3/31/2019 Sermon: “The Makeover”

New Orleans. CN – 2015.

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was once a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons. 13 After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. 14 He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. 15 So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. 16 He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. 17 At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! 18 I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.”’ 20 So he got up and started back to his father.

“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him. 21 ‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ 22 But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. 23 Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! 24 For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.

25 “In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ 27 ‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’ 28 The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. 29 But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! 30 But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’ 31 ‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’”  (GNT – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

Madrid. CN – 2018

I suspect you’ve heard that story before – the “Prodigal Son.”  Did you hear the word “prodigal” in the reading?  Nope.  That’s a 16th century word that the writers of the King James Bible used.  It means “wastefully extravagant.”  Prodigal is an antique word, but it’s got a meaning we understand pretty easily: Out of control and with resources.  And separated – the separated one who comes home.  You could substitute the word daughter – gender doesn’t really matter here. It’s another story that makes me love scripture – we understood exactly what Jesus was saying.  How many movies have you seen with this theme?  The separated one comes home.  For that matter, this could be a prodigal father or mother.

I think we know that if we’re being honest, we all have had a “prodigal” in the family or maybe you have been one yourself.  In Southeastern Pennsylvania, they know the Amish word Rumshpringa – a tolerated time during teenage years when young people defy the expectations of parents and explore the world. Most of the time, they come back.  Sometimes not.

Let’s stop for a moment and remember what starts Jesus telling this story in the first place.

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (religious leaders) started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” (Luke 15:1-2)

Jesus eats with people who have bad reputations.  Jesus works on personal friendships with people who are on the outside of his religious world.  Goes out of his way to have dinner with them.  He hangs out with people who don’t present the right image to proper society.  And he did it regularly.  I don’t think you have to work too hard to translate this to today, to now.  This man welcomes outcasts.

There have been lots of prodigals; maybe you’ve known one.  The people of the early 1600’s in Europe might have had this kind of image in mind….

“The Prodigal Son Wastes His Inheritance” – Rembrandt, ca. 1636.

This painting is by Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, early in his career.  This is his version of the younger son being prodigal.  I think that also is pretty easy to translate that to today.  Whatever image you apply to this guy being a “party animal,” or wastefully extravagant, it works.  And we say, “Tsk, tsk.”  By the way, he looks a lot like Rembrandt.  Hold that thought.  The Prodigal Son was one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects, and he can help us  understand what Jesus is talking about.

 So Jesus is telling this story, probably over dinner at somebody’s house. There are these people standing against the wall with their arms folded: The scribes and Pharisees – the professional religious tradition-keepers of the time.  Maybe they are just outside the door so that they don’t have to be in the same room.  These are people who always try to do the “right thing,” especially on the Sabbath.  They know how things in the temple are supposed to be done, and they know how we all should live, thank you very much, because they are experts in the Jewish law.  That might be a little harsh.  They’re just doing the best they can to keep order, something I think we all appreciate, and Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.

“This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!”

 He eats with people who don’t follow the Jewish laws or who aren’t Jewish at all, and as a community leader, he sets the wrong example.  What he’s doing can only create division and hard feelings.  But Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing, even if it’s testing the boiling point of the religious people.

Jesus looks at somebody like that prodigal and loves him.  He sees how empty that guy’s life really is.  He is on a search for people who need an inner makeover, and people who need the soul makeover aren’t hard to find.  It’s so easy to find stories about somebody who’s hit rock bottom.  These days we can’t get away from stories of people who lost it all. Or people who have everything, but can’t find meaning in life.

Maybe you can find yourself in this story.  Look for the issues of trust here…

“The Return of the Prodigal Son “(detail) Rembrandt – 1668.

The Father.  He’s tolerant and generous.  He’s loving at his own expense, maybe too loving.  He’s consistent with both his kids and gives them both the space to make mistakes.  Obviously, he’s the God-figure in the story, allowing for plenty of free will.  He has endured the pain of his younger son saying to him, in essence, give me the inheritance; you are as good as dead to me.  I’m leaving.  Can the father be trusted.  Yes, but… he will love in an absurd, ridiculous way.  He will love generously.  He doesn’t care where his son has been on life’s journey, even if everybody else would throw him away.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail), Rembrandt – 1668.

The Older Son. He does everything he’s supposed to.  He’s the typical first child.  He’s the one who stayed home and took care of everything, worked hard, and never gave his father a problem.  Somehow, he knows what his brother’s been up to even though he’s in another country.  He’s responsible, but he’s also got harsh opinions.  He looks out for himself and can’t bring himself to forgive his brother.  He makes sure his father knows what a loser his brother is. Can he be trusted?  Yes, but…  he has his own issues that might make his relationships a little difficult.

New York. CN – 2009

The Younger Son.  It’s so easy to put yourself in the place of the Prodigal Son.  Who hasn’t come to a point at one time or another when the world seemed to be falling apart, or known someone who has had that experience, or is having that experience right now?

Far away from home with most of your options gone.  Full of regret.  It’s no accident that Jesus says he ends up feeding pigs. To a Jew, this means he’s working for a Gentile who raises forbidden food.  He isn’t just poor, he is literally at the lowest level of the Jewish food chain.  These are the consequences of his choices.  But he comes home.  He will need to talk through his issues.  Maybe join a 12-step program.  In the end he will need to forgive himself, let himself off the hook.  He will need to rebuild trust with family and friends, and learn to trust himself again, and that only comes with time.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” Rembrandt – 1668.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for any moment on TV that involves a reunion:

~ Soldiers coming home from overseas and showing up at their kids’ school.

~ That moment in the weight-loss show when someone gets back together with family and friends after losing 100 pounds.

~ Any show with long-lost relatives.  Family members who might have been unknown to each other for many years find a way to come together.

And I need Kleenex.  There is this overwhelming emotion wrapped around that moment when it feels like some huge incompleteness has been made whole, and it was nothing short of a miracle.

God wants that moment with you.  And with me.  God went on an all-out search to find us, and Jesus makes it possible for us to have that reunion with God.  That is what the cross and the empty tomb is all about.

Every time I hear this story, I see that younger brother coming over the top of the last hill on the way to the family farm.  The father can only see a silhouette, but he knows who it is just by the way he walks. He drops whatever he’s holding and runs down the road to meet him and the son collapses in his arms.

Then I see Rembrandt again, I mean Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son 30 years later.  He painted this version of the “Prodigal Son” in the last TWO years of his life (1668-69).  The son is on his knees and his father stands over him with his arms wrapped around him.  The expression on his face says that he’s not just glad to have his son home; he feels all the pain that his son feels. It’s night, and these two people are lost in their embrace.  They ignore the judgmental people standing over them.  The mother, the older son, and this other guy whom some think is the father’s accountant.

Rembrandt (self-portrait) 1669.

By this time, in some ways, Rembrandt had been the Prodigal.  He had lived beyond his means, made some poor choices, and was living the consequences.

More than any other painting, “The Prodigal Son Returns” is about him.  He is beaten, he is broken.  Rembrandt is pouring himself out on the canvas.  Rembrandt needs that embrace God wants to give to each of us.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail), Rembrandt – 1668.

The French priest Henri Nouwen was so affected by this painting, that he sat in front of it in a Russian museum for several days, then wrote a book about it.  He said…

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.  

[Henri J. M. Nouwen (1992-04-01). The return of the prodigal son: a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons. Doubleday Books. ISBN 978-0-385-41867-6. http://books.google.com/?id=b11CPgAACAAJ.]

Something that bothers me is that Jesus doesn’t try to describe what happens next.  Does the older brother ever join the party?  Does the younger brother mess up again?  Which brother is the one who was lost?

His point was to show with this story, God’s deepest desire to embrace the fallen.  He gave this little picture, this story, to show that God’s grace, God’s love, is amazing, beyond logic.  His hope was that his followers would catch that vision.  ‘This man welcomes outcasts/sinners and eats with them.’ 

God will show us where to build bridges among ourselves and who needs a tolerant welcome in our church.  It is possible that our reputation should be: On behalf of the Christ we serve, we are people welcome outcasts and sinners.  I have seen a sign in front of a church building that simply says, “Come Home.”

Prayer

 God, you are building bridges to us and between us.  Through your Spirit, give us the courage to step over that bridge to you.  O God, you have been kind to us so often, and we find ourselves taking your kindness and love for granted.  When we drift away, you are worried about us, and you wait for us to come home.  You’re patient; you let us learn what life is like without you. This is a good day to remember you love us as a father – with firm expectations and a firm hug.  Now deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love and forgive, and step across bridges to each other.  Amen.

3/24/2019 Sermon: “God, Why Do Bad Things Happen?”

CN – 2010.

This week, we’re continuing to think about trust.

Two weeks ago…  at the beginning of his ministry, when he was weak and famished, Jesus resisted letting evil control him.  Evil could not stop him from his mission.  Jesus can be trusted. Good to remember that the dark side is close by when you are at your weakest.  Jesus can be trusted to be with you in those times.  He has been there.

Last week…  Abram (or Abraham) trusts God to come through on huge promises even though it’s taking a really long time and Abraham seems like the last person God could use.  God will use us when the challenges seem impossible to overcome.

There are times when trusting God is a very difficult thing to do.  Ever have a bad day?  Of course!  There are bad days, really bad days, and then life-altering bad days when something happened and you really struggled to get through it.  You look back and realize that’s when everything changed.  There was a life before and a life after.  And then sometimes, those bad days drag into weeks and months or maybe years.

Just to cut to the chase, God is there in all of it.  Ready to hold you and make you strong again.  Maybe you needed to hear that today.

None of us have exactly the same kind of bad moments. Once upon a time, I had gotten a phone call to visit a family because something bad had happened.  They had gotten some bad news and they just needed to get through the moment with a prayer.  So I went and spent some time with them.  Later in the day, I went to a meeting, and at the meeting was someone who was also having a bad day.  I can only remember that it involved an expensive sweater and something had spilled on it.  And there was more emotion in that moment than I’d seen with the struggling family.

Now, you can make a judgement as you compare those situations, but the fact was that the emotion was very real in both places.  And what I learned was… when you are in the middle of chaos or a crisis, sometimes, big or small, that’s all you can know.  You know you’ve been there.  It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is.  Sometimes, we are stronger in the big, difficult situations than the small surprising ones.  In any case, we can be prone to having anxiety about something and everybody has a different trigger depending on what’s going on.  Over time, if we are open, God toughens us with perseverance and endurance to recognize what the appropriate level of emotion is necessary for the moment.  Every now and then, I hear someone say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, your small stuff is probably different from mine.

But in the moment, we are calling out for help, with waves of real emotion washing over us and asking:  God, are you punishing me?

And then with a little more time to think, we ask, “Why do these bad things happen?  God, why?”  That’s the question behind the story in the gospel reading this morning, and Jesus has an answer to at least part of it.  Maybe it’s better to say that he has a perspective.

Luke 13:1-9.  At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did. What about those eighteen people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?’ But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.’”

Some people have come to Jesus and gotten into discussion about some really awful things that had happened.  Some people coming to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem had been murdered by the Roman governor Pilate (you know, the guy who allowed Jesus to be murdered later), and some others had been killed in a construction accident.  Two awful moments that affected real people.  It’s not hard to translate them into today’s news and this is not a hard conversation to be a part of.

You could put yourself in that moment with Jesus.  We’re sitting around after dinner in the evening, everyone is relaxed, and we’re talking.   You could change the stories to fit so much of what you’ve seen on the news.  Lately, it seems to be non-stop.  So many terrible things – wars, shootings, the worst natural disasters in our lifetimes.  Every week, I see a photo that’s hard to get out of my mind.  Maybe you’ve found yourself asking – can it get any worse?  It’s disturbing, to say the least.  Is it possible to put yourself in the place of some of the people affected by these things?  Is it possible to empathize?

For me, it’s another reason that scripture stories like this are still relevant, still important to hear now, today.  People were asking, Can it get any worse?  What did these people do to deserve this?  That’s really the question they are asking, and Jesus knows it.  In the mindset of these folks, anything bad that happens to you, whether it’s an accident, or something intentional, somehow, you deserved it.  God is not happy with you.  Standing on the outside of that little story looking in, we think, “Silly ancient Bible people.”  As if we are so much more sophisticated. But you know that at some point you’ve asked the same question yourself.  God, are you punishing me?  No, really, something I did?  Were these people worse sinners than other people?  Jesus says “No.”  And he says that to you too.

Whether it’s happening in the news right now or a couple thousand years ago, these things might seem a world away to you, but each of us, each of our families, has a story of huge loss and enormous pain.  If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to someone in your family and you had to watch.  It’s true for all of us.  We all have this story.  And whether you knew it or not, God was walking with you.  The stories may turn into history, but they don’t stop.  Somethings you just can’t get through alone.  You need God and other people.  Here’s a little picture of what I’m talking about:

Ruins in the village of Sourides, on the island of Samos, Greece. CN – 2000.

In a tiny village on a Greek island are these ruins.  Ruins are pretty common in that part of the world, but these aren’t especially ancient.  During WWII, German planes bombed the village and destroyed all the houses.  We’ve heard gut-wrenching stories of those times.  This house belonged to my wife’s grandparents.  They had come to the United States long before the war, escaped poverty and found a better life.  The Greek Orthodox Church in Cleveland helped them make the transition. The house was never rebuilt because the people in the village thought that surely, they would come back to take care of it, but they never did.  But a few years ago, we went and met people who remembered them.  They didn’t talk about it, but I know that people died in bombings like that.

Maybe that story is interesting in a historical kind of way because time has moved on.  But in that place, right now, there’s a different story unfolding, this morning.

Samos is not far from the coast of Turkey (you can see Turkey from the beach) and for the last four or five years, refugees have been coming to Samos in dangerous boats continuously, and landing on the beach just down the hill from “our” village.  Mostly, they are escaping the war in Syria.  So this isn’t far away from us, geographically or personally.  Our family came as refugees from poverty to this country one hundred years ago and other refugees have taken their place. Trace it back far enough in your own family, and I believe you will find a refugee story.  In my imagination, a refugee family has built a house and a life on top of the ruins!

We each have a story and there are many stories.  When the bad things happen, even when death comes, is anyone a worse sinner than anyone else?  Jesus says no.  Life is terminal in so many ways, but does any person’s pain or death mean that they were a worse sinner than someone else?  No.  Not in God’s eyes.

Repent.  But then Jesus says something that seems totally contradictory:  “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  I hate it when he does that.  This is so hard to understand, and he says it twice.  Unless you repent, unless you repent.  You know what that word means, right?

Change.  Change!  Unless your life changes.  Ah!  God is not so concerned with the death you die.  That’s what happens to everybody eventually, at some point, in some way.  God is much more interested in your attitude toward him and your relationship with him, which needs an overhaul.  We’re these people being punished somehow?  No. Are we?  No.  The “change” is a spiritual change of heart. What’s awesome is that the change God is looking for is something that God does, not you; all Jesus is looking for is faith in him, looking for trust, looking for a yes from each of us.  Waiting for each of us to open the door. 

There is a life-change that God begins in us when we believe.  It can transform the core our lives, our households, the places where we work, and the streets of our town.

I heard from a church vitality expert not long ago that most visitors who walk through the doors of any church these days are there because they are distressed or suffering in some way.  Most of us grew up thinking that church on Sunday morning is simply the right thing to do.  But today, the church is a refuge for refugees.  We need to think about how we do that.

Mount Joy, PA. CN – 2015

And that’s why Jesus wraps it up with a story about a tree.  The man who owns it wants to tear it down and throw it away.  The person taking care of it says, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”  The ultimate destiny of the tree depends on whether it bears fruit.  You realize that God’s people are the tree and Jesus is the gardener, pleading with God to give us a little more time.  “God, give them a little more time.”  Let me do some pruning and throw on some fertilizer.  Let me work with them.

So, we have today, and maybe tomorrow.  And we don’t know what will happen.  These days are gifts from God.  They are opportunities.  Many times, the people who realize this most are the ones who understand that tomorrow may not come for them.  They are the ones who realize that tomorrow is a gift from God.  Another chance to know God.  Another chance to give God’s love to someone else.  Another chance to help someone meet Christ.  Another chance to love, another chance to bring peace, another chance to offer forgiveness, another chance to bring healing, another chance to work for a cure, another chance to feed a hungry person or offer safety to someone. Another chance to build a house.  Another chance to save a refugee.  Another chance to be Christ’s house, the Body of Christ.

Another chance to not react, and by not reacting, stop a war.  Another chance to be with someone else in their suffering and bring Christ to them.  In other words, another chance to bear fruit. What kind of fruit do you think God is growing in you?  This year, what can we do to make a difference as a church, to bear fruit?

Why do bad things happen?  They just do.  It might be better to ask “Why do we feel pain?”  Because God created us to feel pain.  God feels pain too.  The only other choice is the kind of life that I think none of us want to live.  A life completely free of suffering is also a life free of joy and love.

Through Christ, God has given us special tools to overcome and to help each other overcome.  God has raised up the First Congregational Church of Wellington to bear fruit, to be a force for good.  If you have believed in Christ, God has given you a mission.  You do realize that most of that work happens outside of this building.

Prayer

O God, give us all a vision for tomorrow, as mothers and fathers, as children in your family, as your church.  Live through us and give us the power to overcome the discouragements we see in life.  In spite of what we see around us, the evil, the bad things that happen, help us remember that you are with us, that your mercy surrounds us, even when we forget about you.  When life feels like a tomb, roll away the stone, and help us remember that tombs are only temporary for you.

We pray with faith, because we know that your son Jesus overcame death, and leads the way ahead of us. We pray with hope, because we know that you are already changing us into the people and the church we should be.  Amen.

3/17/2019 Sermon: “Trust Fall”

This week, we’re continuing to talk about trust. “All About Trust.”

Rappelling in the Adirondacks. CN – 2002.

In a previous life, I took groups of high school kids to the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  After some hiking, they would rappel down the side of a 200-foot cliff… bouncing down the rock-face attached to a rope tied off at the top.

First, they had to learn to trust the leaders.  And obey the leaders!  The leaders would show them the trees and rocks where they had tied the ropes.

The leaders would show them how to harness themselves to the ropes and how everything worked.  They learned how to talk to each other, because somebody on the ground was holding the other end of another rope for safety. They only thing left to do is lean back and do a controlled drop.  Could you do that?

The issue of trust is all around us, in countless ways. Out on the road, you have to trust that other drivers will do what you expect them to do, right?  And the list goes on.

Jesus at Gethsemane – stained glass at the Cleveland Museum of Art. CN – 2015

During Lent, we have a lot of readings about commitment, and travel, and trust.  The Gospel readings describe the things that happen while Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s made a faith commitment to you and me.  God the Father trusts him to come through – for you and me.  This is not an easy thing.  And God knows that it’s not an easy thing he is asking us to do, to trust Jesus and what he is going to do in Jerusalem.  But the journey actually began 2,000 years before that.

After this, Abram had a vision and heard the Lord say to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward.”

But Abram answered, “Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? My only heir is Eliezer of Damascus.  You have given me no children, and one of my slaves will inherit my property.”

Then he heard the Lord speaking to him again: “This slave Eliezer will not inherit your property; your own son will be your heir.” The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

Then the Lord said to him, “I am the Lord, who led you out of Ur in Babylonia, to give you this land as your own.”

But Abram asked, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that it will be mine?”

He answered, “Bring me a cow, a goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, and a dove and a pigeon.” Abram brought the animals to God, cut them in half, and placed the halves opposite each other in two rows; but he did not cut up the birds. Vultures came down on the bodies, but Abram drove them off.

When the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and fear and terror came over him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals. Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abram. He said, “I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the Euphrates River…” (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

The Old Testament story you heard a few minutes ago is about a trust relationship between God and Abram.  This story happens before God changed his name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).  Abram means something like, “exalted father,” and Abraham means, “father of a multitude.”

Bedouin tents near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011

2000 years before Christ, Abram was a wandering nomad living in what is now Iraq.  There are still nomadic people living in that part of the world.  They live in structures we would think of as tents (that can be very large) and might move with the seasons to take advantage of water and pasture for animals.  Sometimes, they stay in a place for a few years.

God has been speaking to Abram for a long time, promising land and a big family and now years later, Abram still has no land of his own, and still has no children.  In other words, he has no future, unless God steps in.  Children and land mean salvation to Abram.  He packed everything up and moved, just as God told him to, and he’s waiting, waiting, waiting.  Looking at his watch and waiting.

Now, it seems like this will never happen.  God makes the promise one more time: “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Palestinian shepherd near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2001.

But there are still many more years to go in the story before Isaac comes along.  And many miles to go before he gets to the land God had promised.

This is one of the old Hebrew stories that explains how Abraham became the father of the Hebrew people (and our spiritual ancestor).  He was following God’s directions, which might have made no sense to him at the time.  He had to give himself to God and trust, and so do we. Say to God, “I trust you.”  Their relationship is based on promises for the future.

Abraham and God have a covenant between them.  The idea of covenant goes back thousands of years.  Covenants describe relationship and they are one of the main reasons we are here.  Think about the promises, the covenants, that are made in this room.

Some are obvious: baptism, marriage, church membership.  Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people have stood in this room and made vows of one kind or another.  But the main promise that brings us here and makes us what we are is the promise God makes to us through Christ.  Many people don’t realize that being a Christian is not about how good we can make ourselves; it’s about believing that God has already done that for us in Christ.  When we believe in God, when we trust in God, understanding that it’s God who saves us, that’s when we begin to change into the kind of people we should be.  It’s God who does that, not us.

But it’s hard to trust.   It’s hard to lean back on the rope with God.  Most of the time, trusting does against our human nature.  Abram has been traveling and God has been slow to act.  Will God keep promises?

God answers the question by way of a strange ceremony, a ritual.  Abram makes an animal sacrifice, and God passes between the pieces in the form of fire and smoke.  The ritual is how God makes an oath to Abram that the promise of land and children will be kept.  In these ancient times, one of the meanings of a sacrifice like this was to seal a treaty, as if to say, “May I become like these animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”  Abram was doing his part, and the burden is on God to come through for Abram: to save Abram, to give Abram a future.

God will come through on the promise not because he and Abram are great friends.  They don’t have a close relationship like God did with Moses.  God will save Abram simply because that’s what God promised to do.  God’s specialty is working miracles in impossible situations. Read more about Abram in case you think you’re a lost cause.

Like so many Bible people, Abram/Abraham is not exactly a perfect guy.  As you find out later in his story, he is “morally flexible.”  His family life is dysfunctional.  He is not even a religious type (like David or Moses).  He is… ordinary.

What makes him a hero?  He simply trusts.  And God counts his faith as righteousness, that is, being right with God.  That’s what makes his story so important.

Likewise, God does not expect perfection from any of us.  To be righteous, or acceptable to God, to be right with God, all Abram has to do is believe – and start walking. Throughout the entire bible, this is how salvation works.  Salvation happens not because Abram, or anybody else, is a good person.  Salvation happens when we depend on God, step out, and let God come through for us.  Then God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.

Can we just throw ourselves onto God and trust that God will be there for us?  I say that there is no other way.  Our relationship with God doesn’t work unless we can completely trust God.  Our life as a church is stagnant unless there are ways we step out in faith.  The people of God are always going from point A to point B somehow. Always moving into a future.

Think about communion for a moment.  Each time we have the Lord’s Supper, I say something that might pass you by. “This is my body, given/broken for you.  This is my blood of the new covenant.”  Jesus is the sacrifice that seals the promise.  What is God’s promise in Jesus Christ? To save us, to give us a future. In Christ, our sin dies on the cross and Christ comes out of the tomb alive.  In Christ, God makes a covenant with us.  All we have to do is believe.  Make a commitment.  Say yes to God.

Palestinian shepherd, not far from Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

A few more things to know about Abram…  Abram was not young (75) when her first heard the promise, and neither is his wife Sarah. And the years went by. Time and human age seem to make no difference to God.  After more than 20 years went by, God finally says, okay, next year, you’ll have a son and we’ll get started with the nation building.  The story says that Abraham fell on his face laughing (Genesis 17).  Sarah heard it from outside the tent and she started to laugh (Genesis 18).  And God didn’t care. God sees things differently.  God sees with the eyes of possibility – and God had a promise to keep no matter what Abraham or Sarah thought.

Abram doesn’t just have doubts. In the night, “fear and terror came over him.”  (v.12)  Is that when you find your mind going to things that keep you awake, maybe terrified?  Maybe you need to move to a window, or a the porch, or the yard (if it’s not too cold) and look up.

The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Look at the sky.  Try to count the stars.  One of the best times for God to speak to us is when we are looking at the sky…  If we have believed in the living Jesus, those descendants include us!  And like Abram, our job is to leave the past behind and create a legacy of descendants, to leave behind us people who believe.  People whose lives are changed through faith in the living Christ.

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

The temptation is strong to be nothing more than a civic group, a group of good people.  We come together to believe, to trust God together, letting the Spirit of God change us into the people God needs us to be.  This is how God is pleased.  It starts with faith.  When we believe, God just may do something we thought was impossible.

Let’s say the mission together.

Our mission is to make the love of God real in our community and world with what we have, through what we say, and by what we do.

Prayer

Lord, you are the God of Abraham, and Jesus Christ, and the Congregational Church in Wellington, Ohio.  You have always been and always will be.  We may not be able to comprehend everything you are, but that does not stop us from believing you are with us.  We trust you.

O God, this Lent, remind us of our covenant with you, our promises to you to be your people.  Find ways to remind us of who we are and whom we belong to.  Help us believe, in spite of what the world tells us, in spite of what we see and hear.  Help us learn to trust you more.  Help us remember that our faith is not based on the promises we make to you, but in the promises you’ve made to us.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Through Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

3/10/2019 Sermon: “Instant Satisfaction”

It was around this time of year in 2011 that I joined up with a small group of 5 other people and we hiked across the West Bank of Palestine from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. About 100 miles of walking through farmland and desert and small villages.  We stayed in people’s homes, in hotels, refugee settlements and with Bedouin shepherds.  Yes, it was safe. I never felt unsafe.  Lots of people only get the sightseeing that the tour buses show them. But we were experiencing what it was like to make this journey in the much the same way Jesus did with his people.  At least, we were seeing much of the countryside the way he saw it.  During Lent, I’ll try to describe it as best I can (and show you) whenever it helps the story you’re hearing.

Mt. of Temptation Monastery, near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.
Mount of Temptation cable cars. CN – 2011.

One of the places where we stopped was the Mount of Temptation, the traditional spot where Jesus was tempted.  Like so many of the stories in scripture, there are actual places where things happened, especially around the old city of Jerusalem or the Sea of Galilee – and traditional places where these things happened.  The traditional place is where you go to think about a story in scripture because nobody really knows where it happened.  There is a traditional spot where the temptation of Jesus took place.  It’s a 1,200-foot tall mountain near Jericho in the southwest of Israel/Palestine.

Pomegranate smoothie at the Mount of Temptation Restaurant. CN – 2011.
Ice cream cooler in a passageway at the Mount of Temptation monastery. CN – 2011.

About halfway up, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery.  Since ancient times, Greek monks have built monasteries in hard-to-get-to places like mountains and cliffs to allow for contemplation and to honor scripture stories. On the Mount of Temptation, this is a long, narrow building on the side of the cliff, where the monks live in small cells.  It’s a difficult climb to get up there, along a narrow path.  Or, since 20 years ago, you can take a cable car. In this place you can contemplate the temptation of Christ with the other tourists and… have an ice cream, or maybe a large pomegranate smoothie in the Mount of Temptation restaurant.  A little ironic, right?  Or not. These days, you can be tempted on the Mount of Temptation!

When I say the word, “temptation,” what do you think of?  We use the word temptation in worship every week.  The Lord’s Prayer has us asking God not to “lead us into temptation,” (from the King James Version) but a better translation of those words is, “keep us from the day of testing.”  God, please protect us from the Day of Judgment – and Jesus is the answer to that prayer.  The things that would make us vulnerable to judgment are the things that died with Jesus on the cross.  So that prayer is being answered – and God does not lead you into temptation.  We lead ourselves into temptation perfectly well.  Have you ever said, “Mmmm that’s a temptation…”?

The dictionary defines temptation as “the act of tempting or the state of being tempted, especially to evil.”  Synonyms are: allurement, bait, come-on, decoy, enticement, inveiglement, seducement, snare, trap.”  Temptation is the open door that leads you to the place where your logical mind knows you shouldn’t go for one reason or another.  I think we know what temptation is: an invitation to become something less than what God wants you to be.  It’s different for everyone.  It could be a thing, a person, an emotion, a substance.  Something that’s a temptation for you might not be for me.  And vise-versa. It’s clear from scripture that one of the things that makes us human is that we all can be tempted and give in!  We’re all in this together!  The Apostle Paul said…

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!   (Romans 7: 15, 24-25)

Not exactly encouraging, right?  We all have a dark side.  But keep in mind that as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, he is walking to the cross, where this problem of sin dies with him. There’s new life on the other side of the cross, and if you’re open to it, the gospel story from Luke can give you some help as you follow Jesus through his own temptation.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1)

Jesus has just been baptized and he is full of the Holy Spirit.  He’s on a spiritual high as he heads into the wilderness, which is not a forest; it’s more like a hilly desert wasteland.  He’s going off to live in a cave somewhere in Judea, like the Greek monks.  No people around except for a few shepherds.  He knows when he goes into this place that he won’t come out for 40 days – a symbolic number that means journey, and cleansing, and salvation.  Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes for most people to develop new habits.  For most of 6 weeks, he’s with God, himself, and the devil, the evil one, in the middle of nowhere. Six weeks with this guy!

 He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  (v. 2)

There were no ice cream coolers or juice drink restaurants in this place, just in case you missed that irony.  But, you can find spring water.  So, he’s on a liquid fast and is… famished.

This is the word you should key in on.  Famished.  It’s the first ingredient of successful temptation for the evil one.  Tired, hungry.  Famished.  Have you ever been famished (root word of famine). Most people can’t think when they are famished.

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’  (v. 3)

Breakfast in Palestine: flatbread, fried egg yokes, tune, yogurt, olive oil, hummus, zatar (herb mixture)

The devil has a logical idea.  Make bread.  I saw a baking show the other night that you said could live on just bread and water for quite a while.  Not appetizing, but you can do it.

And Jesus refuses.  It’s important to see that Jesus quotes scripture when he refuses.

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’  (v. 4; quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)

But maybe you heard that the devil, the evil one, also knows scripture.  The key thing Jesus does is not to turn the rock into bread.  He simply refuses to do what the devil suggested.  It’s not about resisting the temptation to do a cheesy parlor trick, not about resisting the temptation to feed himself with his power.  It’s about refusing to allow the evil to control anything he does – even when he is physically weak, when he knows some bread could help.

The evil will come to you and try to control you when you are tired and hungry.  When you are famished.  A UCC Conference person once told me that he had seen a study of clergy misbehavior which showed that those who got into moral trouble often made their first mistake on a Monday.  Think about that.

I suspect that all of us have a vulnerable day, a vulnerable time.  I think what God is trying to communicate is: think carefully about your decisions on that day.  Might be best to save the decision for a time when you are not famished.  I wonder how many bad decisions have been made by us when we were famished.  Things said and done when we didn’t feel our best.

All Jesus did was nothing.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’  (vv. 5-7)

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ detail – 1480-82

If you were a Jewish person in that time, standing on the Mount of Temptation, you would be looking back in the direction of slavery.  I realize it’s a symbolic thing, and maybe it’s a stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you’re looking at from up there.

All the kingdoms of the world, the glory, the authority, the things that look so great from a distance, are over there where slavery is.  And it’s a lie.  None of this stuff is the devil’s to give.  And those things are a mirage.  The evil wants to be worshiped, to have control of you.

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here (v. 9)[and he quotes more scripture]. 

And again, Jesus refuses.  And this time, the devil makes it personal.  He goes after the spiritual core of Jesus.  On top of the Temple, the house of God – come on Jesus, show the Chosen People you can fly!  In the middle of the most holy place, among God’s people, do the least helpful thing.  Do the thing that draws attention to you for no good purpose.  Get everybody’s mind off of God and what God wants.  And Jesus responds with scripture of his own: don’t put God to the test.  Nah, Satan, I don’t think that’s what I’ll be doing.

The devil wasn’t done.   When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.  An opportune time.  So, he doesn’t just go away.

 Here’s the takeaway:  The evil will come when you are full of the Spirit – and are famished.  Plan on it.  In an instant, you will be shown the wonderful things that will turn you into a slave.  You will be challenged to make your faith life about you instead of about God and the people God loves.

There may be somebody here who would be helped by hearing the 12 steps of AA.  I believe they can be applied to any addiction, whether it’s a soft one like food or some other habit.  Maybe the way you relate to certain people.  Maybe smoking.  Or a harder addiction like alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Life is a continuous battle against the things that would lead you to places you shouldn’t be.  God promises to be with you as you walk through the valley.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (we understand him as Jesus)
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs. 

Prayer

O God, we might think we know our hearts desire, and we set our minds on high dreams, lofty goals.  So teach us what is truly important.  Help us know how to fill our souls.

And so we pray, God, that you give us good vision and open hearts to see exactly what is happening when we hear other voices calling us to walk down paths where we should not go.

Help us help each other.  Fill us with yourself; give us strength.  In the name of the one who resisted temptation and lives inside us now through faith.  Amen.

3/3/2019 Sermon: “All About Image”

Jesus’ Image.  As I’ve already mentioned, one of the things I find myself wondering about is what Jesus looked like.  The prophecy in Isaiah says that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  Then Isaiah goes on to give a kind of R-rated description of what happens to the Messiah as he is sacrificed for the sins of the people.

A few years ago some forensic facial reconstructionists ( came up with a picture of the average first century Jewish man, based on skulls they’d found in tombs.  It was intended to be a suggestion of what Jesus could have looked like.  He had a round-ish face, olive-colored skin, a short dark beard, and average-length black curly hair.  If you’re used to the Nordic Jesus with the long face, blue eyes and long brown hair, you think to yourself, “There’s no way Jesus looked like that!”

And scripture doesn’t give many clues! At least not the kind we want.  God, we’d prefer the ideal image for Jesus, you know, with…. (fill in the blank).

Self-Image.  Have you ever noticed how concerned our culture is with image, with how we look?  If you believe what you see in the media, most of us just don’t look quite right. Take hair, for instance.  It probably isn’t clean enough, so there are all sorts of ways to wash it.  If your hair isn’t the right color, you can change that (I suspect that some people in this room have altered their hair color!).  If it isn’t the right texture, you can change that. If you are losing your hair, through the mail, you have a number of options, including spray-paint hair.

But then you might have to deal with your skin, and the makers of Clinique moisturizing cream say that they sell a bottle of their stuff every four seconds.  But, maybe there’s a problem with the way you dress.  Even if you look okay, you might not be the right weight, and there are plenty of ways to fix that, and all sorts of clubs you can join.

The Bible shows another way to have your appearance changed: get close to God.  Trust the living Jesus. (We’ve got a sermon series coming about trust!)  But getting close to God means that God might change more things than how we look, or how we think we look.

The scripture readings today are about getting close to God up on a mountain:

Exodus 34:29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lordto speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

In the first scripture, the story from Exodus, Moses had just come down from Mt. Sinai for the second time.  The first time he saw a burning bush, talked with God, and God gave him commandments on stone tablets.  When he came down, he found the people – whom he had just helped save from the Egyptians – worshiping a golden calf.  In his anger, Moses smashed the tablets, destroyed the calf, and punished everyone who didn’t swear allegiance to God.  Then he went back up the mountain and begged for forgiveness on behalf of the people.

In the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” Charlton Heston had white roots in his hair and a kind of glazed expression on his face, and that’s a little weak.  But how do you portray somebody who has been with God?  God had “rubbed off” on Moses, and according to the story, Moses felt the need to cover himself. There was something about him that was apparently a little scary. Or could it be that he was self-conscious?  Could it be that he didn’t want to look too different from them?  But people knew – he was shining.  He knew he was just an average guy, but they knew he’d been with God.

Traditional Mount of Transfiguration near Nazareth, Palestine. (CN – 2011)

More than a thousand years later, Jesus takes three of his closest disciples up a different mountain to pray.  While they are there, Jesus takes on a different appearance (“appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white”) and talks to Elijah and Moses.  They have this ecstatic experience.

Context is really important. Right before this in the story, Jesus had been warning them repeatedly that he was about to be crucified and then rise from the dead.  They had no idea what that meant until weeks later.

So this experience on the mountaintop is a little God-instruction on who is in control, even when things turn awful.  A little prep for what’s ahead.  But they don’t get it.

The part of that story I like best is when Peter offers to make shelters for everybody, obviously not knowing what else to say or do.  Jesus doesn’t try to explain what’s going on, and the voice out of the cloud doesn’t either.  All God says is, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Good advice for all of us.  Peter, relax; just listen to Jesus.

A New Image.  Why does God do things like this?  What is the point of these stories?  People come close to God and God changes them.  In both stories, God comes to people who don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do; people who are confused.  You’d think that God would have the good sense to give these revelations to smart, together people.  Instead, God comes to people like us.  Rebellious people – people who might just worship a golden calf if we had the opportunity; people who might just deny Jesus when the unbelieving world we live in puts a little pressure on.  The worst can happen: we might just make that golden calf and Jesus will get crucified.  Life might take one huge turn for the worse and the place where you are on life’s journey gets impossible to walk – for you.  But not for God.

God’s going to give us a new set of tablets and Jesus is coming out of the tomb alive.  The end of our story is in God’s hands if we believe, if we’re willing to have faith.  And if we have faith, if we’re willing to trust God and be with God, God will change us.  We may even look different – and you don’t need to go to the top of a mountain!

What needs to change about you?  You’re never too old or too young for that question.  What needs to be different?  Maybe the first thought that came to your mind is what the culture tells you.  Maybe you think you need a makeover.

But what do you think God wants?  If you made yourself more open to what God wants, if you were willing to say, God, I will take a step in the direction you want me to go.  I give myself to you.  If you trusted God with your image, would you have…

More boldness or more silence?  More talking or more listening?  More enthusiasm or more patience?  Less fear and more trust?

Here’s a good question: Why did God pick mountaintops for these visions, these strange experiences?  Climbing up a mountain is hard work.  You get to the top and you’re out of breath.  If you’re not in shape, you hurt.  Climbing down isn’t so easy either.

Maybe God wants to know what we’re willing to go through in order to have a vision.  Up on the mountain you can see where you are, and you can see where you have to go.  And that’s where God is.

We all need to change. The stuff that probably needs to change the most is inside you and has more to do with tolerance and forgiveness than your grooming.

The Heavenly City.  (an old Jewish legend) There once was a poor man who grew weary of the corruption and hatred that he experienced every day.  He was tired of the constant injustice that his people experienced. Life was simply not good.  His family and friends listened as he spoke passionately of his deep desire for a city where justice was honored and peace was experienced by all.  Night after night he dreamed of a land free from conflict, a city where heaven touched earth.  He could see this place.  It was so real.

One day, he announced to everyone that he could wait no longer.  He packed some food – granola bars and a sports bottle full of water.  He kissed his family goodbye and set out for the perfect city of his dreams.  He walked all day, and just before sunset, he found a place to sleep just off the road, in a forest.  Just before he went to sleep, he placed his shoes in the center of the path, pointing in the direction he would go the next day.

That night, as he slept, a prankster walked that same path and found the traveler’s shoes.  Unable to resists a practical joke, he turned the shoes around, pointing them in the opposite direction, the direction that the man had just walked.

Early the next morning, the traveler woke up, said his prayers, ate a granola bar, and started his journey, walking in the direction that the shoes pointed.  He walked all day long, and when the sun was about to set, he saw the heavenly city off in the distance.  It wasn’t as large as he expected and it looked familiar somehow.  He turned down a street that looked so much like his own – it was eerie.  He knocked on a familiar looking door, and greeted the family that he found there. They embraced, and he lived happily ever after in the city of his dreams.

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  When God looks at us, if we have faith, God sees Jesus.  Our sins died with him and you are clean.  So, if you believe in Jesus, God has a different image of you than you have of yourself.  And through your faith in Christ, through the Spirit living in you, as the saying goes, God will help you be the change you seek.

Prayer: O God, you take us out of our safe places and up the mountain.  We confess: it’s a little scary up here.  It’s just you and us.  You have things to show us about you and about ourselves.  Standing next to you, we know that we have needs only you can fill.  Show us where we are and where to go.  Remind us whom we belong to.

Off in the distance we hear cries for help.  Give us the strength to find out who is in trouble.  Through us, make the good news of Christ a clear message to that hurting world down below.  Through us, help that world know that there is good news: you have come to us through a stable, a cross, and an empty tomb.  Make our faces shine because we have been with you.  Amen.