, reminding the people of the law that they had received 39 years ago at Mount Sinai.  As I mentioned last week, there are lots of “Do these things” and “Don’t do those things” here.  Some of them make sense, but others don’t fit with our current context.  When I was at AST, I took a semester-long course on Deuteronomy, and I remember the professor beginning the first class by saying that if we got to the end of the semester thinking that maybe stoning people wasn’t as bad as we thought it was, then she hadn’t done her job properly!

But then we get to the end of the book, to the verses that Pat read for us today.  God is pleading with the people to remember God and to continue to place their trust in God after they cross over the river into the Promised Land.

God says to the people, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  God is reminding the people that when they turned away from God last time, when they didn’t trust that God was with them and wanted the best for them, they ended up spending 40 years in the desert, and a whole generation passed away.  God is pleading with the people to choose life this time, to not be lead by their fears and insecurities because for them, that choice literally led to death and adversity.

And God pleads with the people to “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.”  God is making this final exhortation to the people to choose life and to choose love.  Once they cross over the river into this new land, they will not see God any more in a pillar of smoke and fire, and they won’t have to depend on God for manna and quail to eat, and there will be plenty of water available without God needing to make it come from a rock.  But the people are to remember that God is with them, and to choose life and to choose love.  God pleads with the people to choose to follow the law that God has given to them – the law that Jesus summarizes as “Love God, and love your neighbour.”

God pleads with the people to choose love and to choose life; and I think that God continues to plead with us today.

When we are tempted to listen to the voice of fear that tells us that we should be afraid of and shun the person with skin colour that may indicate that they came from the part of the world where a new virus is emerging, God pleads with us to listen to God’s voice instead and choose life-giving love.

When we are tempted to listen to the voice of fear that tells us that the world is falling into chaos, God pleads with us to choose life and to choose love and to trust that God’s love is stronger than our fears.

When we are tempted to listen to the voice of fear inside us that tries to tell us that we aren’t smart enough, that we aren’t strong enough, that we aren’t pretty enough, that we aren’t enough, God pleads with us to choose to live in God’s love, and that we are to love not only our neighbours but ourselves too.

When we are tempted to listen to the voice of fear that tries to tell us to put our trust in humans and in human institutions, God pleads with us to choose life and to choose love by placing our trust in God instead.

For love is stronger than all of our fears, and God is with us.  God goes before us even as we enter a new land and a new way of being; God travels beside us as a companion on the journey; and God is always within us, closer to us than our very breath, guiding us and drawing us in to the dance of love that is God.

Thanks be to this life-giving God of love.  Amen.

The Jordan River - one side wilderness, the other side Promised Land
(picture from Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2 February 2020

"Blessed are you" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday February 2, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-12

Who is the most successful person in the world?

I asked that question to Google this week:  “Hey Google!  Who’s the most successful person in the world?”  Any guesses about what answer Google gave me?  (pause)

The first person that Google came up with was Bill Gates – founder of Microsoft.  He was the richest man in the world between 1995 and 2007 (but has currently dropped to the #2 position), and he is currently worth 96.5 Billion dollars.

The current richest person in the world is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, so maybe he might be in the running for the most successful person in the world.  He is currently worth 131 Billion dollars.

Other names that Google suggested for the most successful person in the world included Madonna (singer), Oprah (media personality), Kylie Jenner (the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at age 22), Mark Zuckerberg (the person behind Facebook), Tom Brady (American football player), former US President Barak Obama (most Twitter followers), and Taylor Swift (musician, and most influential person on Twitter).

It’s interesting to think about what defines success.  In the eyes of Google it seems to be related to wealth and the ability to influence others.

But then we turn to the words of Jesus that we heard this morning, and he doesn’t seem to be holding up the wealthy or the privileged or the influential people in his world.  Instead Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  I doubt if any of these people that Jesus names would make it on to Google’s list of the most successful people in the world.

And yet if you look at the way that the world so often uses the word “blessed” it does mean successful or privileged or lucky.  I might say that I was blessed to be born into the family that I was born into, but what I really mean here is that I was lucky.  It was a simple accident of birth – I won the birth lottery – that I was born into a stable middle-class family with loving parents who valued education.  If you were to search #blessed on Instagram, you would come up with other examples of good luck or privilege – wedding pictures and baby pictures and vacations and fancy homes.  But this doesn’t seem to fit with what Jesus was referring to when he called the poor in spirit and the meek and those who mourn “blessed.”

So if “blessed” doesn’t mean successful, and if “blessed” doesn’t mean “lucky” or “privileged,” what does it mean?

Maybe we can get a hint if we look at how we use the word bless or blessing in the church.  At the end of each worship service, we offer a benediction, which is just a fancy way of saying “blessing” in Latin.  We end each service by saying, “God bless you.”  Sometimes our blessing is more general:  “May the blessing of God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, be among us and remain with us always.”  Sometimes our blessing is more specific:  “May the love of God embrace you; may the peace of Christ sustain you; and may the breath of the Holy Spirit inspire you, today and always.”  But no matter what words we say, the intent of the blessing is the same – when we leave worship, we are asking for God to go with each one of us.

Also in worship, sometimes we bless things.  Since I have been here at Two Rivers Pastoral Charge, we have blessed choir chairs, pets, prayer shawls, and the former Saint John Presbytery stole; and soon we will be blessing the Westfield United Church kitchen.  Other churches have also offered house blessings, backpack and briefcase blessings, bicycle and motorcycle blessings – anything that could be blessed probably has been blessed at some time somewhere.

And when we bless these things, we are usually asking for God to work through them.  We are asking that their use might be dedicated to God.  We are asking that God’s love might be made known through them.  And so we bless them.

We also bless individual people – I’m thinking here especially of people at their baptism when we lay hand on them and say, “May the Holy Spirit, God’s power of love, guide you, inspire you, and work within you all the days of your life”; or at a wedding when the couple and their marriage is blessed.  Sometimes too, when I or others are visiting people in hospital or at their home, we might simply say to them, “God bless you.”  And this blessing of individual people has the same purpose as the general blessing at the end of our worship – we are asking for God to be with them.

But here’s the catch.  Any words that we say, or any actions that we do, they can’t make God be present in a place or a person.  Because God is already there.  When we bless a person or a place or a thing, we are naming the presence of God that is already present.  We are affirming the sacredness that is already there.

Getting back to those blessings that Jesus offered in Matthew’s gospel, when he was sitting there on the mountain teaching, he wasn’t teaching the successful or powerful or privileged people of his time and place.  In a world that was ruled by the Emperor in Rome and by the Roman army; in a hierarchical society where all of the land was owned by a wealthy few while the majority of the people lived in abject poverty, Jesus wasn’t speaking to the governors or the landowners here.  Jesus was speaking to people who lived with uncertainty, who lived with hunger, who lived in a world where no matter how hard they worked, they may or may not be able to feed their family.

And Jesus tells them that they are blessed.  Not the sports stars.  Not the wealthy.  Not the influencers.  They already seem to know that they are blessed.  But Jesus reminds the rest of the world that we are blessed too.

Blessed are the poor in spirit;
            you who question your faith,
            you who carry doubts,
            you who struggle to pray –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are those who mourn;
            you who are grieving the loss of a loved one,
            you who grieve the injustices in society,
            you who struggle to find hope –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are the meek;
            you who have been pushed down,
            you who have been disempowered,
            you who have lost your self-esteem –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
            you who are literally hungry and thirsty,
            you who long for everyone to be well fed –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are the merciful;
            you who turn the other cheek,
            you who extend a helping hand,
            you who feed the hungry –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are the pure in heart;
            you who believe the best about others,
            you who love wholeheartedly –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

Blessed are the peacemakers;
            you who extend forgiveness,
            you who ask for forgiveness,
            you who long for reconciliation –
                        you are blessed.
                        God is with you.

I want to end with a story from author Diana Butler Bass.  Four years ago, she started writing a book about gratitude.  And then in November 2016 the US election happened and she fell into a deep depression and her writing ground to a halt.  Some of you may remember that in January 2017, the day after the inauguration, there was a worldwide Women’s March, and so she took the train from northern Virginia to Washington DC to march with a group of clergywomen.  When she got there, she found that they were carrying signs proclaiming the Beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the merciful.

And to the beatitudes that Jesus teaches us, they had added their own.  Blessed are the women.  Blessed are the uninsured.  Blessed are the immigrants.  Blessed are the LGBTQ+.

As they spoke with other women attending the rally, she realized that all of the beatitudes could be summed up in one phrase:  “Blessed are all of you who are disregarded by the powerful, for you are God’s beloved community.”[1]

God blesses all people.  God is with all people.  God is with all of us.  Everyone is blessed, but just as Jesus did, sometimes we need to pay extra attention to blessing those whom society doesn’t see as blessed.

May God bless you today and always.  Amen.

"Dorothy Day with Homeless Christ" by Kelly Latimore


[1] Diana Butler Bass, Gratitude: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (New York: HarperOne, 2018), 135-139.