Grandfather's Transfiguration

3GenerationPic DanBabaGrandfatherMessage for Transfiguration Sunday on Matthew 17:1-9 for February 23, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Today I am going to tell you a family story. If you have heard my husband Dan preach here, you may remember that he is a 6th generation Presbyterian pastor, which has afforded us a lot of stories from the ancestors who came before him. One of my favorite family stories comes from his grandfather and relates to our Gospel story of Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration with the miraculous appearance of Moses and Elijah.

Dan was about 24, and was in seminary, so it was clear to everyone that he, like his father, grandfather, great grandfather, great-great grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather, was going into the ministry.

Grandfather was 91—he was already a hard guy to talk with and his advanced age didn’t make it easier. Grandfather was brilliant—in addition to his Divinity degree from Princeton seminary, he also had Master degree in Semitic languages, so he knew Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic when he studied the biblical text. He was always working things out in his head, but he was not very good at letting people get to know him. Grandfather was more of a brooding introvert—somewhat of a tortured soul who could write and preach, direct programs and explicate mission, but did not let people in and know him very well. This was more difficult when he compared himself to his brother, also a minister (I know none of you have ever experienced sibling rivalry!), who was an extrovert, and a “darling” of the pulpit and the national church, where he held a very public position.

During Christmas break of his second year of seminary, Dan’s great Aunt Bertha died, and Dan went to Washington DC for the funeral. He and great Aunt Bertha shared a birthday, so they had a special connection. Dan actually missed the service because of a snowstorm but got to the house later and spent the rest of the weekend with family. After lunch on Sunday afternoon before he had to leave, Grandfather cornered him in the house and started talking with him about some of his experiences in ministry.

Now Dan had never had a significant conversation with Grandfather in his life –none of the grandkids had. It was as if Grandfather suddenly realized his grandson was going into the family business and he was 91 and may never have a chance to tell him anything ever again. And he suddenly decided to press the “download” button, like on a computer.

Grandfather shared some of his experiences, some of his struggles in ministry—basically his biography in the church—what he did in parish ministry, some things about being the Director of Foreign Missions and living in the Philippines. And after sharing some of these experiences, Grandfather then turned the story of the Transfiguration.

And he shared how he puzzled over this text all of his life—how it made no sense to him. Jesus is Transfigured before the disciples into this image of the resurrection before he goes down into Jerusalem to face the cross, and who shows up by his side in this moment of the fullness of God’s glory? Moses and Elijah.

Moses makes sense—he freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Moses received the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai and instructed them in the Law. He had intimate relationship with God—going up on a mountain to talk with God and understand God’s purpose and plan. Moses brought them to the edge of the Promised Land and gave them his final instructions in the book of Deuteronomy—everything they would need to moved forward.

But why Elijah? Why is Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration with Moses giving Jesus, and with him, Peter, James and John the spiritual vision and strength they need to face the cross? There were so many other leaders in the Hebrew Scriptures that would have made more sense. If we had Mt. Rushmore of the faith, Elijah might be there, but he would be the Teddy Roosevelt of the faces.

• Why not Solomon who built the great Temple and asked for the gift of wisdom?

• Wouldn’t it make more sense to have King David? He not only wrote the poetry, psalms and hymns of faith, but he was their most significant king. David brought Israel into national prominence—Israel became a powerhouse nation during David’s reign.

• Or if it had to be prophet, why not Isaiah or Jeremiah—at least they have a whole book of Scripture named for them.Grandfather puzzled over this text in his old age and had struggled to come to an insight about the meaning under the meaning. Somehow, the presence of Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration was the key to unlocking the passage for him if he could just figure it out.

Finally, as he reflected back on his life and ministry, the answer he had been seeking came to him as a gift of revelation.

Moses, on the one side of Jesus, responded to God’s call by saying, “no—I am not worthy—I am not skilled enough—I am slow of speech and tongue—I can’t do it—I cannot be or do what you want or what you think I can do. Today we would call that low self-esteem, self-negation, or even “worm theology.” This can come from verses like Psalm 22:6 which says, “I am worm and no human,” which the Reformers like Luther and Calvin emphasized contributing to “Lutheran guilt.”

Elijah, on the other side of Jesus, had the opposite problem. He had a contest with 450 prophets of Baal to see whose god would rain down fire on their sacrifice—and of course, Elijah won. But after this, instead of giving praise to God, Elijah says, “I am the only one left. If it weren’t for me, no one would praise you, God; no one would get it right, no one would be faithful to you. I am the only one. Elijah was full of pride, hubris, and a really big head—thinking that God can’t do anything without him—that it’s all up to him and him alone.

For Jesus to do what God calls him to, he needs to walk with middle path between these two ways of following God’s call. He cannot walk all the way over with Moses telling God he cannot do it and he’s not worthy and he does not have it what it takes, because God will make him able.

And he cannot be over here with Elijah saying it’s all about me, I am doing this alone, I am the only one, and I am the Savior of the world—because he’s not getting through the cross with God holding him fast.

The disciples who follow this Jesus—are also called to walk with middle path—confident that yes, we are worthy to serve and be called by God AND humble enough to know that God has greater plans, and more people, and more ways to accomplish salvation beyond us than we can possibly imagine.

So, you are not a worm and you are not God’s greatest and only gift to the church. Discipleship walking down the mount of Transfiguration is the middle path of confident humility.

Then this 91-year old man who had such a hard time sharing anything at all, looked at Dan and with tears in his eyes said, “but God uses people even at the extremes.”

And that, for grandfather, was accepting grace near the end of his life—because there were times when he felt so unworthy, he would brood with Moses; and there were other times when he had a towering ego with Elijah, when no one in the church could get it right but him—and yet, as he looked back on his life, God used him anyway.

So, as we seek to follow Jesus in traveling the middle path with confident humility—we can trust with Moses, Elijah and Grandfather, that faithfulness is not about doing it perfectly but about being available for God to use us, flaws and all.

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The Power of Our Thoughts and Beliefs

The Power of Your Thoughts and BeliefsMessage for Epiphany 6 on Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 given on February 16, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

A version of this sermon was first posted on this site on Febraury 13, 2017

I stayed home with my children for nine years while they were small and ran a home business with Mary Kay Cosmetics as a sales consultant and later, as a Sales Director. No, I never drove a pink car, but I did drive a free red Grand Am for several years. In addition to training us on the details of good skin care, make up application, a large part of the training involved how to think: how our mindset affects our behavior, how our attitude affects our outcomes. We were encouraged to get rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and to start each day with a “check-up from the neck-up” by repeating positive affirmations.

I have never been one for platitudes because, especially as a person of faith, I find life to be full of paradox, irony, mystery, complex emotions and unexpected experiences, but over time, I began to appreciate some of the wisdom these teachings contained. My favorite phrase of how our mindset affects our behavior is, “you bring about what you think about.” I tried to teach my children that “you bring about what you think about,” but they were skeptical at first as well. That is, until one day, when my parents were visiting us when we lived in St. Louis.

The bushes in the yard really needed to be trimmed, so my dad thought he would get out the hedge trimmer and give us a hand with the yard work. But before he went outside, he regaled us with the humorous tale from several years beforehand when he was out trimming the hedges. He wasn’t paying close enough attention and the power cord got caught in the hedge trimmer and sliced it in two.

We had a good laugh, and out he went to trim the hedge. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in the house—guess what happened?! Yup, he cut the power cord with the hedge trimmer, because “you bring about, what you think about!”

Thoughts and beliefs, like emotions, are a form of energy—energy that produces behavior and outcomes in the physical world.

You bring about what you think about. This is a simplified summary of some of what Jesus is talking about in this part of Sermon on the Mount. What we think about matters. Our inner life is important because it manifests itself in our behavior whether we intend it to or not.

To justify judgmental thoughts and bad behavior, you have probably heard people say, as I have, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody,” as if this were the standard of decent behavior. Jesus stops this up short by saying that we have completely missed the purpose of the Law, which is not just to restrict a few choice bad behaviors, but rather, to preserve the well-being of the whole community, all of humanity. Such community well-being begins in our mind with our thoughts, attitudes, and our beliefs.

Have you not had the experience when you are mad at someone, and you keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it gets bigger and bigger—and you get more angry, not less. What we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger. That kind of anger affects all our relationships. We feel mad at someone at work but make a sniping remark to our spouse or kid when we get home. It always comes out, somehow, does it not? Because we bring about what we think about.

Jesus’ sermon points us to the intention of the Law which is so clearly described in Deuteronomy: to help us choose life. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister and then bring your offering to the Lord”—that’s what it means to not murder. None of us can say, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody”—yeah, we have—we have damaged relationships and hurt the well-being of our community when our negative or destructive thoughts come out in our words and our behavior, even when we did not intend it to.

The same depth of understanding applies to the other 10 Commandments. Jesus highlights, thou shall not commit adultery. When we look at another person with lust, we commit adultery. When our thoughts are focused on our own desires, we think of the other person like an object. And when we think of someone like an object, we treat them instrumentally—for our own gain—rather than as one who bears the image of God. Thoughts lead to behavior. Witness the #Metoo movement. We must make a conscious effort at this in our culture because “sex sells”—the objectification of especially women in advertising everything from cars to cowboy boots makes lust a profitable marketing strategy.

It is also because of negative cultural attitudes towards women that Jesus expands his teaching on adultery to include divorce. As you know, in ancient times, women were considered property which was passed from the father to the husband in marriage. Men were within their rights to issue a certificate of divorce for frivolous reasons, including if his wife burned the bread. If there was not a male relative to take in a divorced woman, she would be left destitute. Patriarchal thoughts and beliefs were definitely having unjust, real-world consequences in the lives of women.

By elevating divorce to breaking the sixth Commandment against adultery Jesus dismantles the patriarchal power structure and pushes the male-dominated culture to re-think attitudes toward women in order change male behavior toward them. “Choose life,” says Jesus, life for the whole community, including women.

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as a life-giving divorce? Of course, not. I know many people who are better off for ending an unhealthy relationship. Jesus’ wants our attitude toward our spouse and others, to bring about respect, honor, and well-being for everyone involved.

The same is true in our work against anti-racism. Ask any black or brown-skinned person you know how many times in the last year they have been followed in a store, or someone has moved their purse when they have sat down, or refused to look them in the eye and shake their hand. Beliefs and attitudes come out in behavior—white people may not see it, but we have to learn about this and understand it in our work against racism.

In a poem called, “clothesline,” Marilyn Maciel beautifully describes the importance of our thoughts:

if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
shame
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
breeze?

So, does Jesus then, leave us with the tall order of thinking perfect thoughts that lead to flawless behavior? Is he preaching the expectation of not only works-righteousness, but thought-righteousness? An unattainable goal that none of us can meet in this life?

I don’t think so, because he adds this admonition in the middle of our passage:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It doesn’t sound like grace, but I think it is: grace in the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. If we all poke out our eyes for engaging in impure, damaging thoughts, and if we all cut off our hands for doing something we should not have done, every last one of us would be blind and without hands. In other words, none of us can do this on our own. We will all flunk. Some days, I flunk before I have even gotten out of bed in the morning.

So, while our thoughts and our behaviors do matter to God, Jesus knows we cannot do it alone and we are not going to get it right all the time. Which is he why he came to be like us in human form. Jesus came to be not only the salvation of our souls, but also the source of our strength, the forgiveness for our sins, and the model for how we are to think and behave. The Apostle Paul in Philippians says is this way: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Step 11 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” Through our own prayer and meditation, we can daily open ourselves to conscious contact with God to receive God’s will for us and the ability to behave that way in our daily life.

This is what Paul meant in Romans when he said, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed through the renewing of your minds.” Since what we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger, we want to feed our mind with faith, with prayer, with love, with Scripture. During out Midweek Lenten services, we will practice different types of contemplative prayer to help each of us “increase our conscious contact with God.” Fr. Richard Rohr calls contemplative prayer “divine therapy” when God can changes us from the inside.

Knowledge and ability, thoughts and behaviors. Jesus is our source for both those of things, and our forgiveness when we fall short. But as we are transformed through the renewing of our minds in Christ, we can bring about what God thinks about. That’s what it means for us to be the church together—to be the kingdom of God--to bring about what God thinks about!

 

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Salt and Light

Salt and LightMessage for Epiphany 5 on Matthew 5:13-20 given on February 9, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

At Christmas time our favorite thing to eat after the Christmas Eve worship is Swedish Gravlax. It’s fresh, salt-cured salmon that my husband, Dan makes 48 hours before chow time. He takes 2 slabs of sushi-grade salmon and pours a full ¼ cup of sea salt on it, along with fresh dill and sugar and pepper. Then he presses the slabs together and puts a weight on it and every day he has turn it over, so the salt cures each half of salmon.

After church on Christmas Eve, he fills a plate with thin slices of the salmon. You take a piece rye bread, called Rubeschlager, spread on some mustard dill sauce, add some chopped white onion, put on your slice of gravlax and yum! You can’t believe how good it is. Then you swallow it down with Swedish Absolut Citroen, which is lemon vodka.
My dad raises his glass and says, “skal fer dagen” –“cheers to the day” and wow!—it’s a celebration that Jesus is born, and we are together, and life is very good.

And it’s all possible because of salt.

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. Does he just mean that his followers are simply the “Mrs. Dash” of creation—adding flavor to the good stuff God has made, but are not really essential to it? Today we think of salt mostly as flavoring—something for our popcorn and our French fries, but as our Gravlax tradition reminds us every year—salt meant so much more to the Swedes who first buried salted salmon in the sand, and also to Jesus’ first hearers.

Salt cures meat. And although we keep our Gravlax in the frig, in the ancient world, salt was the only food preservative they had—without salt, food would rot quickly and could not be saved or stored for leaner times. No one could travel very far without salt, because food would not last.

Historical records show salt was one of the first commodities traded. Salt represented power because explorers couldn’t set off for new lands without provisions of food, and armies could not advance without preserved food supplies. The expression that you must be “worth your salt”—that is, that you need to be deserving of the salary you are paid, comes from ancient Rome where soldiers were paid in salt. In fact, the word for “salary” comes from the Latin word, “salarium” which referred to a soldier’s allowance to purchase salt. The human body cannot function without salt—our muscles will not work, including our heart, without salt; our nerves cannot transmit electricity without salt.

The same is true for light—"you are the light of the light of the world,” says Jesus. Light is also essential for life—for photosynthesis and growth, for providing food and for warming up the planet so it is not an icy rock. Light is essential for living and working, for seeing clearly, for being productive, for us to see the path ahead. Without the sun, without light, life is not possible.

So when Jesus looks at his followers—not just the disciples, but the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the persecuted, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake—all those Jesus just called “blessed” in the beatitudes—when he calls all of his followers the “salt of the earth” he is saying—you are essential to life, you preserve life, you enhance life, you enable life to grow—you are necessary for the life God desires for all of us.

Do you ever feel that way in your daily life? To your family? To your friends? To the people you encounter on a daily basis—be they work colleagues or neighbors or acquaintances, or the checkout person at the grocery store—do you feel that who you are and how you are and that you are there is necessary and essential to the life God wants for them?

Do you know deep down that for God, you are necessary for life?—Not because you are providing the paycheck or fixing the meals or any of the other dozens of things we do to keep a house and family going—but because of who you are? You are necessary for life because of your identity in Christ, your presence, your love, your forgiveness, your willingness to be forgiven, your help and your willingness to be helped, your existence as a child of God, because you are a dwelling place of God, and a vessel of the light of Christ?

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It’s a statement of fact—it’s not up for debate, it’s not dependent on our feelings, our level of success, whether we deserve it, feel worthy, or say and do everything wrong or everything right today. You are the salt of the earth—it doesn’t matter if you feel more like a parsley flake. You are the light of the world—it doesn’t matter if feel more like a little black raincloud. God has made you to be salt and light. That is who you are. You cannot change that.

Salt itself (sodium chloride) is extremely stable and cannot lose its flavor—we can dilute it and mix it with other stuff or even try to dissolve it—but it does not change how God made us and who God calls us to be. We can hide our light under a bushel basket, but it does not change that we are still the bearers of Jesus’ love and light in the world.
The problem with denying who we are and minimizing our role as kingdom builders, is that we give a pass for negative forces and evil to take over. Jesus hearers knew that no one puts a basket over a lamp with a flame unless they want to burn the house down. No one dilutes the salt with other substances, or the food rots and people starve.

Jesus is saying, “I need you, or ‘a’ll, y’all’ as we say in Texas, to be the salt and the light so that the kingdom values have more power and more presence in the world than evil does. You are the light-bringers, you are the life-preservers, you are the earthly vessels I have made and called to bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and faithfulness alive today—I am doing this through you!”

So, be who you are. God is using you in your daily life, so ask God in the morning to remind you of who you are and to help you be an available vehicle to preserve, enhance and enlighten someone else’s life for the kingdom. Accept who God made you to be and who Jesus sees you to be. When we accept that God calls us to be bearers of Christ’s love, bringing life and hope in every situation, every day, we also open ourselves to experiencing how God uses others to be salt and light for us. Kate gave a beautiful description of what she has learned from refugees—how they are salt and light for her teaching kindness, humility, gratitude and generosity.

During the Civil Rights movement, before a new march would start, the people—men and women, young and old—would gather in the churches. They would gather there not to gain strength but to be reminded of who they were. The fire house could not dilute their salt, the vicious dogs could not diminish their light. And even though they were scared, they poured out of those churches and singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine...”

 

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Deepening Our Close Relationships

Deepening Our Close RelationshipsFor Valentine's Day! Deepening Our Close Relationships! Published in the February, 2020 Reporter newsletter of St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

February offers a good month to talk about how to deepen our relationships with the ones we love. Whether it’s with our intimate partner, our adult children, our best friend, or someone we would like to know better, it’s often hard to know how to talk about things that matter.

When Dan and I made the decision for me to stop working full-time and stay home while our children were small, we knew it would be a big change in our marriage, but we were not sure what would change or how. Daniel was three, Jacob and was one and Leah was just a twinkle in our eye when I resigned from my call in Kansas City. I had been ordained and serving congregations for eight years and we had already been married for seven. 

In order to navigate this big change and talk about the issues as they arose, we decided to seek the help of marriage counselor. After we talked about our life, relationship and family in our first session, the counselor looked at us and said, “Well, you are good work consultants.” It was a kind way of saying that we were lousy at emotional intimacy. Ouch. 

He gave us a question to ask each other regularly to remain more emotionally connected and sharing about things the mattered. He talked about how tempting it is at the end of the day to talk with our spouse or friends about the details of our life—what we did at work, who we talked to, where we went for lunch and what we ate. It seems like we are sharing ourselves, but these details really have nothing to do with who we are on the inside, how we feel or think, or what’s happening in and around us. 

So here it is, the magic question that has changed our marital conversation and the question we still ask each other 22 years later: “What is the impact of _____ on you?” For example: "What is the impact of that meeting on you and your work? What is the effect of our kid’s behavior (or choices, changes, growing up, getting taller than you, looking for colleges) on you? How is your parent’s visit impacting you? What is the impact of your dad’s illness on how you feel about yourself?" 

These kinds of questions help us reflect on our how daily experiences are changing us on the inside, and how those we love are changing and growing as well. Without these conversations, many married couples, best friends, siblings, parents and children arrive at a new stage of life, (like the empty nest or post-college relationships) and no longer know their spouse, child, or best friend like they used to or like they thought they did. 

This month we celebrate love—but what we really want to focus on is emotional intimacy if we want that love to last a lifetime. So try asking about the impact of events, changes, meetings, illnesses, and so on, to experience growth in emotional connection with those you love!

 

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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