Friday, February 24, 2017

When Glory Overwhelms (Luke 9:28-45)

Can any image do justice to this text?
The Transfiguration of Jesus. How do you describe such a powerful scene? Is it all “Hollywood” with bright lights and everything’s a soft, just out of focus blur? Or, is this scene best left to the imagination of the audience, with the film maker only opting to focus on the stunned faces of Jesus’ disciples?  However you picture it, probably it was just like that as well as something far greater. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in divine glory. You will forgive the Gospel writers if they try to use words to capture what happened that day. You just cannot capture the moment.

Vague attempts at describing the Transfiguration of Jesus might be as follows: overwhelming glimpses. Sounds a bit like an oxymoron: seeing more than you can handle but in just a brief, fleeting moment. But perhaps that’s for the best. In the biblical texts, any time you encounter even just a moment of God’s presence, the experience just cannot be tamed into easily recountable words or images.

Nonetheless, when one encounters God, there is good reason to speak of the experience. It may come in the oddest of moments or at the most appropriate times, yet you know that in the midst of things, you have encountered God. The best way to enter into the Transfiguration narrative is to hear about those times when God has been experienced. You might call them “mountain top moments” or “God sightings” as a pastor I know used to call them.  

The writer Robert Coles shares a wonderful story of an argument he once had with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was an advocate for the poor and the church’s calling to identify and live with those in need. Dorothy Day was also a person accustomed to staring down her opponents (bishops included). A formidable servant of God is the best way I would put it after reading her story! Thus, an argument with Dorothy Day would be quite memorable.
Coles and Day were arguing about how the spiritual life really worked. Coles said that he pressed Day on how she knew spirituality worked. Dorothy Day explained that we live long, secular days and experience short sacred moments.

In the religious world, “secular” is a word that we tend to use as “the opposite of something that is sacred.” Day had experienced in her own life this knowledge that no matter how long things went on that seemed mundane or not necessarily out of the ordinary, there were always times, even if brief, when you experienced something unmistakably evident of the sacred at work.

Of course, there is another dimension to experiencing “sacred moments.” When we are suddenly in the midst of such a spiritual time, it is more than just feeling. The Bible tells of many times of mere mortals experiencing time in God’s presence. The most intense of these experiences is called a “theophany”. When Moses stands before the burning bush or Isaiah is taken up into the highest heavens to be called as a prophet, again, words seem so shallow to capture the moment. But look at any decent Bible dictionary, and you’ll read about theophanies as always ending, no matter where they occur, with a call to serve.

Jesus took these disciples up the mountain to pray. As you will remember, Luke’s talk of the prayer life of Jesus is always on the fervency of Jesus ‘ prayers. Jesus withdraws to pray not because of being overwhelmed but because of his connection to God. Jesus invites his disciples to a life not fraught with duties and obligations, but one of passion, and devotion even if it is shaped by sacrifice and simplicity.

The disciples fall asleep and miss out on the beginning of the transfiguration of Jesus. They wake up to see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and Jesus caught up in divine glory. As they scramble to their feet (and their brains are a little scrambled too!), they start trying to figure out how to mark this occasion. Peter even suggests that they set up a marker to commemorate the event.
Then the divine voice rumbles from above: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And suddenly all that talk of drawing up a holy monument goes to the wayside. The disciples fall silent.  Their first response is not to speak.  They are overwhelmed by the Holy. 

Yet, in true human fashion, as soon as they are silent before God, the disciples start trying their best to come up with something to explain the moment.  Sometimes, God cannot be explained, yet we will exhaust ourselves trying to explain God and God's ways.

To make sense of the Transfiguration, or any moment that is God-suffused, we need to wrestle with the “so what?” question. We see a brilliant sunset, receive a wise word at just the right time, or experience a moment that suddenly makes sense of the knot our life seems to be in. To experience God is not about “feelings”; it is about “knowing” that God is prompting us to something beyond our imaginings. The disciples are overwhelmed by the moment, confused by the moment, and even try to make sense of the moment by offering to build something commemorative. Then the voice of God speaks, and they realize that there’s something much bigger going on. In the true fashion of a holy experience, they realize that words just cannot make up explaining what has taken place.

The brilliance of the Gospel traditions, Luke and Mark alike, is evident here. When the disciples descend to the places down below the mountain, Jesus and the disciples are asked to help people in need. The call to serve is made quite clear when the disciples come down from their high places and encounter the needs below.

One error that the Church often makes is keeping faith all about the high moments. Over the centuries, Christians have tended to put their energies into building big monuments that are commonly called “church buildings”, “cathedrals” or “church campuses”.  We do this for the glory of God, yet we tend to forget that the church is really about people, not buildings, and if we are ignoring the needs of people around us, we are missing the gospel that Jesus preached and modelled.  Even when affirmed by God, Jesus did not ignore the needs awaiting him down below.

The healing of the child at the bottom of the hill symbolizes our own call to be disciples who can have these “God sightings” AND know how to live out a life shaped by the call to serve God and tend the needs of this world.   We must remember that even in the blessings and joys of encountering God at work in the little and big things of this congregation’s life are indeed blessings and joy, but they are also calls to serve.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Explorations in Baptist history: Adam Clayton Powell Senior

Rev Dr Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
In the history of New York City churches, surely the Abyssinian Baptist Church is among the great congregations to rise up and minister to the urban multitudes.  Among their past ministers, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. is among the most visionary, leading the church to move to Harlem to replant the congregation in the midst of the neighborhoods changing rapidly with the influx of African Americans moving into the City as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. 

Among those Powell influenced was a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose worldview was reshaped by hearing Powell's sermons and experiencing the ministry of Abyssinian during his brief sojourn in the United States.  Certainly, many biographers connect Powell as a main motivator of Bonhoeffer's decision to return home to Germany as part of the resistance to Hitler and Nazi Germany.  [A more in-depth study of the Bonhoeffer/Abyssinian connection is found in Reggie L. Williams' Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).] 

Powell was not without his detractors.  In his award-winning book The New Abolition: WEB DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015), historian Gary L. Dorrien recalls Powell's challenges within the congregation and among his fellow African American Baptist clergy.  Early on, he dealt with a faction of the church that wanted to bring back his predecessor, even going as far as to ensure the provided clergy housing was in a building across from the church and with a working brothel in the apartment above.  The church was resistant to his vision to relocate the church out of mid-town Manhattan, even as Powell rightly predicted the shifts of the City's African American populace to Harlem. 

As part of the social gospel movement of his time, Powell envisioned the church far more engaged in the community and dealing with social needs and challenges.  Holding a meeting for potential stakeholders, Powell found stiff resistance among the one hundred black Baptist leaders, including "one minister [who] delivered a fifteen-minute tirade against the idea of a community center before asking what it was" (Dorrien, 438).  Powell's vision of "a place where the people of the community could learn things and be together" did not match many clergy's vision of the church as a place for evangelism alone.  All but eight of the visiting African American pastors declined further involvement with this project, leaving Powell primarily dependent on partnership with the then predominately Euro American organization the Baptist New York City Mission (presently known as the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, one of the ABCUSA's most diverse Regions).  

Powell would found a food pantry, create programs and grow Abyssinian's presence in Harlem throughout his ministry.  Nonetheless, the lack of support from his fellow pastors must have been painful.  He did not seek further outreach to his black church colleagues for the next eleven years (Dorrien, 438). 

While the social gospel is often associated readily among Baptists with Walter Rauschenbusch's body of writings, Powell incarnated the precepts of a progressive and evangelizing ministry in his many years at Abyssinian.  Perusing the website of Abyssinian's current day ministries and mission, the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., is well evident (

Powell credited his ministry and pastoral passion to the experience of growing up in difficult circumstances.  At nineteen years old, Powell was living hard and playing hard as a miner in Rendville, Ohio.  A chance encounter with a powerful preacher on a Sunday morning "sent an arrow of conviction to his heart" (Dorrien, 426). He credited his rediscovery of faith as a key element to his rising up from a troubled youth and becoming a pastor. 

Particularly, Powell credited  the mentorship of G. M. P. King, President of the Wayland Seminary and College (later known as Virginia Union University).   Under King's influence, Powell recalled:

"To me, [King] possessed the magnetism of the polestar.  His life radiated beauty, goodness, courage, honesty, truth and love.  These virtues cannot be taught by words.  They can only be imparted by a life which possesses them in abundance." (quoted by Dorrien, p. 427).

Exploring the life and legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., we discover how a good mentor helped a young person connect with the ways that move many, not just the one, forward.  Influenced by such a "polestar", Powell multiplied the gospel message through the many ministries coming out of Abyssinian and into the neighborhoods around Harlem and well beyond. 

NOTE:    For more on the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson conducted years of interviews and a great deal of research to author her Pultizer Prize winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration (Random House, 2010). 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Learning to Breathe Again (Psalm 146)

This Sunday morning, I am the guest preacher at a church in a time of pastoral transition.  Led by a very able interim minister, the church has benefited from the careful time of being in discernment about its future and processing how it understands its identity, mission and its past history.  

As a Region staff member involved with the pastoral search and call support to the church, I thought about the best text for the Sunday morning service with such a context outlined above.  I opted to share a sermon around the 146th Psalm that calls us to praise and to remember to Whom we have our very breath--if we remember to breathe!

When I moved from Kansas City to Bennington, Vermont, years ago for a new pastoral call, I joined the local Choral Society. It was the first time since college to be part of a choir singing really more demanding material.  After the first night, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two full hours.  While it was stimulating and engaging, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from singing a few notes I had forgotten how to reach up above the comforts of the bass clef.
One of the key elements of singing is whether you can breathe well. Finding the pitch, being able to carry a tune—these are helpful, but you also have to be able to breathe so that what you are trying to sing has adequate support. Good breathing skills are needed to sing, but they take practice, and that night in September, I realized how out of practice I had become with these skills. Nonetheless, to be able to keep up with the demands of singing the music well, you have to improve your breathing skills.
When the psalms speak of praise of God, the ability to breathe is part of the act of praise. Praise and breathing are intertwined in the Psalms, and for good reason. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, particularly in the Psalter, we breathe only because God has given us breath.
          As the Creation narratives unfold, the book of Genesis refers to the wind and breath that enlivens Creation as that of the Spirit of God being imparted. Without God’s activity, Creation has not come alive. In Genesis 1, the winds that move over the waters and the very act of bringing to life the first human is about God breathing life into Creation, humanity included. (Even the Hebrew word used for wind or breath as well as describing the Spirit of God, called by Christians as the Holy Spirit, is breathy in its pronunciation: ruach.)
Thus, the 150th Psalm calls out, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” reminding that all of Creation breathes together the same breath of life. Thus, the 140th Psalm’s vision of God as “provider of all” refers to death as when God’s breath is taken away such is the Psalter’s notion of how dependent we humans are on God. Thus, the melancholy of the 144th Psalm as it refers to humans as those “who are like a breath; their days like a passing shadow”. The Psalms come from a theological worldview that ties breath and life together as gifted to us by God. Thus, in turn, the act of praise comes about because we have breath, and especially when the created finally remember with all due reverence the Creator who has given us the breath!
The failing of humanity, however, as the 146th Psalm puts it, is when we falter in remembering from where our praise and breath comes from. Psalm 146 gives a criticism here that should be noted: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” The Psalmist offers a contrary word to the way things tend to work in this world. It is in God alone that we find our hope and trust.
See the first two verses of Psalm 146. These are the type of verses of the Bible that you encourage people to memorize and keep close to heart: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (Ps. 146:1-2) If you are able to keep these praises close to heart, and these “princes” or “powers that be” at arm’s length, you have begun to live a more authentic life, getting away from those things that may seem to sound good now, but later and inevitably run out of air.
The psalm turns us away from the foolishness of this world and reorients us to the way of life that helps us breathe again. The spiritual life is not just for emergencies only or the deeply pious. The Psalms are to accompany you by the bed stand, the dashboard, the cubicle at work, the places where you find a moment’s respite, just as they have been there for ancient Israel and all those generations afterward who seek wisdom. In reorienting ourselves back to God, we remember that the only gift we have in this life, the only asset is life itself. What we make of it can be wonderment as well as disaster, but we are better off starting with the simplicity of the Psalm, geared to that which helps us breathe and give due praise rather than disdain or disregard to God.
In my exploits of rejoining a choir, I found myself assigned to sing one of the solos during one of the programs.  For most of us who sing but have no designs at being a professional, it's not just something you go out and belt out like it is American Idol.  I found myself obsessing about number of last minute things. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing to remember: breathe.
I started with the Choral Society as a way to have something beyond the church on a weekly basis.  (Pastors need something like that.  Some find it on the golf course.  Others find it in the choir room.)  Most weeks, I found myself dragging on the way there for a Monday night practice, wore out still from Sunday and frankly sometimes I found myself sometimes pondering, “Should I just go home and hide?” or worse, “Should I go back to the office and keep working?”  (For others, you might find this a familiar conversation with yourself regarding going to the gym.)
However, I kept going, just to give me something that does not involve the rigors of parish life. Ironically, the group sang mostly sacred music, but it is nice just to concentrate on the music without having to think of leading worship, answering email, and figuring several impossible parish matters out before breakfast, because the choral rehearsal is able to turn me back to praise.
During most Monday rehearsals, I would go home with my feet hurting, my back hurting, my voice is weary, but at choir, I find myself breathing more easily. The same could be said for the work of ministry: feet hurt, back hurts, voice weary, but if I can learn to breathe, I’ll find myself leaving behind stress and the seduction of “getting things done” or worse, trying to be “the best”. Instead, I might just find myself getting around to the most important thing: praise.
One other deft movement within this Psalm is also noted. While the Psalmist appeals to the individual to turn away from the tempting personal gain thought to be found in this life, the Psalmist reminds us of whom God is. It is not enough that God’s people get themselves straightened out and reoriented to their own little journey in faith. It is also about being able to praise God, the One who is steadfast in support and care of those otherwise marginalized, usually by those same “princes” or “powers that be”. The thing to keep in mind about the “powers” that try to get us to run our lives by their desire is this: they may not last, but their policies and practices can create a world of hurt for the less fortunate of the world that lasts sometimes over the generations.
The God of Psalm 146 is deeply concerned with those who are less fortunate in this life: the oppressed are given justice; the hungry are fed; the prisoners are liberated; the blind are given sight; the righteous vindicated; the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner are tended. This is the song that ancient Israel and all the generations thereafter are called to sing. As Water Brueggemann says when ancient Israel, the community first called to this psalm’s performance, takes up the Psalm of the day, “Israel sings, and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing”. This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart!
God is not like that puff of air that disappears. God is steadfast, or “keeps the faith forever”. Steadfast is a word that the Psalmist uses that you do not use lightly in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be steadfast means to be undeterred and unshakeable. Again, the Psalmist revels in the irony of human life: we chase all manner of things, only to find that they, and even ourselves, are like a puff of wind. God, the very wind of Creation, is the only stability, and so, again, the Psalmist says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”
I encourage you to talk to one another about ways that you feel God calling you to breathe together as a church.  When you catch your breath, it’s often because you are winded, but it also helps you return to a time where balance can be restored.  When a church has a pastor depart, it can be a time of breathlessness—anxiety, nerves and residual feelings left unprocessed as a pastor departs and the “what’s next?” questions mix together.  During your transition with Pastor Bill, he has encouraged you to think about these concerns and feelings, work through ways to address short-term and long-term needs, and to feel strengthened by the transition and its opportunities for change more than frightened or overwhelmed by them.
You have done this because you have remembered to breathe.  You have done this because you remembered to breathe together.  You have done this because you know from Whom your very breath comes.
Let’s sing our praises to the Lord!  AMEN!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Wise teachings to ponder

Reading the Sunday Gospel text, I recalled two different stories that have some connection with one another. 

In the Matthew reading, Jesus is offering the crowds his Sermon on the Mount.  Just after he gives the Beatitudes, Jesus says,

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-16, NRSV)

In my ruminations, I recalled a bit of rabbinic lore that I believe has some parallels to the Gospel reading:

The rabbis tell a story about a student asking a teacher when it is dawn.
The student asks, "Is it dawn when you can see well enough to tell a sheep from a dog?"

"No," the rabbi said.
"Is it when it is light enough to tell one kind of tree from another?"

"No," the rabbi said. "It is when you can see the face of a stranger and recognize it in the face of a brother or sister.  Until then, no matter how light it is, it is still very dark."