Tag: Mark

Transfigured

Mark 9:2-92 Mirror-talking
1 Kings 2:1-12

I think youth groups like 4-H, Boy Scouts, FFA and Girl Scouts are really fantastic. I had an extension agent who took myself and a few other teens one year and she worked with us to learn public speaking. Some of the things she spoke about, and taught us, I am still using even right this very moment in preaching to you. Such as to speak clearly, to keep water on hand, and to practice.

The practicing part was, and perhaps still is, the hardest. She had us began by speaking into a mirror and watching ourselves. I’m humored by what a trope, what a common scene it is in movies and TV that someone nervously practices their speech into a mirror. People really do that. I’m one of them.

Once we got used to that, she next had us record our voice on a cassette tape. Do you know how awful my voice is to my own ears? Nasally, high pitched, and it belongs to some teenager. So when I was a teenager, it sounded like it belonged to some kindergartner. The mirror was easier. I see myself in the mirror often enough – literally every day. But I don’t hear a recording of myself every day.

We learned to count the “ums” and “uhs” in our recordings and to reduce that number. But more, we learned what we sounded like just like we now knew what we looked like.

The last step was putting those two together. The extension agent now had us stand before a camcorder and record us. Then put that video and audio on a television and we watched ourselves.

… That was a new level of horror.

I’ve heard it said before that regular people look so strange on TV because we’re used to seeing very thin, very pretty, very dolled up people. So when a normal person is on, they look way worse just because of who they are compared with. Now, if you’ve ever seen your own regular gangly awkward teenage self on TV stumbling through a speech… you know what kind of horror the six of us teens went through.

The horror of… facing ourselves.

The horror of… being revealed.

Exposed!

That is why public speaking is so terrifying for almost everyone: it is being exposed, vulnerable, and open to ridicule.

That extension agent revealed us to ourselves, and then told us, “You’ve met yourself and survived. When you give your speech at the county fair, it will be a piece of cake. Easy. Because you’ve already did the hardest part: seeing and hearing yourself.”

She was right. Very right. It was much easier to speak at the microphone to mom and dad and grandma in the audience than to watch myself give a speech on television for the first time.

I think about her lessons often – especially that bit of the hardest part is seeing and hearing ourselves.

Maybe she meant literally.

But maybe not.

Transfiguration is not transformation. The Jesus who went up the mountain is the same Jesus who stood up there and the same Jesus who came down. What changed was how he was viewed. What was revealed. Exposed!

If what was revealed by Jesus is hard to understand, it’s okay. We’re flat out told that Peter doesn’t know what to say or how to explain it and he’s standing there witnessing it!

What they see, and we see through their eyes, are the man who gave us the Laws – Moses. And the greatest prophet – Elijah. Two representing all the traditions who have come before. Moses – who went up the mountain and met God, and who glowed from the encounter. And Elijah, who is said to have never died but instead, rose up to heaven and Jewish tradition has it, he will return from heaven. And with them is Jesus – who is glowing, who will die, but be raised, and go to heaven, and promise to return. Who is the continuation of the Laws and Prophets.

But he’s the same person who went up the mountain.

Just seen… very differently.

When we teens watched ourselves on tape, we were the same teens. Just like when you hear a recording of your voice, it is your same voice. What changes is how we view ourselves, or how we hear ourselves – what is revealed.

Transfiguration is not changing forms – not transforming. Not changing bodies – it is transfiguring – changing the view. Changing the view, then, often changes, transforms, us and those around us.

Like my extension agent did, God offers us to change the way we view ourselves, and others. Offers to peel the curtain back and peek in at the heart, the soul, of who we are. And in truthfully seeing, take with God transformative action.

No one likes to admit faults; and some of us have just as hard a time admitting our good qualities, too. We are transfigured before God – God sees them all. Shows them to us. Loves us.

I don’t talk about sin much, but I do believe in it. The part of the communion prayer that asks for forgiveness for the sins we commit deliberately, and those that over take us, speaks to me. We sin. Sometimes purposefully. And sometimes accidentally. And sometimes because the power of the sin was more powerful than us.

It takes a lot of honesty to admit we’ve lied. Lied to others. Lied to ourselves. That honesty is transfigurative. Revealing. But necessary for the transformative work of repentance and forgiveness.

A lot of soul-searching to admit we’ve done wrong. Wrong to ourselves. Wrong to others.

It’s a good long look in the mirror to be able to pray and ask for forgiveness and really mean it.

My extension agent had us practice. Had us face the worst of our fears – so when the time came, we shone.

God has us practice. Has us face the worst of ourselves – so when the time comes to act, to be Christ to another, we shine. When you are wholly honest with yourself, with your own good parts and bad, and are authentic – people know it. They sense it. You shine as an example of how to live truthfully, humbly, and with love of self and others and God. You also live much more comfortably in your own skin.

Lent is a great time to practice this change in perspective. A season to set aside time to reflect on who we are – and look at ourselves truthfully. This takes practice! And humility. And God’s grace.

God’s grace, God’s gift to us, is love which always is speaking to us about whom we truly are.

And we’re transfigured. Seen differently. Revealed. And in the revealing, opened to more change. Opened to transforming.

God helps us see all those things we’re trying to hide, the stories and revisions to stories to make ourselves better, and says… You’re my child. Beloved. I forgive you. I love you.

Just as God helps us see all those things we’re denying about ourselves. The good deeds, the compassion, the love. God sees how we shy from our goodness out of fear of being judged, or fear our misdeeds are too great… and God transfigures us. Reveals who we really are. God’s child. Beloved. Just as you are.

So what happens next?

Transfiguration is not transformation.

Transformation is next.

Jesus in our story gets right back down from the mountain and starts his trip towards Jerusalem. And we get right back down from this Sunday into the season of Lent next Sunday.

Seeing who we are propels us into action. Seeing who we are gives us the courage to boldly walk with Christ through town after town, and all the way to the cross – and beyond. Seeing ourselves – with all our merits and flaws – and hearing the voice from heaven say we are beloved – what can’t we overcome and who could steal this joy and hope and peace and love? We’re empowered to transform – to change the world – and to transform – change – ourselves.

By the time you get to the county fair – the end of the project – the end of your time on Earth – you’ll be ready. You’ve put in the practice, you know your good parts and bad, you’ve been transforming yourself and the world, and you’re ready for the judge, the reward, the rest.

Amen.

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Renewing Strength

eagle_molt_ron_dudleyIsaiah 40:21-31
Mark 1:29-39

You’ve all been around chickens – think of a molting chicken, with its bare little behind peeking through downy fluff and its spotty neck and wings that are all broken, and missing, its pinions– its wing feathers– are scattered from the barn to the house and back again.

I’ve been told before that the eagle described in Isaiah is described with the kind of word used for a molting, ragged, old bird. No spring chicken. No new chick. But an old wet bird missing so many feathers it cannot even fly.

Some of us might be molting in here, right now.

See, the Israelites Isaiah is writing to have been scattered all over. Isaiah is saying we can’t do this – can’t go home and rebuild – without everyone involved. We need those of you who are comfortable and retired. You remember our history and what things were like in the old days. And we need those of you who are busy, and earning money, and supporting everyone. You’re the hands that keep us going. And we need the youth, the energy and vibrancy of them, they are our future.

Isaiah addresses his prophecies to different people. Today’s reading is perhaps addressed to the elderly. For Isaiah hears God saying: lift up your eyes, and see – someone is older than you. Someone who created the stars and calls them out by name every night. Someone who is so old, humans appear like barely grown plants or little bugs. Someone who is older than dirt. Everlasting. Timeless. Beyond time.

You old folks watch those young folks. They run and run and run, but eventually, they’ll fall down exhausted. Then they, like you, will need the Lord to renew their strength. Whether very young or very old, our feathers get worn, our bodies and minds and souls get worn. But God offers to renew us. Keep us going.

Isaiah wants all the generations to know they are NEEDED. Tomorrow is not possible without every age, and without God who unites us and fuels us.

Isaiah is speaking about going back to Jerusalem to rebuild. He is encouraging and begging and telling all – go back! “In reality, though, they do not go back. They go forward. They accept a new adventure. The thesis sentence of this part of Isaiah comes in 43:19, that God does a “new thing.” The people will go back, but in reality, everything has changed. They cannot go back, they can only move into God’s new future.” ((Charles L. Aaron, Jr.)) The new temple is not like the old. This causes the elderly to cry in sorrow, while the youth proclaim with joy at the rebuilt temple. The new city is not like the old. The new people and new education are not like the old. There is a new thing. A new way of being Jewish in ancient Israel.

Look around us… we cannot go “back.” What church is today is a new thing. It will not be the church that the elderly remember. It won’t be packed and won’t be an automatic priority is everyone’s lives. But it is still church. It is a new set of wings for flying into the uncertain future – but wings gifted to us by God and we fly in the shelter of God. It is our shared future, but one that is only possible if we embrace all the generations. All the different gifts and different ways of knowing, worshiping, and serving God that come with different ages. Tomorrow’s church may have rock bands, or meet in coffee shops, or occur via online videos. It may be less worship and more service. We don’t know. But a new kind of church is emerging now. We’re witnessing God doing a new thing!

The church does this about every 500 years. 500 years ago was the Protestant Revolution. 500 years before that was the Great Schism that separated the one church into two – East and West. 500 years before that? The Bible was being collected, and wrote, and argued, and our religion was going from a Jewish cult to a state religion. 500 years before that? Jesus was walking and revolutionizing ancient Judaism.

We don’t know what the church will be. Our great-great-grand kids might have enough distance they can look back and say ‘Ah! Look what our ancestors lived through! What a wild time!’ but we don’t have that kind of hindsight. We can just celebrate we feel God recreating the church now.

We’re not to go back. We’re to go forward.

Consider Christ – he didn’t heal every person in Simon’s village. He did what he could, and then he retired, took a new set of wings, new energy from God, and moved on to continue his message. It seems kind of cruel. Jesus didn’t fix everything in that town. He didn’t make it all go back to the way things were in the Garden of Eden — with no cares, no worries, no illness.

Jesus wasn’t making things back to the way they were. Jesus was making the way things are changed into the future God is always creating and recreating. The future God is filling with ways for us to be healed, and heal, others.

Jesus rose out of that little town several disciples. One, I believe, was Simon’s mother in law. She is said to have been lifted up, like Christ was lifted up, and she served, as Jesus served. The other disciples continue to struggle with what their role is and in Mark, even abandon Jesus at the cross in the end. But throughout Mark, the women get it and stay. Stay for death. And stay for Resurrection. And through it all – stay and serve. To be Christian is to accept the new life of Christ, to be lifted up by God, and then to go out and serve. To go out and lift up others.

Jesus left the city not because everything was perfect, but because he had spread the message there and left behind people who heard the call, accepted the new life, and now were getting up to help others.

We’re not going to fix all the church’s problems ourselves. We’ll mount up on new wings over and over again, but it is not our job to do EVERYTHING. It is our job to spread the message, widen the welcome, value every age and generation and contribution.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary. When we rest, God is still working. God doesn’t get tired. Doesn’t need to rest. And so, it is this teamwork of us AND God who will welcome the new ways of being the church.

That may sound… exhausting. Especially for those of us who are molting. It is why Jesus offers a hand to us, even as we lie on our bed with fevers and ills, aches and pains, of all sorts. Offers that hand and says – let me lift you up. You don’t do this alone. We serve together.

So come today to the table where Christ invites you. Come and be served by Jesus, so you can go out and serve others. Come and renew your wings. Amen.

Fish Tales

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Pieter_Lastman_-_Jonah_and_the_Whale_-_Google_Art_Project
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

Mark 1:14-20

 

I like fish tales. Great big stories with excitement and adventure, great big stories with humor and a bit of uncertainty. Great big stories with questionable details but big truths.

 

I fell for them as a kid all the time. Even after I learned to watch for the hand that shows the little minnow with finger and thumb, versus the giant fish the two hands show together, I still fell for them because I wanted the story.

 

And often, they weren’t about fish at all.

 

My dad is a master of fish tales. One day my brother and I asked him how he came to have a scar and he replied, “Didn’t you know? I was abducted by aliens as a kid.” He proceeded to tell us about how the aliens took him into their special ship, to their mother ship. How they all had a third eye right up here on their foreheads. They all wore uniforms that matched and made it hard to tell one from the other. They spoke in a strange language, and poked and prodded my dad. They made him do weird experiments and asked him hard questions. In the end, they shot him with a strange syrup and dropped him off back at his home.

 

My brother and I were so shocked and impressed, we told all our friends. Soon all the kids were talking about how my dad had been abducted by aliens.

 

It took a few years before I realized he’d gotten hurt as a kid, been taken in an ambulance to the hospital, got a tetanus shot, and was sent home by the doctors and nurses. That’s how he got the scar.

 

… The alien story is way cooler, isn’t it?

 

It’s the same story. Just we picture different things in our heads when we hear ‘alien’ versus ‘doctor.’ Or ‘third eye’ versus head mirror. Special ship instead of ambulance.

 

But for a little kid? This totally felt like an alien abduction! My dad told us a fish tale, but it had roots of truth. And it communicated what this experience felt like to him when he was a child.

 

The Bible has stories that seem like fish tales too. Consider the book of Jonah. No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. Is it true? But whales don’t eat people. They can’t swallow anything that big and eat plankton. Was it a large fish? What fish could swallow a person whole and alive? Not a shark.

 

No Biblical scholar really knows what to do with this story. No one really knows if we’re supposed to read it as a parable, or a historic truth, or a retelling of a classic tale with a Jewish spin, or a parody. Since no one knows, let’s consider it as a fish tale today.

 

Let’s look at the story: God calls to Jonah – a no body – and tells him to get to Nineveh and convert the people there. The story humorously explains all the ways Jonah tries to escape, but God keeps bringing Jonah back to the path God wants. Each run away is more drastic and over the top than the last. Each pull and yank on the fishing rod in this fish tale is told to keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat.

 

And in the end, Jonah is THE most successful prophet in the Bible and converts an entire city with just a few words. The city converts so strongly that they order even the animals to wear sack cloth and ashes and pray. The gigantic fish is pulled in!

 

And instead of rejoicing, Jonah complains, “God, I knew you were going to forgive them in the first place. You’re too kind!”

 

I hear here the cue for the drum snare for the punch line joke! God… is too kind.

 

We want God to love the people we love and hate the people we hate.

 

If the book of Jonah started out this way, telling us the punch line first, it likely wouldn’t strike home. It wouldn’t make us feel. Wouldn’t make us think. Just as if my dad had answered my brother and I ‘Oh, I fell on a nail,’ neither of us would have considered what it felt like, how scary it was, to be injured as a little kid.

 

The story – the wind up, the way it invites us in to view the world through Jonah’s eyes – the way things are exaggerated and blow up large – gives us just enough humor to deal with the not funny part of this story. Just enough humor to look at ourselves… and laugh.

 

We’re Jonah.

 

You and I are Jonah.

 

And when God calls, we try running away.

 

When God tells us to be loving to enemies, we’d rather see them crash and burn.

 

And when God forgives and loves people we hate… we get angry with God.

 

We want God to love those we love, and hate those we hate… we want to tell God what to do. We want to be God.

 

But… God is uncontrollable. And God chooses to offer love and forgiveness to all.

 

I think the fish tale of the book of Jonah brings that message home.

 

The story is not about whether or not you believe in giant fish, bushes that grow up over night, or donkeys and goats wearing sack cloth. The story is about how wide is God’s mercy… and facing our own mercy shortcomings.

 

No one likes critiqued. No one likes being told they’re in the wrong. So Jonah holds the mirror up to us gently, with humor, to let us see the flaws and laugh. Let us see how ridiculous Jonah and we are being. Lets us be glad God is that loving and forgiving. That loving forgiveness that we rely on, so too does the whole world.

 

A big message… delivered in a way to make us think.

 

Mark plays with words to make us think, too. Mark’s word is IMMEDIATELY. If you ever want to read a gospel out loud, try reading Mark. It is breathless. It is fast. It sprints a marathon and when you read it or hear it in one setting, you end up at the end befuddled and breathless and left with all the messy pieces and unanswered questions that the first disciples had tossed on their laps.

 

When you come to the end, and the final bit is — the women ran away from the empty tomb and told no one because they were frightened — you have to wonder, what then? What then?!

 

Others have wondered this too. And various manuscripts of Mark have a note at the end that adds Jesus appearing to Mary, and giving the great commission, and rising to heaven…

 

But in the oldest copies we have of Mark?

 

The story ends as frightfully and short and as immediately as it began.

 

The urgent telling of Mark conveys the urgency of his message. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t even name Joseph as Jesus’ dad — just the barest minimum of details are told because Mark wants us to know the time is NOW.

 

Urgently NOW.

 

The Gospel of Mark begins like whistle at the beginning of a race and runs from scene to scene in sentence to sentence. What Matthew spends fourteen verses on – Mark spends 2. (Jesus’ temptation.) And while the other Gospels talk about the predictions of Jesus and how he was born… a whole birth narrative… Mark just starts off saying, ‘Jesus came to John.’

 

Mark is rushing. Running.

 

And Jesus in Mark isn’t saying, ‘The time is soon,’ but the time is NOW. NOW is the kindom of God. NOW is the time to repent. NOW is the time to believe in the Good News.

 

Not the future. Not yet to be. NOW.

 

People need God NOW.

 

People need forgiveness now.

 

People need love, now.

 

 

Like a fish tale, Mark has us focus on the experience of Jesus’ story, not the details. We don’t know if the first disciples had heard about Jesus before they were called, and that is why they are ready to leave their nets. We don’t know if they had heard sermons before hand. Or had visions and dreams. Or asked Jesus questions when they were called. We know nothing about what leads up to their calling — only that Jesus calls, and they come ‘immediately’.

 

They respond as quickly as Jesus arrives.

 

The experience of Christian discipleship, for Mark, is the experience of immediacy. Whenever you hear or feel that call, immediately things are changing.

 

Immediately you’re swept up into the story of God.

 

Immediately, not in the future, not after you die, you are in the reign of God.

 

Mark isn’t concerned with details.  He doesn’t want us concerned with details. He wants us concerned with the message and the feeling.

 

The Good News — as he calls it — and the feeling of the Spirit. The Good News that our waiting is over and Christ is among us. The feeling of a way to God for all peoples, all nations, all ages, all genders, and all sinners and saints. The experience of living as God’s children NOW.

 

This focus on message rather than details is how we as the United Church of Christ function. You and I can wholly disagree about how many angels were in Jesus’ tomb. We know — Christianity is not founded on how many angels. Christianity is founded on the love of God as known through Christ and is maintained with the Holy Spirit.

 

You and I can have different ideas on what is, or isn’t, the right way to pray or worship, or baptize. We know these things are important, but even still, are details.

 

And we’re not caught up in the details. We’re caught up in the story of God.

 

In the experience of God.

 

And the experiential story of God is urgently happening now, urgently calling us to unity with one another and with God, and gifting us the good humor to laugh at ourselves, admit our faults, ask forgiveness, and begin again.

 

And again and again and again.

 

No one is keeping a detailed record of how often we are Jonahs. Instead, God is remember we’re God’s beloved children, and God wants to share the experience of being that beloved child urgently right now.

 

So get thee to Ninevah! Or Lancaster. Or wherever God is calling you to go make amends and preach the good news of love and forgiveness. Get thee from the details and thoughts about God — to the experience of God’s love, mercy, and acceptance. Get to the reality of God felt and lived urgently now!

 

Amen.

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

Humble Clay

Isaiah 64:1-9 maple_tree_bud
Mark 13:24-37

 

The Prophet Isaiah pleads with God – come, God, come – show the world how amazing you are. We’re dry leaves in the wind, blown to and fro about petty concerns, and chase after things which aren’t you. We’re lost in our sins.

But, God, we’re clay and you’re the potter.

God, we are the work of your hand.

God – come and remold us, rework us, repair us.

This hope is kept alive for generations upon generations. This hope keeps the people seeking and watching for the messiah – the one God will sent to gather us back from wherever we’ve blown, wash away the dirty sins, and remake us anew.

This hope brings us to the Gospel — the Good News — of the testament, the words, of Mark.

Mark remembers Jesus saying that when everything is darkest, and we’re shaken to our core — when it seems like all hope is lost…

There still is a light. THE Light. THE Word of God which will never pass away. THE God, who will not give up on us.

We don’t know when this will happen. We don’t know how or where. We don’t know when the first maple or fig bud appears – but we know it happens. We know when we see those signs of life after a long winter, that summer is near.

We don’t know what is the first sign of Christ’s full reign – but it is budding everywhere. And this long time of waiting in winter will be over, and full summer will be here.

A budding of that glorious time is happening today – with church, and with the foretaste of heaven in our communion.

A budding of that glorious time is happening all the time — all the time there is another little sign, another little bud — soon all the trees will have leaves. Soon, all people will live in harmony.

While we wait for that time, we keep the faith – keep our hope.

Hope with joy. Hope with peace. Hope in love.

For you do not hope in vain. What the potter has begun, the potter will continue to work into perfection.

Amen.

Covenant People

Genesis 15:1-18
Luke 13:31-35

Is God trustworthy?

Abram doesn’t know.

God has made him some promises: God promised Abram would have descendants, heirs, and be the father of many. He would be as numerous as dust and own all the land about him… But so far… God hasn’t delivered. In fact, Abram’s one relative, his nephew Lot, has been kidnapped – maybe killed. Maybe Abram and Sarai are the last two people left in Abram’s family.

Abram isn’t 100% certain he can trust God.

Right before today’s reading, Abram hears Lot and Lot’s family has been captured by enemies kings. So Abram gathers up his neighbors and allies and went out and rescued everyone! Abram also got back all the possessions stolen by the kings.

Abram returns to Sodom, where Lot and all the people stolen live. There, Sodom’s king comes out and praises Abram: “Let the people go back to their homes, but you can keep all the possessions as a thank you!”

But Abram says no. He says he promised God that he wouldn’t take anything from those he saved. If Abram gets rich, it won’t be because of the king of Sodom.

I hear Abram saying these words to the king of Sodom… but I think he is thinking about God. God – you said you would give me children. They are the only riches I want. Can I trust you, God?

In today’s reading, Abram has a dream where God tells him that God is his sovereign, his ruler, and his protection and shield. Abram’s great reward for selflessly rescuing his neighbors and his nephew, and leaving them their livelihoods, is God.

But can God’s promises be trusted?

Abram doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know. He’s seen no proof that God delivers.

And he doubts God. He questions God. All alone, away from the rejoicing crowds and rescued people, back home, under his tree under the desert sky, Abram is in prayer with God and he’s not happy.

Great. My reward is God.

And land.

God, all I want is children. You haven’t even delivered in children! Why will you give me land when there’s no one to live on the land?! Why is there no one, because you still haven’t delivered me a single promised kid!

And God promises this single man, who is quickly getting up in years, he will have more offspring than the stars in the sky.

We’re told Abram chooses to believe God, and God credits to Abram as righteousness, as grace, as a gift to God.

Abram has doubts, has questions, about God — even as he believes in and trusts God. It reminds me of the man who cried out to Jesus in the book of Mark, “I believe; help me with my unbelief!” Abram believes, and wants help with his unbelief.

… in our journey with God, when promises get delayed, and when bad things happen, and even when life is great and average and ordinary – we have questions about God. We wonder, we question, we ponder, and have moments when the promises of God don’t seem real.

If God is always with us, where is God in the Middle East?

Where is God in all the violence we see in our own country?

How can there be a resurrection? Where will those billions of people live?

Does God really forgive sins – forgive them and forget the wrong – when we pray and ask God to do so? How can we be sure?

How can we trust there really is an afterlife; and what we do really matters; how do we know there even is a god?

We have doubts and questions at times, even when we have thousands of years of God’s “credit history.” We have the Bible, the stories of those who bought us to our faith, our our lives – as testimonies of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises… and yet we still wonder. Abram hasn’t any of these histories .

Abram is who becomes Abraham. At this time, he hasn’t a single child… and yet, now he is the father to billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In this story, he can’t picture even one child – let alone children all around the world.

And our patriarch, our faith father, doubted and pondered and had unbelief, too. Just like we do sometimes. Yet, he chose to believe, and then pray ‘help me with my unbelief.’

And instead of getting angry with Abram, God answers his prayer! Just as Jesus helps the man who prays ‘I believe! Help me with my unbelief!’

When we doubt God’s promises, our relationship with God isn’t over. God counts our trust without evidence, without proof, as righteousness. God counts our confession of faith, and prayer for strength through our many valid reasons to wonder, as worship. Questions and belief, doubts and faith, can go hand in hand. In our reading today, Abram believes, but not without questions. In a bold move, God decides to make a covenant with Abram to seal God’s promises.

Covenants are weird things. First, this fancy word we seem to use only in church. I’ve never entered a covenant with my electric or water company. But in church, we speak of covential elders, Lori gives us The Covenanter newsletter, we speak of being in covenant with other UCC churches and the association, and every month: we hear Jesus’ words “This is the cup of the new covenant, in my blood.” What is this thing God is making with Abram?

Well, it’s something God initiated. God initiates covenants. So when we’re in covenant with other churches, it’s because God asked us to walk with one another as one body. So does that mean covenant is just a fancy word that means a contract with God?

No, not really. A contract is something like, ‘I will loan you $10,000 for a car, and you will pay me back $200 each month. If you miss a payment, I come and take your car.’ Covenants are more descriptive… such as “we will walk together with God.” What does it mean to walk together? Does walking together mean different things at different times? $200 is always $200. Covenants are more flexible and meant to change with the people in them. A contract is meant to be binding and solid – without wiggle room.

The lack of wiggle room in a contract is what lets the contract be enforced by lawyers and debt collectors, police and judges. But a covenant is “policed” by the people in it. It demands spiritual maturity. Demands the people in it stick together even in disagreement. Demands the people in the covenant relate to one another with humility and patience, justice and compassion; deal with one another with the Fruits of the Spirit – with God-given love. So difficulties in the covenant don’t split it, but rather challenge the covenantal partners to deeper relationships.

That is the incredible gift God offers Abram.

A relationship.

A covenant. A description of how to be in faithful relationship to one another.

God directs Abram to set up a ritual so Abram can see what God is promising. We are physical people, in tangible bodies. We often need signs to remind us of our covenants. Signs like the bread and cup. A rainbow. Signatures in frames. Rings.

Abram takes these animals at God’s direction and splits them in two – half a cow here, half a cow there. Half a goat, half a ram – but a whole dove and pigeon. No one really knows what that meant back then. What we do know is that the word for covenant in Hebrew, berith, comes from the word for cutting, making a space, just as is done with the animals.

And into this new space carved out, God walks.

If this were between humans, perhaps they would have sworn an oath – like ‘May God cut me in two, like these animals, if I break this covenant.’ Or ‘I will be faithful even unto being split into two.’

When you consider this is GOD making this pledge… God is pledging, promising, to be with Abram even if it means suffering and death.

Abram cannot know what we know – that the pledge God made that night, the pledge to make Abram a great nation with land… would bring God into the world as Jesus. Our second reading today is Jesus standing before the land of Abram, the city of Jerusalem, and God is still working to maintain the covenant.

“How often I have longed to bring you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks!”

And yet, how often you test our covenant, murder the prophets I send you, and anger me!

But still – God won’t end the covenant. God fulfills God’s promises. Even unto suffering and death.

In a covenant, people walk together, work together, live together, suffer and rejoice together, die together… and have new life together.

We have no evidence, no proof, that God is going to fulfill all of the promises made to us. Rather, we have stories of God’s faithfulness in the past, stories of God acting in the present, and so just faith – belief mixed with unbelief – that God will continue to fulfill God’s promises in the future.

We just have belief mixed with unbelief that God is actively forgiving sins.

We have belief mixed with unbelief that our covenant with God and each other – to be one body, united in Christ – is eternal.

And that belief mixed with unbelief is counted as righteousness… because we’re willing to continue our walk with God even in uncertainties.

Is God trustworthy? Yes. And our covenant with God strong. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 2-21-2016

Entering Holy Space

Hebrews 10:11-25
Mark 13:1-8

Not a stone will be left on top of another.

Our buildings provide no security. Our buildings will not save. We saw this with the September 11th terrorist attacks. Buildings, which we thought immovable, crumbled to the ground. Planes we thought ever secure turned into weapons. Places we thought lasting… ended.

And our lives, our reality, was never the same.

Buildings do not save us.

So we cling to our institutions.

Institutions, structural ways of doing things — the government and the police, the firemen and women, nurses and doctors — rules and laws! – the rules that say who is a combatant and who is a civilian… our communities, our churches…

But institutions do not save us.

Civilians watched the marathon in Boston. Civilians were ripped to shreds. Civilians attend our movie theatres and civilians are shot, in the dark, unarmed.

The institution of our military is no more of a guarantee of security. This year we have seen soldiers shooting soldiers at base. We have seen civilians trying to encourage the enemy to murder our soldiers by posting the soldier’s own home addresses online… go and murder their wives, their sons, their husbands, their daughters.

Race crimes, religious hate crimes, sneak into our churches and shoot pastors – shoot them while they minister and preach. Shoot parishioners as they come and go. Set bombs in churches and murder little girls as they go to Sunday School just because they happen to have black skin.

No. Institutions do not save us.

Do we have any security at all?

Are we in the End Times?

I mean, are we?

Two nights ago, I watched the development in Paris with a group of friends. We tweeted and IM’d international friends. And for a moment, a miscommunication told us that suicide bombers were also attacking in Germany. I don’t know who said it, but I heard, “My God, we are next!”

Fear fell over the room and settled in my stomach. This wasn’t something happening ‘over there’ somewhere far away, this wasn’t any threat to me… this might be happening somewhere in America… what if it happened at midnight here, too?

A fear I hadn’t felt in… fourteen years… made my dinner sour.

I had forgotten that feeling.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I had. I am ashamed because I know that fear of ‘am I next?’ ‘where is safe?’ ‘where are my loved ones?’ ‘are they safe?’ is known daily in the countries many of these terrorists come from. For the refugees fleeing these counties in the Middle East, and Africa, are fleeing terrorists.

Just like you and me, they want their children to be fine. They want to be able to go to work, go out to eat, go see a movie and not worry someone is going to murder them randomly, just because they are standing there. Murder them regardless of their ethnicity, their religion, their citizenship, their institutions, or who they are… who they are leaving behind… what good or evil they have done… just purely random acts of utterly evil violence.

… And we’re causing some of this fear ourselves.

Dear God, forgive us! Forgive Americans. Our drones are not as accurate as we’d like to think, and our targets are not as well chosen. We Americans are terrorists too — in the effort to protect ourselves, we have murdered Middle Eastern people who are ‘too tall’ and so might choose to join the military, or who were related to someone we thought might harm us, or who had the misfortune of standing beside a school that secretly was a hide out of extremist fighters.

Fear, counter fear, secret attack and revenge secret attack, and caught between the warring nations are moms and dads, babies, grandma and grandpa… who all want the same thing: a peaceful, happy life.

I ask again, is this the end times? Is the apocalypse nigh?

As if the failure of our security systems, our buildings and governments, checkpoints and vigilance, wasn’t enough… as if the terrorists were not enough… the Cold War is returning, bit by bit… you may have seen how Russia is now showing their nuclear arms and warning America. You may have seen how America is testing missiles off the West Coast.

We have wars, rumors of war, nations rising and falling… Jesus also warned us of natural disasters.

Global climate change is so very real – the climate, all over the world, is changing. Our west, they are in a drought that seems to have no end. Around here, we’ve had such cold winters and hot summers — all over, when it rains, it rains harder and floods…

The sea has rose eight inches in the last one hundred years, which may not seem like much… until you look at a place like Vienna, or Florida, and realize these very flat places are slowly sinking into the ocean… and we have 8 less inches of drinkable ground water all over because the ocean is sneaking in. This week, with the glacier in Iceland sliding, we have no idea how many more inches we’ll gain this and next year– not in hundred of years — but in months…

And for the 30th year in a row, world Co2 levels, the chemical that works like a wool blanket over the earth, has grown. With each day, each minute, this thick blanket gets thicker… how thick can it get before we cannot breathe?

In places in the Middle East and India, it is already too thick… and temperatures there rose this summer to the level that the roads literally melted.

What can grow, what can survive, in 140 degree heat?

Are the end times here?

Jesus’ disciples wanted to know the same thing. The author of Hebrews was writing to the early Christians, who wanted to know the same thing. Look, look at how horrible things are — surely they cannot get worse! Surely these are portents, these are signs from God, these are telling us to prepare and get ready.

The audience of these old texts saw horrible things happening. Think: their country had been invaded, and their leadership replaced with pawns from the occupier. Their holiest place, the Holy of Holies, had been desecrated twice now… and by the time of Hebrews, it was desecrated a third and final time… the temple, the only place to go and worship God, to be in the presence of God who lived behind the veil which the most holy high priest approached only once a year — on the day of Atonement for the nation’s sins — that most sacred spot was destroyed. The priests murdered. The area used to make offerings to other gods. A statue of Caesar was scheduled to be erected there for the people to worship.

Because of their faith, or their rumored faith, or the supposed faith of their third cousin – people were being dragged out and murdered.

A Roman citizenship was the difference between instant death without a trial – as in the case of most of Jesus’ disciples – and death with at least a hearing… as in the case of Paul.

When the readers of Hebrews secretly gathered, illegally gathered, to speak about Jesus… they took their lives and the lives of their loved ones in hand.

And they retold the words of Jesus, “Do not be alarmed.” And they recited the words of Psalm 46, “Be still, and know I am God.” And they read pastoral letters, like the letter to the Hebrew Congregation which reads, (to paraphrase The Message) “Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping each other out, let’s keep worshiping together and not give up, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

Instead of asking, “Is this the end?” and losing hope… the early Christians looked how to preach the gospel, and be the good news, and give their lives for God. They knew the covenant, the mutual promise, between them and God was wrote on their hearts.

And that covenant is God’s love for us, and our love for God.

As things got worse and worse, instead of hoarding up ammo and turning away strangers — lest they be spies, the enemy, or another bothersome mouth to feed — these Christians kept meeting together. Kept at their faith.

When Jesus’ disciples ask when the Temple would fall, Jesus didn’t answer. He didn’t give them a sign. Instead, he told them — you’ll frequently think this is it — the end is near. But it won’t be.

There will be wars.

There will be natural disasters.

There will be false prophets.

But this won’t be the end.

In fact, Jesus never tells them WHEN the end will be. He tells us his return will be like a thief in the night — something we never see coming. If we knew the thief was coming, we would have been home with some friends to scare him off. But we don’t know, and we cannot know. Jesus tells us that God alone knows. Not even angels. Not even those who have passed on before us. Only God knows.

For centuries, millennia, this has proved true. So many people believed the Black Death was the End Times. WWI was called the War to End All Wars — as in, after this, Christ’s peace would rule the world. With the A-Bomb, and the Doomsday Clock, we saw our end looking us in the face. We see this now — see how fragile our existence is. See how very mortal we are. See how nothing we build, nothing we create, nothing on this earth can fully protect and save us.

And Jesus’ advice for these centuries, these millennia, is to let God worry about when the end is. Our job is to encourage one another. To love one another. To forgive each other. To do loving deeds.

Be still… and know… I am God.

Be still… and trust… I am God.

Be loving… and do not be afraid… I am God.

Did you know the Bible says “do not be afraid” in some form or another more than any other phrase? Some count 365 times, others count 103. Followed by Jesus telling us 125 times in four books — just the Gospels — to love others.

Whether or not it is the End Times is not for us to know. We can’t know. If history is a teacher, this year is no more likely the end than 1346 when the Black Death swept Europe. It is no more likely the end than 2220 will be… but we can’t and we don’t know.

Our God tells us not to be alarmed, not to be scared, not to be thinking of all the possible ‘what ifs’ and to hide, to avoid others, to be scared of the stranger, to be scared of what tomorrow will bring…

No… our God says love me, and love each other.

Love carries us through… for God is love.

Let us end in the prayer of David in Psalm 56:

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

My brothers and sisters, what can a mere mortal do to us? We live IN holy space, we live in Jesus Christ.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 11-15-2015