Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Samantha at the Well

John 4:5-42, Lent 3 A, March 23, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

A tough life
Consider Samantha. As she was growing up, she was so hopeful about what her future might look like. She looked forward to having a husband and children. So, on her wedding day, she was elated. Her honeymoon period was spectacular. She thought that she was living the Samaritan dream. She and her first husband had a few good years together, but she could not carry a child to term. 

After a few too many miscarriages, he left her. Divorce in that time wasn’t an equal thing. This man did not leave Samantha with anything. She was left to beg on the street or resort to prostitution. Her perfect life was overturned in an instant. Now, all that she could feel were betrayal and despair. 

Then she met a man who sympathized for her. He married her. She thought that she had another chance at the perfect life, only for him to die suddenly a year later. Once again, Samantha was left without a safety net. Once again, Samantha could only feel despair.

Samantha’s life continued to worsen. Each time that she married, she briefly hoped that her life could get better. Yet five times her husbands either died or divorced her. Five times, she was left to beg or sell her body. Five times she was racked with grief, despair, anger, and betrayal. Growing her family was her greatest goal in life, a goal that was never accomplished. 

Now, Samantha is empty. She has no hope in life, and she can’t stand to see how the younger women in her town are so giddy with life. She used to go with the young women each morning to get water from Jacob’s well, but she can’t do it anymore. The women are a constant reminder of what her life will never be. Samantha is bitter. 

So, she gets her water in the heat of the midday sun. She has to walk a mile from her home to the well in the hottest part of the day. Retrieving the water is not easy at this time of day, but at least she isn’t disgusted by the chipper women. Most days when she makes the trek out to the well, she doesn’t see anyone, and that is just how she likes it. 

The man at the well
Then one day, as Samantha approached the well, she saw a man sitting on the edge of the well. She could tell that he was a Jew, even though most Jews went the long way around Samaria to avoid meeting people like her. She didn’t want to talk to this man, but she needed water, so she went to the well. She walked right up and started to retrieve water, ignoring this strange man. Then he said to her, “Give me a drink.” 

Samantha was taken aback. Who is this man, and why is he so bold to make this demand? He was a Jew, someone that she was not supposed to communicate with, let alone share water. She told him, “We are from different religions and different countries. How dare you ask a favor of me?” At this point, Samantha just wanted to get her water and go. Why must she help this foreign man?

This man remained calm and simply responded, “If you knew who I am and what I can do, you would ask me for living water.” Samantha thought, “Living water, that is like a stream of water, right? There aren’t any streams near here.” So she said to him, “You can’t get the water out of this well. How can you get this living water?” This man said, “I have water that will quench your thirst so that you will never be thirsty again. The water that I give sustains for eternal life.” 

Wow, now Samantha is intrigued. This man says that he can provide water so special that she would never have to walk two miles round trip in the heat of the day. She wouldn’t have to be embarrassed or belittled by the other women in town. This living water could remove so much of the discomfort in her life. Samantha told this man, “Please give me this water so that I will never have to come here again.”

Then a strange request. He said to her, “Go and bring your husband back here.” Samantha is taken aback. Why would he want to talk to her boyfriend after he has already talked to her. Shocked she said, “I don’t have a husband.” Then this man responded, “You are right. You have had five husbands, yet the man you are living with is not one of them.”

Samantha thought, “How could he know? I have never met him before. How could he possibly know how many husbands I have had? Does he know about all of my heartache, my sorrow, my betrayal? How could he know?” She said out loud, “You must be a prophet. I have worshipped on this mountain, but you worship in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Miss, the place of worship will no longer matter as long as you worship the one God, my Father, in spirit and truth.”

Amazed, Samantha exclaimed, “I know that the Messiah is coming!” Jesus said, “I am he.” Samantha considered, “I am. That is the name of the Lord. He must be telling the truth!” She was enlivened again. Somehow, meeting this Messiah brought the life back into Samantha. She brightened up, leaving the gloom of her past life behind her as she rushed back to her hometown. She even left her water jug behind - she didn’t need it anymore. She had to tell everyone she knew about this wonderful man!

She shouted for all to hear, “Everyone! You need to come see a man who must be the Messiah! He knew everything about me!” The people were astonished by her words, but they were more surprised by her demeanor. No longer did Samantha look bitter, dull, and empty. Now she was smiling, excited, and engaging. Much of the town followed Samantha to the well as she continued to excitedly recount everything that happened there.

When the Samaritans met Jesus, they also were overcome with emotion. They invited him to stay with them, and he did so for two days. Many of the people in the town came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. His words inspired them, and his talk of living water gave them hope. They too wanted to experience the new joy that Samantha found in Jesus. Many of the townsfolk proclaimed to Samantha, “We thank you for introducing us to Jesus, whom we know is the Savior of the world.”

Just as Jesus provided living water to the Samaritan woman at the well, may Jesus also provide this living water to us in baptism. Amen.

CTIM 2014

On Saturday, March 8, 2014, six ladies from Zion attended Called Together in Mission: Everyday Evangelists, a one day conference in Cedar Rapids hosted by our Southeastern Iowa Synod. Here are some of the things that we learned:

Pastor Julie
Keynote: Peggy Hahn, lay leader of LEAD: Living Every Day as Disciples. Peggy spoke of congregations that fit into four categories: New, Growing, Stalled, and Out of Breath. The goal is for each congregation to find ways to move into the growing category. Some examples include finding a rhythm, deepening our view of God, and listening to the neighborhood.
Websites Open Doors: Our website tells a story about who we are as a people of God. I am inspired to update our website - or better yet - start from scratch.
Bringing Social Change: Quad Cities Interfaith is a local organization that prepares congregations to go out into their communities and talk one-to-one about the needs found there.
ELCA Malaria Campaign: Especially in Africa, malaria and hunger/poverty are in a vicious cycle. The ELCA is helping the Lutheran synods in Africa to provide education (for women in particular), prevention (nets and removing standing water), and diagnosis and treatment (open/traveling clinics with diagnosis kits and the malaria pill).

Keynote Speaker, Peggy Hahn, spoke about being passionate, developing leaders with a deep and bold faith in Jesus Christ.  “Mind over matter, Matters”   Think about what you are doing!  Are you out of breath with your faith?  Pray and catch your breath.  Think about what you are doing.  Change from being out of breath and be POSITIVE AND HAVE PURPOSE.  Take one step at a time.  Let’s Grow Leaders.  What do we need to do?  Make a plan as we put Jesus Christ first in our lives.  Share our stories of faith through Jesus Christ.
Worship, Evangelism, and Conversation: It was a real privilege to sit and chat with Bishop Michael Burk.  Worship at its best is the good news of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is there with us.  Jesus in us is “Evangelism.”  When we take communion, Jesus is with us and change will take place in us.  
Unbinding the Gospel: Pr. Gloria Dovre spoke on “Unbinding the Gospel” from Martha Reece’s best seller. It translates Evangelism as a community of faith, that is hopeful, powerful, prayerful and joy filled when it comes to sharing our faith.  
Telling the Good News Through Numbers: When we describe our budget using words and not just numbers, then we can get people excited to fulfill our mission. 

Evangelism through Actions: I left feeling energized and empowered to put a dynamic program together, through the Evangelism Committee, for our church membership, the community, and the world by first understanding the needs of each.
Evangelism through Words:  This session helped us to discover our fears in sharing our story in out faith journey and taking steps to overcome that fear so that we might bring others to know God and his plan for them.
Going Outside the Box: Cowboy Worship:  This was an enlightening session by a retired pastor who received a call from God to start a “cowboy church” in his community and how he grew that congregation from six worshipers the first week to between 200 and 400 worshipers each week today, along with a totally volunteer pot luck prior to the service held on Thursday evenings. 

Feeding the Hungry as a Faith Practice (3 sessions): This work of Faith is shaped by Christ’s call to “give hope to the world”.  It is rooted in God’s abundance, in love for our neighbors, and hope in God’s promised future.  By Grace, God gives us freedom and motivates us to aid the brokenness of the world.  
46 million people are food insecure. This means they do not have enough resources to have adequate and nutritious food for a month.  842 million face chronic hunger – 1 in 8 people.
Simply stated, we in the pew can: Learn, Pray, Lead, Advocate, and Support.  
Simulation activity:  $45 a month for man, wife, and children ages 3 and 5 months needing about 6000 calories per day. They did not qualify for food stamps. Some things learned from this activity:  SNSP forms (food stamps) are quite complicated; calories were obtained from non-nutritious foods and do not have long term benefit; very little variety; many families do not have food security even in this country.

Sharing Faith Through Art: Creating and sharing art as as church, no matter the medium, can express our faith with our heart, mind and body.
Reaching Our Youth: When working with our youth, we can be: Relevant, Authentic, Organized, and Viral. Faith is Caught, Not Taught.
Sharing God in the Garden: We can create a community garden: “Growing Friends First, Vegetables Second.” We can donate the food to the food bank, people in need, and use in recipes at the church. We can get the community involved, which will help to bring people into the church and feed people. We can do this!
I enjoyed these workshops and I wish to thank the church for making this possible.

HM: Phrases to Ponder
Keynote: Everyday Evangelists - deepen your faith, share your story. Get your rhythm - walk, breathe, get in God’s stream. Engage the heart, words will follow.
The Power of Listening: Listening campaigns, “Listen Strong.” The Holy Spirit’s power is activated when listening is unleashed. God enters when you reach for the other.
The Disciple Frame: Liminal space is between what we have been and what we need to be. Free to be blessings to the world.
Sharing Faith Through Art: Get energized in a spiritual prayer practice.

Here are some potential ministries that we are excited about:
Community garden
Intergenerational creative/artistic events
Adult forum using Following the Way - finding your spiritual type
Planned prayer pilgrimage around our sacred neighborhood
A listening campaign to hear the needs of our church and our community
Renewing our website

If you would like to hear more about any of these workshops and new ministry ideas, please do not hesitate to talk to any of us!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Like it or Not

John 3:1-17, Lent 2 A, March 16, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Here is a story from David Lose: 
Tom's six year-old son Benjamin protested his bedtime. Frustrated by his father's refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, "Daddy, I hate you!" Tom…replied, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you."
To which Benjamin replied, "Don't say that!" Surprised, Tom continued, "Ben, but it's true -- I love you." "Don't say that, Daddy." "But I love you, Ben." "Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!" And then it came: "Benjamin, now listen to me: I love you...like it or not!”
Even at six years old, you see, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love he was powerless. If Tom had been willing to negotiate -- "I'll love you if you go to bed nicely" -- then Benjamin would be a player: "Okay, this time, but I'm not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow." But once Tom refused to negotiate, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben couldn't do anything but accept or flee that love.

We often desperately want this power over our lives, to determine who loves us and who doesn’t. We yearn for control in our lives, but the control isn’t in our hands. God’s love for us isn’t conditional. Consider Abram, for example. 
Abram is a regular guy in Genesis. He owns some land and has a sizable household. He is married to Sarai. They are good people, but they aren’t exceptional. They don’t go out of their way to be faithful. So, when the Lord suddenly talks directly to Abram, we know that something marvelous is going to happen. 
The Lord tells Abram to leave everything and everyone he knows. He is to leave the land that he inherited from his father and blindly go wherever the Lord is sending him. The Lord promises to bless him and his family so that they will become a great nation - even though Abram and Sarai have no children yet. Their family will have generations to come, and those generations will be blessed. 
All of these blessings that The Lord shares with Abram are not conditional. The Lord doesn’t say, “If you follow my commandments, I will bless you.” Nor does the Lord say, “Because you are an excellent believer, I will bless you.” No, there is nothing conditional about this. Abram did not earn this blessing in any way. The Lord chose Abram, like it or not. 
Then Abram did as the Lord told him. He packed up all of his household, his livestock, and his stuff. He sold his land and abandoned his previous life. He, Sarai, and his household went off into the sunset not knowing where they would end up. They started a faithful adventure that day.

Nicodemus, from our gospel lesson today, went on a very different faith adventure. Unlike his peers, he thought that Jesus had an important message, and he wanted to tell Jesus that to his face. Under the dark cover of night, Nicodemus approached Jesus. He told Jesus that he must be from God because nobody else could do the things that Jesus did. Jesus pushed Nicodemus a little further by cryptically responding, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is confused and thinks that Jesus is talking about a literal birth, which is a little outrageous to think of. So Jesus has to clarify that this is a baptism of water and Spirit, not a literal physical birth. Then he cryptically says, “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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus often speaks in cryptic language like this, explaining the complexities of the world in ways that only further complicate the situation. 
Yet, then Jesus concludes in quite basic language, “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.” In these words, Jesus shows that God loves Nicodemus unconditionally, like it or not. 
Nicodemus must take this to heart because later on in the gospel of John, he shows up again, defending Jesus to his own people in chapter 7 and bringing myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial in chapter 19. Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ love and returned the love in beautiful ways.
Just like Abram and Nicodemus, God loves us unconditionally. This love may make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. We might even want to shout out, "Stop saying that, God! Stop saying that right now!"

David Lose concludes his story: If God makes God's great love for the world and us conditional, then we, suddenly, have tremendous power. We can negotiate. We can threaten to reject God's love. We can even tell God to take a hike if we don't care for God's terms. But when God just loves us -- completely and unconditionally -- and when God just goes and dies for us, well then the jig is up, there's just nothing we can do to influence God. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1525

In the story we heard from David Lose, Tom the father approaches Ben his son and says, “I love you…like it or not!” So also, in so many ways, God comes to us through scripture and through our lives and says, “I love the whole world…like it or not!” Indeed, God has already saved us through Jesus dying and being resurrected. 
Whether we like it or not, our God loves us and will never abandon us. No matter whether we respond at all, God will continue to forgive us our sins and encourage us along the way. Maybe we can even follow the Spirit as it blows like the wind. Amen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Identities and Stuff

Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1 A, March 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
We are surrounded by advertisements. Wherever we go in public, whatever we read online or in print, ads are there. Now even the residential trash cans in Moline will have ads on them!

The videos that we stream online and the television shows that we watch live are also full of advertisements. In one hour of prime time television, there are at least 40 commercials, each of them unique. I know because I counted. Some of these advertisements simply sell their products or services, but others try to sell you more. Consider these three:

Rice Krispies' current ad shows a happy family making Rice Krispy treats. The mother has two adorable children who are eager to learn from their doting parent. Mom shows them how to press the Krispy treat into a plastic Easter Egg and leave the center hollow for M & Ms. Then the mother shakes the egg, making the candy inside jingle. The children squeal with glee. This commercial is not only selling a rice cereal - it is selling idyllic family time. 

Pacific Life has a commercial narrated by a recent college graduate. She describes how when she was ten, her parents agreed that if she earned grades to go to college, they would help pay for her education. Her father invested in Pacific Life so that he would have the financial resources to provide for her college degree. And this young woman was able, with her father’s financial help, to earn a degree in marine biology. Now she can research the same whales that are in the Pacific Life logo. This commercial is not only selling financial investments - it is selling educational success. 

“Sue” was given a Straight Talk cell phone and the accompanying plan. Now that her cell phone costs half of what she used to pay, she feels rich. So rich in fact that she hired a French bakery chef for the PTA bake sale. The commercial shows her utilizing her cell phone to receive credit card payments for the wonderful cupcakes that she has on display. This commercial is not only selling cell phone plans - it is selling a new way of life. 

Indeed, research shows that this is a somewhat new trend in advertising. Companies no longer focus their advertising on the merits of the products or services; instead, they create the image of a new livelihood. These commercials make you believe that they can make you better if only you spend a little money. 

Sure, families have great times making Rice Krispy treats, but the family makes the happy memories, not the cereal. Investments are important for affording a college degree, but money does not make a student successful. Cell phones can make communication easier, but they do not make anyone rich. Can a simple product or service change your identity?

The Gospel
A similar question based on today’s gospel - Can a simple temptation from the devil change your identity? Jesus says no. This passage takes place right after Jesus’ baptism, which we heard in January. At Jesus’ baptism, just like at the transfiguration that we heard last Sunday, God proclaims from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Therefore, at Jesus’ baptism, all learned that Jesus was - and is - God’s beloved Son.

Then Jesus almost immediately goes into the wilderness. He fasts for forty days, so he is physically weak, literally starving, and possibly emotionally worn out as well. Although Jesus is only beginning his ministry, he knows what will come in the end. He might be questioning if he is ready for it all. If the devil has any chance of overpowering Jesus, this is it.

We often think that the devil is trying to get Jesus to sin, but I think that his temptations run much deeper. Tricking Jesus into sinning wouldn’t accomplish much, but tempting Jesus to walk away from his identity as Messiah would. If Jesus didn’t have to save the whole human race, his life could be a whole lot easier. If Jesus walked away from his divinity, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die. The devil wants Jesus to deny his role as Son of God. 

Each time that Jesus quotes scripture to prove the devil wrong, he is proclaiming that: He is the Son of God. He is the Messiah. He is saving his people. Nothing that the devil can do or say will ever change that. 

This temptation in the desert shows to us who Jesus is. Even after 40 days of fasting when he is weak almost to a breaking point, Jesus is still able to defend himself against the slyest tricks that the devil sends his way. No matter how worn out he is, his mind is still sharp. Jesus quotes scripture to defend himself in a way that few people can. Seeing Jesus like this, we know that he will make it to the cross, and he will lay down his life for us. No devil can stop him.

Our Temptations and Our Identity
We may not always be so gifted. Unlike Jesus, we are able to fall under temptation. So many of those products and services on the market are so alluring! Companies tell us that we can’t live without their stock, and we believe them. Even I have fallen into this trap. Recently, when my computer broke, within two days I had purchased a new one. How can I work without a computer? Sure, I preached from a hand-written manuscript that week, but even so I used another computer to do my prep work. I used my smart phone to check Facebook. 

We will certainly succumb to temptation from time to time, so I ask you: Does your stuff really change your identity? Does the type of cereal you buy really create family time for you? Do your investments create college degrees for you and your family? Does your cell phone enable you to hire a French chef? The answer is no. No product can change who we are, not even the Bible. The Bible is a source of inspiration and a tool for learning, but the Bible without God is nothing.

We have only one identity that matters. We are children of God. God loves us so much that God claims us as God’s own. No amount of the devil’s power can change this. Our God will always love us no matter what, and Jesus has already died and been resurrected so that we will live. The only thing that the devil can do is tempt us to doubt the truth of this. 

We are children of God. We are a testament of how Jesus is active in our lives. The devil has no power over Jesus, and may the devil also have no power over us. Amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes and Ketchup

Psalm 51, Ash Wednesday A, March 5, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

When you consider confessing your sins, what sort of emotions arise? Discomfort? Sadness? Powerlessness? Despair? Do you enjoy recalling all of the ways that you have wronged yourself, your neighbors, and your God? Probably not. 

Confessing our sins before God in the presence of our fellow church members may not be a fun thing to do, yet it is important. In fact, admitting our wrongdoing is a critical way that God puts us in our place. Today we will hear that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That is quite a downer.

Confessing our sins doesn’t always have to be so depressing, though. Recently, the confirmation class experimented with a new way to confess our sins. We gathered around a table. Each confirmand had a piece of clean white fabric. I invited them to confess their sins out loud. They then squirted ketchup onto their piece of fabric, symbolizing the blood of a sacrificial lamb. 

The first student boldly grabbed the ketchup bottle and exclaimed, “I lied to my parents!” and then sprayed a line of ketchup right down the middle of his piece. Then he passed the bottle to his friend who said, “I hit my brother.” He squeezed a large dollop of ketchup onto his no-longer-clean fabric. 

As the bottle of ketchup was passed around the table, I heard exclamations like, “I slept in instead of going to worship!” and “I am always on Twitter!” and “I stole chips from my best friend!” As they confessed their sins before God and each other, their clean white pieces of fabric became smothered with ketchup piled high. They took pictures of those laden pieces of cloth to remind them of the blood that Jesus spilt for their sins. 

I wish confessing our sins always could be this fun, but it often isn’t. When we come before God to admit our faults, it isn’t always easy. On days like this, we are reminded how often we stray from the path that God has set before us. So often, we do not take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We often are much more like the authors of the Lament psalms than we are like the authors of the Penitential psalms. 

The average author of a lament psalm is self-confident if not outright cocky. He is certain that he is not to blame for whatever is going wrong in his life, so he curses his enemies and blames God. This person will not praise God until God fixes all of his problems. The average psalmist is not repentant.

The author of Psalm 51 has an alternative approach to his relationship with God. In his penitential prayer to the Lord, he does not say, “fix my situation so that I can praise you.” Instead, his message is, “fix me because I am sinful.” God, our enemies, and the situations that we encounter do not create the stumbling blocks in our lives. We put those there by ourselves. 

The issue is not, “fix my problem,” but “fix me because I am the problem.” Admitting our own faults is no simple task. We need infinite amounts of courage and self-esteem to be able to divulge our darkest secrets to God. Like the psalmist, we do not lightly say, “I have sinned, O Lord, against you. Condemn me to death. I have not earned the right to live!” Indeed, we do deserve death. 

We are a broken people, broken from the sin and suffering all around us. When we humbly fall before the Lord pleading to be forgiven, the Lord sees how our whole being is repentant. Through our confession, we also are committing ourselves to God. Surely, we deserve the worst punishment, but the Lord won’t have us suffer anymore. Certainly, when we come before God’s presence with a repentant heart, the Lord cleans us of our sins. The Lord washes away all that is wrong, like how the confirmands cleaned their ketchup-y fabric.

The confirmation students enjoyed squirting their pieces of cloth with ketchup, and they didn’t mind sharing their sins with their classmates and their pastor. Then it was time to clean their fabric. The first student dipped their ketchup-laden piece of cloth into a small bucket of water with powdered Clorox. The water washed away most of the ketchup, and the Clorox did the rest. 

Each student took their turn washing the mock-blood out of their fabric. By the end, that water was disgusting. The ketchup wasn’t fully dissolved, so there were red bits floating and sinking in the water. There were still white specs of the Clorox mixed in, too. That murky water was full of their sins. The kids certainly felt satisfied pouring that mess down the drain! They also rinsed their fabric in the sink so that it looked clean as new. 

As Robert Alter writes, “It is a person’s remorse over past actions, or perhaps simply his authentic grief over his desperate plight, that God accepts instead of sacrifice.” Our deep need for forgiveness is what God requests of us. We don’t have to spill blood to be forgiven of our sins. Jesus’ blood spilt from the cross is enough for God. Every time that we confess our sins, the Lord restores us to wholeness and refreshes our livelihood so that we can be the good in the world. 

Throughout this Lent, may the Lord restore to you the joy of salvation and fill you with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

On the Mountain

Matthew 17.1-9, Transfiguration A, March 2, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? One where everything on your mind passes away and you are overcome with a powerful experience of God? These can happen in worship, on retreats, in nature, and even on literal mountaintops. I have had my share of these experiences over the years, many of which happened at Wartburg College. 

Just yesterday, I returned to Wartburg for a one day workshop. At the end of the event, we shared worship in the chapel. We praised God through song, scripture, and prayer. As I looked around the sanctuary, I fondly remembered so many worship services from years past. After I sat down in a pew, I almost instinctively slid down so that my head rested on the top of the back of the pew. That was always the best angle to focus on the story-high cross window above the altar. So many of my prayers have been expressed by staring at that window.

I then looked at the Christ candle flickering and fondly remembered how I had to stretch on my toes to light it. At the end of the worship service, we went back to the baptismal font. As the worship leader sprinkled us with water, I remembered how Brett would often make the sign of the cross on his forehead with the font water. Then he would do the same for me.

I have so many fond memories that were made in the chapel - in worship and in my time working as sacristan. Yet that place does not continue to be a mountaintop for me solely because I have good memories. The Wartburg Chapel continues to be a mountaintop for me because I continue to experience God there.

In our mountaintop experiences, we feel closer to God than ever before. I can’t help but guess, though, that Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain was not exactly like our mountaintop moments. Jesus didn’t simply have a touchy-feely moment of inspiration; God was with him and revealed through him. 
Before this passage begins, Jesus is talking to his disciples. He describes that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Then he will be raised on the third day. Peter can’t take it and tries to rebuke Jesus. Jesus responds by shouting at Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are so conceited to think you can change this.” Then Jesus tells all of the disciples that they must also take up their crosses and follow him. 

Six days later, Peter, James, and John leave their friends and peers behind as they accompany Jesus up a high mountain. The four of them are standing at the height of the mountain when Jesus becomes transfigured - his entire appearance changes. Jesus’ face glows with heavenly light, and his clothes become brilliantly white. I can only guess that this narrative barely begins to describe what actually happened to Jesus on that mountain. No words can describe the powerful experience that Peter, James, and John had. 

Then, if that experience wasn’t enough to show how special Jesus is, Moses and Elijah appear before them. Moses and Elijah, two of the most important prophets from the Old Testament, talk to Jesus - about what, we will never know. What they had to say must have been severely important for them to come to Jesus in earthly form. 

Peter is taken back by this experience. Somehow he knows that these two men are figures from his own Bible, and he doesn’t know how to contain his emotions. What he does know is that he wants this moment to last forever. So, he foolishly interjects into their conversation saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. I will gladly make three tents, one for each of you.” Unlike last time, Jesus does not rebuke Peter. Although Peter’s statement is foolish - even we know that mountaintop experiences cannot last forever - something else happens.

Before Peter can even finish his statement, a great cloud comes down on top of them. This cloud is brilliant like the sun and casts a great shadow upon all of them there. They could feel that this is no ordinary cloud. Then God’s own voice comes from that cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The disciples are overcome with emotion now. They cannot stay on their feet, and they fall prostrate to the ground. They are awestruck and terrified. 

Jesus then approaches his disciples. He tells them to get up and be not afraid. He touches them and helps them to their feet. When they look up, all that they see is Jesus. The cloud, Moses, and Elijah have all disappeared. Jesus is no longer transfigured; the moment of God’s glory has passed. 

So, like every good mountaintop experience, they go down the mountain and return to their regular lives. As Peter, James, and John descend the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about their experience, at least not until he has died and been resurrected. Maybe Jesus doesn’t want this experience to incriminate him before he is ready, or maybe the three won’t fully be able to understand or describe it until Jesus’ mission is complete. 

Almost as soon as they return to the crowd of followers, a man kneels before Jesus and pleads that he heal his epileptic son. The disciples in the crowd could not heal this boy, but Jesus immediately rebukes the demon and heals him. Jesus doesn’t have a moment’s rest to process what had happened on the mountain; he immediately begins to do his work. 

We also cannot avoid the work in the valleys of our lives. After such powerful mountaintop experiences, we cannot to keep it to ourselves. Instead, we can take that experience and share our newfound love and joy with those who need it most. 

My time at Wartburg College prepared me to be here today. I am now refreshed and encouraged as I look forward to Lent. God was fully present there at Wartburg - and God is fully present here as well. Yesterday, I was fed so that I can continue to feed your spirits. Hopefully you are fed here so that you can feed others spiritually.

This is the eighth Sunday after Epiphany. On the first Sunday after Epiphany, when we celebrated Jesus’ baptism, we heard God exclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It is fitting that as we conclude this season of light, we hear again God’s exclamation that Jesus is his beloved Son. But now, God commands us to listen to Jesus! 

As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, let us strive to listen to Jesus, listen in our worship and in our study. Our ears will strain to hear a word of hope, and our eyes will squint for a vision of the holy. We will move toward the heights of Golgotha, and may we find God present there as Jesus dies on the cross. Amen.