I Don’t Love a Parade

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I’m not a big fan of parades. I associate them with being hot and crowded and uncomfortable. Each summer my mother would take us to the Fourth of July parade in her hometown of Oswego, NY. It was a big deal. People would go early to “get a good seat.” I suppose some people brought chairs, but as a child I was expected to sit on the curb. It was always hot and the parade seemed loud and long. Sure, every few floats there’d be someone throwing candy into the crowd or a clown on the edges juggling something. But, there’s only so many times you can get hit in the head with a Tootsie Pop before it’s not fun anymore and clowns were just something I did not understand.

These early memories cloud my judgement when it comes to Palm Sunday. I try to picture the day we now celebrate with palm branches and hosannas. I envision it as being as hot as those July 4ths in New York. I doubt Pontius Pilate’s parade was quite as loud or long as the Oswego ones, but I’m betting it was something to see. Maybe a full Roman Century with bright, shiny armor and flashy spears? Maybe a few horses bedecked for the occasion. Maybe decorated chariots and other blatant displays of wealth? Whatever it was, I’m sure there were crowds pressing in for a glimpse of the powerful and mighty entering the city. Given a choice, I wouldn’t be there.

I would like to say that I’d be at the other parade that was happening across town. You know the one I mean, the one with Jesus riding on a donkey with a colt trailing along. The crowds would be smaller and less noisy. Palm branches and cloaks placed on the ground to honor the One who comes in the name of the Lord rather than polished armor glinting in the sun. I wish I could say with certainty that I’d be here, at least until this small crowd started to mingle and merge with the larger one. The choice seems obvious enough…

Or does it? That’s my problem this year. The choice seems so obvious, yet how many of us are actively making it?  I can say with certainty that I will be among those shouting hosannas and welcoming Jesus with great enthusiasm. This year, there is no other parade to consider. If I don’t follow Jesus on this walk from death to life, nothing changes. Of course, if I don’t follow Jesus down the streets of my own city, nothing will change then, either. This is where it gets real.

When Jesus rode that donkey into town it was a political and prophetic act. Jesus demonstrated that he was against the Temple Authorities who worked for Rome as much as he was against Rome. He wasn’t making a religious statement. He was inviting the powerless to journey with him as he went to face the powers of this world that will do anything to further their own interests while stomping all over anyone who gets in their way. Jesus made a conscious choice to confront the oppressors of his day. We must make the same choice if we call ourselves his disciples.

Following Jesus isn’t just about the good times. It isn’t just about Sunday morning worship and kinship and weekly Bible study groups. Being a Christian really is about politics and being prophetic. The reason so many of us falter is that it is hard to stay on the path that leads to life. The work for justice and liberation for all people is endless. It would be easier to fade into the crowd that will turn ugly in a few days. It would be easier to forget about Jesus for the rest of the week and show up next week for the alleluias. But easier isn’t necessarily faith-filled. And easier leaves the world in the hands of the oppressors. There is no possibility of resurrection when we remain death’s captives.

People are dying in Syria, in Sudan, in your neighborhood and in mine because we have remained silent, unobserved, in the space between Rome’s parade and Jesus’parade. Isn’t it time to renew our commitment to follow Jesus all the way from death to life? We can’t afford to be part of the fickle crowd who shouts hosannas now and screams for crucifixion in a few days. We can’t afford to be disciples who whisper about the Messiah to one another and then deny having anything to do with Jesus when the personal risk gets too high. We must be ready to go through it all, including betrayal and death, so that we can fully proclaim resurrection. This is more than just a spiritual journey; this is the difference between life and death.

This year I will make the choice to follow Jesus once more and pray for the courage to face the oppressors and remain on the path that leads from death to life. No one needs to make the journey alone, though, because we’re all invited. I’m not a fan of parades, but this one, this one that proclaims the politics of justice and pronounces prophetic love, this is one that I can’t afford to miss. I hope to see you in the crowd. Palm branches are optional.

RCL – Year A – Palm Sunday – April 5, 2017
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Matthew 21:1-11

Photo: CC0 image by Igor Saveliev

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Can These Bones Rise?

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This morning I drove from Yankton, SD to Omaha, NE. I was awed by the beauty of the landscape which wasn’t quite as flat as I anticipated. I drove through miles of farmland with some fields freshly furrowed to show the black richness of the soil. The trees that bordered these farms wore a hallow of pale green, nearly yellow buds just barely visible in the gray, misty morning. I entertained fanciful thoughts of hearing the earth singing songs of dormant prairie grasses to the rhythm of ancient buffalo hoofs running swiftly over the gentle hills. I felt the life waiting in the mud and the rain, just waiting to burst into the new, green loveliness that is spring.

Such were my thoughts as I drove along. The night before I’d given a talk on congregations and mental health and tomorrow I will lead a workshop on congregations and suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. I frame these conversations in terms of embodying Christ in real and tangible ways, ways that demonstrate just how loved a person is, especially when that person is at their most vulnerable. I can’t help but hear Ezekiel’s question of  whether these bones can rise again in the midst of all of this. Then Ezekiel’s question entwines with Jesus’ call to Lazarus to come out of the tomb to create an image of hope and possibility, an affirmation that death is not the end.

With all of this drifting through my brain, I arrived at my hotel room to hear the news that Amy Bleuel died by suicide. I feel such a deep sadness at the loss of a woman I’ve never met. You may not know that Amy was the founder of Project Semicolon, an organization that has brought hope to countless people with its messaging around suicidality. About two years ago, I got a semicolon tattoo as a symbol that I, too, believe the story continues. Pain, depression, PTSD, and all the factors that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not meant to be the end of anyone’s story.

I don’t know what prevented Amy from being able to see the next part of her life unfolding. I don’t know what led her to give up her long struggle with suicidality. I do know how devastating it is to hear that one who had given hope to so many lost hope for herself. I feel angry that such a beautiful soul is no longer on this planet and I worry what news of her suicide will do to those most vulnerable, to those who looked to her for hope.

As I read through the texts this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had about 30 years ago with an amazing young man who was in the first youth group I led. He was handsome, smart, compassionate, and driven. We were putting up the youth bulletin board one afternoon and he said that he didn’t really believe in God. Or, if God existed at all, he was an old man in a Hawaiian shirt, sitting on the beach, drinking a beer, and watching the tide flow in and out. When I asked him why he came to church he told me that it “looked good on a resume.” When I asked him why he was so skeptical about God he said something like this:  I scored perfectly on my SATS. I drive an Audi. I have a full college scholarship. I have a realtor’s license. What can God do for me that I cannot do for myself? At 19, I had no answer that I could articulate.

Rereading The Last Week by Marcus Bork and John Dominic Crossan has given me an answer that I wish I could share with everyone, especially those struggling with thoughts of suicide. Borg and Crossan make that point that there is no substitutionary atonement in Mark’s Gospel. Instead, there is an invitation to the disciples to participate in the journey from death to life. There is an expectation that a true disciple will respond to the call to come out of the tomb and experience new life, in this life. Driving through farmland humming with life not quite visable was a visual reminder of this call. To my young friend I would say that God gives you life. You cannot give it to yourself. Only God can call life into being, especially when it appears that there is only death.

I wish Amy had known this with clarity and certainty. Jesus is very clear that the story goes on. Pain, violence, death, and destruction are never meant to have the final word. I have been there. I have felt the powerful pull of death and wrestled for years before I found freedom from it. I wish I could tell everyone who feels the pull of death so strongly that they lose all hope, I wish I could tell them that God is present, God’s love is never ending, God yearns to call life into being, especially for those who believe that the tomb seems to be the only answer. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, we must embody Christ and lead the way from death to life with everything we say and do. We must embody God’s love for those who cannot see it for themselves.

suicide preventionCan these bones rise again? Amy’s story will continue through the lives of those she filled with hope. My story will continue because I will not remain silent when a beloved child of God dies by suicide or believes that suicide is the only answer for their pain. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help. New life is possible for you even now. Call the Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 – or reach out to someone you trust. If you suspect someone you know is thinking of suicide, reach out to them. Listen to them. Hear their story and help get them to a professional who can help them on the journey from death to life.

Jesus calls to all of us to step out of the tomb and walk into the fullness of life, the abundance of life. Please, if you have answered that call from death to life and know the power of love and resurrection, then do all that you can possibly do to ensure that those you encounter hear the same invitation in the Love you embody. We need to work together to make sure weary, dry bones rise again and that all the Lazaruses out there can find a way to live again. As long as there is breath, there is hope. Please don’t give up on yourself or on those around you.

Amy, sorry does not begin to express my sadness and regret over your death. I wish I had known you personally. I wish there was someone in your life who could have held hope for you when you could not hold it for yourself. Maybe we can all continue your story by saving the life of another who cannot see beyond the tomb of depression and pain.

Jesus is calling all of us to walk from death to life, to come out of the tombs that surround and threaten us. May we have the grace and the courage to respond and to save the life of another.

RCL – Year A – Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 2, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Top Photo: CC0 image by Little Visuals

Bottom Photo: CC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne

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Defined by Love

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Between the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the unnamed man’s blindness, sin and shame bounce around, defining these people. The woman was pushed to the margins of her community either by her neighbors or by her own inclination to avoid explanations. The man also was marginalized because his blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, his or his parents’. They were set apart from the rest of their communities, not for holiness, but as the result of perceived sin and the shame associated with it.

I have a vivid memory of myself at 16 sitting on a hospital bed in Boston Children’s Hospital’s adolescent psych unit. Something had happened and I was upset to the point of tears which was unusual for me at that time. The mental health worker talking with me tried to tell me that things would work out. I would have none of it. I said, “No! You don’t understand! This is going to be all anyone knows about me forever!” The funny part is, I have no idea what that was about. I simply don’t remember. But in that moment, whatever thing had happened, I was sure it was going to be a part of my identity for the rest of my life.

Of course, this is not atypical thinking for an adolescent. But it is deeper than that, too. Shame often has a powerful voice in our lives. There have been many times when I’ve felt compelled to keep things in my life a secret, partly from shame and partly to avoid judgement. At 16 I thought I’d be defined by having an eating disorder or something related. At 19 when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I felt the same way; it would define me forever. Then again when I was raped by someone I knew, I didn’t want to tell anyone (and didn’t for several years) because I didn’t want to be known as the “girl who’d been raped.” When I got divorced, I was sure that people would only think about me being the pastor who was divorced. Later, when I came out, I felt like that was all anyone would ever think about me when they found out. And the list goes on. But never on this list of “defining attributes” was there a single positive thing.

Why is that? The Samaritan woman could have been a fabulous cook or a healer or a mother or someone’s best friend or a singer. Instead she was known as the woman who had had five husbands and one more who wasn’t her husband; she was a sinner through and through. The man who had been born blind could have been a musician or a poet or a father or a brother or a mentor. Instead he was known as the blind man who sat begging in a particular place every day; he was marked by sin. I wonder how they thought of themselves. Did they hold the judgments of society against themselves? Were they burdened by shame?

As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, especially.

I can easily get lost in the powerful grip of shame that has dominated my sense of self in the past. However, there’s more to these stories. We can’t forget that sin wasn’t the point. We can’t forget that Jesus met these people in the midst of their sin and shame. Not only did he meet them right where they were, he redefined them. The Samaritan woman went from outcast to evangelist as Living Water restored her. The man born blind went from blind beggar to sighted worshiper as he washed away the mud Jesus used to open his eyes. Both moved from the margins of society into the center of community. No shame can hide from the light of Christ and sin doesn’t stand a chance when Living Water is drawn up out of the well.

When I think of my own brokenness in the context of these stories I can’t help but see the transformation Christ has worked in my life. These things that I felt shame over, that I feared defined me in my own eyes or in the eyes of others, haven’t had power in my life for a long time. I’ve gone from a shy, fearful child into an outspoken, fearless adult. While I still struggle from time to time with the wounds from my childhood, they do not define me. On good days, I believe the Love that qualities-795865_1920transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, flows through me. On hard days, I ask God to meet me where I am and let Love be evident in my life. I know I am not the only one who has encountered Christ and been changed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we stop defining ourselves and each other by sin and shame and the judgement of others and started defining ourselves and everyone else by Love? Maybe then we would see with the eyes of Christ…

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Top Photo: CC0 image by John Hain
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by John Hain

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A Time, a Place, a Lesson

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I’d like to say that my mother taught me to cook. She didn’t really, I learned by watching her in the kitchen. Later, when I was living on my own in the days before Google, I would call her and ask how to make one dish or another. By the time I was in my late twenties, I had collected most of my favorite recipes from my mother. I cooked them the way she did, often without questioning her methods because I liked the results.

One day I made her red sauce with the only change being that I exchanged beef products for poultry products. I made meatballs, added in sweat and spicy sausage and chicken thighs. I also made braciolle (with chicken breast instead of steak). All this effort was for a man I was dating who happened to be Italian. I was confident in my choice because the sauce recipe had come from my mother’s best friend who was also Italian.

Everything was great when my date arrived. He commented on the wonderful smell and followed me into the kitchen. When the water for the spaghetti reached boiling, I grabbed a handful of the pasta and proceeded to break it in half and drop it into the water. My date was horrified. Why would anyone break spaghetti? Where had I learned such sacrilege? He acted like I had ruined the meal by breaking the noodles.

As you might guess, the next day I call my mother and asked her if she realized that spaghetti noodles didn’t have to be broken in half before cooking. Of course she knew that. She broke them because she seldom had the patience to let the larger pot of water boil. She used the smaller pot and just broke the noodles to hasten the cooking process. That, and with younger children, shorter spaghetti was a plus. I remember being irritated. Why hadn’t she told me this thing about the pasta?

Of course, by this time  I had learned that there was much in the world different from what I had been taught. The spaghetti incident, though, was a concrete lesson for me. I should never make assumptions about what people do and why. There are reasons people do what they do and some of them make sense and some of them don’t. But when you take them out of context, they could become absurd, or as in the eyes of my date, sacrilegious.

Many of us come to the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well with a lot of assumptions about the conversation that took place that day. We assume the woman was some kind of prostitute. Who else would have had five husbands plus one more? Why else would she be drawing water at noon when all sensible women were inside where it was cool? We don’t know her story. We don’t know what happened to her husbands. If she had had five husbands and they all died, why would she want to marry again? Or maybe these were symbolic of the five regions of Samaria? Or maybe she kept marrying men who divorced her for their own reasons?

So if she wasn’t a prostitute, why would she be at the well at noon? She was an outcast by her choosing or by the behavior of the other women. She could very well have chosen to come to the well on her own to avoid having to listen to other women judge her or to avoid having to explain herself. Maybe she was the woman that they all came to when they had secrets that needed sharing or medicine that was frowned upon by the powers that be. Maybe going to the well at noon just made her life a little easier. We’ll never really know.

What we do know is that she was smart and she had some local authority. She listened to Jesus and heard what he was offering her, even if she didn’t fully understand. She recognized Messiah where Jesus’ own disciples did not. Moreover, other Samaritans believed on her say so, and went to see Jesus because of what she told them. If she were truly on the outside of everything in the village, who would have listened to her? Outcast to whatever extent she may have been, she became an evangelist extraordinaire. We would do well to follow her lead.

Imagine how different things would have been if Jesus treated people the way I cooked when I was young. What would have been missed if he treated Samaritans the way he had been taught and never had the conversation with a woman at Jacob’s Well. We might all be missing out on some living water and a chance to go to a well that is always restorative. Shouldn’t we be doing the same with our faith? Too many of us are still breaking the pasta the way we were taught without giving it a second thought. Jesus took each person, each situation as it came, and gave it his full and careful attention. As a result, lives were transformed one after another. Isn’t it time we do the same?

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Lent – March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Photo: CC0 image by Jan Vasek

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Under the Cover of Night

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When I was a child, I firmly believed in monsters under the bed that came alive in the dark. I dreaded dark places where spiders and snakes and monsters lived. I always made sure I curled up away from the edges of the bed so my hands and feet would not stray into monster territory. This fear of things that came alive at night persisted well beyond the age when I knew better. Night was a time when nothing good happened and I wasn’t a fan of the dark for many, many years.

Night, however, was a good time for Nicodemus to approach Jesus. He’d be away from the prying eyes of his colleagues who would maybe not understand his desire to talk with Jesus. No one would be there to see that he was risking his power and position to talk with the rabbi who could stir things up so well. Maybe Nicodemus could also keep some of his own denial in place if there were no witnesses. Night provided safety and a blanket of protection for a Pharisee who was drawn to the problematic Jesus.

I love this idea that night – solitude and darkness –  was good for Nicodemus. Usually, we think of the darkness of night as something to be avoided. The childish fear often persists and seldom do we think of nighttime darkness as being good. Maybe it was a good time for Jesus, too. He could say some important things without crowds around him. He changed Nicodemus in ways that would take some time to unfold, but the changes took root that night, nonetheless. After all, it was Nicodemus who advocated for Jesus with the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and who helped prepare Jesus for burial (John 19:39-43). His encounter with Jesus under the cover of night must have meant something because the risks to Nicodemus’ power and position were just as great when he later stepped into the light of day.

However, on the night in question, Nicodemus sought Jesus out. Perhaps he had a question. Perhaps he just wanted to get closer to Jesus and see for himself what all the fuss was about. Perhaps he was drawn by a yearning he could not contain. Who knows? Yet, there he was talking to Jesus. I would like to believe that the cover of night allowed Jesus to say things he might not have said in another time and place when distractions were more numerous.

Of course, Nicodemus had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Be born again, from above, anew? How? What could that possibly mean? And that stuff about the Spirit blowing where it wills? Poor Nicodemus. He was probably grateful for the darkness to hide his confusion and his shame of not fully understanding. Jesus let his frustration be known, too. How could Nicodemus not understand?

All these words spoken quietly in the dark… Nicodemus didn’t grasp them. We don’t grasp them either. Not really. We want to make these words about salvation and surety. We want to know that we are included in the ones who will have eternal life and not have to worry. Maybe these words were spoken in the dark because the edges of their truth are softer than bright noonday sun could tolerate.

God’s love for the whole of Creation is so strong, so persistent, that this Love became Incarnate to lead people to abundant life. God’s purpose was not to condemn the world but to save it from all that humans do to bring destruction, devastation, and death. Who could hear these words with all the distractions of daytime life? But in the night, in the quiet, in the solitude, these words could crawl into our fearful souls and plant seeds of hope and courage and faith.

If these words were powerful enough to lead Nicodemus away from the power and privilege of being a Pharisee and into the risks of advocating and caring for Jesus, what can they do for us? When we sit wrapped in the blanket of night, and hear words of God’s love for the whole of Creation, words that whisper of life and not death, of belonging and not being lost, think of what might become possible. We might be willing to risk letting go of our places of power and privilege to advocate and care for the vulnerable in our midst.

Good things can happen in the night even if we think we are hiding from monsters, from ourselves, or from God. God will meet us there and speak quiet words of a greater truth, and transformation will continue.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday of Lent – March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0 image by LN

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Temptation, Again

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Lent has begun and we’re all left wondering where those “extra” weeks of Epiphany went to (Epiphany was 4 weeks longer this year than last year). Since my wife and I moved from an apartment to a house last week, I’m feeling the appropriate sense of journeying through the chaotic, wild, untamed places as we begin this season. Since I am on sensory overload, I’m sharing with you a poem appropriate for the day. It is from my book, Barefoot Theologypage 153-154. If you are looking for sermon help, you might want to try here.

Temptation

The Tempter showed up in the wilderness
hoping Jesus would forsake his God
     to eat and be satisfied
     to prove his power beyond argument
     to receive the world without effort
Jesus turned down all offers even after days of fasting
He knew what he would lose—
     himself and his God
          the relationship would be destroyed
          and the world would lose all hope

Consequently we can be reminded that Jesus
withstood the pain of facing the Tempter
He is acquainted with how seductive
     appetites can be
          avenues of escape
          promises of satiation
          false idols of fulfillment
He knows the enticement
     of great power
          illusions of control
          appearances of respect
          a mirage of being more worthy than others
He recognizes the dazzle
     of tremendous wealth
          a life of endless possibilities
          a way to fulfill every desire
          an implausible way to widen the needle’s eye

The next time the Tempter pays a visit
talk to the Christ who has resisted
and can show us how to turn away
from all that would cost
more than we can afford to pay

Let us not forget that when the Tempter wins
Christ stands with the tormented soul
watching, waiting for a moment
to step in and open the door
to wholeness, forgiveness, and grace

RCL – Year A – First Sunday of Lent – March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Photo: CC0 image by Denis Doukhan

 

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You Know, That Mountain Top Thing

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I have come to love Transfiguration Sunday in spite of the complexity of the texts, partly because I get to anoint people with glitter to remind them that the Holy Spirit lies within us all and waits for those moments when it shines brightly for all the world to see. This year the day seems to take on a deeper, more hopeful meaning than it has before. When I read Matthew’s account of what happened on that long-ago mountain top, I understand it to be a culmination of all that has come before and all that could be.

During this Epiphany season the texts have been full of directives and declarations. Everything from “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” to “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Epiphany this year has been a call to action, a call to bring Christ into the world by loving our neighbors as ourselves. I suppose that even my understanding of these texts has been heavily influenced by the political climate here in the U.S. However, I do believe this call echoing through this season is real for all of us.

And Transfiguration is the culmination of this call. If we go out and actually do justice, love kindness, and walk with humility, then extraordinary things become possible. We might just find ourselves in an out of the way place witnessing the intense and overwhelming glory of God. The brilliance of the Holy Spirit might sharpen our vision and cause our hearts to beat a bit faster. We might even hear God affirming that the neighbors and strangers for whom we are seeking justice are, in fact, God’s beloved children. It’s possible that radical shifts in perspective happen when we respond to God’s call.

Maybe you haven’t had such an experience as you’ve worked for justice and you assume that this story is just metaphor, pointing toward some mystery of faith. Perhaps you’ve missed an experience of transfiguration because you were the one transfigured. If you have been working for justice for your neighbors or creation, it’s possible that someone has caught a glimpse of the Holy in you, and you were completely unaware. It’s possible that you were in the right place at just the moment when someone needed Light and they saw it in you. And they were like Peter, James, and John – grateful, fearful, amazed, and humbled. We just never know.

It doesn’t matter which side of transfiguration you’ve been on, really. Because it’s engaging in the work of justice that really matters. It’s responding to God’s call to love one another that makes the difference. When we work together to embody Christ, to be Church, then that Holy Light shines to remind us that we are not alone in the struggle to overcome suffering and oppression for all God’s people.

RCL – Year A – February 26, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0 image by Demitri Vetsikas

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