Monday, March 28, 2011

Stages of Faith Development

The Bible contains evidence that allegorical interpretations of Old Testament texts were used by New Testament writers. For example, in Galatians chapter 4 of the New Testament, the writer refers to Sarah and Hagar as being allegories of the New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. In regard to our New Testament story today in which Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman around a water well, we will consider this conversation as an allegory of James Fowler's stages of faith development.

Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, wrote the book Stages of Faith. It proposes a staged development of faith (or spiritual development) across the life span. It is closely related to the work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lawrence Kohlberg regarding aspects of psychological development in children and adults. I studied Fowler's stages of faith development when I was working on a Masters in Christian Education from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia is the mid-eighties.

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Sermon Text: John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 13Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

15The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." 16Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." 17The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"

19The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." 21Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 25The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." 26Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." 32But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." 33So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" 34Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor." 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

This story about a lunch hour meeting with Jesus may be interpreted as an allegory of what happens to each of us over the course of our lifetimes in regard to our spiritual development. As her conversation with Jesus begins let's imagine the Samaritan woman's faith development to be in what James Fowler calls the Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith. This is the stage of first self-awareness. The woman is aware that she is thirsty. We all know when we are thirsty. The thirst impulse is at a subconscious level. The subconscious level is the intuitive level of faith development. This is the faith level of small children when the child is still learning distinctions between what is real and what only seems to be. Some children have imaginary friends who are very real to them. Other children have a certain toy or stuffed animal whom they perceive to be alive and living.

I remember a faith experience I had as a small child. Perhaps I was four years old. I walked out the screen door in the kitchen out into our back yard. I stood on the small concrete deck there and looked out over the backyard up into the sky and into the shining sun. There was a certain freshness, a certain energy in the air. Our dogs were playing the back yard. My daddy was working on the goldfish pond in the backyard. Suddenly I had a very strong sense that the veil between God and me dropped. I was experiencing God in such a powerful way that I couldn't tell the difference between me and God. I felt an overwhelming sense of the power of cosmic love. In that blissful moment, everything was right in the world - everything was perfect. It wasn't that I was apart from the world. I was a part OF the world. There was no doubt in my mind about that. I opened up my arms as if to bless the whole world. That is an example of what James Fowler labels a Stage I Intuitive-Projective faith experience of God.

Now, let's return to the story of the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and a human being in the New Testament. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) She is operating on faith level one and Jesus takes the conversation to the next level of faith development. Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."

In her conversation with Jesus, the woman begins to move into Faith Level 2. She says, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?" According to Fowler Faith Level 2 is the stage in which the person begins to internalize the stories, teachings and practices that symbolize belonging to his or her community. This stage of faith is based on literalistic beliefs, moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. So the woman has trouble with the idea of living water.

The symbol of living water begins to move her faith and she asks Jesus, "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"

Jesus stays on Level 2 as he replies: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:8-14)

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. Literalism breaks down. The woman now incorporates the symbol of living water and says to Jesus, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." (4:15) She knows Jesus is no longer talking about literal water. Jesus is talking about the spiritual energy that invigorates the universe. She moves beyond her literal faith and moves into the world of symbolic meaning. Jesus is speaking to her on faith level three and she understands what he is saying to her.

Stage 3 is often the level of faith of teenagers when they are confirmed in the church as they explore how they will fit into their faith, family and culture. The Samaritan woman is developing her own faith story. She is becoming in her own mind the woman who talked to a prophet who offered her spiritual nourishment and maybe even a way out of her cultural constraints. She was an outcast in her own society. That is why she came to draw water from the well at noon. It would be like a prostitute today who would prefer to go grocery shopping at 2 am rather than 2 pm so she won't see or be seen by those who consider themselves to be upstanding citizens.

Stage 4 faith development most appropriately takes form in young adulthood but for many adults it emerges only in the mid-thirties or forties. This happened for me in college as I let go of the rigid, literalistic, fundamentalism of my youth and accepted a broader, more nuanced approach to God and faith. One step along this path for me was moving from a more constrained literalistic faith to a more allegorical, symbolic interpretation of the Bible.

As I moved into Stage 4 of faith development I appreciated more the complexity of life. I had built an elaborate castle of meaning in Stage 3 and it was terrifying to me to watch it crumble before me. I was not sure what, if anything, would be erected where it once stood. I felt like a car without a steering wheel. One way of putting it is that I "let go and let God" on a deep level. This was a painful growth from Stage 3 to Stage 4. Ironically, it took a lot of faith for me to let go of Stage 3 and move into Stage 4. I did not even have such language or understanding at the time when it happened. It was more like letting everything go and trusting in God for something new. That something new that emerged could be described as Stage 4 of my faith development according to James Fowler's model.

If you find yourself in a time of trouble, when your understanding of the world, God and yourself is crumbling beneath your feet, know that rather than "losing it" you may be moving into a higher stage of faith development. As you leave a stage of faith behind it often feels like a crumbling disaster inside of you. Know that such a feeling may signify that you are growing in your faith.

So it is with this Samaritan woman at the well. Her current level of faith is dissolving before her very eyes. She says to Jesus, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." Then her ears turn red as she listens to his response. Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." Everything is broken down inside of her. The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Her soul is laid bare before him. Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" (4:14-17) That had to hurt. Moving from one level of faith development hurts. There is no way to avoid the pain. It is a necessary part of the process.

Feeling overwhelmed, looking for cover, she does what we all do when a nerve has been touched unexpectedly. We change the topic. She brings religion into the conversation as a distraction. The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus tells her that God in not in Jerusalem nor Mount "Anything." God is inside us and all around us. Specifically, Jesus said to her, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."

Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

Jesus once again challenges her to the next level of faith development. Stage 5 Conjunctive faith involves the integration into self of much that was suppressed or unrecognized in the interest of Stage 4's self-certainty. This stage develops a "second naivete'' (Ricoeur) in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings. Here there must also be a new reclaiming and reworking of one's past. There must be an opening to the voices of one's "deeper self."

I think Stage 5 is where I am today and where some of you may be as well. I sometimes feel I am revisiting earlier themes of my youth and dealing with them on a higher level in the imaginary spiral construct that helps me imagine these things. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth. The strength of Stage 5 is the rise of the ironic imagination - -a capacity to see and be in one's or one's group's most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting understandings of transcendent reality. But this stage remains divided. It lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision and loyalties. In some few cases this division yields to the call of the radical actualization that we call Stage 6.

Stage 6 is exceedingly rare. This is the level of faith of Jesus and a small percentage of others in the world at any time. Such universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) that provide meaning for the majority. Many persons in this stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives. The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.

We see Jesus at Stage 6 when the woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." (Jon 4:25-26) That was a very radical statement for Jesus to make in that culture or even in our ours. It soon led to his execution.

The rest of the story of the Samaritan woman finds her sharing her faith, such as it was, and bringing many people to grow in their own faith. Jesus emphasizes that we are to share our faith, whatever level of faith we may be in at the present time. So the message for today is to share what faith you have regardless of which stage of faith you are in. Although her faith was not Stage 6 she shared from her faith level and it helped to bring along other people. So don't worry which stage of faith you have and focus on sharing what faith you have and it will make a difference in the lives of others. God wants you to use you to share your faith no matter which stage of your faith. As ever, God has a way of taking what little we provide and transforming it into something greater. This is how we cooperate with God in the building up of God's kingdom on earth.- - -

*In writing this sermon, I found helpful a synopsis of Fowler's Stages of Faith from Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. Online:

*Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on March 27, 2011 (Lent 3A).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Nighttime Drop In On Jesus

Sermon text: John 3:1-17

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Like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, Nicodemus is a religious attorney. As such, he has a secure job that guarantees him the esteem of his community. He is also curious about this man named Jesus. His curiosity does not over ride his job discretion therefore Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. At night is when we really are ourselves without a mask. We can let our hair down and be ourselves at night.

We do a lot of embarrassing things at night. Nicodemus was reluctant to come to Jesus in the light of day. Perhaps he feared for his own job security by being seen with Jesus. Or perhaps he feared how Jesus would react to him as a Pharisee, a religious leader in an organization that felt threatened by Jesus. Jesus had not spoken well of Pharisees. In fact he had criticized them through his parables and questions and comments.

Nicodemus was self conscious about his job title. Or maybe it was the clergy title that got to him. I'm sometimes reluctant to be introduced as a "reverend" because I may get lumped in with some TV evangelists who do not represent me or what I am about as a pastor. Other professions may have similar reticence about being identified by their work. I had a physician friend once who confided he hated to be introduced as a doctor because he would then have to hear all about a stranger's gastric indigestion or whatever other malady they faced and he didn't really want to hear about that in the context of a party or social event.

Last night we had the brightest moon for the past twenty years. The moon was shining like a theater spotlight through the dark clouds that passed by it. The moon and the stars come out at night: Stars such as Willie Nelson perform at night. Here is Willie's take on the subject in his song titled "The Night Life."

When the evenin' sun goes down

You will find me hangin' 'round

Oh, the night life, it ain't no good life

But it's my life

Life is just another scene

In this old world of broken dreams

Oh, the night life, it ain't no good life

But it's my life

Oh, the night life ain't no good life

Oh, but it's my life

Yeah, it's my life

-Willie Nelson "The Night Life"

This description of Willie's lifestyle calls to mind the "Love 'em and Leave 'em" cowboy image of romance which is the theme for many a country song. We tend to group people together for convenience's sake. So every cowboy in the rodeo becomes a lonely, misunderstood poet. The media encourages us to lump people into groups. For example, the early cowboy movies portray American Indians as savage murderer until we see more recent movies such as Dances with Wolves that the Indians were often less savage than the white soldiers. It's easy to condemn people if you lump them together as a group. Yet this Pharisee, Nicodemus, who is only mentioned by name in John's gospel, seems to have been a good, gentle, open-minded Pharisee. So often it the Gospels the Pharisees are portrayed as trying to trap Jesus by their questions, but it's clear that Nicodemus' question was genuine.

Nicodemus comes across as a much more cautious and thoughtful character than Jesus' immediate disciples. The moment Jesus called, they left their nets and their livelihood to follow him, but Nicodemus needed to test the water first. He wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing before he threw in his lot with Jesus.

Caution is not such a bad thing. It is not always advisable to plunge straight into something new. People are sometimes led to believe that they should make a sudden and urgent commitment to Christ. But perhaps it's also okay to take things slowly, to consider carefully before making a commitment which might later be regretted. Jesus was very accepting of Nicodemus. He didn't tell him he must decide now or reject Christianity forever, but spent time with him answering his questions and leading him to greater depths. Jesus never put Nicodemus under any pressure to become a disciple.

In fact, it seems Nicodemus never became more than a closet follower of Jesus until after the crucifixion. It was only after the death of Jesus that Nicodemus discovered his faith was so deep that he asked for the body of Jesus to be taken down from the Cross and given into his care. That was a courageous statement, considering that it was his own people, the religious authorities, who had caused the execution of Jesus.

People come to faith and grow in faith at their own rate. There's nothing to be gained by trying to force or persuade people into faith, for in the end, people must make up their own mind. Emotional pressure may well lead to a decision for Christ, but a decision that may not stand the test of time.

Like Nicodemus, those who have not spoken for Jesus are not necessarily against him. Many people are in the Nicodemus position of just looking, of finding out for themselves, of hesitating over making a commitment, of coming to Jesus by night. Jesus welcomed Nicodemus as he welcomes everyone who has genuine questions to ask.

We can learn something from the way Nicodemus dropped in on Jesus at night. We may come to Jesus just as we are even if that means we come by stealth like the stealth bombers, the B-52 Bombers that dropped bombs on Libya's airport runways last night. Jesus has no problem with Nicodemus visiting at night or the reasons why he preferred the cover of darkness. As Bob Dylan puts it: "Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn't be seen by men. Saying Master tell me why a man must be born again." We too come to Jesus in the dark times in our lives. Jesus name gets called out in times of danger more than perhaps any other time.

I remember spinning circles down the highway in my family car which was going 65 miles per hour down a wet interstate highway just seconds before. The next thing I know we're hydroplaning and I'm sitting behind the steering wheel as the car turns round and round in circles down the middle lane of the interstate. Sitting in the back seat are my mother in law and my pregnant wife. Surprisingly, I felt a powerful sense of peace during those spinning moments and I just kept saying over and over: "Help me Jesus! Help me Jesus!" and he did help me as the car ended up in a shallow ditch caught between two small, flexible trees that held onto it like the very loving hands of God. After getting pulled out of the ditch, we drove on home as if nothing had happened. Not a scratch on anyone including the car.

Wendy Bailey, Associate Executive Presbyter, had an article in the presbytery newsletter this month telling about her recent motorcycle accident. She said in the seconds when the wreck was happening she felt an overwhelming sense of peace and closeness to Jesus. Wendy is now doing fine and riding her bike again. It is in such dark experiences as car wrecks and motorcycle wrecks that we sometimes experience the peace of God that passes understanding. We come to Jesus in such times of desperation because that is the only place we know to go. When the time was right, Nicodemus was brought into an open acknowledgment of his faith by the terrible event of the execution of Jesus. God has his own way of using life events to precipitate us into taking steps which we might otherwise never take. In the end, after a discreet evening drop in on Jesus, Nicodemus was there when Jesus needed him. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea were the two people who prepared Jesus' body for burial. (John 19:39)

"The wind blows where it will," said Jesus. Similarly, God's spirit can't be boxed in by legalism or by simply following the rules. Like the wayward wind, God's spirit goes where it chooses and often finds out hidden nooks and crannies which are unnoticed by those whose stick rigidly to the rules. The Holy Spirit is like the wayward wind. The Spirit uses whom it will as it wishes regardless of our Pharisaical rules and expectations.

No-one can determine when or where God's spirit will appear or how God's spirit will work. God's Spirit blows like the wayward wind. We remember in prayer today the people of Japan who are rebuilding their lives one moment at a time after the recent tsunami and ongoing crisis at their nuclear plants. In the midst of their suffering, we pray that God will come to them in unexpected ways and use unconventional means to bring them courage and shalom. We know that God did not make this earthquake happen in order to punish them but God will work through the devastation wrought by this natural disaster in order to comfort and support them in the midst of this tragedy.

Nicodemus teaches us many things with his night time drop in on Jesus. We learn Jesus is open to receiving us just as we are without our masks. We learn that faith often grows slowly as it did with Nicodemus but in the end this cautious disciple was one of the two who made arrangements for Jesus' burial. Thus did God use an unlikely disciple, a Pharisee, to perform the final, sacred task of burial for Jesus. Thanks to Nicodemus coming to Jesus like a star in the night we have one of the most beloved verses in all of the Bible when Jesus says to Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him should have eternal life." (John 3:16) If God be for us, no one may stand against us, and Jesus makes it very clear through his night time drop in visit with Nicodemus that God is FOR humanity not against us. Thank you, Nicodemus, for taking the risk of talking to Jesus. Humanity has greater hope because of what you did and the way Jesus welcomed you. So Jesus welcomes us when we come to him just as we are … even if we come to him at night and in need.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lead Us Not into Temptation

Sermon text - Matthew 4:1-11

"It is well … with my soul … It is well … it is well … with my soul." Such a song may have been on Jesus lips as he departed from the wilderness after successfully resisting the devil's temptations. Each of us faces temptations such as Jesus did. We will examine the text this morning to explore the ways in which we are tempted as Jesus was tempted. Unfortunately, we don't always come out as well as Jesus when we are tempted. No wonder I saw a church sign this week that said: "Try Jesus - If you don't like him, the devil will take you back." However, I disagree with that theology. I think Jesus and the devil are both inside us as different aspects of who we are.

Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke call the tempter "diabolos" which is translated as "devil." This is the same figure referred to as "Satan" in Mark's gospel, previously known as Lucifer in the Old Testament and subsequently referred to as Lucifer in the Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil." Matthew's Gospel uses these nouns to describe the devil: 'the enemy' (13.39), the 'evil one' (6:13), who is destined to be defeated and thrown with his angels into eternal fire (25:41). On one occasion, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" when Peter refuses to accept the necessity of the cross. That incidence is a key to my interpretation of this text whereby the temptation to deny taking up our own cross is at the bottom of all the other temptations.

We have in our story today two characters: Jesus and the Devil. The devil is the character the Rolling Stones describe as "A man of wealth and taste" who's "been around for a long long year" and "stole many a man's soul and faith." I would argue that throughout the ages the devil has had as many names and as many faces as there are human beings who have inhabited this planet. The two figures in our story today are the devil and Jesus. They are both inside us every moment vying for our will and affection. The story of the devil's temptation of Jesus symbolically describes the struggles each of us face as human beings who fly a little lower than the angels and wall a little higher than the animals.

In our story today, Jesus moves directly from his baptism in the Jordan river into the desert wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights which is reminiscent of Israel's wandering the wilderness for 40 years. At the end of those 40 days and 40 nights Jesus' hunger becomes the basis for his first temptation by the devil, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

Focus on these two nouns: Stones and Bread. Since before the time of Jesus until today stones have been used as weapons to kill people. Recall the story of the of the stoning of Steven in the Book of Acts. The Apostle Paul seems to have organized that event before his conversion when he was still named Saul. I guess he would say the devil made him do it. Today you can watch videos on YouTube or Fox News or CNN in which a young man living in Egypt or Libya or Jerusalem picks up a stone and throws it at police in riot gear. Stones make great weapons in that part of the world because they are conveniently laying around on the ground. There are nice sized throwing stones about the size of a baseball or softball all over the Middle East.

Satan suggests Jesus turn stones into bread. Bread is a word that used to mean money when I was a child. Bread symbolizes material things. As Madonna sang, "We are living in a material world and I am a material girl." I read a story this week about a man who spent his young adulthood on Wall Street and made millions of dollars there. He had it all and he was standing in an office building across from the World Trade Center watching the explosion when it happened. As he recovered from that experience he came to realize that the BMW he had bought without even looking at the sticker price was not bringing fulfillment to his life. Over time, he found his own way back into balance in his life whereby he was giving back and thus more fulfilled in his life. Charlie Sheen is another example we could use of someone who seems to need some balance in his life at this time. We are neither superstars nor Jesus but we too are tempted to focus on material objects that to us represent the good life. When we lose ourselves in pursuit of the bread symbol we may lose our soul. Jesus once said, "What will it profit someone if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?" When he was tempted, Jesus answered the devil, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" And that settled that.

But then things are never settled when it comes to the devil because the tempter never quits. In the second temptation, Satan begins with the second most powerful word of all: "IF!" We love to play the "IF" game with God. We say, "God, IF you will help me pass this math test then I will stop cussing." Or, "God, IF you will just heal my loved one then I will attend church every Sunday." Millions of people today view God as a supernatural bargainer. We act as if God is some carnival figure selling snake oil whom we think we can out barter. We act as if we give God something then God will give us something in return. This is a childish game we play and nothing good will ever come from it. God doesn't want ANY thing from us. God wants EVERY thing from us. That is what the symbol of the cross means. When we refuse to take up our cross, Jesus will call us Satan too, just like he did with Peter.

Instead of taking up our cross and carrying it, we want to cut it back some to make it easier to handle. We take off a little off the bottom and a little off the top of our cross and even a little off the sides. We think God won't mind because after all we are incredibly busy and God should be satisfied to have SOME of our attention. We don't think God will even notice what we do with our cross what with all the trouble in the world today with revolutions in the Middle East and budget crisis in Europe and the United States. The problem is when we come to a chasm in the path before us we find our cross is too short to bride the gap between us and the other side. We sometimes unexpectedly come to a chasm like a dear Japanese grandmother who lives near the nuclear reactor plant in north-east Japan after Friday's quake and tsunami that left more than 1,000 dead. When we come to such a chasm we better hope we haven't been skimming back on our cross during the good times. We are silly if during the good times we cut back on the cross we must bear and then we wonder why it won't carry us over the chasm in the bad times.

We want to test God because it makes us feel more powerful. This is ridiculous. We may not test God. That is not our place. As God says to Job in the midst of his trials and temptations, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" Truth be told, we don't remember where we were when God did that. In the second temptation the devil tempts Jesus to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and let the people witness God save him from death. Jesus refuses to test God. Jesus says to the devil, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (Matt 4:7) Thus he passes temptation number two. That should be enough to make the devil flee but the devil is never in any rush to leave us.

Temptation number three is the lust for power. The devil makes Jesus an offer he thinks Jesus cannot refuse: "Bow down to me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world." I think of the Blues song called Crossroads that talks about the singer going down to the crossroad and selling his soul to the devil so he could gain the power to be a Superstar. This is the temptation to lust for power over someone else. It is putting our feet in God's shoes as if God had feet and our feet could fill her shoes. Again, an image of the devil from the Rolling Stones: "I rode a tank - Held a general's rank - When the blitzkrieg raged - And the bodies stank … Pleased to meet you - Hope you guess my name." Power is more seductive than money. Lots of people have millions of dollars and they are not bad people but its the sociopaths who want to control society you have to worry about. The lust for power over others is the greatest seduction of the soul.

All three temptations are God substitutes and all three temptations are common experiences to us all. The purpose of the text is to help us see how we've been tempted. We all have our favorite drug. For some it is greed, for others lust, for others it is cocaine. When we give in to our drug of choice we are chopping our cross to make it lighter. If we bear our cross by dealing with the underlying issue then our cross will help us when we need it. If we've lessened the length of the cross we bear we are going to be stuck when we need it. All three temptations have to do with not wanting to be crucified. It is my soul and yours that is being challenged in this story. This is God's words to you and me about our own lives.

The devil, when finished, departed from Jesus "until an opportune time." So just because we keep our cross together and cross the chasm that doesn't mean we have arrived. There are still other chasms to forge. Even in the world to come there will be other chasms to forge.

We conclude with a final image from the Rolling Stones' description of the devil that needs to be debunked. "So if you meet me have some courtesy - Have some sympathy, and some taste. Use all your well-learned politesse - Or I'll lay your soul to waste." Oh contraire, me thinks, the devil we have to worry about is not the Flip Wilson devil of "The devil made me do it" fame. No, the devil we have to worry about is the devil inside each of us: Our shadow side that remains hidden from our conscious awareness. We need not fear the devil out there. As the hymn says, "One little word shall fell him." (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) Instead, take heed of the devil within.

After he resisted the devil for the third time, then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. The angels are there for us, too. They are waiting there on the other side of the chasm. We may not be able to get to them on the other side if we keep chopping off our cross little by little. Let's bear that in mind the next time we are tempted to do that.

In closing, I'm thinking of another song. It's called "Lay My Burdens Down." It says, "I'm gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside. Down by the riverside. Down by the riverside. I'm gonna lay down my burdens. Down by the riverside. Ain't gonna study war no more." I wonder if the message of Jesus temptation by the devil is to show us how we make war upon ourselves. We deny ourselves the opportunity for growth that comes from spiritual pain, settling instead for chopping off our cross by taking the easy way out.

We must fight the good fight within ourselves and bear our cross. In the end, it's worth all the hard work and not taking short cuts and dealing with the underlying issues and not whittling down our cross to make it easier to bear. That's what he meant when Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Let's explore what that statement means during this Lenten season. Let's take Jesus' yoke upon us – the cross – and bear the full weight of it and not take short cuts. Then, when it comes time to cross the chasm in this world or in the world to come, we may lay down our cross over the chasm that lies between us and the promised land and our cross will become for us a bridge over troubled waters.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Prayer to Be Unmasked on Ash Wednesday

Sermon text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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Yesterday was Fat Tuesday. I love Mardi Gras in concept if not in practice: A day and night of feasting before the fast of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras often involves parades and partying. The participants are often masked. It seems to go with the flow of the event. We hide ourselves away so we are free in our revelry. No one will know who or whose we are. Masks unleash mischief. All things are possible in the night with a mask. All the acts of darkness. The sins of the flesh. The lust of the heart. The impurity of the mind. Drunkenness. Revelry. That is Mardi Gras.

Then comes sobriety. The daylight. Ash Wednesday. Black ashes on foreheads. Confession of sin. We are unmasked on Ash Wednesday. No longer are we able to pretend that we alone are different from the masses of humanity. No longer will our excuses grant us reprieve. We are guilty. Caught like a child with his hand in the cookie jar. We weren't supposed to be eating those cookies. We knew better. We didn't follow instructions. We rebelled against our parents. Disappointment. Disillusionment. Disdain.

Lent is about growing in spiritual maturity. Paul said, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11, NRSV) Lent is about growing into maturity, into adulthood in faith. Lent is about putting away childish things such as the desire to show off how spiritual we are. It seems that some people in their spiritual lives never move beyond the spirit of Mardi Gras to the spirit of Ash Wednesday.

So Jesus says in our text today that our giving to others - however we bless them - should not be done in Mardi Gras crazy look-at-me kind of way but in a sober, serious, Ash Wednesday way. Jesus doesn't want us to make a performance out of what we do for others. We are not to parade around like a Mardi Gras crewe throwing out beads and saying, "Look what I've done. I helped that person. My church is the best one in the city. We do all these things for the poor unfortunates." That is not Jesus way. Whether we are feeding the hungry by giving them food or feeding our own souls by giving ourselves time to pray, we are not to play to the crowd. We are not to seek applause. We are to do it quietly and unobtrusively. After all, that is the way our God, who conceived us in love, working behind the scenes, helps us out. (Matthew 6:4)

So how we do things - the process - is as important as what we do - the product. Jesus says this principle applies also to our giving. Believe it or not, our Reformed faith has a spiritual method for tapping into the flow, the currency, of money. We call it "tithing" or "giving of our tithes and offerings." It means that we give money, cash or check, to support the mission of Christ's church. This too is an ancient spiritual practice that is spoken of in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.

When we convert our assets into cash and use it to support Christ's mission that is a sign whereby we may know that we are growing in spiritual maturity. But the way that we give is not to be ostentatious. We are not to draw attention to ourselves when we give.

In a similar spirit of humility, we are not to draw attention to ourselves when we pray. Instead, Jesus suggests we pray in a quiet, secluded place. Here is how he puts it as translated by The Message:

"And when you come before God, don't turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here's what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace." (Matthew 6:5-6, MSG)

There are many types of prayer that can be done in secret. When I say in secret I mean even a place like our car when we are driving alone we may pray. But it is important to have a special place where we live and let that be our "quiet place" for prayer. This may be a chair that we sit in each day at a certain time such as perhaps the first thing in the morning or the last thing at night or both. Our prayer in our secret place may be a thought, an inward glimpse, a remembrance of a person in need, or a quiet conversation with God.

Sometimes if we get in a rut in our prayer life we may need to change our quiet place or even our posture. Instead of sitting down we may need to lay down on the floor. Gurdgieff said if you have problems with gratitude, pray laying on your belly. Prostrate yourself on the floor three times a day and say "Thank you" to God three times a day. That will develop in you a spirit of gratitude. From what I have read that works. The physical action helps produce the inward grace that is needed, in this case, gratitude.

Another spiritual disciple you may want to consider this Lent is devoting yourself to the development of a spirit of gratitude. Perhaps in this instance instead of denying yourself something for Lent, you may want to treat yourself in some special way during the season of Lent. For instance, perhaps you want to disciple yourself to get a message once a week each week during Lent in order to relax your body and develop a sense of gratitude by being able to live in a peaceful way in your own body.

You could do something similar without the massage by setting aside a period of time each day to be quiet and alone with God and yourself. Deepak Chopra in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, says "take your stillness with you." He quotes Franz Kafka, the Austrian philosopher and poet who once said, "You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." I love that line. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Another spiritual practice you may want to consider this Lent is fasting. By fasting I mean refraining from food or certain kinds of food for a certain number of days. Fasting is an underutilized spiritual practice. Somehow refraining from food tends to focus our spirit on God. We get lean and clear in our orientation toward God and spiritual things. If you decide to practice fasting, keep in mind Jesus instructions in our text this evening. In particular I like this earthy translation - of what Jesus is getting at - from The Message:

"When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well." (Matthew 6:16-18, MSG)

Jesus practiced the spiritual disciple of fasting. He fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the desert after his baptism. This spiritual disciple has a history that precedes Christianity, was practiced by Christ, and has been utilized by Christians throughout the ages and continues today. Fasting is a cost effective spiritual discipline. There are no books to buy. You even save money you have otherwise spent on food.

Finally, appropriately enough - at the end of our text - Jesus takes us right back to the root of all kinds of evil. We are back to money, once again. Sometimes I get the feeling Jesus knows us all too well. As Bob Dylan puts it, and it is especially true in these days of budget cuts and belt tightening: "Money doesn't talk, it swears." That's a crass way of illustrating the importance our society attaches to money.

We can also take the spiritual view of money. Another word for money is "currency," and that word also reflects the flowing nature of this spiritual energy. The word currency comes from the Latin word "currere" which means "to run" or "to flow." We call moving water in a river a current. We call electricity in a power line a current. A current is energy in motion and so is money. Money is a symbol of where we want to put our energy. Chopra says, "Like a river, money must keep flowing, otherwise it begins to stagnate, to clog, to suffocate and strangle its very own life force. Circulation keeps it alive and vital."

God wants our money is to circulate on down to the River Jordan and then on into the sea of eternity in heaven. Jesus tells us where to keep our treasure: Heaven.

Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. (Matthew 6:19-20, MSG)

So whether we are doing good for others by giving them food or doing good for ourselves by praying or doing good for God's kingdom on earth by giving, HOW WE DO IT is of utmost importance. We are not to draw attention to ourselves. We are to quietly do what God calls us to do. Spiritual maturity means moving from a Mardi Gras kind of party life to an Ash Wednesday sobriety. That does not mean we can't have fun. Of course we can have fun. But more than fun, we can have joy. "The joy of the Lord is my strength," says the Psalmist and joy is not dependent upon circumstances.

We may experience joy even when things are going against us, even when the diagnosis is malignant, even when our loved one is dying. Mardi Gras is about fun in the flesh. Ash Wednesday is about joy in the spirit. Our presence here tonight signifies our intention to move from Mardi Gras living to Ash Wednesday living. Tonight we will go so far as to ritualize repentance through the writing down and burning of our sins. We name them. We claim them. Then we give them to God who destroys them. Thus, our sins are undone and we are washed whiter than snow. Our slates are wiped clean. We get to start over. Thank God for that.

We enter into Lent this evening in an atmosphere of reflection and devotion. The party is over. Now we can get down to the serious business of spiritual growth. This is our chance to move our lives into the gear of joy. Lent is the start of something new inside each of us. Lent is the beginning of something fresh in the life of this congregation as together we enact the mystery of Ash Wednesday.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Jesus: Transfiguration and Execution

Text: Matthew 17:1-9

In our story today, Jesus' body and clothes shine brighter than the sun as he has a conversation with the long-dead Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah in the setting of a holy mountain top experience. Traditionally the transfiguration has been accepted as a historical event but there are problems with this interpretation. Beyond the miraculous nature of the entire event other questions linger such as how did the disciples recognize the two figures as Elijah and Moses? I suppose it could have an intuitive inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I guess it would have to be that as we may assume the disciples had never seen a photograph or video of Elijah and Moses since such technology is not known to have existed at that period in history.

Also, although history does sometimes present astounding parallels, how can a factual episode exhibit so many similarities to an event in the life of Moses? Several commentators think the transfiguration story comes from a visionary experience of the disciples. They wonder if perhaps God gave the disciples a group hallucination or vision. As far as plausibility, Jesus is not the only person in history to have appeared to be 'lit up' so to speak. Many Christian saints appeared radiant at one time or another, including Saints Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Antony of Padua, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Paola, Francis Xavier, Philip Neri, and Bernadette. Within the past century the well known British writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, was once, according to an eye-witnesses, transfigured by light. There are also accounts of people enveloped by light that have no religious relationship at all. So the metaphysical mystery of the transfiguration remains.

What we do know is that the transfiguration of Christ continues to have symbolical meaning to the church. The symbolic meaning of the transfiguration is especially evident as we consider it within its literary context in the Gospel According to Matthew.

There we find that the transfiguration narrative has a remarkable twin of sorts in the account of Jesus' execution. In the one, a private epiphany, an exalted Jesus, with garments glistening, stands on a high mountain and is flanked by two religious giant from the past. All is light. In the other, a public spectacle, a humiliated Jesus, who clothes have been torn from him and divided, is lifted upon a cross and flanked by two common, convicted criminals. All is darkness.

It is truly striking that in both the transfiguration and the execution those looking on are overcome by fear, and that in both instances Jesus is confessed by others to be the Son of God. In this confession lays the unity between the two radically disparate events, transfiguration and crucifixion. As God's Son, it is Jesus' lot to participate in the polarities, indeed the whole gamut, of human experience. This is because the Son of God is the Messiah, and that means the eschatological man, in whom the eschatological pattern of suffering-vindication, tribulation-salvation must play itself out. Therefore in fulfilling the prophets and their ancient oracles of doom and consolation, Jesus is humiliated and exalted, surrounded by saints and ringed by sinners, clothed with light and yet wrapped in a garment of darkness. (The International Critical Commentary: Matthew, Volume II, Davies and Allison, 706)

In The International Critical Commentary, Davies and Allision offer these comparisons and contrasts between Jesus transfiguration and his execution.

  • The transfiguration is a private epiphany. The execution is a public spectacle.

  • The transfiguration is diffused with light. The execution is covered with darkness.

  • The epiphany leads to Jesus' glorification. The execution leads to Jesus' humiliation.

  • In the transfiguration, Jesus stands between Moses and Elijah. In the execution, Jesus hangs suspended between two thiefs.

  • Jesus is up on the mountain in the transfiguration. Jesus is up on the cross in the execution.

  • Jesus takes others with him to the transfiguration. Jesus is taken by others to the execution.

  • There are onlookers at the transfiguration (three disciples are named). There are onlookers at the execution (three women are named).

  • Jesus is confessed as the Son of God at the transfiguration. Jesus is confessed as the Son of God at the execution.

  • Elijah is present at the transfiguration. One of the people at the execution says, "Let us see whether Elijah will come."

  • 'They were afraid' at the transfiguration. 'They were afraid' at the execution.

  • Jesus' garments glisten at the transfiguration. Jesus' garments are torn and taken away at the execution.

  • 'After six days' Jesus led disciples up to the mountain of transfiguration. 'From the sixth hour there was darkness' when Jesus was executed. (The International Critical Commentary: Matthew, Volume II, Davies and Allison, 706)

As you can tell, in its literary construction Matthew intends for the transfiguration of Jesus to be book ended by his execution. The Transfiguration is the lens through which we view the execution of Christ. The one without the other loses meaning and power. Transfiguration challenges us to see Jesus for who he really is rather than for whom we would like him to be. The transfigured Jesus is more than we had bargained for or hoped for. He is above and beyond the call of duty. He is beyond human. He is also divine. That's who Jesus is in this story.

We are right there in this story too in the person of Peter. Peter represents us. Notice what Peter does. When he sees Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus his mind begins to work in overdrive and of course he immediately sticks his foot in his mouth so to speak. Peter says Jesus, "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." (vs 4) Imagine the gall of a fisherman wanting to build three dwellings for a carpenter's son. Peter witnesses this fantastic transformation. Look at what he does. He sees Jesus, his OWN Jesus, standing between Moses and Elijah. Peter sees the potential here for great things. In his subconscious mind, Peter starts singing that song by Peter Gabriel called "Big Time … I'm on my way I'm making it … Big Time … I'm gonna make it big SOME DAY." Here are the lyrics to the song in Peter's mind as he gazes upon Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration of Jesus.

I'm on my way I'm making it, Huh!

I've got to make it show yeah, Hey!

So much larger than life

I'm gonna watch it growing

Hey hey hey heyyyyyyy

The place where I come from is a small town

They think so small, they use small words

But not me, I'm smarter than that,

I worked it out

I'll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out

I've had enough, I'm getting out

To the city, the big big city

I'll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own

And I will pray to a big god, as I kneel in the big church

Big Time, I'm on my way I'm making it, big time, oh yes

Big time, I've got to make it show yeah, big time

Big time, so much larger than life

Big time, I'm gonna watch it growing, big time

Ho ohh ohh, oh oh, ho ohh ohh, oh ohhh

My parties have all the big names and I greet them with the whitest smile

Tell them how my life is one big adventure and always they're amazed When I show them 'round my house to my bed

I had it made like a mountain rage with a snow white pillow for my big fat head

And my heaven will be a big heaven,

And I will walk through the front door

Big Time, I'm on my way i'm making it, big time, Huh!

Big time, I've got to make it show yeah, big time

Big time, so much larger than life

Big time, I'm gonna watch it growing, big time

Big time, my car is getting bigger Big time, my house is getting bigger

Big time, my eyes are getting bigger

And my mouuuth

Big time, my dinner's getting bigger

Big time, and my bank account

Big time, look at my circumstance

Big time, and the bulge in my big big big big big big big big big big big big big big big, hi there ... (Peter Gabriel, "Big Time")

As usual, Peter appreciates Jesus for what he can do for Peter. Or, to put it in 2011 terms, Peter thinks, "Maybe we could build a booth here and make it a holy site. Let's charge admission: $2.50 per person or $5.00 per family. This could be HUGE. We could be RICH. If it happened Peter would be thinking along these lines. Where's my iPhone? I've got to get a photo with Jesus, Moses and Elijah in it! Oh wait, let me do a five second video so you can see how they interact. Hey, we could create a website called "Pillars of Creation" and feature Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Jesus could film a video series called "Parable of the Day" and I could produce a more practical video series about "Your Best Life Begins Today." Oh wait, we'll make it a subscription website. Judas can handle the financing. After we achieve profitability, we'll do an Initial Public Offering of our stock. That will finance Jesus political aspirations. He can run for President of the Sanhedrin. Eventually he will take on King Herod. This is how Peter's mind was racing standing up on that holy mountain during Jesus transfiguration.

Peter was not transfigured by this event and neither are we. We hear the story of Jesus transfiguration and subsequent execution and we think what a wonderful example he is but we don't make the final connection of the story which is the connection between YOU and YOUR OWN transfiguration. If we were transfigured we would bring our few loaves and fishes to Jesus and he would multiply them a thousand fold and feed a multitude. If we were transfigured we would be like the little boy who had such a great time at church he asked his dad, "Daddy, daddy, can we stay after noon today at church, just this once?" Instead, we listen to the benediction and visit briefly on the porch or a linger for a while in Fellowship Hall when brunch is served as it is today. Have we been transfigured? I don't think so. Not by a long shot.

While Peter was still speaking, 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!" Listen to Jesus. That is where we start. That is step number one in the process of our own transfiguration. Listen to Jesus. I will talk more about listening to Jesus in the Ash Wednesday sermon this week. This theme of listening to Jesus will be continued. It is the foundation of our discipleship.

Our intial reaction to God's voice may be fear. When the disciples heard God's voice, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." (vs 6-8) God doesn't want to scare us. Jesus does not want to be like a boot camp trainer of whom we are afraid. He wants to be our brother, our guide, our example. He wants that kind of intimate relationship with us. And when the disciples looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (vs. 8) That kind of focus on Jesus alone is the next step in our spiritual journey. After we learn to listen to God in prayer step two in our own transfiguration is that we learn to look up to no one except Jesus.

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." (vs. 9) Jesus knows we disciples are not ready to own it. So he encourages the disciples not to mention the transfiguration once they come down off the mountain.

We are well aware of our human nature. We know how we smell and what we like to eat. We know how our mind gets trapped in endless cycles of minuitae. But we are less well acquainted with the divine ball of life force energy that emanates from the core of our being. We rarely take inventory of the vast resources that are available to us in each moment for our own transfiguration. Let us explore Christ's energy within us during this Lenten season. May Jesus transfiguration lead to our own transfiguration and may Jesus' execution lead to our own execution of our sinful natures. That is our goal for this Lenten season. Our own transfiguration is the one that counts. May this Lenten season be a time for each of us to ponder the mystery of our own divinity and our own humanity. May this be a season when we explore both the smooth and the rough edges around the themes of transfiguration and execution.