Thursday, February 18, 2010

Remember You Are Dust!

Ash Wednesday

Each year on Ash Wednesday we remember our mortality. As pastors make the sign of the cross on foreheads, we say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As a lay person, I recall going to worship and hearing those words spoken to me, and having a momentary twinge, thinking, “I will die some day.”
But now that I’m a pastor, I’m the one who looks parishioners in the eye, I’m the one who says those words, I’m the one who makes the sign of the cross in ashes. And I’m the one who recognizes with each person that I could be doing their funeral between now and the next Ash Wednesday. It’s an especially chilling moment when children are among those to whom I speak those words.
This year in particular, we have two specific reminders of our mortality, as we say good-bye this week to Bea and Evelyn. We never know when it will be our time to die. Several among us in the congregation are seriously ill, and many more have had recent brushes with potentially fatal diseases. The other day, as Mike and I headed south on I-75, we narrowly avoided a major crash, as a dozen cars ahead of us slammed on their brakes, probably to avoid a reckless driver. 
Since we don’t know when our time will come, it makes sense that we want to live every day the way God wants us to. We know that our behavior does not determine how much God loves us, but our behavior is one way to demonstrate our relationship with God.
We get recommendations on how to behave from our Scripture readings. The Prophet Joel and Jesus both urge us to turn our hearts to God. Joel repeats the frequent refrain of the Old Testament: “Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And Jesus says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
These two comments sound to me like the First Commandment, which can be summarized as “Put God first in your life.” If we do that, everything else in life falls into place. If we put God first, we remember that God gives us life, and God receives our life when we come to the end of life – when we return to dust. We remember to spend time in prayer, when we put God first. We remember that God is the source of everything we have, when we put God first. We remember that God cares about all of creation, and we remember that God cares about all people. So, if we put God first in our lives, we will want to care for ourselves, for creation, and for each other, the way God would.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Since we do not know when our time to become dust will happen, it’s important to try each day to put God first in our lives. It’s important to store up our treasures, not in banks, but in heaven.
Yet, most of us lose focus on God. We get sidetracked, we forget to keep the first commandment, we forget that God is the source of all that is, and all that we have. We put our trust in how much money we have, we put our trust in our jobs, we put our trust in planning out our lives and in believing we are in charge of our futures. In these ways and many more, we lose our focus in life, and we wander far from God.
And so we need also to remember Joel’s call: “Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” When we realize that we have strayed from God’s plan for our lives, and return to the Lord, God welcomes us back with Jesus’ open arms, stretched out on the cross in love.
This is one reason why people fast during Lent – to have a tangible reminder of the intentional focus on our mortality and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, to remember God’s steadfast love, to keep the focus on storing up treasures in heaven for the entire 6 weeks of Lent. The constant reminder that we can’t have something we are accustomed to enjoying constantly forces us to repeatedly commit to the fast, and to the reason for the fast.
If you do choose to observe a fast, make it something you will really miss, so it becomes a serious effort each day. Make it something that helps you remember God gives you everything you need each day. Make it something that forces you to remember God even gives you life.
Make it something that reminds you that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Get your shine on!

February 14, 2010

Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43

There’s an old Bette Midler song about the relationship between God and people. The lyrics speak about peace and harmony, and an end to hunger and want. And the refrain goes like this: God is watching us. God is watching us. / God is watching us …  from a distance. 
We like our God to stay at a distance most of the time, to not interfere in our wants, to not challenge us to change our thinking and our focus. We believe we know what’s best for us and don’t want God mucking it all up. We do also want Jesus to be near us, in a comforting, reassuring way, but mostly, I think, we like God to keep a significant distance from us. This preference is some of what’s going on in today’s scripture passages.
Moses had been meeting regularly with God. At first he was not permitted to see God, but at one point, he was able to view God’s backside. They continued to meet together, as God shared the divine plan for God’s people with Moses, so he could pass it on to the people. God shared how much God loved the people and wanted their worship and obedience in return.
The Ten Commandments summarized this covenant relationship God envisioned. If the people will claim this God, this Adonai, this I-am-who-I-am as their God, then Adonai will be their God, and they will be the people chosen to spread God’s love throughout the world. They will share God’s blessings with others in loving ways which glorify God.
The more Moses heard, the more his face shone with God’s love and glory. Such nearness to divinity scared the people – they believed that one could not see the face of God and live, yet here was Moses who had done just that! What might happen to them, however? Would they still live after seeing God’s glory written all over Moses’ face? So, to lessen their fears, Moses chose to put a veil over his face, except when he was sharing God’s own words.
The prophets often heard messages from God, and had visions, but there is never a report of them bearing God’s glory in their persons. They were, however, often filled with God’s Spirit. They saw in visions what God’s glory was like – for example, filling the temple to over-flowing– but their encounters with the divine were nothing like what Moses experienced.

Jesus’ disciples were certainly not expecting what happened when they climbed the mountain with Jesus. Tradition has it that they were on Mount Hermon, in the north of Israel – a mountain high enough to have snow on it, and with lots of faith history to it. Today, this mountain is along the border between Lebanon and Israel, in the region called the Golan Heights.
Jesus took Peter, James and John with him as he climbed the mountain to spend some time in prayer. He had just told all the disciples for the first time that he was going to Jerusalem to be tried and killed, and in three days he would be raised from death. He certainly needed to pray! And he needed the in-group of disciples to understand that he was more than a human messiah – he was God’s Son – God with skin on, so they could support him, and lead the others as time went on.
As Jesus prayed, the disciples struggled against sleep, and were rewarded with an amazing sight – a change in appearance of Jesus, and the presence of Moses and Elijah. This could only mean one thing – that they were in God’s presence, and that Jesus was indeed God. God was definitely in that moment NOT at a distance! This was confirmed by the voice from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
After a moment, the vision of Jesus clothed in God’s glory faded, and Moses and Elijah disappeared. Peter wasn’t sure what to make of the experience, and the three of them kept silent about it until later when they could make sense of it.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that on the very next day, Jesus and the disciples were immersed once again in the daily lives of hurting people. The other disciples, those who had not gone up with Jesus to pray, had not been able to heal the boy of his demon. This seems surprising, to us and to Jesus, since they had healed other people. Jesus cast out the evil spirit in a moment – divine power obviously present in the healing.

The Apostle Paul tries to explain this experience by comparing Jesus to Moses. He explains that Moses wore the veil on his face – because the people wanted to keep God’s glory at a distance. But, in Jesus, that veil is lifted and God’s glory is revealed in a way that we humans can look at it and experience it without fear.
Beyond that, some of Jesus’ glory is visible to us, and what’s more -- lies within us -- thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit. So, rather than keeping God, and God’s glory, at a distance from us, we are actually filled with it! Since we are filled with divine glory, we are to share the glory with others who need to know and experience it.

We occasionally see some of this glory expressed in the love between a man and a woman. When I perform marriage ceremonies, I love to look in the faces of the bride and groom. As the groom and I stand at the front, excitedly awaiting the bride’s entrance, the groom is filled with such love it shines from his face. And as the bride enters, she has eyes only for the groom, and her face also shines out her love for him.
God’s glory is expressed in human love – between a husband and wife, of course -- but also between church members, and between Christians and those around and among us who hurt. How often do we allow such love to shine through us? Don’t we hide that love because we aren’t sure we are worth it? Don’t we hide that love because we believe some of those we know aren’t worth it? Don’t we prefer to hide that love behind politically correct boundaries and centuries-old prejudices?

Your challenge for this week is to watch for ways in which you can see God’s glory. You can look for it in nature, and I hope you do. But I hope you also look for it among people. You may most easily find it as you watch children, but you may also find it among your friends, neighbors, or co-workers.
I also challenge you to let some of God’s glory to shine through you, so someone else can find it. Share some of that divine love and glory with someone who is grieving, or hungry, or working hard.
Give a smile, a real smile that goes beyond a polite nod.
Give a hug, and hold on for a moment, so it is a real hug.
Cook a meal, do a chore, offer a ride, give a compliment, or lend an ear.
Whatever you do, offer yourself, and some of Jesus’ love, as you do it. Pass on God’s glory in such a way that the recipient knows God is not at a distance, but a very real presence in their lives, because Jesus is a very real presence in yours.

Please pray with me. God of glory, you come to us and we resist you, because we are afraid we are not worthy. God of mercy, you come to comfort and heal us, and we know we have been touched by your hand. God of love, you come to us and fill us with love, and ask that we pass on that love. Grant us the courage to see your glory unveiled, and to look with love at those around us. Amen