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The Mountain Top is Great to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

Micah y el Horizonte
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/6/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 34:29-35 & Luke 9:28-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

When I was in college, I visited Mexico for the first time as a foreign exchange student with Brethren Colleges Abroad. I spent seven months there, living mostly in the eastern city of Xalapa, Veracruz – where Xalapeno peppers come from. But first, I spent several weeks studying in a language institute in the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos, just outside the Valley of Mexico.

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.

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Is My Life Too Busy for Contemplation?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?
Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

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Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?
Ten years ago, I lived as part of a “new monastic” community in Richmond, Indiana. It was a community steeped in prayer. We prayed together three or four times a day, using a liturgy based out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

As a Quaker, the Episcopal liturgy was a very different experience from the style of worship and prayer that I had been exposed to. Quakerism taught me that prayer should be spontaneous, “Spirit-led.” Anything I did should be rooted in a palpable sense of God’s guidance in that moment.

But as part of the Renaissance House community, I discovered that there is real power in a set liturgy. I prayed the same words, every day, in community, for months. I got to the point where I could speak through the prayers without really thinking about it. I memorized the words, and they became a part of me.

This was very different from the extemporaneous prayer and silent worship I was taught to seek in the Quaker tradition. Still, it was very effective and compelling in its own way. In the brief time that I practiced it, I found the liturgy molding me. I felt invited into a space of prayer and devotion to God in a way I had never experienced before.

I’ve recently begun praying the liturgy again. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a template and guide, I’ve put together my own prayer book. I’m experimenting, tweaking the liturgy, finding what works best for me. I’m using the liturgy four times a day – at waking, midday, evening, and before bed. The prayers includes psalms, prayers, music, creeds, and responsive readings.

The Quaker tradition has taught me to be skeptical of rote prayers. Empty words, spoken without conviction or understanding are dangerous. Rather than fostering devotion, such compulsive religious habits get in the way of relationship with God.

But at this time in my life, I’m finding the liturgy to be a welcome aid in my desire to seek after God, to live in his presence. Especially now, as I inhabit the life of a husband, father, and full-time tradesman. I am re-discovering the power of liturgy to shape my life and open a space for prayer. The liturgy serves as a default, a routine that I can rest in while I seek deeper inspiration. If I don’t feel particularly inspired today, this week, or this month – I can keep praying anyway.

I’m amazed by how often God shows up in the liturgy. Sometimes when I’m simply reading through the prayers, joy bubbles up within me. The liturgy allows for silence, or freestyle intercessory prayer and thanksgiving. I find myself opening up to God in ways that I simply wouldn’t have without the default script of the liturgy.

At this stage in my life, I’m far busier than I would like to be. In this context, the liturgy is amazing. It holds open space in my life where prayer is automatic, regardless of how tired I am or how uninspired I’m feeling. It provides opportunities each day to stand before God. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I can examine myself and ask why not. Or I can just accept it. I can thank God for the grace he gives me to keep praying, in season and out of season. The liturgy helps me show up for relationship with God, regardless of my subjective feelings.

To my Quaker friends, this may all sound crazy. Maybe even heretical. But for me, at this point in my journey, it’s the power of God. Thanks be to God.

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Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?
This past weekend, I was up in New York City visiting an old friend and mentor, David McReynolds. Back in 2000, I did my teenage best to support him in his campaign for president. I’ve always seen David as an example of courageous thought and action, coupled with a gentleness that is often lost among activists.

On Saturday, I met David at his apartment in lower Manhattan. We drank seltzer water and he introduced me to his cat, Shaman. Then, we went out for a late lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. A nice afternoon.

Shortly before I left to catch my train, our conversation touched briefly on Quakers. David said something that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days. If he were going to convert, David said, he would more likely become a Roman Catholic than a Quaker. His reason for this? Your average Catholic tends to have a deep sense of human sinfulness and each person’s need for Jesus and the Church. There’s a built-in humility there. We Quakers tend to be pretty satisfied with ourselves.

There might have been a time in my life when this observation would have rubbed me the wrong way. But coming from David, who identifies as an Atheist, it resonated.

David is quick to add that not all Catholics are burdened by guilt, and he’s known Quakers who lived saintly lives. Still, I think he’s onto something here. I’ve recently been re-engaging with the liturgical and monastic Christian traditions. I’ve been impressed with the degree to which a sense of personal unworthiness and repentance is at the heart of monastic practice.

At the same time, I’ve felt convicted about how much confidence I have had in my own ability to know and follow God. In retrospect, I have often been confused, frightened, self-centered, and adrift. These days, I’m more skeptical about my own ability to know the will of God with a great deal of certainty. This puts me at odds with much of the Quaker community. Modern-day Quakers tend to view following God as a fairly straightforward process, and human nature as basically good.

To be clear, I am not saying that the root of Quaker tradition views human beings this way. Early Quakers were skeptical of humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Rather than viewing people as naturally good, they relied on the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to correct and guide us. The bulk of Quakers throughout history viewed humanity as basically lost – if not depraved.

But there’s a gap between what the tradition has been and what the community now believes, in practice, today. In my experience, most of us Quakers – myself included – have a tendency to be pretty proud of ourselves. We’re proud that we have affirmed women in ministry for three and a half centuries. We’re proud that we renounced slavery a century earlier than the United States did. We’re proud of the work that our ancestors did in the civil rights and the peace movements. We think we’re pretty special. The world could learn a thing or two from us.

The issue is clouded because, as a matter of fact, Quakers have had an outsized impact on American history and culture. The Quaker community has been unique and important. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, this history of spiritual leadership has congealed into something far less attractive. We’ve developed a certain spiritual pride – a sense that we know better than those around us. We’ve come to believe that we’re good people.

The problem with this is, we’re not. I’m certainly not. The Quaker tradition is beautiful in many ways, silly in others. But in no way has it produced a community of perfect people. Quakers today are no better – or worse – than our Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Atheist neighbors. We may still be a peculiar people, but we are not a special people. Our human nature is as fallen and in need of God’s grace as anyone else’s.

To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.

I’m grateful for the faithfulness of past generations of Quakers. But I’m also convinced that it’s spiritually damaging for me to continue claiming their work as my own. I’m not a special person. I’ve not risen above my need for a savior. I am a poor sinner, at least as much in need of God’s grace as anyone else.

There are dangers here. It’s possible to embrace sin, seeing it as reality rather than a barrier that God can overcome. Many Christian groups have fallen into this trap. But the delusion that I and many other Quakers have fallen into is also problematic. The idea that sin is already defeated, or doesn’t even exist. The myth of “nice people like us.” At this point in my life, it seems safer to err on the side of over-questioning my own experience and motivations. Assuming the goodness of my thoughts and actions is dangerous.

My conversation with David was a reminder. The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful. People can see right through the false piety of Quaker self-satisfaction. But the humility of the God-yielded sinner is magnetic, even for those who are not yet ready to believe.

This dying world doesn’t need perfect people. It needs broken people who are able to confess their own thirst for living water. And invite others to join them in seeking it.

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Did God Really Ask Abraham to Sacrifice His Own Child?

Did God Really Ask Abraham to Kill His Own Child?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/2/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 22:1-14 & Romans 6:12-23. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

This is a tough passage to preach on. It’s one of the most iconic stories of the Bible – the time that Abraham and Isaac went up to that mountain, and Abraham only thought only one of them was coming back.

God told Abraham to take his son up to the mountain top. He told Abraham to take wood, and fire. He told him to kill Isaac and burn his body as an offering. This was the command of the Lord, and it’s clear that Abraham would have gone through with it.

If you google “Isaac and Abraham sacrifice” and do an image search, there’s no shortage of paintings and drawings. Renaissance art is full of paintings depicting this scene, the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to take the life of his son, only to have God intervene.

Some of this art is better than others. The best of these images focus on the drama unfolding between Abraham and his son. Isaac, laid out on the pyre. Abraham, holding the knife and gripping his son by the back of the neck. There must have been a struggle.

Our text this morning leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s not very detailed, and you can read it a lot of different ways. It’s possible to read this story and imagine Isaac as innocently confused, but obedient. His father told him to lay down on the wood, so he did. His father pulled out the knife to take his life, and Isaac accepted it. Abraham, for his part, conducted himself with simple obedience and calm. He didn’t start crying, he didn’t lose control. He didn’t shout or lay hands on Isaac. He just obeyed the command of God, and so did his son.

But I know that’s a lie. Or, at least, I hope it is. Because if that were true, if Abraham was psychologically prepared to murder his son with no displays of emotional conflict, that would make him something less than human. And Isaac – what young man, what human being accepts a violent death at the hands of a loved one without a struggle? Without horror? Without desperate cries for mercy and tears of disbelief?

There are images that present Isaac and Abraham as dutiful pawns in God’s strange chess game. In these paintings, the two of them are placid, serene, looking only to God.

I know that these images must be false. I can feel it in my bones. When I look at these peaceful depictions of this violent event, there’s no soul, no humanity. Abraham becomes a monster, and Isaac a bovine creature with no real human spark. Lost is the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom. He convinced God to spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous people. Couldn’t he be bothered to argue for the life of his own child?

And not just any child. The heir of the promise. This was the child that God had promised Abraham for decades. The miraculous boy who was born when his parents were far beyond the age of child-bearing. Isaac was the living proof of God’s faithfulness – his intention to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Isaac was the tangible substance of God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.

But more important than any of this, Isaac was Abraham’s little boy. He wasn’t just a means to an end. He was a real person, a child. And Abraham loved him.

I think of my son, George. I think of what it would mean to me if I thought God was asking me to kill my son and burn his body. Forget the promise. Forget great nations and offspring as numerous as the stars. This is my son, whom I love. I’d rather die than do to George what God told Abraham to do to Isaac.

What kind of psychopath says “yes” to a request like that? But more importantly, what kind of God would ever make such a request?

And for what? To test Abraham’s faith? To be sure that he was really committed? What kind of friend would test a relationship like that, much less the most high God, creator of the universe?

There’s a long tradition of not taking this story literally. And that’s good. Because honestly, it’s just too horrifying. Who could worship a God like that?

So this morning, I want to continue in that tradition. I want to invite us to experience this story as an allegory, as a narrative that opens up a moral dimension to us that is simply not accessible through anything less than a shocking but true story.

None of this diminishes the horror of the story. What God asks of Abraham is unfathomable. But in this ancient horror, we are also given a mirror into our own spiritual condition. We can find ourselves in the experience of Abraham, and that of Isaac. We can recognize in them our own challenges, our doubts and fears. The existential dread that stalks us.

When I heard this story, I’m forced to ask myself: What does it mean to sacrifice my Isaac? Because again, for the purposes of this allegory, Isaac is not merely a beloved child. He is the instrument of God’s promise. He represents everything that Abraham understands about who God is and how he is in relationship with God. Isaac is the most fundamentally important thing in Abraham’s life. Without Isaac, Abraham has nothing to hold onto, nothing to assure him that God really cares for him and has a plan for him.

So for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac – well, it just doesn’t compute. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. How can God ask Abraham to end the very life that demonstrates their relationship? It’s as if a husband said to his wife, “if you really love me, you’ll throw away your wedding ring and move to another city.” This request doesn’t make any sense.

But the incomprehensibility of God’s request is exactly what makes it so important. When God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, he’s essentially asking Abraham this: “Do you trust me enough to let go of everything in this world that connects us? Do you love me more than my gifts, more than my promises, more than my presence in your life?”

That’s pretty deep. Because to be honest, most of the time, I want God for his gifts. I want him for his presence and power in my life. I want him because he helps give my life meaning and purpose, a sense of perspective beyond myself.

But that’s not what God wants. The kind of relationship that God desires with you and me doesn’t hinge on reasons or benefits, outcomes or external validation. The relationship that God is seek with you and me is one that stands beyond all incentives or proofs. It’s the relationship that Jesus demonstrated when he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has often been taken as an analogy for Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, in submission to God’s will. In this view, God is often seen as represented by Abraham – the sacrificer – while Jesus is represented by Isaac, the sacrificed. But this is a backwards view of things. During his struggle in Gethsemane, his torture by the religious and imperial authorities, and his death on the cross, Jesus found himself in the position of Abraham. Like Abraham, he was forced to abandon everything in this world that gave him assurance of God’s love. Jesus had to accept absolute risk.

On the cross, Jesus sacrificed the “Isaac” of his earthly ministry. He experienced terrible grief and failure. He experienced the absence of God, the loss of the promise. In that moment, all of his work was for nothing. It all ended on that nihilistic cross of suffering and shame.

In his Letter to a Young Activist, Thomas Merton writes about this journey into loss and unmooring, which is essential to the path of Christian discipleship. He speaks about how we often use our God-given work “to protect [ourselves] against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of [the] work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

We’ve heard a terrible story this morning. It’s a story of a father’s love for his child – his hope, his future – being overcome by his greater desire to be in relationship with God. It’s a story of cutting loss and heartbreak. It’s a story about how each one of us must move beyond assurances and guarantees if we want to experience the full depth of relationship with God.

This is a story about Abraham seeking a truer, more authentic faith. Beyond pleading and promises. Beyond rewards. Abraham gives himself to God unconditionally – even if it means the loss of everything else, including his ideas about God.

Our scripture this morning is an invitation to self-examination. What are the ways that we have turned our faith in God into a transaction, rather than full submission? Do we love the gifts God gives us more than we love God himself? What are we being called to surrender, so that we can be more fully embraced by God?

What does it mean to be like Jesus, who let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom?

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The Harvest Is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

The Harvest Is Plentiful - Why Are the Workers So Few?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/18/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:8. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

This morning, I want to tell you a story about Stephen Grellet. Stephen Grellet was a French-born Quaker minister, one of the best-known Quakers of the early 1800s. He traveled extensively and preached to thousands.

One day, as he was in prayer, he felt that God was calling him to take a long journey into the American backwoods, to preach to the woodcutters. Wood cutting was an isolated profession, like working on an offshore oil rig today. And Grellet heard God’s voice speaking to him, “Go back there and preach to those lonely men.” Filled with compassion and a sense of the Spirit’s guidance, Grellet left his family to visit the backwoods.

Grellet felt drawn to a specific spot in this backcountry. It was a place he had visited before, and he felt certain that God was calling him there again. He felt a flood of peace and assurance when he arrived at the woodcutter camp. But as he looked around, he soon realized that the camp was totally devoid of human presence. It had been abandoned days ago. The woodcutters had moved into the forest and might not be back for weeks.

Grellet considered that, perhaps he was mistaken. Maybe he was at the wrong location. But a voice within him said, “no, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.” He prayed silently, asking God for guidance. The response was: “Give your message. It is not yours, but mine.”

In this abandoned encampment, there was one large wooden hut that stood out. Grellet stepped inside and made his way to the back of the structure. He turned around facing the entrance and began to preach. He preached as if the place were packed with hundreds of people. He spoke about how the love of God is the greatest thing in the world. He spoke about how sin builds a wall between human beings and God, but that this wall is thrown down in Jesus Christ. He spoke about how the love of God triumphs over all.

After preaching his message, Grellet was exhausted. He drank some water from a nearby stream, ate a bit of bread he carried in his pocket, and then began the long journey back home. He never saw any woodcutters. Yet he felt peace in his spirit. He felt certain that he had been faithful in what God had given him to do.

Years later and a continent away, Stephen Grellet is crossing London Bridge, wearing his distinctive Quaker outfit and broad-brimmed hat. All of a sudden, someone grabs him by the arm and says, “There you are! I’ve found you at last!”

Grellet is surprised, and probably a little nervous to have this gruff stranger grabbing him and making accusations. “I think you must have the wrong person, friend.”

“Absolutely not!” said the stranger. “I’ve been looking for you across the globe, and I’m not mistaken. You’re the man from the woods!”

It turns out that Stephen Grellet wasn’t entirely alone that day when he visited the woodcutters’ encampment.

The man standing before him tells him about how he returned to the empty encampment, looking for a tool he had left behind. As he was retrieving it, he heard Grellet’s voice booming from the wooden hut at the center of the camp. As Grellet spoke, the lone woodcutter watched through the cracks in the walls. And he found that the gospel message shone through the cracks in his heart.

By the time Stephen Grellet left the camp, this man’s life had been changed forever. After hearing Grellet’s message, he felt miserable, convicted of the sin that was separating him from the love of God. But eventually he got a hold of a Bible and began discovering the way of Jesus.

At first, the other woodcutters made fun of him, but the man’s faith was infectious. “It’s share and share alike in the forest,” said the former woodcutter standing in front of Grellet on London Bridge. “I told the men all about the gospel, just like you. I gave them no peace till everyone was brought home to God. Three of them went out to preach to other districts. At least a thousand have been brought home to the good shepherd by that sermon of yours which you preached to nobody.”

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to teach, heal, and preach the good news of the kingdom of God throughout the villages of Israel. As he prepares them for their journey, he says “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Who are the laborers, and what is the harvest?

Jesus and his little community of disciples were very small. They lived on the margins of society. Yet the crowds flocked to them, eager to hear the good news of the kingdom. Like a mustard seed growing into the greatest of shrubs, or a little bit of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, God used these handful of disciples to have an astonishing impact on the world.

God’s story is one of continuing surprise. It’s a story that goes back to Abraham and Sarah, who were in their eighties and still childless. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, but here they were, still without children at an age where child bearing wasn’t just a long shot – it was physically impossible!

But God had promised it. Multiple times. God insisted that not only would Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars, but that he would make a covenant with Abraham’s son through Sarah. Sarah, who realistically hasn’t been able to bear children for several decades at this point.

One day, Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre, around Hebron. He’s sitting there at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. He’s probably about ready to take a nap. But then, he looks up and sees three men standing before him.

Now, for those of us reading today, it’s a little ambiguous who these men are, exactly. But as the text goes on, it seems that two of these men are angels, and the third is the Lord himself. Whatever the specifics, Abraham seems to know who has come to visit him. He immediately bows down to the ground and asks the men to accept his hospitality. They agree, and Abraham rushes back into the tent to tell Sarah to make pancakes and cook up a goat for their guests.

A little while later, the visitors are sitting under a tree, eating their food. They ask Abraham, “Where’s your wife, Sarah?” When Abraham says that she’s in the tent, one of the men says: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Now it isn’t proper in ancient near-eastern culture for Sarah to hang outside with the men, but she was very interested in this conversation. So she is hiding just behind the entrance to the tent, listening to everything that was happening. And when Sarah hears the visitor say that she will soon have a son, she laughs to herself.

And the LORD says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Count on it. It’s going to happen just like I said. When I return, Sarah will have a son.”

Now I guess at this point, the jig is up and Sarah comes out of the tent. She says, “I didn’t laugh!” But the visitor says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

This is one of my favorite lines of Scripture. What a weird story! And it feels so true to me, about how God is. God knows us, God understands us, even when we’d prefer he didn’t. And God accepts us, even when we can’t quite believe him. Sarah sees the whole situation as ridiculous, and she’s right. It doesn’t make any sense. But God responds by insisting, “I will make something amazing out of this ridiculous situation. And you will know that I did it, precisely because it is impossible.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I think back to Stephen Grellet, with his apparently pointless sermon to an empty wooden hut out in the backwoods. I remember the twelve disciples – a band of misfits, living on the margins – the last people you’d expect to change the world. I think of Abraham and Sarah, people who should have been great-grandparents but who instead are expecting an infant child.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. When I’ve read these words of Jesus before, I always thought that Jesus was complaining about the lack of laborers. But what if the shortage of laborers isn’t a bug in God’s program? What if it’s an intentional feature?

Throughout God’s story, he has always used the most unlikely people in the most ridiculous ways. He chose a barren couple to be the parents of many nations. He picked a wimpy kid to be the king of Israel. He selected a family from the backwoods of Galilee to give birth to the Messiah. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. And maybe that’s the way God likes it!

I think of Gideon’s army, which God whittled down to just 300 men. In the eyes of common sense, they had no chance at all. But through God’s power, they were able to defeat the enemy.

I think of Stephen Grellet, who listened to God, even when it was ridiculous. By preaching to an empty room, he turned a thousand lives to God.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. What does it mean for us, as a tiny congregation amidst the great city, to be faithful? How can we endure in the unlikely – even ridiculous – work that God is calling us to? What does it mean to claim the hope of Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and the disciples, Stephen Grellet and the man whose life he changed forever? What does it mean to be the few laborers, steadfast even when we can’t perceive the harvest?

As God said to the prophet Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; human beings look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Holy Spirit, speak to our hearts. Show us how to be faithful to your guidance, your mission, your love – even when we can’t help but laugh.

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Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?

Where was the Holy Spirit Before Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/4/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21, & 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Before the light. Before the day and the night. Before the teeming life in the sea and on the dry land. Before anything we could see or imagine, the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

There’s a long tradition of Christian thought that imagines that the Holy Spirit was somehow not present, not a tangible reality in the world, until after the resurrection of Jesus. To be fair to all those Christian thinkers, there are some passages in Scripture that point to this idea. In chapter seven of John’s gospel account, he writes that Jesus taught his followers “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

I’m not quite sure what John meant when he said that at that time there “was no Spirit.” But I have to be sure he didn’t mean that the Spirit didn’t yet exist. Because we know that the Spirit of God has existed since before time began. This Spirit, this breath, was what hovered over the waters at creation. It’s this breath that God breathed into Adam when he gave life to our species. This breath was present with Moses in the wilderness and with Elijah up on the high mountain when he heard the still, small voice of God.

We know from our readings this morning that the Spirit of God did not somehow come into being after the resurrection of Jesus. She’s been with us all along. But scripture does teach us that our relationship with the Spirit of God has changed over time. It hasn’t always been the same.

In the beginning, at the time of our creation, we were children of God in the garden. We stood innocent and simple-minded before God. We didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil. The presence and breath of God was always with us, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Back in those first days, the spirit, breath, and presence of God wasn’t something we even thought about consciously. It was just reality. To live as a human being was to be immersed in God’s presence, awake to his life.

But as we all know, things changed. We got into deep conversation with that very reasonable, very convincing snake. He told us that we could be like God.

We could be like God. It was such a perfect lie – such a characteristic lie of the Devil, wasn’t it? Because of course, we were already like God. That’s how God made us. We were created in the image of God. We were filled with every good thing. We lived in unity with our creator. We reflected his beauty and love. The only thing denied to us was separation from God.

And that’s the great irony. The serpent sold us the thing we already had: The life of the Spirit. The living presence of God, hovering over the waters of our lives. We grabbed that fruit with both hands, only to realize too late that to grasp at God – to try to control God – is an act of separation from God.

So from that time onward, our relationship with God changed. We experienced separation for the first time. Our breaths were no longer his breath. The Spirit of God became something distinct, apart, distant from us. In our shame we turned away. We made clothes to hide our nakedness, to hide ourselves from the radiance that we had once experienced as totally normal.

Many years passed. Thousands of years. So long that human beings had almost completely forgotten our original connection and unity with the Creator. We forgot that our breath used to share the same character as God’s breath. That he breathed in us and gave us life as children of God.

By the time Moses came around, the Hebrew people had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. The Hebrews had forgotten everything. Like the rest of humanity, they were spiritual amnesiacs. And this is what I think that John must have meant when he said that in the days before Jesus’ resurrection “as yet there was no Spirit.” For all practical purposes, that was true. The Hebrews, the Egyptians, all the people of the world had so thoroughly forgotten who God was, forgotten what it felt like to live in unity with the Creator, that it was as if the Spirit did not even exist.

Moses had forgotten, too. It took a dramatic intervention in the form of a burning bush to get Moses to wake up to who and whose he really was.

For a while, this kind of revelation was just limited to Moses. The Spirit of God hovered over Moses. Moses spoke to Aaron, and Aaron spoke to the people. It was always three degrees of separation. When Moses went up on the mountain to talk to God, he didn’t have to convince anyone to let him go up there alone. The people begged him to leave them behind. “Hey, Moses, why don’t you go up there and talk with God in the storm cloud? We’re just gonna stay down here and try not to get struck by lightening!”

For years, Moses was the only one to talk to God. Moses was the only one experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit.

But the Spirit wouldn’t stay constrained to being in relationship with just one man. As cool as Moses was – as stylish as his wild-man beard might have been – the Spirit was gonna hover. She was gonna keep hovering wherever she wanted to hover.

And so, as we read in our Scripture this morning from the Book of Numbers, it’s not too long before the Spirit starts to break out from her relationship with Moses and starts involving more people. Moses is tired, and God knows that no one person is meant to carry the burden of God’s message all alone. And so Moses called together seventy elders of the people and laid hands on them, so that they would receive a share of the Spirit, too. And it says the Spirit rested on them, and they prophesied.

But there were a couple of guys who missed the meeting. I guess they missed the memo or something, because they didn’t know up for the ceremony. But the Spirit didn’t seem to care at all. After all, the Spirit hovers wherever she wants to hover. So while the other sixty-eight elders were up at the tent revival, getting their Holy Spirit on, Eldad and Medad started hollering and breaking out in prophecy in the middle of the camp!

Now Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, saw that Eldad and Medad were speaking out of turn. They were running around, exciting everyone, and drawing a lot of attention to themselves as they praised God in the Spirit. So Joshua ran back to the Tent of Meeting and told Moses: “Eldad and Medad are running around prophesying. You’ve gotta stop them!”

Moses couldn’t believe what Joshua was saying. How could it possibly be a bad thing for more people to receive the Spirit of God? “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked Joshua. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

So throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. Human beings try to corral God into specific times and places and rituals. We try to confine him to a tent, a temple, a holy-of-holies. We say that he can only show up in certain ways and to certain people. Can the high priest talk to God? Maybe. Can an ordinary person? No way. God is too holy to touch the sinfulness of ordinary human life. Let’s leave this one to the professionals.

But the Spirit isn’t afraid to touch the creation. Throughout the Old Testament, God chooses all sorts of people to breathe his Spirit onto. Some of them are the people you’d expect – kings and priests. Others – like Amos, Micah, and Elijah – not so much. God shows up in ways and people that are unexpected.

The prophet Joel foretold something even more spectacular. For so long, the Spirit of God had only appeared to some people, some of the time. But there was a day coming, said Joel, when God would pour out his presence on everyone. Just like in the old days, the Spirit of God would hover over the whole of the creation, leaving nobody beyond the reach of God’s love.

Today, we celebrate the day of Pentecost. As Christians, we remember one specific Pentecost more than 2,000 years ago. It was a day when the Holy Spirit came with such power and universality that the early followers of Jesus said: “This is the fulfillment of Joel’s promise. God has poured out his Spirit on everyone!”

On that day of Pentecost, after Jesus had been raised from the dead and ascended into the sky, all of the disciples were gathered together in one place. And the breath of God started to hover like she hadn’t hovered in a very, very long time.

It says, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The prophecy of Joel began to be fulfilled that day, as God created the church of Jesus Christ. Through his breath of life, thousands of people were knit together into a new creation, a new community, a people who walked together with God in the garden. In the midst of this fallen world, the New Jerusalem had appeared.

As followers of Jesus today, this is a reality that we are invited into. When we gather in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit hovers over us. The breath of God covers us, comforts us, and leads us with boldness and power. The same Spirit that created the cosmos is at work in us, revealing a new creation that heals the ancient separation.

It’s significant that the apostle Paul speaks about the life of our community in terms of the movement of the Spirit. Our faith in Jesus is made possible by the Holy Spirit. And it’s through the Spirit, dwelling within and among us, that we are able to manifest God’s love to those around us.

This happens in many ways. There are many manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, and none of us has all of them. But each manifestation – whether it be wisdom or knowledge or faith or healing or prophecy or miracles or discernment or tongues or interpretation of tongues – all manifestations of the Spirit are given to us for the common good. The Spirit is still creating – guiding and empowering us to heal the world.

We are so blessed. We live in the age of the Spirit, in a time where the Spirit of God is once again hovering over the waters. She’s hovering over our lives as we seek to follow Jesus together. She’s present in our midst as we gather here, in our homes, or in any other moment when we need to be knit together in God’s love.

It’s easy to miss it. It’s tempting to think that the Holy Spirit is only showing up in the most spectacular, high-energy moments. I’ve often doubted the Spirit’s presence when there weren’t tongues of fire and obvious miracles. But I’m reminded that throughout Scripture and throughout history that the breath of God shows up in many different ways. As a whisper, as a rushing wind, as encouragement, as sudden revelation. The breath of God blows where she will.

Let’s welcome her this morning. Holy Spirit, come.

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