Hills and Valleys

Matthew 17:1-9

In much of Scripture the valleys are where the common occurs, where the are the work-a-day. The mountains are special, saved for holy experiences. It doesn’t matter if its Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the 10 Commandments, the places of worship at Dan and Bethel, or even the Temple in Jerusalem.

I think that there folk fall, generally, into one of two groups. Either the mountain-top experiences are where you feel more comfortable or the valleys are where you feel more at home. And how you respond to today’s Gospel lesson gives a hint of where you might lean.

I have a hunch, though, that for many of us, the valley’s are where we feel more comfortable. The valleys of life are where most folk congregate. Its where find meaning in our work, we are familiar with the surroundings, or maybe we say, “you know, I don’t have time to venture up that mountain. There’s so much work to do.” There are people to feed, folk to visit, injustices to confront, people to tell the story of Jesus to. There’s no time to stop.

And I will not contradict that observation. There’s is a lot to do in the name of Jesus. With violence continuing, Ukraine seeming to over-boil, and indicators like the reporting coming out showing that Atlanta is tops in the nation when it comes to disparity between the richest and the poorest in our city, we better no rest too easily. And even if we do all we can and more it seems like there’s still more to be done. And it just seems like its exactly at the times when we feel like that we must adhere to our tasks in the valley with all our efforts that this is the time when we are called to ascend the mountain.

When that call comes, or when we find ourselves summiting a mountain lets not resist. While the work remains and will not go away, sometimes we have to go up the mountain.

I know how difficult this can be. But we must go to the mountains

  1. to remind ourselves that its not “all about me”. It helps to remember and experience that things will not fall apart if we step away from good and important work.
  2. But it also helps to step away to remember that there’s a subtle difference between me doing what I do on behalf of Jesus and the church and me doing this for myself. The key is what’s in the middle AND is there any difference between outcomes if you “get your way” vs “what’s God’s vision”
  3. to remember why we do what we do when we are in the valley. The fields are ripe but the laborers are few. This is the language used in agrarian times. We get a sense that there’s this almost overwhelming sense of task to be done. Coming away to the mountain tops staves off burn-out and dissolution

It reminds us why we do what we do. We don’t do what we do as a church simply because we are great, interesting people (which we like to think we are) Peter, James and John experienced something Holy and this gave them a sense of purpose, even if they only understood on the other side of Easter.

What we do is holy work and it is work that we do because we, too, have experienced something holy. And these mountain top experiences give a sense of meaning, purpose, trajectory.

Radical Love sounds like a great centering thought but it takes on a completely different shape when we remind each other that we practice radical hospitality and radical love because tof the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ life.

Finally, we go on the mountain to be changed ourselves. Surely Peter James and John were not transfigured as Jesus was but they cannot have come down from that mountain the same persons they were when they went up. They experienced something powerful, beautiful, and they could not be the same.

So how do we find mountain top experiences because its not like we go find Jesus, Elijah, and Moses hanging out just everywhere, right?

  1. The first way we can is to do what we will do today later in the service… participate in Holy Communion as frequently as we can.
  2. But then find some practices and spiritual disciplines that invite you to take some time away from your daily routine and daily work in order to not always be in the valley… alway be about the task, always be at work.

A few practices to consider maybe just for Lent that begins next week:

  • Place a basket by your door. Leave your smartphone in the basket once you walk in the door. Don’t pick it up until the next day. If that just isn’t possible, set a time in the evening after which you won’t plug into the various screens in our house.
  • Find time to prepare a meal and invite friends over for that meal. This is so important… from sharing table fellowship with others to practice of spending enough time to slow down to prepare and share in a meal.  Maybe we can’t do this every night but try to do this at least once.
  • Give yourself permission to find recreation. A walk in the morning. Go to the gym in the afternoon. Go for a run at night (if your community is well lit). Get out of town and even head to a mountain
  • Grab a Lenten Calendar and do what is suggested for each day.

These kind of practices are great, they create a space, which was part of the mountain experience. But they also experienced the holy while they were on that mountain:

  • Participate in one of the studies we’re offering during Lent
  • Adopt some pattern of engaging Scripture and prayer throughout this season of Lent. Upper Room is great (they’re here at the church, available on your tablet or smartphone)
  • Pray the daily office… a regular pattern of morning and evening prayer (reflection on district retreat).
  • Try to see if you can pray all 150 Psalms during Lent.
  • Read the scripture for the upcoming Sunday before coming to worship- this will change your expectations

It doesn’t matter what you do, ultimately, but try something. I promise you, you will at some point experience God, and your life will be changed.

If you do this, then the work that we are more comfortable with in the valley, those work a day tasks, that holy work that gives dignity to many who consider themselves unworthy, the work that sustains so many will become not just important, not just vital, not just life-giving but sacramental because what we experience on the mountain means what we do in the valleys in some ways conveys and expresses something about God’s great love for us.

Image: S.K. Lo

Down by the Riverside

Matthew 3:13-17

It had been a long bus ride. We were near the end of our day of pilgrimage. The bus pulled off the road and tried to go down a dirt road. We asked, “where we going?”

“The Jordan” the tour guide replied. She continued, “Oh, I could take you to the tourist trap… nowhere near where Jesus would have been. But this place is a little out of the way.” Our pilgrimage coordinator wanted to end the day with a remembrance of Baptismal vows.

Soon the coach stopped and started backing up. Tour tour guided added that it was too difficult to get to the “local place” she wanted to take us. We got back on the road and soon turned off the road again, stopping in a park. There were trees, dirt, and a deep, fast-running river nearby, so I assumed it was a park. But I didn’t see park benches or picnic tables.

What I did see was the floating pontoon bridges that tanks use to cross rivers where bridges have been blown up. The guide said they were left over from a prior conflict, stationed nearby, hidden from the trees, in case they were ever needed again.IMG_0837

And so it was there, among the trees, evidence of war, and a fast-moving river, too deep and too dangerous to wade into, that we had a service of remembrance of vows.

We even had to hold someones hand as they leaned over the edge of the riverbank to dip an empty, used water bottle as our vessel.

I didn’t think too much of that service of remembrance that day. To be honest I would have rather on the day been at the tourist trap. And it was because I was angry about the floating bridges for trucks and tanks. But now I’m glad we were there. Life is not a tourist attract.

Life is messy. Life has abandoned parts. Life has turbulent parts. And all of that is in the middle of God’s beautiful creation.

One of my favorite things to do in a life of ministry is to baptize children. It is a lovely service and its full of hope. But in the way we usually perform baptisms… that sweet moment when a child becomes part of the family of God… we miss something that our Baptist sisters and brothers have retained: that in plunging into the waters and raising back up, we are dying to an old way of being and raising to a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Part of that new way of life is engaging the world. But there’s this rhetoric out there that this new life is:

  • easy street, or
  • burying our  head in the sand

Neither is true.

For the first, we are called to discipleship and a large part of that discipleship involves our finances. This is not that money comes easy or there won’t be any hardship. This past week when I, like many of you, saw our giving statements, I stopped for a second… for a brief second… and thought, “Hmm. If I tithed to my student loan, I’d be debt free in 4 years.” Sometimes radical love means putting something besides your own bottom line first.

Followers of Jesus don’t sit in a room praying, hoping for Jesus to come back. We engage in addressing the hurt and sufferings of the world. This past week when folks in this congregation called our home bound folk to make sure all was well before and during the cold spell, we were serving. When we opened the warming station for the time when the homeless folk in our neighborhood didn’t have a place to go, we provided warm drinks, shelter, games, reading, and dancing!

But what is it about our baptism and our faith that forms us to do such a thing, rather than sit in our warm homes, drinking hot chocolate, waiting on school and work to be cancelled?

Because Jesus, in beginning his ministry, chose to begin with submitting to John’s baptism. He didn’t need forgiveness of sins. He didn’t need to turn life around. But he was beginning a new journey. He chose to begin new journey at the Jordan.

Because of this, he is not going to ever ask of us something he hasn’t done. But more importantly, he began ministry among the people who felt they needed a new start and repentance, who felt not worthy. So Jesus’ ministry is not just to us its with us. He journey’s with us.

We get this in culture: the president, though his healthcare is provided by the Air Force signed up with healthcare.gov gov as a symbol to say “I am with you.”

[Update: a friend gave me a good tip on another leader who has done something symbolically to express solidarity. Dr. Robert Bentley not taking a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate gets to 5.2%. Thanks, Heather! Wish I had this for the sermon delivery.]

We need “I am with you moments.” My daughter loves the beach. At the same time, she’s afraid of water. And that’s okay. There’s something about the water that can be refreshing but there’s also something in the water that foreboding: tides and currents, we don’t readily see what’s swimming out there (jellyfish, anyone? Hammerhead sharks?). We are not anxious in life for no good reason, usually.

Whenever we have anxious moments, we need someone with us, someone who’s been there, someone who knows the way forward. For my child that meant me or her mother. For us in our lives, many times that’s a friend, a family member a loved one. It could even be a member of this congregation. And that helps many times.

But sometimes we need to remember that Jesus is near, too. And we need to remember that, especially when no one is around.

It’s comforting but it’s also a reminder that we’re not doing anything novel. Jesus has gone before and Jesus still travels with. He says, “I am with you.”

After all, that’s the story of Christmas, right… radical identification with something most precious… and that most precious thing is you.

So when you find yourself near the deep, fast-moving waters of life or you find yourself surrounded by reminds of conflict and maybe even war, when even find yourself alone and you think no one is around. Remember, your baptism. And be thankful. More importantly, remember Jesus’ baptism. And be thankful. You’re not alone.

Amen.

The Magi, Resolutions, and Journeys

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:-12

Resolutions.

I don’t like them…. and not for the reason you think.

I think its great to strive for something and to have a system of gracious accountability.

What I don’t have a whole lot of time for is guilt.

It seems that the whole system of setting new years resolutions is wrapped up in two phenomena:

that we missed the mark in the year prior. We messed up. Slip down that slope too far and you run into “I’m a horrible person”

But that’s not all. I think that resolutions set us up for failure. Unrealistically high goals, usually going from point zero to accomplishment in 1 day. That’s inhuman. No one can do that, especially not alone.

Phil Schroeder, Director of Congregational Development for the N. Georgia Conference shared an article from Entrepreneur Magazine. In this article, the author shared a similar viewpoint to what I have been sharing. He goes to the extreme of never setting new years resolutions. Forget even setting goals.

Instead, he suggests committing to a system.

I quote from the article:

  • If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.

  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

  • If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Commit to the system and then regularly check in to see if the system is getting you towards your goal.

All of this sounds rather simple, right? But its a seismic shift.

Many of you know I like Alabama football. Their coach is known for talking about “the process”  and how if players commit to the process–which means doing the off-season conditioning, knowing the play book, going to class, respect yourself and the University, and play each play to the best of your ability–then the championships will talk care of themselves.

When players commit to that mindset, things happen. When they buy into hype about being the best team, thinking they need to focus on championships instead of making plays, they lose.

Churches are no different. If we as a community of faith say, “we want 100 more people in worship” or we say “we want $30,000 in giving annually”, more times than not, generosity and gracious hospitality does not happen.

But when we say we want to be a community where people experience God’s radical love in a way that changes people’s lives, then who knows what can happen. Then congregations can start planning for how people respond to God’s love.

The Magi are an example of this. As I alluded to on the church’s facebook page, I don’t think the Magi woke up one morning in their homes and decided that they would give rich gifts to a homeless family staying in a barn in an outskirt of Jerusalem.

Their years of training led them to understand that the star in the sky pointed to a new king being born. They used that training to set a course westward. They continually checked their course. Its fairly safe to assume they asked people if they had heard of a new King being born. Did they read the signs right?

Ultimately, they found themselves kneeling to the the Holy Family and worshipping the Christ Child. It wasn’t in the place they expected. I assume their worship wasn’t directed towards the people they assumed they’d be reverencing. But they got to where they needed to be.

It isn’t really that different with our personal lives.

  • “I want to be skinner”
  • “I want to be a better Christian”
  • “I want give up (fill in favorite vice)”

These are herculean tasks. But maybe if we commit to a system for our lives, those huge goals and resolutions can be attained. After all, this is one of the gifts of Methodism to the world, right?: a plain system of accountability that comprised of spiritual formation and holy living.

Much like the “10,000 steps a day” model of getting healthier, what if we said,

  • “I’m going to worship more frequently, expecting to meet Christ somewhere that day. “
  • “I’m going to commit to some type of learning opportunity, even if it means giving up something I currently enjoy.”
  • “I’m going to find 1 place to regularly serve my neighbor.”

Pick one, pick two, pick all three. They are all things that can lead to committing to a process of living a deeper, more faithful life. And not only pick one of these but assist our faith community in providing this structure for each other.

But why do this? Is it just for self-edification?

No!

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in Daily Feast: Meditation on from Feasting on the Word, Year A that the Isaiah text we read today references this:

that for the prophet Isaiah, God’s glory is completed in the glorification of God’s people. Their radiance is essential to any bright future of God’s own imagining. If they hope to sit on the sidelines while someone else shines instead of them, then they have missed their central role in God’s vision. They are not God, but God’s presence will be seen over them. They are not kings. But kings shall walk by their shining radiance.

On this cold, cold day when we could all use a little light, a little warmth, let us let our light shine not “in 2014” but each day, a new commitment. You never know who you are going to influence, who’s path you are going to illuminate, or who’s epiphany you are going to announce.

Amen.

Image by Prio