“If any wish to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This is one of the quintessential teachings of Lent and—although it makes us uncomfortable—it’s one of the quintessential teachings of Jesus—period—one we must come to terms to with.
What does it mean to deny myself? What benefit could it possibly have for me or for anyone else? Is this just some sort of weird spiritual masochism? Or some insidious attempt by our religious overlords to undermine our feelings of self-worth in order to manipulate and control us? I mean, wasn’t Jesus all about love? Doesn’t Jesus want me to love myself? How can denying myself—negging myself—be compatible with loving myself?
Let’s be real. We can all think of a narcissist or two who this teaching would be perfect for, but the rest of us? Come on! We’re not a bunch of oblivious egomaniacs here who don’t know how to practice any kind of restraint. That’s not us. We care about other people. We care about people who have less than us. We care about justice and fairness and equity. But we also understand that in order to make a difference in the world, I need to put myself out there. I need to assert myself. I need to fight for myself and to understand my value. And that’s hard work, isn’t it? So, after I’ve done that all week, I need to practice some good selfcare. I might even need to treat myself every once in a while—I deserve it and I need it. To be a success, I need a healthy ego that is strong and ready to fight to be seen and heard, to do what is right, and to get what is deserved. How could denying myself possibly fit into a healthy and productive life?
The trouble with this cultural worldview of ours is so, so tricky. It assumes—very incorrectly and sometimes disastrously—that I know at all times exactly what it is that I truly want, exactly what my purpose in life is, exactly what values as a human being are important to me at all times.
Now if I were always perfectly aware of exactly what is right for myself, then there would be no problem, friends, with charging straight ahead. But the reality of life is that our consciousness, our ego, is limited. We get so caught up in our work and goals that we lose touch with who we truly are, with what we really want, with what we actually think is important. The most common way that people in our world lose themselves is not through practicing self-denial. It’s by charging straight ahead into life, into commitments, into responsibilities, into work, and (although it’s everything we think we want), we find ourselves overwhelmed by burnout, depression, anxiety. We start acting out—substance abuse, gambling, an affair—risking everything that we’ve worked so hard for, everything we keep telling ourselves we’ve ever really wanted.
This is the problem with a strong ego. Your ego’s job is to go out there and kick butt, to get things done, to put its nose to the grindstone, to change the world! Your ego is often far less adept at actually knowing what it is that you want. It’s far less adept at turning inward and paying attention to what might be changing. It’s like a racehorse charging down the road, pulling the carriage of your life along, and suddenly you realize it's the wrong road or maybe that you’re headed towards a cliff! It’s not the horse’s fault. His job is to pull the carriage. Somebody else is supposed to be at the reigns. Who’s that?
The ability to pull on those reigns, to say “WOAH,” to slow down, to take the lay of the land, perhaps even to turn the carriage around is an ability grounded totally in the strength of self-denial. “WOAH, boy! Woah!” If you’re charging towards a cliff, self-denial is a key component of self-preservation—of saving your life! Self-denial is not the goal itself. Self-denial is a way of slowing down, paying attention, and redirecting—it’s a way of discovering who you really are.
And this is the promise of a season like Lent: If I reduce myself, if I deny myself, if I sacrifice, I will come out of it not weaker but stronger—with a stronger sense of identity and a clearer sense of vision. When I reduce myself or declutter myself, I come to a place from which I’m able to connect to that which is bigger than me—to God, or to my true self, my true values, my true desires. The question for Lent is not “How can I make myself miserable?” or “How can I really impress God by beating myself up?” it’s “Who am I really? What do I really believe? What am I becoming?” That’s the point. That’s why we pray and fast and meditate. That’s why we slow down. That’s what we’re reflecting on. That’s what we’re asking for.
Now everything I’ve just said about an individual can also be true of an organization, or a church even. In fact, organizations can sustain a charge in the wrong direction far longer than any individual person can. It’s very hard for organizations to slow down, to reduce, to let things go, to deny themselves in order to rethink themselves. It’s easier to just keep going than to reorganize. But organizations are so much longer-lived than people that they have to reinvent themselves at lot—at least every generation, and nowadays, in this changing world, maybe something like every decade or so requires pulling over on the highway of the world and to really check in on our identity and our direction. If we don’t, then the organization could have a little bit of its own kind of midlife crisis—burnout, anxiety, disconnection.
Immediately after the worship service this morning is our annual congregational meeting. And you will quickly see that there is lots of incredible good news for our congregation from 2023 and a lot to look forward to in 2024. We’re not in a transitional crisis as a church. But many of our key leaders are realizing that we do need to take some time to really reflect on our true mission and vision in order for us to build 21st century ministries that reflect our identity here in 2024 and our goals over the next five to ten years. We see this a deeply spiritual and Christian process—in a very real sense we see it as a taking up the cross, of sacrificing for Jesus’ sake and the for the sake of the Gospel—a sacrifice the end goal of which is not depletion, but rejuvenation, resurrection, right? When Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, he’s instructing us in a kind of self-sacrifice, yes, but one that leads beyond the cross into something bigger, into resurrection. As Christians this doesn’t need to be anxiety producing, in fact, if we’re going to be effective in a changing world, it should be and it will be a regular part of our practice of spiritual direction.
When we deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Jesus’ way, we’re temporarily slowing down, reducing ourselves, sacrificing, in order to come to a larger vision of who we truly are, what we truly want and need, and who we are becoming. Without a consistent practice of self-denial or sacrifice in some form, we tend to charge ahead on whatever path we’re on, striving to reach the top of the mountain, heedless of whether it’s the right path, or even the right mountain, or maybe we actually prefer the ocean to the mountains!
Sacrifice raises our unconscious struggles and desires to consciousness where they can be worked out and integrated into our self. Self-denial and cross-carrying is a process of reduction in order to give up our ego illusion of total control. Our egos, though they are very good at getting things done, are not in control of everything. They don’t know everything, so who put them in charge? When we slow down and sacrifice and reduce ourselves, we make room for God to enter in and we discover more deeply who we really are. Sacrifice is a statement of holistic value—I am not here in this world merely to succeed. I am here in this world to become who God made me to be. You can hate yourself and still be accounted by history as a successful person in this world for your accomplishments. But you can only become the person who God made you to be, if you love yourself completely. And that is why the path of self-denial and sacrifice, as the way to your greatest self, is Jesus’ way of love.
When the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism, the Bible tells us that he fasted for forty days. Which is pretty impressive. Not bad, Jesus. But if you’ll allow a little flex here: today is my 49th day of fasting. I started on January 1. Please, don’t worry: unlike Jesus in the wilderness, I’m not eating nothing at all. On my fast, I eat every day. I just eat less. There’s an old tradition of Lenten fasting where you eat one vegan meal a day for Lent. Being a family man in an omnivorous household, I knew that going vegan would just be too much for everybody right now, so I decided to just try eating one meal a day.
Now, just to be clear right up front: I’m not being bananas about this, and I haven’t been able to eat just one meal a day for 49 days straight. I think I started with like three days of eating just one meal and decided to take it from there, paying close attention to my body and my health and the needs of the day. After three weeks, I worked myself up to a basic pattern of eating one meal a day for five days, and then eating regularly for two days. But, for example, this week I got a little cold, and I wanted plenty of energy for immune defense, so I added in an extra day of normal eating just to make sure I had all the food my body needed to be healthy. I want to be clear that I’m not being fanatical about this, which could be very unhealthy.
Why am I doing it? Well, fasting is an important and traditional part of our religion, and I have almost no experience with it. I thought I should try it out and report back to you what I learned in Lent, which is the most traditional time for fasting and giving things up in Christian life.
So, what have I learned? Lesson 1 is theological: Body and Spirit are United
One of the first things I decided on this journey is that I wasn’t going to mess with any bad theologies about the human body. I was not going to fast to punish myself. I was not going to fast in a way that harmed my physical health or well-being. Causing yourself physical harm does not provide you with a spiritual benefit. Harming the body harms the spirit.
The bad theology here is that body and spirit are somehow separate and that the body is bad, base, low and the spirit is pure, and that if you punish your body, your spirit will be freed from your instincts, urges, and animal desires. I thought that was the wrong perspective before I even started fasting. But if that’s wrong, what’s right?
Well, fasting has brought me deeply in touch with my body, my physical needs, my appetites. I’m not usually a person who pays too much attention to that kinda stuff—needs, etc. Well, when you’re fasting, no matter what, you’re in touch with your physical being. And I discovered that the more I was in touch with my body, with what it was telling me, with how it was communicating to me, with what it wanted and didn’t want, the more I felt in touch with my self—my whole self—including my spirit.
I’ve realized more deeply that the body and the spirit or soul are not separate things. They are intimately connected, bound together. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings throughout history of our Christian tradition. Christianity declares: God became flesh! And Jesus could’ve ditched his lousy body when he went off to heaven, but he didn’t, did he? He decided to hang onto it up there. In Christianity, even at the level of God in Heaven, matter and spirit, body and soul, through Christ have become reconciled and unified.
Over the last 49 days I’ve learned that for me fasting is not an act of self-denial, but an act of holistic love. My theme this Lent in my preaching is “Bigger Than Me.” I’m not fasting to deny my self, I’m fasting to bring my self into loving balance with that which is bigger than me and beyond me. And this works not because the body is bad and if you beat it up your Spirit escapes it somehow. It works because when I intentionally and lovingly connect to my physical body, I come into deeper connection and balance with my self, with my spirit, and with God.
Lesson Number 2 is practical: Fasting Is Consciousness Raising
The USDA says that adults need between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day depending on age, sex, weight, activity level, etc. The USDA also tracks that our food system in 2021 provided 3,864 calories per day for every person in the United States, including children. So, our food system is producing hundreds of calories more per day than any of us actually need. The companies that sell food are not content to let those calories go wasted, and they have strong profit incentives to entice us to eat more. New research is showing that highly processed foods which pack a lot of calories into easily digestible tasty little bites can be addictive and that we tend to eat more when we eat highly processed foods than when we eat whole foods.
In an environment where there’s a feast all around us, which is being marketed to us everywhere we look, actually getting in touch with what our bodies need and want can be very powerful and balancing. As I mentioned before, I was eating fairly unconsciously. I wasn’t eating mindfully or intentionally. I wasn’t thinking, what does my body need today, what does it want? I was just kind of shoveling coal onto the fire. I wouldn’t say that I was eating compulsively, but I was eating unintentionally, without love, without care, without gratitude. And there were plenty of times that I was eating when I wasn’t hungry at all. I was eating because I was stressed or bored and the food dampened the discomfort or those feelings and enabled me not to have to think about what it was that I actually needed in that moment to be holistically healthy.
So, by fasting, I’ve taken an activity that in my life (eating) that had become a sort of unconscious, unintentional act, and I’ve raised my level of mindfulness and made it conscious. Eating is so fundamentally important to our daily lives and health that anything that can help us to do it mindfully and intentionally is a good thing. Over the last 49 days I’ve learned so much about what my body needs and doesn’t need. And I’ve had to confront all those little instances of discomfort when I wanted to run to the snack cabinet and grab a bag of chips, and I’ve had to deal with them on their own terms instead of quieting them down with comforting, readily available calories.
Lesson number 3 has been inspirational: As Anne Lamott once wrote, “It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.”
I’ve discovered over the last 49 days that there’s a connection between being intentional and aware and being uncomfortable. It’s not just when you’re fasting or doing something hard, whenever you’re really paying attention, whenever you’re being purposeful, whenever you’re intentionally trying to grow, whenever we want to connect to that which is bigger than me, we’re going to be a little uncomfortable. So, it benefits us to occasionally or regularly engage in spiritual practices that challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Because it expands our capacity to be fully alive and engaged with the world. Fasting has slimmed me down, physically. But I feel spiritually bigger than I did before.
So, to sum it all up: Fasting connects us to one of the most radical realities of Christianity—that body and spirit are united together. Fasting raises our consciousness: By eliminating all unintentional eating, we begin to listen to what our body is telling us about what it wants to eat and when it wants to eat. And we’re forced to confront anything else in our lives we were avoiding by eating yummy stuff. Fasting is good for us when done in healthy holistic moderation because it’s good for us to do uncomfortable things. Uncomfortable spiritual exercises increase our capacity to do uncomfortable things like raising our consciousness, living intentionally, discovering our purpose in life, paying attention, and growing. If you’ve decide to fast or give something up this Lent, I pray that it feels like an act of holistic love, that it connects you more deeply to your self and to God, and that inspires you to grow on your spiritual journey.
My theme for this lent IN my preaching and worship planning (and just sort of what I'm thinking about) is “Bigger Than Me.”
And Lent is a perfect time to explore the smaller side of ourselves, or at least the less inflated side. Let's call it that, the less inflated side of our lives, right? Getting back to simplicity, remembering that we're not perfect, we're not God, we're not infallible. We are not the center of the universe. No matter how much our lives and our careers and our families and our social medias and all of our desires and wants may suggest it to us, we are not the center of the universe. And so Lent is a time to explore humility and self-denial and try to find a little bit more of a deflated size. Not too deflated, but just sort of the right size for a mortal human being to be. Because I would suggest to you that one of the greatest spiritual realizations that it is possible for a human being to have—a mountaintop moment, something that when you feel it, you will remember it for the rest of your days—is to find your proper size and to realize that there is something so much bigger than me surrounding you and within you.
The imposition of ashes, which we all just did with one another, is a perfect example of a Lenten activity that we do together to remind ourselves of our smallness, to sort of deflate ourselves down to the proper spiritual size. The ashes remind us that we are dust: from dust we came, and to dust we shall return. Maybe you were thinking very highly of yourselves before you came in today and you were thinking, “Man, I really pulled it all off at work, and I got dinner on the table, got the kids fed, got 'em in here, I'm king of the world. I'm doing it all!” and then you remember: from ashes you came, to ashes you shall return. It's about finding your proper spiritual size.
But then we also have to remember the ashes that we came from, the dust that we came from when God formed us from the dust of the ground in the Garden of Eden, God just didn't put us together like a sculpture and then leave us alone. God reached down into the ground where we were formed and breathed life into us, the very breath of God, Spirit. And so what are we? Are we just dust? No, we're dirt, clay from the ground, from the earth, and we're the Spirit of God mixed together in some mysterious, beautiful way.
In a moment, we're going to have communion together. And communion is another opportunity for us to remember our proper side. The imposition of the ashes tonight reminds us that there is something bigger than me because I'm finding my proper size. I'm getting down to the right size, the humble size, the size that knows I'm not the center of the universe. And then part two, just as important, we come to this table, the table that is God's sustenance for us. God's food for us. The table that contains the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, where God calls us for communion to be with God intimately sitting and eating. And we eat God, take God into our bodies, so that God now is inside of us.
It was the German philosopher, Feuerbach, a materialist, an atheist, who gave the saying which in English comes down to us from him as, “You are what you eat.” And we think of this a lot of times in terms of diet. Don't eat junk food. But he actually meant that the world is just material. And this big question of what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be human? What am I? What am I? He said, no, no, no. It's just whatever you eat. You're just an animal. You're just a physical process consuming physical things. You are what you eat. There's no more mystery than that. If you eat beets, you're made of beets. If you eat pigs, you're made of pigs. There's no spirit, there's no soul. You are what you eat. But as Christians, we come to this table and we eat God! God is within!
So the theme for this Lent is bigger than me, and it's a much needed medicine for people in our world to remember that we are not the center of the universe. And yet at the very same time, we remember that the ashes that we came from were infused with the very Spirit and breath of God. That is what I am. That is what you are. And we remember at the communion table that we take God into our body through God's own grace in a miracle of sacrament.
Bigger than me means finding my right size. And from that place of self-denial, sacrifice, and humility (a little bit smaller probably than we were the week before) we begin to see our true greatness—that we are surrounded by God's Spirit and that the kingdom of God is within.
Beloved, I think that what happened to Jesus on Mount Tabor is happening in some sense to all of us, not physically, of course, transfigured, but in a spiritual sense. We are, through our faith in Jesus Christ, being changed, being transformed, and in the process of transformation, we find ourselves to have so many questions, so many concerns along the way. So this is an "Ask Me Anything" opportunity. Anybody have a question they would like to ask Pastor Jeff? It will be answered on the spot and if I can't answer it on the spot, I'll put it in my pocket and I'll bring it back up some other time in a service. Does anybody want to go first? Jan, you want to go first? How unlike you, Jan.
Jan: I would like you to make some comparisons to the major religions of the world and what we believe, especially about love and equity.
Okay. I'll mention a few. First of all, I think it's very important to know, well, we all know what we believe in terms of love and equity. I hope. Basically love your neighbor as you love yourself. That's the most important principle of the gospel. The whole of the law is contained within that we understand, and Jesus of course, was Jewish. He was commenting on the Jewish tradition. We could say that Jesus is a reformer, but we know for a fact that love your neighbor as yourself is not something that Jesus thought up as an original thinker. He received it from his Jewish tradition. And so Judaism and Christianity really stand shoulder to shoulder in this regard. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and Jews have this wonderful idea that we share in Christianity, but they have this word Tikun. And Tikun means to sort of be a repairer of the world—somebody who is a part of God's plan to redeem the world in some sense for us all, maybe in some ways to become people who love and change the world with God in partnership with God, which is an idea that we share very much.
And another tradition I know fairly well is Buddhism. And so I'll just talk a little bit about Buddhism. One of the major tenets of Buddhism is compassion and to have compassion for everybody—every being—and understanding. And I think in compassion we begin to recognize that there is no difference between my neighbor and I and that in fact we're all we really have down here in the world besides God and the spiritual powers. We have one another. And to understand that the life another person is living is only a hair breadths away from my life and it could have been my life just under different circumstances (right?) is something that draws us closer together to those who are our neighbors, to those we might consider to be our enemies to those we think we could never understand how they think or how they live, but we can. And the way through it is compassion, which is a trait that I think also Jesus recommends to us over and over and over again. So those are three religions. I can't do 'em all. Jan, you get three and maybe we'll come back to some other ones, some other time.
Craig: In the gospels we read about a person who asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds, "Obey my commandments." Suppose some 20 years later the same person meets the Apostle Paul and asks the same question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Paul's going to say believe in Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection. Totally different from what Jesus said! And Paul's going to point to Abraham, who lived before all this, and in reading Genesis it was said his belief in the Lord was accounted to him as righteousness. So, Pastor Jeff, what must we do to inherit eternal life?
Oh, an easy one. Thank you, Craig! What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, I think that Paul gives us good guidance, right? Because Paul directs us back to Jesus. And Paul says, Hey, my experience of this whole thing is you have to believe in that Jesus, that real spiritual power who can come down from heaven and nail you between the eyes, knock you down and change your life through the power of what was Paul's direct spiritual experience. Paul didn't live with Jesus. He didn't know Jesus in the flesh. He wasn't a disciple. He didn't walk with him. He never heard him preach one sermon. He never saw him do one single miracle. He was not there. He didn't sit at a table and eat with him, right? He was sort of maybe off on the periphery, persecuting some of the disciples at some point, but he did not know Jesus. His experience of Jesus is that resurrected, real, living spiritual power who will come down from heaven and nail you and take over your life in a way that changes everything. And we should believe the witness of Paul: God can do that to your life. And if you let God do that to your life, if you let God change you, that's one of the definitions of eternal life, of being saved, right?
And we should be grateful that we have the gospels and we have the tradition of the disciples and the churches who also bring down to us Jesus's teachings. And so we should always listen to Jesus' commandments because what Jesus had to say is extremely important to our understanding of how it is that we ought to live as people who have been seized and transformed by the power of Christ. Not all of us are as lucky as Paul, okay? We don't necessarily have that supernatural experience of God reaching down, blinding us and just taking over our life. I mean, the Holy Spirit just took Paul over. It wasn't his intelligence, it wasn't his will, it wasn't his idea. He didn't say, you know what? I think I'll let the Holy Spirit took me over. That would be a wonderful thing (maybe!) to experience. But not all of us are so lucky. And so when we feel the movement of God in our life and it's not a total takeover, how are we going to live? Paul was lucky. He was completely taken over and he lived like a wild man on the edges of the world and he did his penance for the life he had lived before. But for the rest of us, how are we going to live? We're going to follow the commandments of Jesus. We're going to follow Jesus' commands.
And then I would also say this idea of a righteousness being something that saves us. I also think that that's an important piece of the puzzle. The reason we are transformed by God is to increase our capacity for doing good in the world, right? That's why God transforms us. And there are all kinds of ways that this happens. Maybe God reaches down out of heaven and slaps you around and you are in that moment seized by the spirit and saved. That's an incredible experience. Or maybe you get taken out by a terrible illness and suffering and loss in your life and then you come through it, you work through it with God. And on the other side of that terrible suffering, which was no fair, you discover that your capacity for goodness and love and justice in this world is 10 times greater than it ever had been before. So it's important to pay attention to that idea of faith and righteousness because that increases our capacity to understand where it is that we are going, who it is that we are going to be. You can follow Jesus' commandments and they point you in the right direction. But there's also, in the idea of righteousness and faith, an expanded spiritual consciousness about what is my purpose in my role in a world that is suffering and needs me. So my answer is all three, and probably a little bit of other things as well.
Miles: Something I think about in context of faith, which is a little bit new to me in my life is the concept of a chosen people, which is something that comes up in different religions. I'm curious how you think about that.
Wonderful. So let's talk about the concept of the chosen people in our Christian context. We acknowledge through our history and through the Hebrew scriptures, which are a part of our Christian tradition as well, we adopted them in, incorporated them in through Jesus, that the Jewish people were God's chosen people that God had—this is our theological tradition—God had a special love for the chosen people, the Hebrew people who became the people of Israel. And God had a special plan for those people to be God's special people in some sense, maybe even God's priests on the earth. And then God said, oh, I have an even better idea now here comes Jesus, and Jesus is going to come through this tradition and he's going to come through this bloodline, these people and be a messiah, not just for those people, but for the whole world.
So it's important to recognize that we affirm the Jewish people's claim, and I think we still do theologically, that they are a chosen people.
At the same time, there are a lot of traditions that feel like they're the chosen people. And I think it's important when we think of ourselves as chosen people (And this idea has come even into our American culture quite a bit. The idea that the people coming into the new world were God's chosen people who were chosen for this land to take it over, which is maybe an unfortunate theological echo of what happened with the promised land—of taking it over from the people who were already here and turning it into God's productive land. We had this idea in our heads that we were the chosen people escaping from Europe and coming to this country). So it's important when we think of ourselves as chosen people to recognize that it has a shadow side.
Being the chosen people is a wonderful thing! Man! To be chosen! It's incredible to feel God's finger on you, to feel God's eye, to feel that incredible expectation and to know that there is some great future for you and your bloodline and your people. Wow, amazing. Great. But there's a shadow to it. When that idea gets inflated in your mind, you inflate yourself to believe, well, I'm the only person that God cares about. I'm the chosen one. What I think matters most. What I feel matters most—my life and my land and my rights are what matter the most. And that is something that can happen when we feel like we are the chosen people.
And I believe we are the chosen people, and I believe everybody else is the chosen people too, it just all happens in their own different way, from their own different perspective. What's important is that we remember we're all God's children, we're all God's children. And all of us were chosen to be God's children. So in the idea of being chosen, which is wonderful, incredible, amazing, live in it, feel it, know it, but don't go crazy with it. Remember that you're just a mortal. You're just a human being. You're imperfect. And God has chosen everyone around you too, and their perspectives are just as chosen and just important as yours.
Oh, Bonnie Mohan. For those who don't know, Bonnie Mohan's, my wife. So, this is going to be real good.
Bonnie: So, as your wife, I happen to know that there's a weirdo inside you that I think this congregation doesn't always get to see. And one of the weirdo elements about you is your interest in the paranormal—we went this weekend to a paranormal museum. So, I'm wondering how you see your interest in the paranormal alongside your beliefs in God.
So Bonnie wants everyone to know that I'm a weirdo who's fascinated by the paranormal. And so she's asked me to comment on that. And let's talk about for a second (to just put it in a little bit of perspective) the Transfiguration, which we read about in our scripture reading this morning. Here's this incredible miraculous moment where Jesus is utterly transformed in front of three of the disciples. He's up there and he's talking with these two spirits, Moses and Elijah. They're there, they're speaking together, and God's voice comes down from heaven, Jesus becomes blazing white light—a miracle! If you were to go and experience something like this today, you would call it a miracle, you would call it supernatural, you would call it weird. It's incredible thing that's happening up there.
I believe that these kinds of miracles, transfigurations and maybe some of the other weird stuff that happens in our lives (it doesn't have to necessarily be a UFO or a ghost, but those moments where you get stopped in your tracks and you say, wait a minute, something outside of my normal humdrum day-to-day, boring, materialist reality is trying to get my attention here. Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe it's seeing something out of the corner of your eye, or maybe it's just like you all of a sudden are seized by a kind of spooky feeling in the dark and you feel like something is watching you, something is trying to get your attention—a dream you might have), I believe that these kinds of miracles and maybe some of these supernatural phenomenon, paranormal phenomenon are the inbreaking of God's meaning into our physical world. That's what happened at the Transfiguration, right? God's meaning became so concentrated in Jesus and his relationship to his tradition and to those disciples that the meaning had to come out in the physical world and the physical world couldn't contain it as dead matter any longer. It came alive, spiritually alive. And so that's my answer about why the paranormal, supernatural stories of miracles and saints interest me so much is I see it as one way that meaning God's meaning, God's purposes and intentions and Spirit break into our world in an actual physical way. And if you believe in miracles, you believe that that's something that can happen.
Rita: Do you think physical God as man will walk on Earth again? Or more the miracle of a vision, for example?
Do I think that God in human form will walk upon the world again? Walk in the world again in physical form? Wow. What a wonderful question. My instinct, my intuition here is to answer it like this. I believe that Jesus Christ came into the world in order to show us the reality that that which is human can be so much more than human because Jesus was fully and totally human and at the same time fully and totally God. Now I believe that that was unique, and I don't believe that that's what's happening for you or for me. And yet God was showing us something that we couldn't have possibly believed before. And we even now today, have trouble believing that which is human is a perfectly acceptable, wonderful, beautiful, possible container for everything that is good, holy, sacred, beautiful, and divine. The human can fully contain, be filled up with to overflowing with that which is God. Now we're mortal and we're imperfect and we're never going to be Jesus. And yet there is a way, I believe, through faith in Jesus and through the process of coming to know God more deeply and coming to know our own self more deeply, that God comes alive in us and we walk a little bit more with God's feet and our hands even more become God's hands in this world. Which isn't to say that we are gods, we're not, but we're not "just human." We're more. God made us to be more. And Jesus is that absolute confirmation. You can be more than "just human." You can be more through your faith in Jesus. God comes into the world, not just through Jesus's incarnation, but through the incarnation of each and every one of us in a smaller way. That's what the Church is. It's Jesus's body on Earth now that he's gone, and each and every one of us is a part of that. So God is on Earth through the Holy Spirit, through our miraculous incarnations, through our associations and relationships with one another as a church reaching out into the world. Great question. Thank you.
Wonderful questions everybody. And we've got to stop, but we'll do this again sometime soon. And if you did have a question you didn't get to ask, email it to me or let me know and maybe I'll turn it into a sermon sometime. Thank you.
We’re only in Mark, chapter one. Mark, chapter one. Jesus has hit the ground running. He has called his disciples, he has taught in the synagogue, he has cast out demons, he has cured the sick. He has already had to sneak off in the dark to get a little peace and to pray. And when his disciples find him, they tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.” Everyone is searching for you.
I wonder if that line is true in some larger sense than the disciples could have imagined. I wonder if everyone is searching for Jesus. I believe that everybody is searching—or at least hoping—for something. The condition of many people outside of the Church, or another religious tradition, is that they don’t necessarily know what it is exactly that they’re searching for. But they’re all searching for something that will satisfy some deep longing within them. And the condition of many people inside of the Church is that because the answer to the question has been provided to us all along (Jesus is the answer, of course) and we didn’t necessarily have to discover it for ourselves, many of us have not truly experienced the question that I believe Jesus is the answer to.
And so we’re something like the people of the planet Magrathea in Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After waiting 7.5 million years for their supercomputer, Deep Thought, to produce the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything, the computer spits out the response “42.” 42? After expressing dismay that they’ve waited 7.5 million years for the number 42, Deep Thought explains to the Magratheans that this is indeed the answer, and that the problem is simply that they don’t truly understand the question yet.
And so the possibilities in my mind of these two groups of people getting together are limitless. On the one hand, the unchurched seekers who are walking the streets every day trying to find their way and longing for a sign to point them in the right direction. On the other hand, the churched seekers who have long held and studied the map of the city and who long to experience the profound miracle of being lost and then found. If we mix the questions and the answers we’re going to get a chemical reaction that produces energy, light, heat. In other words, transformation.
Soren Kierkegaard, the great 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian, and existentialist argued that truly hearing and responding to the Christian message demands a personal transformation, a leap of faith that sets one apart from the crowd. This is a challenge in a Christian environment or culture, where Christianity is often taken for granted and not lived out in the radical manner that Kierkegaard believed the New Testament portrays.
In Kierkegaard's view, the very familiarity of Christianity paradoxically makes it more difficult for individuals to genuinely engage with and understand the Christian message. He believed that in spaces where everyone is considered a Christian by default, the radical and demanding nature of true Christian faith is often watered down or ignored. Kierkegaard has convinced me that if the story of how we came to be Christians and the story of how we got to the answer of Jesus is simply that we were raised in a Christian land or in a Christian church, instead of a story about a radical encounter with a God who heals, exorcises, and saves, with a God who has transformed your life, then our story will always lack the existential depth and commitment to be able to convince anyone (including very often ourselves) that our answer matters.
If I’m right about this, then the unchurched should be able to find Jesus inside this sanctuary. But only if those who are churched and holding the answer have first found Jesus outside the sanctuary—Jesus not in the form of an answer, but Jesus in the form of “the least of these,” Jesus in the form of human beings living, and enjoying, and suffering a human life. Jesus can only be convincingly offered as the answer if those who hold that answer have truly experienced the question for themselves and the transformation that comes when the key is fitted to the lock and the door that blocked your way is finally opened wide.
Do you believe that Jesus is the answer? If so, what question or what experience or what deep longing in your life has Jesus provided the answer to? It’s the answer to the second question that makes your answer to the first question matter. No one is going to care that Jesus is our answer unless we back that answer up with a story, with an experience, with some measure of devotion and love scratched out of the hardships of this life. That’s why addicts in recovery are some of the best evangelists. Because they’ve lived and suffered through some of the worst experiences of what it’s like to try to satisfy the terrifying longing at the center of life with stuff (like drugs and alcohol) instead of with (what the 12-steps call) your “higher power.”
To me, Jesus the answer must always be secondary to Jesus the question. And that means, as a church, we should orient ourselves first and foremost toward those who question, rather than orienting ourselves first and foremost to those who have the answer. We should prioritize those who seek, rather than those who have found. We should prioritize our own doubts, our own questions and experiences, our own failings and longings. We should tell these stories to one another. We should tell these stories in church. Because nobody wants an answer from somebody who doesn’t seem to understand the question.
Everybody is searching for something. And Jesus is an answer available to every person that can bring profound meaning, comfort, healing, challenge, love, and purpose to our lives. Whether we are unchurched and longing for an answer or churched and longing to experience our answer actually transforming our lives, we are all searching for Jesus. And we will find Jesus most fully when we come to embrace the true meaning of what it means to be searching for Jesus—the simultaneous experience of being both lost and found. This is the point of convergence where transformation can happen for all of us, where Jesus ceases to be an answer and becomes what he truly is—the experience of everything that truly matters and the grace and love that surround us all.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Now about three years ago I preached a sermon on the fear of God—the exact topic was put forward by our own Craig Wood who asked, “How can we fear God and love God at the same time?” A great question. And in response I guided you away from fear and towards love. I told you all that we’re not supposed to be abjectly terrified of God. And it’s deeply unfortunate that some of us have been raised in traditions where we’re made to feel afraid of God and God’s righteousness and anger and ability to punish us in life and in death.
And I explained that there’s actually a translation issue going on here. The ancient languages had fewer words than we do in our modern languages. Modern English has 170,000 words in current usage. Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, had about 60,000 words—110,000 fewer words. Ancient Greek was a less precise, more metaphorical and poetic language than modern English because every word had to do more work, it had to carry more meaning. There was no Ancient Greek word for “awe.” There was no Ancient Greek word for “reverence.” There was no Ancient Greek word for “numinous.” There was no way to say in Ancient Greek, “And it was an awe-inspiring sight.” They literally didn’t have the words. So, how would they convey the meaning? They’d have to say something like, “And seeing the angel he fell down quaking in fear.”
So, the word that meant “fear,” in certain contexts, had to mean more than just fear; it had to point at these more complex, nuanced feelings. When we read about fearing God, it's about having profound respect, awe, reverence in the presence of the Almighty, it’s not about being afraid of God. Don’t ever confuse love with fear, I told you—that can lead to some very unhealthy relationships. And the fact of our faith is that you don’t need to be afraid of loving our loving God.
MMM. That was a good sermon, right? But one sermon can never say it all. One criticism I could make of my sermon three years ago was that it was a little too tidy. And folks like a tidy sermon—I get it. But God is almost never tidy. And so this Sunday I’m going to try to bring back—to recommend to you all a little bit… a little bit of fear.
The fear of God means awe before God, reverence to God, yes. AND it also means FEAR. We can’t dismiss that. It’s too big a clue to ignore. There’s a reason that the word “fear” in the ancient languages carried these other ideas of awe and reverence. It wasn’t chosen at random. It could never have been, “The happy-happy, joy-joy, good time of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Those feelings just don’t live in the right neighborhood. Is God a source of happiness? Yes. Is God joy? Yeah. Is being with God a good time? Sure. AND if you want to find awe, if you want to feel reverence, if you want to come into the presence of the God who is in all things and beyond all things, if you want to get to wisdom, occasionally you’re going to need to go looking in fear’s neighborhood. And the psalmist suggests to us this morning that fear’s neighborhood might just be a good place to start.
Jesus taught us that God is our loving, heavenly father. And this wasn’t something we had ever really encountered before. And he taught us this as a corrective measure—not in terms of gender, of course (you can’t do it all), but in terms of the attitude of God. God is not distant or aloof. God is not an untouchable king, not a cold judge, not an alien power. God is as close, as warm, as intimate, as caring, as involved as a loving parent is. It’s a strong spiritual medicine, meant to bring us back into harmony, but not to utterly erase the other Biblical traditions of God. So, we don’t need to fear our loving, mother-father God. And yet God is so much more than any one metaphor or symbol. It is beyond our ability to put God into a box, to tidily label God and then say to God, “God you will behave according to this metaphor and this metaphor only. Don’t show up in my life as anything scary. That’s not allowed.”
Now, I assure you that God doesn’t want us to cower in fear in God’s presence. But fear is a perfectly natural reaction of very small, mortal creatures like ourselves when we come into contact with a God who is ultimately wholly and utterly beyond the tiny little boxes that define our reality. And it is, in fact, spiritually healthy for us, from time to time, to tremble in the presence of a loving God who opens all our boxes, unties all our knots, overflows all our containers, and reminds us that anything is possible and perhaps our most cherished ideas about what is true, about what is real, about what is just, about the ways we should live, and what is important, and what is meaningful are not total, are not complete. In the presence of a God who is so wholly other, so completely beyond us, we may even feel something like terror. And yet if we are not overwhelmed by fear, if we don’t go running away, grasping to our own ideas and our thinking, refusing to let God take control, we will also feel the mercy of being relieved from our illusions that we can do it all our own. Once you have truly felt the fear of God, you begin to understand the truth of grace—you will see that our existence depends totally on a Mystery we will never fully understand or control. And that is an awe-inspiring sight.
So, this morning I’d like to recommend to you, on occasion, to seek out situations or experiences that make you tremble a little. When I stand in my back yard here in New Jersey, and I look up into the sky at night, so bright with city lights, full of the roar of airplanes, I don’t feel a thing. But out in the woods, in the wild, in the mountains, the sky at night is bigger, vaster, deeper, scarier. It’s not just a few bright stars you see, you look up into the vastness of the universe. Everyone should find a dark spot at least once a year to look up into the night sky, to see the Milky Way, and to feel almost impossibly small, lost in the vastness of creation that is full of the vastness of God. Light pollution is a spiritual problem. We’re so enlightened! We think we have all the answers. But sometimes our light just closes our eyes to the true reality of the problem. We edit the big sky out of our lives. We stop looking up.
Something that made me tremble once was a silent meditation retreat. For a full-day, we sat in complete stillness and silence, facing the wall and focusing on our breath. And in that deep stillness, I could feel the fear creeping in. Fear of my own thoughts and emotions, fear of the unknown, fear of facing myself without any distractions or noise. I had these bizarre fantasies around lunchtime about having a medical emergency that would force me to leave. It was terrifying and eye-opening at the same time. And in that fear, I found a deeper connection to God, a sense of awe and reverence for my own existence and for the vastness of the universe. It was a powerful reminder that sometimes we need to let go of our comforts and persist through fear in order to more deeply understand ourselves and God’s presence in our lives.
I don’t know what the right experience is for you, but I recommend you seek out the opportunity to tremble a little in God’s mysterious presence. I recommend experiencing whatever emotions you feel when you open up your grasping hands and let God truly define you and your life. Step into the vastness of God's presence, and allow yourselves to be moved, to be challenged, to be transformed. This is the beginning of wisdom—a journey not away from God in fear, but towards God, with a heart full of reverence, love, and awe.
Our reading from the Psalms this morning asks us to wait in silence for God—to rely totally on God and God’s action. Salvation comes from God—not from this world, not from my own effort, not from anything else other than God. So, I must faithfully wait.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul suggests that we run like we were in a race—to win it. We should train (as hard as athletes do) for the gold medal of salvation. And we shouldn’t just take one of those popular boxing classes where you punch the bag but nobody ever actually takes a swing at you. We need to get into the ring and really compete so that we can become masters of ourselves. Paul proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ to others, but fears that if he doesn’t live the gospel out in sweat and blood, in effort, and in self-mastery that the gift he offers others may be denied to him.
So, which is it? Should I take the advice of the psalmist and rely totally on God and God’s grace? Or should I follow Paul and make every human effort possible to win salvation?
Growing up in church as a kid, I mostly got the message that the most important thing was to have faith—faith in God, faith in Jesus, to believe. And I did believe. But by the time I was in high school I was beginning to see the world more clearly—how broken and violent and corrupt and unjust it was, all the suffering of God’s people around the world—much of it preventable, much of it caused by us—other people.
Suddenly it felt like my faith alone wasn’t enough. If I really believed in a God who was bigger than me and was best described as love and righteousness, was lip service to the Kingdom of Heaven really enough? It felt hypocritical to say that I believed in the Bible but that I believed in the Bible so much—in faith alone—that I was somehow exempted from living out the Bible’s full vision for God’s people. It was like saying, “I believe totally in vegetarianism” while eating a hotdog and not seeing a problem there. At some point you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, right? Like Paul says, you’ve got to go all in. It felt to me like the church knows how to talk the talk, but do they really know how to walk the walk?
By the time I was in seminary, I knew that faith and grace and waiting in silence weren’t going to be enough for me. I had no plans to ever be the kind of minister who is standing in front of you right now—serving a traditional church. I wanted to actually do something! I wanted to put faith into action! I wanted to be the change! I wasn’t interested in charity or token acts of compassion—“tossing a coin to a beggar” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously put it. Like King, I wanted to transform the social and economic systems that reduced people to begging in the first place. I was interested in revolutionary justice—liberation theologies, ending poverty, shoring up workers’ rights, organizing, supporting the voices and the movements of marginalized people. And I poured myself into very left, very progressive Christian and political spaces and organizations for years.
I was right where I wanted to be, with extremely dedicated people, sacrificing every day, fighting the good fight, and making a difference. And in those very same progressive spaces, I found a lot of dysfunction, a lot of self-inflicted suffering and pain, and a lot of infighting caused not infrequently by injustice and unfairness in the very power dynamics of the movements that were fighting for justice and fairness.
But most devastating of all to me was the endemic burnout and the holistic unhealthiness of all that endless sacrifice and nonstop effort to make the world a better place. And even in the explicitly Christian spaces it felt like the working belief was that it was all up to us. The project of making the world a better place rested entirely on our shoulders alone. Waiting for God? Listening for God? Relying on God? To us that seemed, at best, naive and at worst it was just a way for people to assuage their guilt and let themselves off the hook of their responsibility to love their neighbors as themselves.
We believed that somehow faith in God’s grace, in God’s plan, God’s action had gotten in the way of the true path of human responsibility and effort. The ironic consequence of all this was that effort, and good works, and making a difference (which had come to define my faith in God) had now left me so spiritually depleted that they had almost undone my faith in anything at all. I began to reflect and to realize that I couldn’t—we can’t—do it all by ourselves. We need God to be fundamentally involved.
Once upon a time, there was an orphaned sparrow who fell out of the nest and was all alone in the world. When it came time for him to learn how to fly, he decided he should seek flying lessons from Eagle who was admired by all the birds for his abilities. Sparrow climbed up to Eagle’s eerie and asked him what he should do to learn to fly. “If you want to fly,” Eagle said, “you must trust the Air and its currents. Stretch out your wings and let the wind carry you along.”
The little sparrow followed Eagle’s advice to the letter. For days he simply stood on the ground, stretching out his wings and trusting. Every once in a while, he felt something—a little rustle or breeze—that made him feel sure that he was on the right track. But after days of waiting with his wings out, he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
One day Hummingbird darted past and saw the little sparrow standing on the ground with his wings out and his eyes closed. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m learning to fly!” chirped Sparrow. “What simpleton taught you that that’s the way to fly?” shouted Hummingbird. “Eagle told me I needed to trust the Air, and it’s currents will carry me wherever I need to go.” “Oh, that old superstition!” said Hummingbird with contempt. “Listen, kid, if you want to learn to fly, you’ve got to flap your wings like me.”
The little sparrow started to flap his wings and got immediate results. He flapped his wings so fast he sounded like a little helicopter—Whir! Whir! Whir! And to his delight, by the end of the day he was off the ground (Whir! Whir! Whiirr!), and the next day he was in the treetops (Whir! Whir! Whiiirrr!), and by the next day the sky was the limit (Whiirr! Whiiirrr! Whiiiirrrrrr!). But by the fourth day he was so exhausted he couldn’t even lift his wings up from his sides and hold them out, let alone fly anywhere.
The little sparrow lay on the ground panting, his dream of flying through the heavens seeming more distant than ever before. That evening, as the sky turned a soft shade of orange and the air cooled, the sparrow felt the gentle caress of a breeze once more. Lying there, exhausted, he didn't worry about the fact that he had proven with his flapping that Air was just a superstition—a crutch for birds who didn’t want to fly; he simply let the breeze envelop him, feeling its subtle power, feeling the way it moved through his feathers, feeling like his whole body was designed to be touched by it.
In that moment, as he gave in to the quiet presence of the Air around him, he felt a renewed strength and determination within him. He flapped his wings—once, twice, three times—not a blur of frantic energy, just enough to let the Air know he was there, that he was ready. And then he stretched out his wings and he soared. Rising into the sky he thought he heard the wind whispering to him with every gentle, intentional flap of his wings, “Yes! Yes, little sparrow! Let’s do it together!”
In the end, the sparrow's journey mirrors our own spiritual journey. Faith and works are not exclusive; they’re complementary. Faith inspires action, and action stirs up and expresses our faith. We need the wisdom to know when to act and when to be still, when to speak and when to listen. Our faith is not measured by one or the other but in the delicate balance between the two. Too much flapping and we will fall flat. Too much standing around and waiting for Air to do all the work, and we’ll never leave the ground.
This is what I’ve learned in my journey. Just like there’s no such thing as flying without air, there’s no such thing as action, or transformation, or revolution, or dreams, or vision, or any kind of change for the better at all without God’s grace. God’s action, I think, is best described like the activity of air: Every once in a while, it gives a mighty blow, but most of the time it’s simply the invisible medium that carries us along, that empowers us to express our faith in the first place. Air is there because it expects us to fly. But if we lose sight of the fact that we were designed to fly through air, we’ll create for ourselves a spiritual vacuum that will leave us stranded.
Like the psalmist we must learn to rely totally on God. Like Paul we must endeavor to make every effort. And like the sparrow, we must learn to do both at the same time. In the balance, we find the true freedom to make a difference, to accomplish what seems beyond our reach, held aloft by the love and the power of something much greater than ourselves.
1 Samuel 3:1–20
You know, it’s funny because I’ve heard this scripture reading so many times in my life. And, of course, I’ve always identified with Samuel. Samuel, the young up-and-comer who speaks with God. Samuel, the golden child, who has his whole life ahead him. Samuel, the chosen one, destined to become a great prophet and leader of his people.
Do you remember when you were young and everyone simply admired all your potential, rather than anything you had actually accomplished yet? That wasn’t so bad! I remember that feeling so well. I remember feeling intoxicated by the possibilities! “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as Dr. Seuss put it.
I’ve always identified with Samuel. But I can’t keep identifying with this child or this young man forever, can I? At some point I have to face reality here. My whole life isn’t ahead of me anymore. I’m somewhere in the middle of things. I’m not all pure potential anymore. I’ve actually had to do stuff—I’ve had to make choices, sometimes tough choices. I’ve come to forks in the road and had to commit myself to the left or the right and leave the other way behind. I’ve had successes. But I’ve also had failures. People don’t admire me for what I might accomplish anymore, they sum me up by my successes and my failures.
Yes, I’ve had failures, and disappointments, and realized (slowly, painfully) that I might not be as perfect as I once thought I would be. It turns out that perfection is just that state, unique to youth, before you’ve actually had the opportunity to mess anything up yet. So, as I cross more deeply into midlife, I realize I now have more in common with Eli than I do with Samuel. Eli, with his faults and his foibles and failures. Eli who is getting older, and heavier, and weaker. Eli who had the best of intentions, who always wanted to do the right thing, but who hasn’t always succeeded. Eli, who has now learned of his ultimate fate: After all his service, all the good he has done, he will be judged by his failures rather than by his successes. His end and the end of his line is assured. This wasn’t the dream he had for himself when he was Samuel’s age.
We’re getting more and more used to the downfall of powerful and famous men in our culture. Especially since the Me-Too era, each shocking new revelation of personal depravity becomes less and less shocking to us. But, of course, Eli isn’t guilty of anything like that. He is at core a good person who has tried his best. The crimes he is being judged for aren’t even his—they’re his sons’.
But today when famous leaders are called out for bad behavior, what’s the next step? They deny it. They fight it. They attack the accusing party, attack the media, attack their political opponents. Not Eli. Eli, who was a fundamentally good man, accepts his fate. “It is the Lord,” he says, “let him do what seems good to him.” I find that incredibly admirable—that willingness, that ability to accept a judgment that must feel like a bitter disappointment, that must feel completely unfair. But Eli accepts his fate. He accepts reality.
I heard this wonderful story recently about a friend of a friend. Let’s call her Sarah. And Sarah was in my phase of life—middle-age. And life hadn’t gone the way she thought it was going to go. She had dedicated her whole life to serving the most vulnerable people in our society—people living on the streets without shelter. And it’s hard work. And she had breast cancer. And she’d just had a double mastectomy. And she’s alone without a partner of any kind. And she’s just burned out at the bitter disappointment that life has turned out to be.
And so she goes on a trip to Italy. And at her first stop in Sicily she basically accidentally (because she’s not religious) finds herself in a little grotto underneath an old, ruined stone church. And there’s a man down in there—an artist—making angels’ wings. And he tells her that this is what he does all day: he sits under the church crafting these angels’ wings and thinking about the meaning of life. And so she asks him, “Oh really? What is it? What’s the meaning of life?”
And in the conversation that ensues she ends up telling this total stranger (who is not the kind of person she would normally trust or open up to) the whole bitter story of her life and her suffering. And when she finishes, this big, burly Sicilian man, wraps her up suddenly in a bear hug, squeezing her chest to his chest. And she’s immediately terrified and uncomfortable, but then she just let’s go and she starts weeping in his arms.
And when she’s done, she tries to sort of tap out of the hug. But this guy doesn’t let go, he keeps squeezing her! And something releases in her body, and she breaks down again, but this time she’s not weeping she’s sobbing. And when it passes, she tries to break away. But he still won’t let go. He’s squeezing her and saying, “It’s OK, Sarah. It’s OK. Life is beautiful! Life is beautiful!” And she breaks down a third time, not just crying but convulsing uncontrollably with grief and mourning. And then he lets her go.
And he tells her he’s a priest and he takes care of this ruined old church. Why? Well, he takes her down into the catacombs underneath the church where the bones of all the old priests—some going back to pre-Christian times are piled up in the dark. And Sarah realizes she has to run, she needs to catch a train to her next destination. And so she runs out there, and then the rest of her trip through Italy is the most amazing, Spirit-filled adventure of her life. Sarah’s ears are tingling and around every corner there is some person or activity or coincidence that makes it feel like after a long, long silence God is speaking directly to her.
What happened? What changed? I think Sarah stopped fighting it. She accepted it—her life, her suffering. She accepted it for what it was. She went down and saw all the old bones of her life piled up in the underworld—the flaws, the failures, the mistakes, the missed opportunities, the disappointments, the losses, the dreams that never materialized, and she accepted them for what they were. Acceptance is the greatest form of release. I think it’s when we refuse to accept the ghosts of our past that they haunt us and refuse to leave us alone. But when we visit them, accept them, and take care of them, we’re able to move on. “It is the Lord,” Eli says, “let him do what seems good to him.” This is not a passive statement. To get to those words, Eli had to do the work of total, radical acceptance of himself—the good and the bad.
And Eli, like Sarah, doesn’t give up. Eli doesn’t say, “Well, if that’s the way you’re going to be, I’m just going to go home and wait for death.” He continues to do his job to the best of his ability until the terrible day of the death of his sons in battle and his own death on hearing the news. He continues to mentor Samuel. He continues to give himself to his people and to God. While Eli is one of the most extreme examples of this we can think of, it seems like an important point for understanding how to live life after we’ve accepted we’re not perfect and that life isn’t fair. If you give up, you lose. And the rest of us lose because we lose your experience and your perspective. Perfect people make terrible mentors. Terrible. Perfect people can only mentor perfect people. The rest of us need a screwup—someone who can teach us how to be faithful through disappointment. Which is Eli’s superpower here.
When I think of Eli, I think of former president Jimmy Carter who famously transitioned from a one-term presidency into one of the most impactful post-presidential careers in American history. Jimmy Carter, like Eli, faced significant challenges and some might say failures, during his time in office—from economic troubles to political strife, like the Iran hostage crisis—that led to a loss in his bid for re-election. Yet, he did not fade away or give in to bitterness. Instead, he emerged as an elder statesman deeply committed to promoting peace, health, and human rights across the globe. He is hands down the most admired living former president, and he’s admired now on both the left and the right. Because he has managed to transcend the political divide, which is a very difficult thing to do in America today.
We see here a reflection of Eli's ethos: a life well-lived is not marked by uninterrupted success but by the willingness to stand by one's principles, to continue contributing positively to the community, and to teach others through one's own experiences of imperfection and resilience. I think there’s a word for this: wisdom.
Wisdom is what comes on the other side of failure and disappointment. A perfect person will always be a young fool. But the rest of us have a shot at the true greatness of a wisdom that will be valued by our whole community. And this is Eli’s greatest gift to his people in the end. It is Eli, flawed though he may be, not Samuel, who knows how to listen for God. It is Eli, through failure, through acceptance, and through commitment who knows how to really hear what God is saying. And without Eli to teach him how, Samuel would have never heard God’s call.
Wherever we are on life’s long journey, let’s not be afraid to identify with Eli. He is a good mentor for those of us who know what it's like to experience the full spectrum of life's trials and triumphs. Life is not a race to perfection but a pilgrimage through the underworld of our old bones. Remember Eli's wisdom and you might find that your greatest legacy lies in the wisdom you pass on, the lives you touch, and the quiet, indomitable spirit that refuses to give up, teaching us all how to be faithfully imperfect.
This morning we’re recognizing and celebrating Epiphany, an ancient Christian feast day, which officially took place yesterday on the 6th. January 6th was Jesus’ original birthday in Christian tradition. Many, many centuries ago, before Christmas, Epiphany was the double celebration of Jesus’ nativity (that’s why the Magi show up) and his baptism (because people believed he was baptized on his 30th birthday). And the baptism at that time was more important than the birthday, actually.
Here in the West today, Epiphany is the end of the 12 days of Christmas, one final stop 0ff at the manger, and in centuries past it was also one last feast, one last party as we left the holidays behind. Some of that celebration still lingers in other countries, but here in the US, Epiphany has never really played a big part in the secular holiday tradition, and January 6th is now unfortunately better known for other things around here. But this morning, I’d like to recommend not January 6th but Epiphany to the celebrations of your house and your heart.
What does “Epiphany” mean? Epiphany is an ancient Greek word. It’s translated in the Bible as “appearance” or “brightness,” but that doesn’t do the word justice. Literally, we could translate it as “the shining on,” but the shining on what? Well, Epiphany always means in the Greek the manifestation of a god or a heavenly being on the earth. When Homer in the Iliad or the Odyssey, writes about a god or a goddess showing themselves to a mortal or intervening in some battle or other mortal affair, he doesn’t say “Athena shows up” or “Athena pops by” he says, “Athena shines.” In our scripture reading this morning when Herod secretly calls for the Magi to find out more about the star, he doesn’t ask them when the star first appeared, he asks them when the star first shone.
The Epiphany of Christ could be translated as the “Appearance of Christ,” but that translation is boring and incomplete. A better, more poetic, and more personal translation of the Epiphany of Christ is “the Shining of Christ on US”—on YOU. And I think that’s a better way to exit the Christmas season—with a reminder that Christ is shining in the world and shining directly onto you—rather than a hangover on New Year’s Day and then back to work with all kinds of promises to be a better, more productive, more disciplined person. Nothing wrong with a resolution, nothing wrong with a little self-improvement, but Christmas isn’t about you trying harder at life. It’s about what God is doing in your life, it’s about the light of Christ in your life, and how you respond.
So, let’s talk about the first responders—the Magi. We usually call them the “Three Wise Men” or the “Three Kings.” Let me blow your mind here: In our scripture reading this morning there’s nothing that says there were three Magi. Could have been two, could have been 12. We don’t know. There’s nothing about them being wise or being kings. And, as was already beautifully demonstrated to us this morning by our three wise women, we don’t even know if they were men! Saying that they were “three wise men” is just more comfortable to Christian tradition than reinforcing the specific reality that Jesus’ first visitors were a bunch of foreign magicians. But there was something special about these pagan magicians—they were able to see what most people couldn’t—the shining of this new star.
In our Christmas celebrations, the star of Bethlehem is usually really huge in the sky. You couldn’t miss the thing! And that makes sense because otherwise it wouldn’t make a great decoration. But it’s pretty clear from the scripture reading (and from historical records) that this star wasn’t a supernovae or a comet. It wasn’t some big, obvious sign in the sky that everybody saw. Maybe it was a star that nobody else in the world, but these Magi, had noticed. It must have been small. Maybe it was dim. Maybe in a sky full of bright lights, it was lost in the background. In other words, those Magi must have been paying attention to the light. They must have been looking for it.
When Athena appeared in the Iliad, she shone, and then she grabbed Achilles by the hair and she turned him around to look at her. That’s quite an entrance! I wouldn’t mind God showing up like that in my life to be honest. Very direct. Hard to ignore. And it happens here and there. But for the most part our God, our Jesus, doesn’t show up like with a bang to the heroes of the world. Our God shines gently for the whole world to see. And we have some work to do to be able see it. And then after we see it, the journey into the world can begin.
Hopefully, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the light this Christmas season. The journey to the manger is over. And now, just like the Magi, we must return to the real world. But the Magi receive one final dream that tells them to go home by another way. Don’t go back the way you came. You’ve seen the light, you’ve followed the light, you’ve received the shining of the baby on you, now you must return to real life on an altered trajectory. Don’t re-enter by the same door you left through. You are transformed, so find a new way forward.
Beloved, the Shining of Christ on YOU is not an invitation to a passive admiration; it’s a call to an active transformation. We are meant to be like the Magi: seekers, finders, and then bearers of the light, bearers of good news wherever we go. Yes, the world is filled with conflict, anxiety, violence, greed, sorrow and despair. You see that clearly, of course you do. But you have also seen the light that shines in the darkness. And you know that the darkness shall never overcome it. And that is a faith and a hope that the rest of the world needs to hear from you.
We're called to embody the light, to be mini-Epiphanies in a world that has grown accustomed to shadows. In a world obsessed with the fame of “stars,” we’re called to point out the one star that matters most, lost in the light pollution of a hungry, consuming culture. We go back into the world as vessels of the light we have encountered. We’re called to illuminate the dark corners, to warm the cold places, to guide like the Bethlehem star.
Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Don’t give up this broken world. God hasn’t given up on it. And God sees us—you and me—as the lamps that will light the way to a new dawn. We must meet injustice with fairness and mercy, pain with healing and compassion, violence with resolve and love. Jesus shines on us and we reflect that light.
Shining on others as Jesus shines on us is the true calling of those who have seen and known the light. This is the heart of Epiphany. This is the journey. Beloved, Christmas is ending, but we must shine on. Shine on for the world. Shine on, in service of the one who shines on us.
The Temple was a place you could put your faith in. Imagine it with me: Approaching Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph and the baby, it’s the Temple that you can see from miles off; it’s the Temple that makes up the entirety of the great city’s skyline. Passing through Jerusalem’s walls, in every quarter of the city, wherever you go, the sky is dominated by the Temple’s immensity. Finally arriving at its base, you see great staircases climbing and twisting up three stories before reaching the height of the lowest courtyards. Cunningly carved out of natural features that had been extensively reinforced and expanded upon over centuries, there are—here at the base—carved stones, some 26 feet in length and weighing up to 400 tons—megaliths so large that today science has lost the arts that could have moved them, let alone place and stack them with such exacting precision.
Climbing up to the heights of the walls or the towers of the Temple, 20 stories above the city streets below, you can see an expanse of open architecture that could hold every cathedral, every mosque, every sacred site you have ever visited in the modern world—all of them together—with room to spare. Spread out over the mount, across a space that could hold 27 football fields, you see dozens of buildings and courtyards, bridges and aqueducts, gateways and marketplaces—each with its sacred and civil purposes, leaving room between for up to one million worshipers. You are looking down upon the largest religious construction in all of human history at the height of its glory.
And there at the center of the mount: the Temple itself, the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells, where the Presence of the Lord IS. In the courtyard just outside it, the blood from sacrifices runs over the hewn stones, and the viscera of lambs, and doves, and bulls sizzles on great beds of red hot coals. The greasy smoke climbs up into the sky to delight the heavenly hosts with its pleasing smells. On the journey home, miles away, if you turn your head back over your shoulder you will still be able to see the thin smudge of dark smoke ever rising, reminding you that the heart of the world is still there, beating, pumping lifeblood, touching heaven in its ineffable way, doing the work that is pleasing to God.
The Temple is a place you can put your faith in—ancient, huge, and holy, it connects heaven and earth, humanity and God, the beginning of creation and the end of all times. Its walls contain us and protect us. Its weight anchors us. Its smoke tethers us to the Holy of Holies and lifts us up to Heaven.
Babies, on the other hand, are the exact opposite sort of thing from temples. They’re brand new—untested and unproven. They are small, fragile, weak, rather useless and, frankly, ill-formed. Their heads are ridiculously big, their limbs are comically short, it takes years just to get them to use the toilet, and then decades more hard work from extended family, friends, church, teachers, doctors, orthodontists, therapists, coaches, and counselors just to get them their first decent paying job and to actually start being productive members of society.
Babies? Babies are—cute. Temples… define us. Babies can’t do anything, they come with no guarantees, no return policy, and are really nothing more than—than a possibility. And you do not know what you are going to get.
So, I’m not that surprised that in all the Temple that day, filled with tens of thousands of worshipers and visitors, in all that ancient and mighty place, there were only two old souls—Anna and Simeon—who saw the Baby Jesus and who recognized him for what he was—a messianic possibility, a change in the temple tempo, an unfixed future—and who were willing and able to celebrate this uncertain sort of salvation. Of all the pious pilgrims in the Temple that day only Anna and Simeon held the baby in their arms, sang to him, prophesied about him, and thanked God for getting to glimpse the possibility of the Good News, for seeing with their old, dim eyes this small and rather unlikely beginning.
What made Anna and Simeon different from the rest? Perhaps, the Holy Spirit was speaking to the whole of the Temple that day, with a spiritual shout to their souls that said, “Come and see! Come and see the anointed one, God’s Messiah, the Christ, who will reconcile the whole world to God! Who will throw open the doors of the Temple! Who will flip the tables of the money changers! WHO WILL DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY!”
And maybe a lot of people did, without consciously realizing it, obey the command and wander through the crowds until they brushed past Mary and Joseph, straining intuitively to get a glimpse of God’s salvation, and seeing—where they had hoped to discover another Temple, another Holy of Holies, another old friend, a Messiah entire who breaths fire and knows my name—just a baby, 40 days old.
“Ahhhh,” they thought to themselves in the deep chambers of their pondering hearts, “hmmmm... Not quite what I was hoping for. I think I’ll wait and see. A few miracles maybe, some good sermons like the old high priest gives, and of course a strong arm, natural leader, head of a great army, fond of me. When he marches forth with his army from the Temple mount and reaches down to pull me up on the back of his horse, looking deep into my eyes and touching my soul, then I will follow him... to our certain victory. But for now—too risky, too uncertain. Frankly, it looks like he needs me more than I need him! Ha! So, let me go and make my sacrifice and go home again and if this was meant to be, at some point, he will come and find me.”
Anna and Simeon were different. Though they had spent their whole lives in the Temple, though in some symbolic way you could say that they were the Temple, they were willing to put their faith and trust in the disruptive possibility—the mere possibility—of something new—of a baby.
And now here we are, poised on the threshold of a new year. Are we like the throngs in the Temple, holding tight to the structures we know, only finding solace in the immensity and certainty of the established, the sure thing? Or are we like Anna and Simeon, with eyes that can spy the eternal in the transient—the divine possibility in a humble beginning?
What will we put our faith in in 2024? As you look ahead into the new year, if you’re like me you’re probably dreading some things—the war in Gaza, the war in Ukraine, the presidential election. And when you’re dreading big stories like these or perhaps others or possibilities in your own life, the tendency is to feel that only some big miracle, some grand sign or wonder, some total victory can make the world a better place. But those old souls, Anna and Simeon, tell us that there is another way to find a way through difficult times. Are we ready, like those old souls, to embrace the small, the uncertain, the mere possibilities that lie before us? Possibilities that (just like little baby messiahs) might need us right now more than we need them? Will we have the courage to offer our blessings to God’s possibilities? Or will we go home and continue to wait?
God’s work is often found in the unexpected: In imperfect people, in small acts of kindness, in quiet moments of prayer. God's presence is not always where we think we should be looking for it. It’s not always locked away, under guard, in the Holy of Holies. Sometimes it's in the hand that reaches out in compassion, in the word spoken in love, in the heart that gives selflessly. Will I give my very best to the little opportunities to make the world a little better in 2024? Or will I go home and wait for the world to settle down and start being nice again?
As people of faith, our call this New Year is to watch for the opportunities that God is offering us to have hope and to make things a little better. It's to believe in God's possibilities, even before they've matured, even before we fully understand them. It's to have faith like Anna and Simeon—who knew deep in their hearts that the possibility in a baby was a greater reason to hope than all certainty in the world.
The possibilities for this coming year are as limitless as our willingness to hold them and bless them when they’re still just possibilities.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations