Sunday, February 24, 2008

Journey by Stages

Jon Burnham preached this Lent 3A sermon from Exodus at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on February 24, 2008.

In their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel came to a place with no water. The people complained against Moses and tested God. The people of Israel journeyed by stages to the Promised Land. In a similar fashion, we journey by stages in our spiritual lives as we evolve through different levels of consciousness. James Fowler discusses the Stages of Faith development. Philosopher Ken Wilber has contributed greatly to this field of knowledge. We are on a spiritual journey through Lent and we journey by stages through this holy season from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday.

We journey by stages even in mundane situations such as training a dog to walk on a leash. I was inspired to walk my dog Pal on a leash after watching Cesar Millan demonstrate how to do it on his TV show, Dog Whisperer. It would seem obvious how to walk to a dog but if you will notice the people walking dogs in your neighborhood you may notice that more often than not the person is not walking the dog but the dog is walking the person. The Dog Whisperer teaches how a person may walk a dog and not the other way around. For instance, when walking a large dog the leash should be placed high up the dog's head just behind the ears so that when you pull on the leash the dog will feel constricted in the throat and so is more likely to follow your lead. Secondly, the dog should always walk one step behind you and never in front of you because this demonstrates that you are the leader and the dog is the follower. Finally, the most important part of the walk is how you begin the walk by stepping outside the door of the house. Cesar recommends you walk out the door first and let the dog follows behind you on the leash. By stepping out the door first you are demonstrating to your dog that you are in charge of this experience and that you will be walking the dog rather than the dog walking you. So there is a method even to walking a dog.

I followed the Dog Whisperer's advice as I began to teach my dog Pal to walk on a leash. Several months later, I was walking my dog, Pal, around the back yard of our house on a very hot morning in Mississippi. It was hot and humid and dry and dusty and I was thirsty. Round and round we walked inside our fenced in back yard. I had a leash with a short rope around Pal's neck and made sure he walked one step behind me as I had learned from the Dog Whisperer. As we walked and round the yard, I realized that I had been walking through a spiritual desert for several years. I found satisfaction in nothing. I was going through what mystics refer to as the night of sense which is a time of trial and a purging of the physical appetites. I was so thirsty for some experience of God. Suddenly it dawned on me that just as that leash tied Pal to me, his master, so Jesus had a leash around my neck that tied me to him. But while Pal was delighted to have the leash around me and was happy to be walking with me, his master, I was not delighted to have Jesus' leash around my neck and I was not delighted to be walking with my master, Jesus. I was not grateful. I was resentful. Like the children of Israel murmuring against Moses, I was murmuring against Jesus as Jesus was leading me on as if I were on a leash.

As the children of Israel as they journeyed by stages through the wilderness toward the promised land, so we as a congregation and as a society are journeying by stages through a time of great transition. From scientists we hear about the transformative power of nanotechnology that promises an upheaval in society only matched in the past by the industrial revolution. From medicine we hear of the possibility of new therapies that may enable humans to live into the hundreds of years of age as did some people in the Old Testament accounts such as Abraham and Sarah, who parented a child when in the 90s. How do we "go on ahead" of this society in order to find water in the spiritual wilderness of a postmodern world? The Spirit beckons us the church to "go on ahead" of the society and this is hard for us to do as a church. We are accustomed to being reactive rather than proactive. We are by nature a conservative organization. We Presbyterians are not know for being on the cutting edge of technology but we are known for being on the cutting edge of mission. When it comes to mission, we have a history of going on ahead of other churches and religious organizations. We are trail blazers in the area of mission to the community. If we are to build on our strength, we will be asking how do we go on ahead of other churches in reaching out to Southwest Houston in Christian mission? What human needs should we meet? How may we remain faithful to our tradition and yet use technology in new ways in our worship and service in order to remain relevant in this rapidly changing society? These are some of the questions of "going on ahead."

The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go."

Going on ahead requires courage and discipline but the effort is worth the reward. Failure to go on ahead means we may get left behind. So let us be about the task of going on ahead of the cultural changes we are living through and learn to flow with the Spirit into the bright future God is already arranging for us. These are exciting times to be alive and we are blessed to be alive at this time in human history. Let us fulfill our sacred duty to God and humankind by being faithful to our divine calling in practical and meaningful ways. Leadership means going on ahead of the people. Our Session needs to go on ahead of the congregation. We need to be out there leading them toward our next destination.

When we take the chance, when we put ourselves out there, when we go on ahead, and finally get there, wherever "there" may be for us, we make a startling discovery. We are not the first ones to be there. We may think of ourselves as trailblazers, first movers, early adopters, but we never have to worry about getting too far ahead of the crowd. However far we may go when we "go on ahead" we will find that God is already there. God is already there. That is what Moses and the elders of Israel found when they went on ahead of the people. In fact, God had already told Moses and the leaders that God would go before them and he tells them again in our text today. God says: "I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. So we relax in the knowledge that God has already gone on ahead of us and is already there wherever it is we are headed. God is there waiting for us at our future destination. And when we finally catch up to God, God says: "Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Go knows the location of the water of life. Our Session, our leaders, must lead our congregation to the water of life so that the people may drink. One of my favorite Bible verses is from Joshua, "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for danger, to give you a future with hope."

One day we may look back at this time in the history of St. John's and say, "That was the time when we searching for leadership. We were looking to the future but were uncertain how to get there. We were in a time of transition and everything seemed to be up for grab. We were not sure the Lord was still with us. We thought the Lord may have forgotten us. We questioned our leaders saying, "Give us water to drink." We were afraid we would die of thirst in that spiritual desert." But thanks be to God, we had leaders who went on ahead of us to a new level of consciousness, a new awareness of how we could be relevant in ministry to the community. And we will look back at this time in our history, and we will give it a name. So did the people of Israel. They called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

We feel sometimes as if we are beating our head against a rock. That is how I felt that hot day in Mississippi when I was walking my dog in circles in that fenced back yard. I felt spiritually fenced in and I wanted out. Finally, I relaxed into the feeling. I said "Yes" to what is and a shift occurred. I accepted the idea that I may never get beyond this dry and parched place in my spiritual journey and that was okay. I would still worship God. Jesus would still be my master, even if it meant I got no water, no reward -- even if there is no heaven above -- I decided I would still be leashed to Jesus. I said to myself then, "Even if I die in this dry and barren place, I still love my master, Jesus. Even though God may kill me, yet will I still love him." A shift happened. It was still hot and I was still bothered an disappointed, but not I knew I could survive this stage in my spiritual journey. Shortly thereafter, a few months later, I experienced a shift in consciousness as I was delivered from the desert and entered into a higher level of consciousness that seemed like a spiritual oasis.

As individual Christians and as congregations, we journey by stages to ever high levels of consciousness. May the Spirit lead us all to a place of water, a place of refreshment, and a season of creative ministry and relevant ministry. God is calling the leaders of this church to go on ahead of the congregation to a new level of consciousness. God is waiting for us there. Leaders, let's lead. Followers, let's follow. Together, let's boldly live into this moment in history. Let's believe in ourselves and trust in God, knowing that one day we may look back at this time and say, "That was a time when we questioned God and challenged our leaders, that was our Massah and Meribah. That was an important point in the spiritual development of St. John's Presbyterian Church." This is a turning point. This is a time for repentance and renewal. This is a season of spiritual detoxification as we journey by stages into God's future, now.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Dark Conversation

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 3:1-17
on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, February 17, 2008
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas

In the New Testament of the Bible, Pharisees are presented as antagonists. They question Jesus. They challenge Jesus.  They even plot against Jesus how they may destroy him. So when our text begins by mentioning a Pharisee who came to Jesus at night we fear the worse. Our senses on edge, our heart pounding, we wonder what may transpire in a dark conversation between a Pharisee named Nicodemus, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

In the shadowy darkness Nicodemus initiates a conversation with Jesus with this polite, but neutral, remark: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." This sounds nice but we think it could be a set up, considering what we know of previous exchanges between Jesus and other Pharisees.

Jesus responds to Nicodemus with a one sentence parable, saying, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." With this response, Jesus immediately dives down into a deep level of communication by speaking of the kingdom of God. We know from elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus locates the kingdom of God not somewhere high up in the heavens, but right in the middle of our chest. The energies of heaven facilitate our ability to perceive the kingdom of God within us. Jesus recognizes a relationship between being born from above and seeing the kingdom of God within.

Nicodemus does not comprehend the meaning of Jesus' remarks about being born from above so he asks Jesus, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" As we often do, Nicodemus gravitates toward literal thinking while Jesus uses metaphorical language so Jesus' saying about being born from above does not compute in the brain of Nicodemus. It is as if Nicodemus approaches Jesus in a modern, scientific, fact finding frame of mind, and finds Jesus operating in a postmodern, quantum mechanic universe where the normal rules of matter and energy seem no longer to apply.

Jesus continues the cryptic conversation, using the words wind and water to describe spiritual realities. First, Jesus says: "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit." Being born of water may refer to the birth process as when a woman's water breaks before her child is born. Being born of spirit may refer to the powerful spiritual activation that occurs in our baptism. Both birth and baptism use water to literally and spiritually activate the kingdom of God within us.

Jesus next employs the energetic images of wind and water, saying, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes." We are familiar with wind and water. Insurance providers and attorneys are still arguing whether it was wind damage or water damage that caused hundreds and thousands of homes to be destroyed on the Gulf Coast. Last week a tornado blew through my former residence in Jackson, Tennessee and devastated a small Baptist college called Union University. All the buildings were destroyed but no one was killed. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when and where these hurricanes and tornadoes hit, whom is harmed and whom is left untouched. Wind power may destroy or create. On the positive side, wind is a clean, inexhaustible, indigenous energy resource that can generate enough electricity to power millions of homes and businesses. The wind blows sometimes with hurricane force and other times as a devastating tornado. Yet, wind power is a source of renewable energy in use in Texas and around the world today.

"So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit," says Jesus. We have the power of Katrina blowing within us. We have the power of the tornado inside our mouths. Each of us has the power to destroy or build, to kill or give life through the power of our tongue. The tongue has the power to destroy people and congregations or to give encouragement and build community. We are baffled when we hear Jesus tell his disciples, "The signs I do you will do and greater than these will you do." Yet, if we truly acknowledged the power we have over people, the power to curse or to bless, we would be careful in our speech, we would watch what we say and how we say it. Our tongue has the power to create positive energy like a wind mill and the power to destroy like a tornado.

Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" We too, would like more details. We live in a scientific world where everything must be quantified and measured before we may acknowledge that is is real. We are taught to distrust our feelings. For instance, mothers are taught to rely on experts in child rearing to tell them how to be a proficient parent to their child. One of the best pieces of advice my wife ever received came from her physician who offered the following parenting advice upon the birth of our first child: "Trust your instincts. No one knows this child better than you, her mother. No expert can tell you how to raise this child better than your own instincts. Follow your intuition, do what you feel is right and don't worry about what the experts say." Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about trusting his spiritual instincts and insights instead of relying on his theological education. Nicodemus needed to reclaim the territory between his mind and heart and so do we. We need to rediscover our hearts. This is the new frontier for Christians in the 21st century. Our challenge at this time in history is to rediscover our heart and live our religion from our heart and not just from our head.

Of course, we may use our minds in our religion, and in fact, Presbyterians excel in the neocortex. We build statues to John Calvin and admire him as an author who wrote reams of books about God that laid the foundation for the Reformation.  Presbyterians value the mind. But John Calvin was also a man of heart. He was aware of the vital importance of the heart in the relationship between humans and God. Calvin was aware of the mind/body connection and he lived our his faith with warm passion as well as cool intellect. Calvin the Reformer, like Nicodemus the Pharisee, had been trained as a lawyer. Both were people of the book. Words were their great companions, their weapons and their building blocks. Jesus challenges Nicodemus, Calvin, and us, to move our religion about 18 inches lower down in our body. If we desire to experience the power of God's wind moving in our lives, we must make the journey from our heads to our hearts during this Lenten season, from our tongues to our sternums. Without a heart that beats to the contemplative dimension of the gospel, we may not resonate with God's wind blowing in us.

Finally, we arrive at a familiar place in this text. We find ourselves in the company of our childhood crib mates, grade school kids in Sunday School, and playing capture the flag on the playground during Vacation Bible School. We find a place that is an island of stability in this wavy, watery, windy world that Jesus has been describing, this world of water and wind and being born from above. We find ourselves standing on the solid ground of John 3:16. It's right here in this passage. It comes next, like a life boat finally coming to rescue us from Gilligan's Island. We wave our arms and loudly shout, we set off flares so someone on board will see us and direct the captain of the ship to turn the boat toward our island and come set us free.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." So the God whom Jesus called Abba is not out to get kill us in Katrina or devastate us in a tornado or abandon us on a lonely island. The God whom Jesus reveals is a God of love. "For God so loved the world" is the biblical phrase on which we stake our existence.

Love is the basic power of the universe. Not fear. Not death. But Love. The kind of love that gives everything away. A love of total abandon. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. That radical, personal, sacrificial love is the kind of love God has for each one of us. This compassionate God is the God we discover when we see the kingdom of God within. Listen, I'll tell you a dark secret. I've seen the realm of God within me and I've seen the realm of God within each of you. Some days I see the kingdom more clearly than others days. Other days I fee like I need a new prescription on my spiritual bifocals. I hope that you are able to perceive the kingdom of God within yourself. If not, Lent is a good time to get a new prescription for our spiritual glasses. Let's update the prescription on our spiritual glasses and perhaps we will discover the realm of God within us. For anyone interested in where go to get your prescription filled on a new set of spiritual glasses, Jesus provides directions in Matthew 6:6.  We may renew the prescription on our spiritual perception in a place called the inner room and the prescription is filled by God in silence while we wait.

Now here is a disclaimer for any who may wonder if we've short changed heaven in this discussion by continually referring to the kingdom of God within instead of pointing to the kingdom of God as somewhere up above where we go after we die. We conclude with a quote from Jesus during that dark conversation with Nicodemus. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, so he says to us, "If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" As the movie title suggests, "Heaven Can Wait." The kingdom of God within us cannot wait. Now is the time of salvation. Now is the time for us to experience the realm of God within us. Let's give Jesus the last word in this dark conversation. Here it is, straight from Messiah's mouth, as translated from the original Greek: "For thus loved God the world, that the Son, the unique one, he gave. That everyone believing in him may not perish but have life eternal." Have eternal life is in the present tense here. The realm of God is within us right here on this earth, right now in this moment. The Lenten season beckons us to enter into the dark conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. We emerge from that conversation feeling stretched, wind blown, and wet. Life in the power of the spirit never felt so real as it does right this very second.

Free Gift

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Romans 5:12-19
on the First Sunday of Lent, Year A, February 10, 2008
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas

Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive but in the case of salvation it is more blessed to receive than to give. Like a card game where the deck is stacked against us, Adam's sin lays us low. Yet, in the world to come, we will play with a different deck of cards, one in which Christ is our partner in the salvation story. In the meantime, we get all tied up in the legal language of our false self versus our true self. Let's try to untangle this web this morning. We'll start with the offer of God's so-called free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. I say "so-called free gift" Christian faith is based on a free gift that isn't free.

We excel at giving but are not as good at receiving. Receiving implies lack, need, interdependence. Receiving goes against our lone ranger image of ourselves as self sufficient beings. Receiving highlights our imperfection and we prefer to think of ourselves as able to handle things pretty well on our own. Many of us are not interested in free gifts. We rarely use coupons when we shop because we are experienced enough to know that nothing is free. Let me clarify that statement. "Nothing" is indeed free but who wants nothing? Something worth having is never free.

The very term, "free gift," that Paul uses so often in this text, brings negative images to mind. The term "free gift" implies a cheap or worthless gift. Free gift is a sales term that reeks of huscksterism and hints that whatever is being proffered is not worth a dime. Free "gift" is a term that comes with the junk mail where the hidden agenda is to sell us something we do not want or need. We know from experience that nothing is free and this is certainly true in regard to God's gift of salvation in Christ. This "free gift" is not free at all. The so-called free gift of salvation through Christ cost Jesus his life.

Likewise for us, , if we take advantage of God's free gift of salvation, it will cost us our false self. That is why Paul contrasts the words "death" and "free gift" in his letter to the Romans. Our false selves must die if we are to live into God's free gift. What is the false self? According to Thomas Keating, our false self consists of our emotional programs for happiness. We are conditioned from early childhood to do certain things to be happy. For instance, our cultural conditioning teaches us that if we buy the right consumer item, such as the correct brand of toothpaste, then we will be enjoy exciting romantic relationships with beautiful people and be happy for the rest of our lives, or at least until it time to once again brush our teeth with the magical toothpaste product that makes our happiness possible. Multiply this kind of message by thousands and possibly millions of times, all delivered to us in scientifically efficient multi-media messages including print media, radio, television, and the web, and you have but one example of how our emotional programs for happiness are programmed into us from earliest childhood by outside forces whose only interest in us is our ability to pay a couple of dollars for a tube of toothpaste once a month, thus increasing values for share holders in the company that produces the product. We are scientifically manipulated from earliest childhood, programmed into purchasing happiness, and this is but one example of how our false self is formed. It is this false self that must decrease while gospel values increase if we are to live into God's free gift of salvation.

God's salvation program, the way out of the matrix of the false self, is only possible because of one man, Jesus Christ. In Paul's understanding, this one man, Jesus Christ, undid all the damage done by the one man, Adam. It was one man, Adam, whose sin brought sin and death into the world so that many died and judgment and condemnation came upon all humanity because of the disobedience of this one man named Adam. But in the greatest come back in the ledgers of human history, it is one man, Jesus Christ, whose obedience to God brought down the grace of God as a free gift available to all who are willing to step out of Adam's sin matrix and into Christ's grace realm. Through one man's obedience, many exercise dominion over life as they decrease their false self system and increase their true self system. Our true self is that part of us that is our basic core of goodness. Our true self is very closely related to our Christ self to the extent that it is hard to tell where our true self ends and where our Christ self begins. This one man, Jesus Christ, enables the possibility of justification, which is getting our true self back in the driver's seat.

The great theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin, taught that the purpose of the law is to show us our inability to keep the law, thereby demonstrating our need for Christ, the one man who was able to beat the false self system and break through into union with God. Because of Christ's pioneering work in the field of salvation, all of us are now able to break through sin and death and as Paul puts it, exercise dominion in life. Or, as Thomas Keating puts it, because of Christ we are aware of and able to diminish the false self system with its emotional programs for happiness.

Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" and that is sound anthropology and theology in a nutshell. When we have diminished our false self programs for emotional happiness to the point where there is nothing left to lose then we experience the freedom of salvation in Jesus Christ. Lent is a time for spiritual detoxification and part of the spiritual detox program involves diminishing the false self system. Here are some suggestions for how to diminish the false self system for emotional happiness. First, you may take up the practice of centering prayer. Come to the church library at 4:00 P.M. today and you will have an experience of centering prayer. It is a method of prayer designed to move us toward an experience of the contemplative dimension of the gospel. At its heart, Christianity is meant to change our hearts, to move us toward an alternate reality that is not based upon our false self system that we absorbed from the scientific manipulation of the greatest marketing companies in human history. Christianity intends to break us down from Adam's way of sin and self-reliance, and bring us into Christ's path of grace and God-reliance. This path from Adam to Christ is neither free nor quick. The invitation comes as a so-called free gift but the implication is that if we receive the free gift then we owe everything in return.

This is the way life works in God's economy. God comes to us in the form of Jesus Christ and gives us an offer of the free gift of salvation. Before we receive that free gift offer we are responsible for reading the fine print which includes this disclaimer: "By accepting the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ I hereby relinquish all claims to happiness that I previously enjoyed under Adam's false self system. Furthermore, by accepting God's free gift of salvation I acknowledge my own tendency toward sin and my inability to completely rid myself of the sin that resides as a cancer in my soul. Therefore, by accepting God's free gift of salvation I hereby pledge myself to diminishing my false self system which is based on sin and leads to death; and I hereby profess my desire to follow my true self program for happiness that includes dying to my false self in order to live into the realm of God." I know, this legal terminology is hard to parse, but Paul was a Pharisee before he became an Apostle, and Pharisees were schooled in the law and had legal minds and used legal language.

If we are the client then Christ is our attorney, and when we come to trial before God at the final judgment, then we will discover to our great relief that our attorney is also the judge. Christ is both our heavenly legal representative and our heavenly judge. As John Calvin put is, our judge is our redeemer. So as we struggle through this life striving to diminish our false self system and live into our true self system, we have the peace of mind of knowing that when push comes to shove we have an ace in the hole when it comes to eternal salvation. Adam may have stacked the deck against us and all humanity but Christ beat Adam at his own game. And the Holy Spirit will teach us how to run the table when it comes to the interplay between the free gift of salvation and the diminishment of our false self program for happiness. In this world the deck may be stacked against us, but in the world to come, the cards are stacked in our favor. Maybe that is what Paul meant when he referred to the free gift of God's salvation in Christ.

So we end where we began. Our future in heaven is secure thanks to Christ, our judge and redeemer. Relieved of having to carry the burden of wondering about our eternal salvation, we are then free to serve God while we live in Adam's world. The free gift, in the end, is the gift of the freedom to serve God in this world, knowing that when the cards are down, we will come out winners in the game of eternal salvation. This is God's version of Texas hold 'em. God holds us through thick and thin, through life and death, and brings us safely across the Jordan into the promised land. Along the way, our lives are a series of diminishments of the false self's program for happiness. A falling away of Adam's rule and a coming to terms with the fact of our own mortality and the hope that in the end, as Teresa of Avila said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Listening for the Peace

Listening for the Peace

Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Matthew 17:1-9

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on February 3, 2008

When I was a child my daddy would hold me and rock me in a rocking chair as he sang, "You get a line, I get a pole, honey, you get a line, I get a pole, babe, you get a line, I get a pole, we'll go fishing in the crawdad hole, honey, oh baby, now." I felt totally loved, completely safe in my daddy arms. That is the kind of relationship Jesus had with God, whom he called "Abba" which means "Daddy." We too, may have such a personal and loving relationship with God. That is the kind of relationship God, Pappa, Daddy, wants to have with us.

It was when the disciples, Peter, James and John, were safely ensconced with Jesus, high on a mountain, that they experienced transformation. It came to the disciples in the form of the transfiguration of Jesus. As they were standing by him on a high mountain, Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. As if that weren't enough for the three disciples to process, suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with them. I wonder what Moses and Elijah said to Peter, James and John. Perhaps they asked them how the fishing was back in Galilee, although we have no reason to think Moses and Elijah were fishers. Rather, Moses was the great leader who took the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Of course, Canaan is short for Canaanite, which was the name of the people who lived in the land of Canaan with whom the Hebrew people had to contend. It is funny how history repeats itself, with the modern day Israeli's moving from holocaust in Nazi Germany or L.A. or New York City to Palestine after WWII. Palestine used to be the name of the place that is now called Israel. It was so called because Palestine was inhabited by the Pealestinians and had been for hundreds of years before their land was sold out from under them by the big boys who were dividing the spoils of war after WWII.

Moses and Elijah were talking to Peter, James and John. Elijah appears in the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, and the Qur'an. According to the Books of Kings, Elijah raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and ascended into heaven on a whirlwind. In the New Testament, both Jesus and John the Baptist are on some occasions thought to be Elijah. Based on a prophecy in Malachi, many Jews still await Elijah's return as precursor to the coming of the Messiah. (From Elijah and Moses are quite a tag team, both heavy weights from the Old Testament. I wonder what kind of small talk they carried on with Peter, James and John. Perhaps it wasn't small talk at all. Perhaps Elijah and Moses were bearing witness to Jesus, telling Peter, James and John how Jesus really is the Messiah, the real deal, the full meal deal, no kidding. Believe it or not.

Now Peter, feeling completely overwhelmed and totally out of his league, and not being accustomed to small talk with the big boys, he needed to relieve some of the stress building up inside him so he suggested doing the holiest thing he could think of for these holy ones. Finally, when the stress becomes unbearable, Peters says to Jesus, the only one of the three big boys with whom he felt comfortable, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." No one knows why Peter said this but it must be signifcant to have been recorded. I wonder if Peter thought the big boys would need a place to pray and so he suggests building a place for them to pray. It would relieve some of Peter's stress if he could work with his hands. We all want to do something significant when we are in the presence of esteemed holy men such as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Let's build something. That is the way we tend think in the church as well. Let's build a family life center and that will solve all our problems. Build it and they will come. We'll bring in the young people. The young families with children. We need a building project to inspire the church.

And just as the building campaign is gaining momentum among Peter, James, and John, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" This is the voice of God to Peter, James and John. This is the voice of God to us today. Put aside your plans for restoration. Give up thinking you can transform the church. The Lord doesn't need our techniques for spiritual success. We don't need to go out an hire a consultant, a church doctor, to restore our health. God's word to us is simply this: "Listen to him." Him being Jesus. Listen to him. When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

When Peter, James and John are trembling on the ground. Jesus touches them, saying: "Do not be afraid." May Jesus touch us and take away our fear. May Jesus remove our fear of God and replace it with loving respect for God such as the loving respect I felt for my daddy when I was a small child rocking in his arms as he sang that sweet song to me. In such safe and loving moments, transformation becomes possible. May the Lord create in us a feeling of security in God's love.

Instead of feeling secure in God's loving arms, our response to God's intiative is often the same response as Peter, James and John, when a voice from a bright cloud said to them, "This is my beloved Son, listen to him." We fall down to the ground, paralyzed by fear. For to listen to Jesus, we must be quiet. To listen to Jesus, we must silence our own voice. To listen to Jesus, we must admit that we don't know how to build a dwelling place anyway. To listen to Jesus means we were on the wrong trail. We thought God wanted us to do something, to build something, but God only wanted us to be something, to hear something. To listen to Jesus scares us to death because it means we must enter into the silence.

Entering into the silence is a frightening thing. When we sit down, alone, enter into the closet and shut the door behind us, we are alone before God. That is a frightening place to be for some of us. We are afraid to be alone with God. After all, what will we talk about? Once we have spoken our laundry list to God, when we come to the end of the prayer list, one, two, three, four, on the down the list to the end. What do we say then? This is the challenge of building a relationship with God. Relationships grow with time and with trust. We must move beyond our bearded grandfather in the sky image of God if we really want a relationship with God.

A voice from a bright cloud said to them, "This is my beloved Son, listen to him." How often have we been in Jesus' presence but were too nervous to be quiet and listen to him? How would we listen for Jesus? We are not expecting to hear an audible voice such as God spoke to Peter, James and John on the mountain of transfiguration. No, God doesn't normally speak to us in an audible voice. We listen not for words. We listen not for a message from God. We listen for a peace. We listen for the peace that passes understanding. That is how God speaks to us in prayer. God speaks in sience through the peace of Christ that passes understanding.

It is the peace of Christ that passes understanding that gives us courage to get back on our feet when we have been cut down by illness, tragedy, or misfortune. The peace of Christ give us strength to get back up on our feet after we have been betrayed by dear ones that we trusted. The peace of Christ gives us the backbone to stand alone at the gates of hell and we won't back down.

When the disciples heard God's voice in the cloud, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." Jesus, touch us, and take away our fear. Take away our fear of failure. Take away our fear of success. Take away our fear of death. Take away our fear of life. Jesus, touch us, and say, "Get up and do not be afraid."

And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. No more Moses. No more Elijah. Only Jesus. In the end, Jesus is the only one that remains. People come and go, family, friends, and lovers come and go. Only Jesus remains. From here to eternity. He is with us always, to the end of the world.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." There are secrets in Christ's peace. There are secrets in the peace that passes understanding. There are secrets that we may not share with another. For unless they have experienced the peace of Christ, they will not understand. The mysteries of God are worth more than sound bites in the political arena. The peace of Christ passes understanding. Language can't do it justice. Words can't come close to expressing the mystery that we have experienced. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

In the kingdom of God, as in all else, timing is everything. Timing is everything. We are in no hurry here. God has been at work in this congregation for many years. Now is the time to focus on the peace that passes understanding. We will get to the action. But the action must come out of silence. The action must come out of silence.  As we enter into the Lenten season which begins this week with Ash Wednesday, now is the time for silence. Now is the time for seeking and finding the peace that passes understanding. And that is where we find ourselves today, on the cusp of this Lenten season. We find ourselves down on our knees, in our closet, with the door closed behind us, sitting in silence, listening for the peace of Christ.