In 1868, the great American Episcopal preacher, Phillips Brooks, penned his best-known text in the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” inspired by a visit he had made to Israel in 1865. More than once, we have mined this hymn for the beauty of its words and richness of its imagery. The phrase that’s stuck in my head today is the joining of the “hopes and fears of all the years” as they meet at the foot of Bethlehem’s manger, I am drawn to the convergence of these two, presumably opposed, emotions because our own day and age is wrestling with just such a convergence.
Among the readings for Advent, we hear twice Luke’s angel say, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” As we know, this is a familiar theme in scripture, especially when an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” seems like an appropriate word when confronted with the mystery of the holy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel fear if some sacred figure showed up at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I know Old Scrooge was shaken to the core as the spirits appeared in his locked chamber, well after midnight.
To: Christian leaders in the United States The statement—“An Appeal to Christians in the United States”—reflects a growing alarm that our country is entering a very dangerous period in which some political leaders and some media are directly challenging our most fundamental Christian convictions. The statement is consequently a theological affirmation. We hope that you will read the statement carefully and join those who have already signed their names to it. (Sign on here.)
AN APPEAL TO CHRISTIANS IN THE UNITED STATES
We the undersigned are deeply concerned that in the current political climate many politicians and many in the media are calling on Christian voters to abandon our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to turn from His call to discipleship. We appeal to all of us who are seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus to reject such calls, to reaffirm our Christian commitments, and to seek to be agents of God’s justice and reconciliation in the world.
A fundamental conviction of Christian faith is that God is sovereign over our lives, over all nations, and over the course of human history. When we abandon that faith we surrender to fear on the one hand and to pride on the other. Both pervasive fear and overweening pride violate our commitment to the lordship of Christ.
Because of fear we too easily caricature or condemn those who are different from us. Politicians and too many in the media stereotype African Americans, Asian Americans, people from Hispanic background and followers of Islam. If we follow their lead, we slander our neighbors and blaspheme against the one God of all peoples. We resist such stereotypes and pledge to work for laws and practices that honor the dignity of all people. Continue reading An Appeal To Christians In the United States
Here we are up on the mountaintop with Jesus. He seems to spend a lot of time in places like this. Sometimes it seems a little selfish when there is still so much need down below. Still, it’s pretty exciting that he’s brought James and John and me along this time. I guess I feel a little selfish when it comes to having alone time with him. It’s always a hassle down there with so many crowded around, making their demands, crying their woes, laying their troubles on him. It’s a wonder he has anything left to give by the end of the day. Maybe that’s why he comes away on these secret journeys into the hills and mountains, usually by himself. He must be looking for someplace he can just sit, clear his mind, maybe get a little sleep. We can’t really begrudge him some alone time, can we?
But, my, this seems like a lonely, desolate place. The night is dark and the wind is howling. That wind is bone-chilling and it looks like a storm is brewing. I’m glad we’re all together and I’m glad he’s not alone up here tonight. I can tell you if I was up here alone, I’d down-right scared. It’s pretty risky to be up here at all this late. I wonder what it is he’s looking for. What is it that draws him to this mountaintop on a night like this?
Don’t you imagine something like this must have been running through Peter’s mind that night on the mountaintop with James and John and Jesus? Even with the Teacher present, he must have felt uneasy – for himself and for the others, if we know anything about Peter’s tendencies to take on responsibility. This beginning may not seem like anything we usually think of when we imagine mountaintop experiences.
Mountaintop experiences tend be either the literally breath-taking trips we’ve made up into real mountains with their dizzying heights and sweeping vistas, or perhaps those experiences that lift us to new insights and understanding of the world, of one another, of ourselves, of life, of God. I’ve talked before on Transfiguration Sunday of the experience I had on the summit of Mount Boulder in Idaho, not only of the glorious view but also of the momentary view of glory. I can also remember the wondrous vacation we took driving through the Alps. What about you? Have you had something you would consider a mountaintop experience, something about which you might be willing to share a few words with us this morning?
So, as wonderful as our experiences were, imagine what happened to Peter that night on the mountain. Not only was he in a small, intimate group with Jesus, which must have been amazing in itself, he was about to see things that he would never forget, things that would change his life forever. That’s what happens when you enter into the cloud of Presence, the Shekinah, the aura of the Holy, those thin places where you encounter the Living God. That’s what Jesus was doing up on that mountaintop. He was seeking an audience with God. He was practicing a discipline of opening himself to the Holy Presence that was inevitably transforming. In this mountaintop experience, Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah the prototypical prophet, walked and talked with him, and the very voice of God declared that he was “beloved.”
By the time the vision began to fade poor Peter and James and John were huddled on the ground, terrified. Well, wouldn’t you have been? The experience had to have been overwhelming! I picked the picture for the bulletin cover because I wanted something to portray a little of this mountaintop experience as a crackling bolt of lightning strikes the mountain and the thunder echoes through the valley below.
So in many ways we know something of mountaintop experiences. We also know we can’t hang onto them, nor can we repeat or re-create them. Each is unique, once in a life time. It may shake us up, elevate us, transform us, but it comes to an end. A loving hand, a gentle touch, shakes us awake, brings us back to earth, points to reality beyond the mystical experience. “No need to be afraid.” It’s the gentle voice of the Beloved of God. “No need for fear. I am with you – always, whatever happens, whatever we encounter along the way, wherever God leads us – even to the ends of the earth and fulfillment of time.” What does one do with such words of assurance? Are they not even more powerful, more life-changing than the miraculous vision of the mountaintop experience? God was onto something, something each of us needs to hear, to understand, to practice – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Listen to him. Hear Jesus. Follow his lead. Walk his way. As we move toward Lent, that time of prayerful preparation for the great celebration of the Resurrection, this seems like pretty good advice. What if we were to adopt a Lenten practice of listening to Jesus, of opening our ears and eyes, our hearts and minds to what Jesus might be saying to us as we journey with him once more to Jerusalem, to the inevitable conclusion of his earthly ministry on a Roman cross? Might we, too, experience some of the transformation that remade Peter from a terrified fisherman, completely out of his element up on a bare mountaintop in the middle of a stormy night and an abject failure who betrayed God’s Beloved, the very one who loved him so, into the rock of faith on which the church is built, powerful preacher, healer, witness to the way and martyr for his ultimate commitment to that same Beloved one. If such a one as Peter be transformed, might not we?
But this is not just about personal transformation. It’s also about community transformation. It was a small group up on the mountain – none of them alone. Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, willing to listen to him and follow him, there he is right in the middle of their life together, binding them into one, then drawing them out, luring them on, touching their terror and urging them not to be afraid. When God urged Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus, I wonder if they thought back to the Sermon on the Mount, another mountaintop experience. When he touched them with tender reassurance, I wonder if they thought back to those words that Kathy read for us.
“Don’t be afraid, friends. Don’t worry about the future. Look at the wildflowers. Look at the birds. See how God cares for them. See how they rest assured in God’s hand. God is present on the mountain top and God is present in the everyday.” Listen to him. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Of course, we need food and shelter and the other necessities of life but nothing material will give us the life that God urges us to choose, the way of the commonwealth of God. In next week’s gospel reading Jesus will tell the Tempter that human beings cannot live by bread alone. Listen to him. We need something more. We need every word that issues from the mouth of the Holy in order to be complete. Listen to him. “…strive first for the [commonwealth] of God and [its] righteousness, and all these things – everything you really need – will be given to you as well.” Well, there’s a promise you can live on.
I don’t want to press this point too hard, but we have some challenges that lie ahead for us as a congregation. We have some important decisions to make about our life together. We need to be in careful and prayerful discernment about those challenges, our options and our beliefs. We must be considerate about not rushing to judgment about the possibilities or about one another. Above all, we must be open to God’s leading. We are God’s people and this is God’s church. Some of what we have to consider is risky and may be anxiety producing, even fearful.
As we move into this time of discernment, I hope and pray that we will feel the gentle hand of Jesus on our individual and collective shoulders, urging us to not to be afraid, to walk this way without anxiety, listening to Jesus and looking to God for guidance. Whatever decisions we make, God will still inhabit our mountain tops and our every day. Jesus will still lead the way and the Spirit will still move in our midst. Possibilities of transformation lie before us if we open ourselves to them. We can journey on and, when we need to, we can rest, assured that there is more light, more love, more life ahead, even for us. Amen.