Christianity and the Fourth of July

2 Corinthians 12.10

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Bible-and-Flag

On the 4th of July, Americans bring out all the red, white, and blue we can muster and we fill the sky with fireworks. It is always a spectacle to behold. The day encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, festivities, and food!

And behind the colorful outfits, and backyard barbeques, and displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th of July is all about strength. So much of what Americans do on the 4th points to the country’s strength in the realm of economics and militaristic might and total freedom.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in our communities celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that the day doesn’t really belong to us.

Can we wear red, white, and blue? Of course, though we should oppose forms of nationalism that result in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course, but we must not forget that America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Of course, though we cannot let them blind us to the injustice that is taking place each and every day within our borders.

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The 4th of July does not belong to us not because Christians are against America, but simply because our hopes, dreams, and desires have been formed by the Lord. What we experience across the country as we mark the independence is fun and full of power, but it will never compare to the weakness that is true strength in the bread and wine at the communion table and the water in the baptismal font.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us such that we wouldn’t have to.

Therefore, should we avoid the practices that make the 4th of July what it is? Should we abstain from the hot dogs, and pool parties, and fireworks?

Of course not.

But if those things are more compelling and life-giving that the Word of the Lord revealed through Jesus the Christ, then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move and have our being such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that overshadows all fireworks.

In Jesus Christ we begin to see that weakness is actually strength.

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Devotional – Psalm 146.1

Psalm 146.1

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

Weekly Devotional Image

On Thursday afternoon I made my way over to the parking lot at Gypsy Hill Park to prepare for the UMC Trunk or Treat. The pastors and lay leaders from the Staunton area United Methodist churches had been planning the event for a number of months and it was my responsibility to set up the parking lot and organize the first wave of volunteers. For months we had collected candy and advertised in the local community and I was anxious to see how it would turn out.

In our earliest conversations we thought we would be lucky to receive a few hundred children and their parents for our Trunk or Treat. We continued to organize, plan, and pray for the event and when it was time to start trunk or treating a long line had already started to form; All of our hard work was about to come to fruition.

Over the next two hours the line of people never dwindled. Volunteers were running around in order to maintain the safety of the young children while also replenishing the candy supplies that had run low in some of the trunks. Children were dressed in some of the wittiest and most delightful costumes as they came forward with grateful hands to receive a peace of candy. And every trunk was attended by a faithful Christian eager and willing to share God’s love through the tiniest of gifts.

At about 7pm I left Lindsey with the candy at our trunk and made my way to the top of a hill for a better vantage point; I wanted to see how well the line was moving and if people were still enjoying themselves. I resisted the temptation to turn and look until I got to the very top and when I did I was stunned. From where I stood I could see no end to the numbers of children and families that had gathered in the park. I tried taking a picture and I could not even come close to capturing everyone in it. By the time the Trunk or Treat came to a conclusion over 3,500 people had come through.

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When I stood on top of the hill and looked out at what the United Methodist Church could do in connection I wanted to praise God. Only an almighty and powerful God could call us to work in community with one another instead of in competition. Only a faithful and loving God could stir our hearts to give generously to this wonderful community. Only a redemptive and sustaining God could accomplish something in us as powerful as our Trunk or Treat.

We truly serve an almighty God who is worthy of our praise!

 

Mountains and Valleys – Sermon on Mark 9.2-8

Mark 9.2-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

the-transfiguration

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Six days later. An innocuous beginning to our scripture today. In order to properly experience the depth of the transfiguration, we have to go back six days in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Before hiking the mountain with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” “Well Jesus, some call you John the Baptist, and others call you Elijah or one of the prophets.” “Okay, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus then immediately taught his disciples about his impending death, and predicted his resurrection for the first time; “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter, the great representative for the rest of the disciples, the great representative for all of us, pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for making such claims: “the messiah cannot be rejected by the elders and be killed Jesus, thats not what a messiah is supposed to do.”

Jesus quickly stopped Peter in his tracks, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And so, six days later, perhaps when the disciples needed a reinforcement of faith after such a strange episode, the inner circle was invited by Jesus to the top of a mountain. I can imagine their wavering faith as they slowly walked along the path, unable to comprehend the new understanding of what it meant for their Lord to be the Messiah.

In the cool of the morning, with the dew still hanging in the air, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. His clothes became dazzling white beyond human comprehension. And there, on either side of Jesus appeared Elijah and Moses. Then Peter said aloud, perhaps while cowering in fear, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Suddenly, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a great voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

4, Example 2a, The Saviour's Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon from the Tretyakov Gallery, attributed to Theophanes the Greek

Today, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. In the life of Jesus the Transfiguration was a defining moment that would come to determine the course of his mission to the world. From this point forward the trajectory of Jesus and his disciples was set toward Jerusalem. For the modern church, Transfiguration Sunday is celebrated immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Just as the Transfiguration trained the disciples’ eyes to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, so too we are training ourselves to make our way through the coming forty days of Lent preparing for the celebration of Easter.

What do you think of this story? It has forever been a favorite of mine for many reasons. What does the appearance of Elijah and Moses mean for the disciples and Jesus? What must it have felt like to be there with Peter, James, and John to have witnessed Jesus transfigured before them? How powerful and enveloping was the cloud and God’s voice declaring Jesus as his Beloved? A whole sermon series could be devoted to these 7 verses. However, today we are going to focus on Peter’s peculiar request to build three dwellings on top of the mountain.

Peter is both frightened and ignorant. Within the last week he had made the stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and then he was connected with the likes of Satan and commanded to move behind Jesus. Like many Christians, Peter was willing to go wherever Christ called him, though that didn’t necessarily mean he understood everything that was going on. This event had to have been remarkable for the three disciples present. In a brilliant fashion Jesus was validated as the Son of God. In spite of the shock regarding his own suffering and approaching death, this transfiguration confirmed him as the Lord’s anointed, the beloved Son.

Perfectly timed as a reinforcement for the disciples’ faith, particularly in the wake of Peter’s movement between perfection and ignorance, Peter responds to this glorious moment with the desire to build three dwellings. Behind his words was the need to prolong the experience. Who among us would not want to stay up there on the mountaintop with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah? This was a moment high worth; the true, embodied, and illuminated understanding of Jesus. It was an experience that any of us would have liked to make permanent. However, life is not made up of mountaintops alone, for every glorious mountain there is a equally draining valley. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration, but it was NOT good for him to try and prolong the experience. Life must continue to move on.

A few months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to preside over my first wedding. Brian and Sarah are a delightful couple and I was thrilled with the invitation to join them together in marriage. The wedding went off without a hitch, well thats not exactly true, I had to remind the nervous father of the bride to stand with her until he gave her away, and then I had to direct him to sick back down after he had finished. Nevertheless, when it came time for the homily, I stood before Brian and Sarah, remarking about the sanctity of marriage and the role that God plays in all of our unions. I ended the homily with something I tell all couples preparing for marriage:

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“From this point forward your individual stories are coming together. I want to tell you something that most will try to claim the contrary. Today will NOT be the happiest day of your lives. If you limit the joy of what you can experience in marriage to this one particular Saturday afternoon, it will cease to be organic and life-giving but instead repetitive and dull. You have an incredible story in front of you, one that has yet to be written, you are traveling as strangers into a strange land. There will be countless mountains and valleys and so much of your horizon is still beautifully unwritten.

Like Peter, many of us want to desperately hold on to those “transfigured” moments of our lives. We want to experience events where we get a little slice of heaven, but as soon as they fall in our laps we are often unwilling to let them go. The excitement of Christmas is often replaced by the anxiety and dull atmosphere of January. The beauty of a newborn baby is quickly rivaled by the long nights of crying and wailing. The joy of summer break from school flies by too quickly and before we know it we are sitting in a new classroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Life is made up of both mountains and valleys. Neither one can, nor should, last forever.

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Transfigured moments are all around us, particularly here in worship. Worship is supposed to be a shining hour, high and lifted up, an event where the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit shines radiantly throughout our space. Like the disciples gathered on the mountain, worship is supposed to surround us like a cloud when Jesus and his revelation of God are made known to each of us. Worship, when done well, produces a glow unlike anything else on earth. Worship, beauty, joy, love; all of these are those wonderful transfigured moments that surround us daily. A life that has no transfigured hours of worship is poor, no matter how rich and decadent the elements may be.

So, just think for a moment, imagine the many areas in which the mood of Peter, when he said, “Lets just stay here” blocks the possibilities of life. Life cannot just be one big wedding celebration, nor can it be replaying our favorite song over and over and over again, nor can it be a endless worship service here at St. John’s. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stay on top of the mountain forever, we have to move and go on to new experiences of life, faith, and understanding.

As the disciples grew closer and closer to their Lord, his words and proclamations became increasingly difficult to understand and follow. While making their way to the inevitable result of Jerusalem, the disciples needed to hear Jesus. The voice from the cloud echoed out, “listen to him!” and I can think of no better words for all us to hear this morning.

When I was 16, standing on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, Virginia on a cold and dark December evening my life was forever changed. I am a product of “listening to him.” I stand before you as the pastor serving this church because I was enveloped in that strange cloud of God’s grace, without a big booming voice, without particular words, and yet I somehow knew that I could do nothing with my life other than serving the church. My life has been filled with mountaintop experiences, some of them on literal mountain tops, but there have also been deep and seemingly endless valleys.

And so, what are to make of us this Transfiguration? That day when he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray, his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame. Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came. Lost in the cloud a voice, have no fear, we draw near, lost in a cloud, a sign, Son of Man turn your ear.

We are just like those disciples standing on the mountainside with Jesus. We are given glimpses of heaven regularly in our lives. We are blessed to be showered with transfigured moments if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. However, life must be made of both mountains and valleys. Like the disciples we are called to listen to Jesus when the time comes to re-enter the reality of life. We have the privilege of listening to Jesus and having his words become incarnate in the ways that we live our lives.

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If you want to truly experience a transfigured moment in your life, look no further than this table with the gifts of bread and wine. This banquet that has been prepared for you and me is an encounter with the divine, it is a little slice of heaven for us. This is our mountaintop, that incredible and glorious moment when Jesus’ true radiance shined in a way unlike anything else on earth. In this communion we are brought into union with the triune God, we are nourished with the grace of God for our journeys of faith. 

So, as we prepare to feast at Christ’s table, remember that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. We will depart from this place and enter the world filled with the body and the blood. Listen to him in the valleys of life knowing that we are always going on to something new and wonderful. Let us all strive to be transfigured and delight in God’s will, walking in his ways forever. God is with us at the wedding receptions and in the hospital waiting rooms, God is with us when we fall and love and when we lose our jobs. God is with us when we cradle new-born children for the first time and when they leave us to begin their own lives. God is with us on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys. Listen to him.

Amen.