Sunday, April 28, 4:00 – 6:00 pm
“Faith in Community”
You are invited to a community interfaith dinner for youth and their families! Come participate in a sharing of faith traditions. There will be a Q&A session with youth from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. After the Q&A, stay for a potluck dinner that will include small-group, interfaith discussions about the value and role of faith communities in our lives.
Teens Ages 11-18 and their Families Welcome!
Bring a Dish to Share! (Vegetarian only)
$$$ FREE $$$
RSVP to Carolyn Dempsey at firstname.lastname@example.org
“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.” Luke 9:37
I sometimes ask people what their favorite Bible story is. People often talk about the Christmas story. It’s a familiar one even to folks who don’t read or hear the Bible much, and who doesn’t love a good birth story? Other people will tell me about a healing story and how it gave them hope. One of the variations of the Easter story will sometimes get a mention too. I’d love to know what your favorite Bible stories are and why.
No one – and I mean no one – has ever told me that the Transfiguration was a favorite.
I suppose we like the version of Jesus who spends time with his friends, who eats, who prays, who takes care of people – the Jesus who does relatively normal things in a way that inspires us.
But every so often Jesus turns gets dramatic on us. He pulls out all the stops and serves up a moment that out-Hollywoods Hollywood.
Usually when I read this story, I like to imagine myself on that mountain with Jesus. It all seems so glamorous up there, like something that should have won an Academy Award for technical achievement.
There are costumes – the dazzling white clothes of Jesus mysteriously illuminated.
There are guest stars – Moses and Elijah – two pillars of the Jewish faith who chat with Jesus and leave Peter, James, and John a little starstruck.
There are the visual effects – the cloud that overshadows and terrifies the disciples.
And of course there are the sound effects, the most dramatic of which is God’s voice declaring, “This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to him!” It echoes back to the baptism of Jesus when that same voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I like to imagine myself on that mountain in the midst of such strange goings-on. I know I would have been just as misguided as Peter, wanting to savor the moment, build some places to live, and stay. What a great story it was already, and how much better it would be to stay with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for more than a few fleeting moments!
Meanwhile, back down the mountain, things aren’t so shiny.[i] There’s a desperate father whose son – his only child – is sick. The child has seizures, and no one – not his terrified father, not the rest of Jesus’ disciples, not the members of the community – can figure out what to do. The father’s despair is palpable: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son…I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus heals the boy, although he seems a little grumpy about it. Perhaps he was hoping that the other disciples might have proven a little more competent in his absence.
When I consider these two different encounters with Jesus – one removed and glorious on the mountaintop and the other messy and difficult down in the valley – I realize that it’s the second story that seems much more familiar.
Most of the time I don’t encounter God on a mountaintop. I’m usually more like the disciples left down below, surrounded by so much need in the world and feeling inadequate in the face of it all. Sometimes I’m on the receiving end of an accusatory finger: “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” “Pastor, you’re supposed to have the answers. Why is this happening?”
Could the people down below see the mysterious cloud up on the mountain? Could they hear the voice of God? Or were they just left to wonder when Jesus was coming back – if he was coming back?
Life often feels like being at the bottom of the mountain, where demons are raging out of control and brokenness and illness surround us, and we feel powerless to do much about it. But God is there too. The signs can be more subtle; it’s easy to miss the presence of God down here on the level ground.
In my own life Jesus shows up far more often in the messiness. Earlier this week I was at a retreat with pastors from New Jersey and Pennsylvania whose congregations, like ours, are participating in the Leadership for Faithful Innovation project with Luther Seminary. There was a moment when we were asked to get in groups of three to share some work we’d been doing individually. The idea was that we would give each other feedback and help push each other’s thinking. I sat down with two colleagues, and before we proceeded, one of them asked if we could pause for a moment. She had just gotten some difficult news from home, and she was feeling unsettled. She asked if we would pray with her. So of course we did. We stopped right there in the midst of the conversations buzzing around us, reached for each other’s hands across the table, and we prayed for the situation she had shared with us.
There were no flashing lights, no booming voices from a cloud. But God was there.
God is with us in so many ordinary moments. In the pancakes and stories shared this morning with our youth. In laughter over silly jokes. In the mischief of a snowball fight. In conversations on the elevator or the train. In the everyday needs and sorrows of our friends and neighbors. In the prayers we offer for them and in the ways we show up to help.
God is here in the ordinary stuff of worship. We hear words from scripture and ponder them together. We sing and share in beautiful music. We pray for the world and for the church and for each other. We share in the holy meal – the bread and wine – so ordinary, in fact, that it’s a flattened, tasteless wafer and really cheap wine. The ingredients of this meal are more Shop-Rite than Whole Foods. And yet Jesus is here. Jesus is always here with us in the meal, in the prayers, in the music, in the words, in the silences.
And Jesus is with us as we go out from this place, urging us to see the world as he sees it – a place where great love is possible in spite of all evidence to the contrary. A place where he can transform despair into hope. A place where we can be changed and can participate in changing things for the better.
This week we begin the season of Lent with our observance of Ash Wednesday. Lent is a wonderful time to practice noticing where God is showing up in our lives and in the world around us. The ringing and singing and mountaintop moments of Easter beckon in the distance, but for now let’s savor simplicity and attentiveness. Let’s look around. Let’s look inward. Let’s look for the Lord in our midst.
Maybe we’ll be surprised that we don’t need the mountain as much as we thought. We already have what we need. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]As I have so often in recent weeks, I thank Debie Thomas for helping me see the juxtaposition of these two stories in a new way: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2100
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Luke 6:35
Two drivers – one man, one woman – are in a hospital parking garage. They’re both going for the same parking space, but the woman manages to whip into it first, ignoring the turn signal that the guy has had on before she got there. They exchange some heated words there in the parking garage. She insists that the space is hers. He questions her moral character. She calls him a jerk. It gets pretty ugly.[i]
What neither of them stops to consider is why they’re both at the hospital. The woman – Patricia – is there because her daughter is having surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The man – Gary – is there because his girlfriend is also having major surgery. They’re both terrified of losing someone they love, and so neither of them is behaving well.
And of course, because this is actually a TV show, they discover that they love the same person. Patricia’s daughter Maggie is also Gary’s girlfriend. So now they find themselves in the same waiting room, holding on to their resentments from the parking garage when what they really need to do is focus on Maggie.
So much of our lives is built on the expectation of reciprocity. I help you now so that you might help me later. You scratch my back; I scratch yours. Give and take. Favors are exchanged back and forth. Transactions, both emotional and practical, form the foundation of many of our relationships.
As the scene with Gary and Patricia reminded me, our hostilities are also built on the principle of reciprocity. You hurt my feelings, so I try to hurt yours. You have done harm to me, so I look for a chance to retaliate. Soon we find ourselves separated by a series of small antagonisms that make reconciliation seem impossible. And yet Gary and Patricia also remind me that we seldom know the full story of what people are going through. So often our resentments and retaliations are driven by something else – fear, insecurity, grief. Most of us are doing the best we can to get through the day; we just don’t always behave in the best way.
Into our hatreds and resentments intrudes today’s gospel, in which we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies. Right, Jesus. I’ll work on that right after I return from my trip to Mars and win my gold medal at the Olympics. At least those things seem possible.
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. It’s a tall order. It means first admitting that we have enemies. Call them what you will – enemies, rivals, antagonists, nemeses. We all have people in our lives who bring out the worst in us. It’s hard enough to summon the restraint not to engage in conflict with those people, and now Jesus is asking us to love them, do good to them, bless them?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to care how we feel about the enemy. You can see it in this passage. Jesus doesn’t talk about our emotional response. He instead identifies some concrete actions. He tells us to pray for our enemies. Give them what they need – a shirt, a coat, money. In other words, we are to act generously toward our antagonists in spite of how we might feel about them.
Let me be clear about what Jesus does not mean. He does not intend for us to remain in abusive relationships. Turning the other cheek should not relegate us to perpetual victimhood. This text has often been misused to pressure people to stay in relationships that do not reflect God’s intentions of mutual love and support. Following Jesus’ directives here do not keep us from holding someone accountable for harmful behavior. What it does keep us from doing is poisoning ourselves with long-held resentments toward those who have harmed us.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave many powerful sermons during his life as a preacher and civil rights leader. One of his most compelling sermons is about Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies. In that sermon he offers three reasons we should love our enemies.[ii]
The first is this, in his words: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
We’ve all seen that reality unfold – in our lives and in our world.
The second reason Dr. King says we must love our enemies is that “hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.” He acknowledges the terrible harm done to those on the receiving end of oppression and hatred, citing as examples the Holocaust, the violence inflicted on African-American citizens in this country, and the horrors of war. But Dr. King reminds us that hate also harms the person who hates: “Like an unchecked cancer,” he says, “hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.” He observes that “modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality, and love in an amazing and inexorable way unites it.”
Dr. King adds still a third reason: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
The transformative power of love. It all comes back to that overwhelming force – a love that we have because God first loved us. Thankfully God does not operate with a sense of reciprocity. Because if God were to treat us as we deserve, we’d be in some trouble. God instead extends mercy to us far beyond our deserving.
Why does God treat us so generously? God desires our freedom. Freedom from the back and forth, freedom from the accumulation of grievances that harm both ourselves and others, freedom from retaliations and recriminations that erode relationships and our very souls. God wants us to be free from all of it – to live as people who don’t have to have the last word because we have what is first and foremost: an unfailing love.
The poet John O’Donohue has written a poem titled “For Lost Friends” in which he reflects on close relationships that have ruptured and are no longer the same.[iii] The final stanza of the poem is a prayer that fits any broken relationship. As I read it, I encourage you to think of someone with whom you have a difficult relationship. May God give us the courage to live this prayer:
Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;
Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spirit can summon
Beauty from wounded space.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ