Tuesday, March 03, 2015

March 1, 2015 - What Do These Stones Mean?

I grew up in steel and coal country.  Steel mills lined the upper Ohio Valley and strip mines cut into the surrounding mountains.

My friends and I would often use the strip mines as trails to ride our motorcycles and we would swim in the lakes that formed throughout the old mines (which was a pretty bad idea, as they were full of leeches and snapping turtles).

On a couple of occasions, as we hiked through the mines and the surrounding woods, we found piles of old tombstones, cast aside by the mining companies as they cut through old homesteads, farms, and long-forgotten communities.  Sadly, instead of treating the old cemeteries with the respect they deserved (and that the law required), the coal companies would simply toss the stones into a pile, assuming that no one would ever know, demonstrating a harsh and uncaring attitude toward the memorials of human lives.  It was a jolt to find those piles of tombstones, carelessly tossed aside, and to think of the lives they represented.  Those stones represented real people; people who were important to and loved by others.

All of us want to be remembered.  The drive to remember – and be remembered – is a powerful force among humanity.  Pictures, songs, anniversaries – and other practices and material objects – carry powerful meanings to us because of the events with which they are associated, helping us to remember the people and experiences that have been so important in our lives.

This morning we return to the Old Testament, to a story that tells us of when Joshua prepared to lead the Hebrew people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.  This was a momentous occasion.  After centuries of bondage in Egypt and a generation wandering in the wilderness now the people had arrived at the moment which would fulfill the promise of which they had long been told.  After centuries of bondage in Egypt, a generation of wandering in the wilderness, the Hebrew people had arrived at their long promised destination.

The instructions were that the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant should step into the Jordan River and when they did, the water would stop flowing and the people could cross on dry land.  After crossing the river, Joshua instructed that one person representing each of the twelve tribes go back down into the river and pick up a stone.  The stones were piled together on the bank of the river, as a memorial that God had fulfilled his promise.  The stones would remain there at the banks of the Jordan River as a permanent reminder of what God has accomplished for them.
Listen to a portion of that story, from the book of Joshua –

1 When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua,
“Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe,
and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe,
and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites,
to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’
tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down.
Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.

Each of us has a collection of “stones” in our lives.  Each of those “stones” is representative of experiences and promises that God has given to us.  I want us to consider several of those “stones” this morning (but don’t worry; I’m not going to have a point for all twelve stones).

My grandmother, my father’s mother, was the keeper of our family’s stories and information.  I can still hear her in my mind as she told us on numerous occasions that one of us needed to write down the stories she told about our relatives and our family history.  We would ask Grandma, why don’t you write them down?  Her reply was always the same – my job is to tell the stories, not write them down.  One of you needs to write them down. How I wish we had done what she said, and written down what she told us about who we are as a family.

On several occasions, as I prepared a funeral message, families have allowed me to read through the writings of their loved one, and it is very moving to read their recounting of family stories and important events.

It is certainly no accident that so much of the Bible is comprised of stores and much of the teaching of Jesus was delivered through the vehicle of stories.  I use stories in my messages not to fill up time, but because that is how truths and lessons are instilled into our souls.  I don’t mind that people remember the stories I tell more than they remember the other content of my messages; that’s just how we are as people – stories communicate powerfully to us.

Stories remind us that we are an historical people, but we don’t always think about how we are shaped by the past and the lessons of the past.  We are a continuation of the past, and by the past I mean not just a few years, or a few decades, or a generation; I mean centuries and millennia of faith tradition.  We are a part of two thousand years of church history, and part of an even longer tradition of faith through our connection to the patriarchs and people of the Old Testament.  We don’t just read of Abraham, but we become a part of Abraham’s story, and the same is true of other great characters in Biblical and faith history.  We’re not to be prisoners of the past, but the past matters far more than we often give credit.

The ancient Hebrews were always reminded of the importance of remembering.  They were told on more than one occasion to build a reminder of what God had done for them.  Even to our day and time, at the Passover meal, the youngest in attendance will ask the purpose of what is done and the story of God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt is retold, so they will never forget.

We can have remarkably short memories, and we must not forget what God has done for us.  It is by looking to the past that we find strength, hope, and faith for the future.

When the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River, God held back the water so that they might cross.  The water, however, did not stop flowing until the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water (as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord – the Lord of all the earth – set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap – Joshua 3:13).  It is important to note that the water did not stop flowing until the feet of the priests stepped into the river.  I wonder what it was like for the priests as they considered that step into the water.  Did they have any doubt and did they worry about what might happen when their feet touched the water?  Taking that literal step of faith can be both difficult and frightening, but their faith was rewarded by God’s promise.  One of the foundational lessons of faith is that we must take the step that is based upon a promise of what has yet to be seen.  We are stepping into the unknown, and as we lift our foot to take that step we are placing our trust in the promise of God that when our foot comes down he will keep his promise.

Faith is questioned with increasing veracity in today’s world.  Skeptics have drawn a line in the sand that claims any doubt is evidence of faith’s weakness and doubts triumph.  This is, simply put, not at all true.  The healthiest faith is one that can exist with doubt.  A mature faith is one that is not afraid of questions and uncertainties, but is able to live simultaneously with them.  It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to question and even to doubt.  Many of the great Biblical characters, and many of the most important characters of church history had their share of doubts and questions, and those doubts and questions led not to a weaker faith, but to a faith that was much stronger.

One of the reasons we look to the past is to be reminded of the faithfulness of God in the past, and from that affirmation comes the promise of his faithfulness in the present and the future.

At our Scripture text takes place around water, I’ll share with you a story about an encounter of mine with water.  When I was younger I really liked to play hockey (I know I don’t look like a hockey player – I’ve got my front teeth).  In the West Virginia winters we had plenty of frozen pond and lakes on which to play hockey, and one of our favorite places was just off of Cross Creek, which flowed into the Ohio River.  Just before Cross Creek connected with the Ohio River there was a several acre area of water that was perfect for hockey, not only because it was so large, but also because it was only about three or four feet deep.

There are two very important rules about ice skating, if you are skating outside.  First, never skate over moving water.  Some of my friends would skate on frozen creeks, which I always avoided.  If the ice breaks and you go under, the current of the water will carry you quickly away from the hole in the ice and tragedy is certain.  But an even more important rule is this – never skate alone.

One day my friend Steve and I arrived at the location on Cross Creek a while before anyone else.  We decided to get there early and warm up for a game of hockey that afternoon.  As we hit the puck back and forth, it eventually slid to a section of the ice we knew was thin.  I decided that I would skate over that ice and retrieve the puck, thinking that if I had enough speed and momentum I could glide across the ice without any danger of falling through into the water below.

It was only a few degrees above zero that day.  Bitter cold weather is certainly not a good time to skate across thin ice, and as I glided across the ice my momentum began to fade and I could hear the ice beginning to crack below my skates.  When I pushed with one foot to try and increase my speed, the ice gave way and I fell into the frigid water.  Thankfully, the depth of the water was not above my head – it was about four feet deep – but my momentum carried me forward and I plunged completely below the water.  I can still remember the feeling of that frigid water.  It was so cold it literally hurt.  The water temperature, coupled with the air temperature, took my breath away and quickly sapped my strength.  As I tried to climb back on top of the ice it continued to break beneath my weight, and each time it broke I would plunge underneath the frigid water.  I don’t know how many times the ice broke beneath my weight, but I remember how quickly I was exhausted by trying to get out of the water and how rapidly I developed a sense of resignation about my ability to escape that frigid water.  Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.  Steve was able to get a piece of rope from the car, slide it across the ice, and pull me to safety.  What if I had been alone?  It could have been disastrous.

Steve and I haven’t seen each other in a lot of years, but I keep up with him through my mom.  It’s sad to me that some people are in our lives for just a period of time – sometimes a very short period of time – but they occupy an important place in our lives, nonetheless.  Steve, and many others, have been very important in my life, even if for just a time.

Remember the people with whom God has graced your life.  The people with whom we walk through life are profoundly important to us, and that certainly includes the people in this congregation.  Look around you, at the people seated near you, the people God has placed in your path; look around at this church, a place where your children and grandchildren are loved and taught, where they are baptized and buried; look around at the place where are loved ones are bid their earthly farewell.  Sometimes, this can be treated as just another commodity, just another service, as we ask what’s it going to do for me, or to be a part of such a body in times only of convenience and agreement.

God has created us to live in relationships, and we need those relationships to get through life.  Life can be very difficult, and our relationships carry us through life, as God gifts us with people who will celebrate with us and mourn with us.

From my vantage point as a minister I am very aware of this truth – there is a lot of grief occupying people’s lives.  And I don’t mean to limit grief only to the loss of loved ones, but grief encompasses all manner of difficulty.  In fact, you don’t have to scratch very deeply into anyone’s life before you find grief that is ready to pour out.  If that grief is not managed in a constructive way it will come out in destructive ways.  I truly believe that one of the greatest gifts given to us by God are the people with whom we are in a relationship, as they help us to carry burdens, celebrate our joys, and will walk with us through our difficulties. 

Imagine when the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River that day, and as they piled those stones one on top of the other, how they must have thought about the journey they had managed because of their faith in God, and also because of the strength that came from their relationships.

What do these stones mean?  They mean that we must remember these gifts of God.

Monday, February 23, 2015

February 22, 2015 The Danger of Self-Righteousness

Last week I mentioned the importance of church camp in the development of my spiritual life and my sense of call as a minister.  As powerful as my camp experience was, it was not without a few shortcomings.  One summer, one of our counselors told us that when we returned to school we needed to be sure to bow our heads and pray before lunch each day in the cafeteria.  We were instructed to do this not just because of a desire to return thanks and not because we ought to pray, but we were told to do so because our classmates should see us praying; the point of our prayers was to be seen praying, as it would be a witness of faith.  Our counselors also told us we should read our Bibles regularly, and as I did, I remembered the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount, where he says that we should pray in secret.  The words of my counselor seemed to be in conflict with the instructions of my counselor.

The conflict between what I was told and what I read in this passage led me to what might seem like a strange practice to some people – before I eat a meal I always return thanks, but not always in an obvious manner.  When I share a meal with another person or a group of people, I’m often asked to offer the blessing, which I do and I’m happy to do so, but when I’m by myself, I do not bow my head and I do not close my eyes, but I do return thanks.  Praying in a way that is obvious to others makes me wonder about the difference between an authentic expression of faith and an activity that is done simply to gain attention.

Does that make me weird?  It’s okay to nod your head yes, I know I’m weird. 

Listen to what Jesus says in chapter six of the Sermon On the Mount –

1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This morning we are talking about The Danger of Self-Righteousness.  What is the difference between a genuine expression of faith and self-righteousness?  Let’s find out –

Self-Righteousness Feels the Need to Call Attention to One’s Actions.
One of the marks of self-righteousness that is identified by Jesus in this week’s Scripture passage is that of drawing attention to one’s spiritual practices and actions. Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them, Jesus said, implying that if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness. Self-righteousness is identified by a looking-over-the-shoulder way of living that wants to be sure others see what we are doing.

In Luke 18:9-14 we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom were praying in the Temple.  The Pharisee is audacious enough to point out the tax collector, to whom he felt superior, and turned his prayer into a self-congratulatory speech. God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12).  I’m not sure how he managed to reach around and pat himself on the back and pray at the same time, but he did! 

It’s very sad to see prayer used in a way that makes a point.  Ministers, sadly, are some of the worst offenders about using prayer in this way.  I’ve heard ministers offer a prayer in a worship service similar to this – Lord, we’ve got a really big decision coming up in our congregation.  We need to do the right thing.  We know the right things is to (decided in some particular manner).  Lord, we know how you want us to decide, but there are some who have closed their minds and hearts to that way.  Open their hearts, their minds, their eyes, and their ears to vote in the proper way, especially those elders who are being stubborn and unwilling to get with the program!  Those kinds of prayers aren’t really prayers – they’re speeches, and everybody knows it, and they’re self-righteous as well.

Jesus encountered a lot of self-righteous people.  And when he did, he was usually pretty tough on them.  Consider these words from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of of deadmen’s bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How will you escape being condemned to hell?  (Matthew 23:27-28; 33)

Wow.  Those are tough words, spoken with strong emotion, and they probably didn’t win Jesus any fans among the Pharisees and others in the religious establishment.  Jesus was hard on self-righteousness, I think, because it presents a distorted idea of the nature of faith and because it turns people away from faith, as they find it to be so unattractive.

I don’t think anyone has much tolerance for self-righteousness.  Jesus certainly didn’t. But as much as we dislike self-righteousness, it’s important to remember that we all have the capacity to become self-righteous.  It’s really not that difficult, because one of the traits of self-righteousness is the inability to recognize it, even in one’s self.  While we are quick to recognize it in others, we are not so quick to identify it in ourselves.

People don’t generally know when they are being self-righteous.  The Pharisees, who represent to us the very epitome of self-righteousness, wouldn’t have understood themselves to be self-righteous.  In fact, the Pharisees as a group began in the time between the Old and the New Testaments as a movement to revive spirituality among the Jewish people.  The Pharisees were a reaction to what was perceived as cold, stale, legalistic religion, so their roots were based in a good impulse, but they eventually came to represent exactly what they originally opposed.  From a desire to encourage prayer they moved to offering showy prayers, standing in busy public places so they would be seen as they prayed.  From a desire to encourage generosity they moved to a self-congratulatory attention-calling to their giving.  From a desire to give to the needy they moved to a lesser concern with helping and a greater concern to receive the recognition for their generosity.

Sometimes, the best and most noble spiritual impulses can go awry.  In fact, one of the lessons we can learn from those whom Jesus addressed is this – if we have to point out our righteousness to other people, it’s not really true righteousness.

Self-Righteousness want to serve as God’s gatekeepers.
I like the concerts at the State Fair, especially the free ones at Cardinal Stadium.  I like them because, well, they’re free, and because they often feature the classic rock acts of my era of music. One year I was walking through Freedom Hall on my way to the stadium, and there was a long line of people waiting to be seated for a Kenny Chesney concert.  I don’t mean to stereotype, but have you ever noticed how it’s just obvious that some people belong to a particular group?  Like Kenny Chesney fans, for instance.  The dress code was an assortment of boots, cowboy or baseball hats, and faded and torn jeans.  I’m not being critical of country music, I’m just making an observation.  Or maybe I’m just jealous because no one has ever written a song about my sexy tractor.  Not the I even have a tractor.  I have a sad, little riding mower and believe me, there is nothing sexy about it!  But the point is, everyone in that line looked like they were going to a Kenny Chesney concert, except for one guy.  In the midst of this long line of people was a guy who looked to be in his early to mid 20s.  His hair was heavily jelled up in spikes and was dyed three or four different colors.  He had a bunch of piercings and a big chain hanging down from his belt.  I wondered if I should tell him Metallica wasn’t playing that night, because he just didn’t look like he fit in, and many of the people in the line were giving him looks that communicated that they didn’t think he fit in either.

Self-righteousness loves to communicate who fits in with God and who doesn’t.  It has a uniform, and a set of beliefs and actions; it has a mold in which every one must fit perfectly.  Self-righteous people want to define that mold, and they believe they are the ones qualified to serve as God’s gatekeepers, determining who is acceptable to God and who isn’t.  They are the ones who will look at people and say, no, you don’t fit; you don’t belong; you’re not like us.  The Pharisee in the Temple fit this bill perfectly, as he looked down on the tax collector in his self-congratulatory manner.  It was very clear to him that he was one not only of God’s chosen but one of God’s preferred, and that gave him the right, in his mind, to determine that the tax collector was not worthy enough to be one of God’s children.

We hear a lot in recent years about the folks who are spiritual but not religious.  I’m not going to criticize that group of people, because I believe churches had a big part in creating them.  Far too often, churches appointed themselves the gatekeepers to the kingdom of God and would confidently, loudly – and often irritatingly – proclaim who was acceptable to God and who was not.  Jesus very obviously kicked the legs out from under that high horse.  Jesus very obviously went out of his way to bring into God’s favor those who were cast aside by the self-righteous.  Jesus very obviously offered love, grace, and dignity to people who received none of those gifts from the self-righteous.

Self-Righteousness thrives on false comparisons.
I talked some about comparisons last fall, but I want to mention comparisons in a different context today.  Self-righteousness loves to make comparisons; the Pharisee in the Temple is a perfect example of this – God, I thank you that I am not like other people.  The reality is, the Pharisee might have been a better person in some ways than the tax collector, but so what?  The point is not to be better than other people; that is a false comparison.  The true comparison is this – how do I compare to Jesus?  It’s not hard to find someone to whom we can feel spiritually superior, whether or not we really are.  And plenty of church people over the years have made that comparison to others, so in some cases, the reputation of churches as being self-righteous is well-deserved, isn’t it?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a church I served as Student Minister back in the 70s, Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Bethel is an African-American congregation, which was a very interesting experience for me.  Early in my ministry there I was standing in a room behind the sanctuary looking at a picture.  It was the traditional Head-of-Christ picture that we see in many churches, except it was an African-American Jesus.  As I was standing there, just looking at the picture, one of the ladies of the church walked by and, without stopping, said, yeah, that’s not right, but neither is the one at your church.
I found that to be both funny and true, as the reality is that we can easily have the tendency to remake Jesus in our image, rather than remaking ourselves in his. 

The comparison we ought to be making is not how we measure up to other people, or how they measure up to us, but how we measure up to Jesus. 

FCC Shelbyville | February 15, 2015 Sermon

Monday, February 16, 2015

February 15, 2015 Living Between the Mountaintop and the Valley

Attending college in northeast Tennessee meant there were many outdoor activities available.  One that I enjoyed was climbing Buffalo Mountain, just outside of Johnson City.

There was one particular spot on the mountain that has an absolutely breathtaking view, especially when you walk out onto an overlook of rock that stuck out rather precariously.  The rocky overlook was a fairly good-sized space and it is possible to walk right out to the edge and peer over and see the very long drop back down the mountain.

There’s something euphoric, I think, about being on a literal mountaintop and surveying all the valleys that stretch out before you.  Although it’s a lot of work to get to the mountaintop, there is a sense of peace as you gaze into the valley and know you are far removed from all the problems and stresses of life in the valley.

This morning, as we move a little further into the gospel of Mark, we are talking about Living Between the Mountaintop and the Valley.  Let’s read the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain and there is transfigured before them.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Allow me to share a few lessons from this passage –

We need our mountaintop experiences.
For me, church camp was always a mountaintop experience.  I spent a good deal of my summers, beginning in elementary school through my early college years, going to church camp, and my experiences there were some of the most profound in my life.  At the time, I understood those experiences to be a source of strength and encouragement for me between summers, helping me to get through each school year, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand how they continue to be life-changing and life-shaping experiences for me. For some people, their mountaintop experiences came in other ways.  The context of the experience doesn’t matter as much as having the experience.
I hope that worship can be a mountaintop experience for you.  I understand that our experience of worship can vary quite a bit from week to week, and there are times when you might come for any number of weeks – or longer – and not get that sense of a mountaintop experience, but I hope it does come at some point.

Sometimes we need a special encounter with God.  Sometimes we need those moments that lift us above the daily grind of life.  Sometimes we need those moments where heaven meets earth and the divine comes right into our lives.  Those moments don’t come every day in my life.  Sometimes, those really moving encounters come few and far between. Sometimes those encounters come totally out of the blue and other times they come because we place ourselves in a position where they can happen.  But one of those encounters is enough to provide spiritual fuel for a long time.

Peter, James, and John would certainly have their share of powerful and profound experiences with Jesus, but this one was special, and as difficult as it was for them to understand the experience, it was one that touched them in a very deep and profound way. 

We need people to share our journey.
I don’t know why Jesus seemed to favor Peter, James, and John, but he seemed to be closer to those three than the other disciples.  The gospels mention other times when Jesus favored Peter, James, and John, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he took those three further into the garden with him than the others.  If we attempted to list the others from memory we might have a difficult time of it as, outside of the list of their names, some of them are barely mentioned in the New Testament.

But Jesus was, I’m certain, very close to all twelve of the disciples, and his relationship with the twelve reminds us of the powerful need we have in life of being in relationship with other people. We are social creatures; we are not meant to live in solitude.  And when we look around at the prevalence of social media and the powerful force it has become in the lives of so many it is but one more reminder of that need God places within us for relationships with other people.

Aren’t you grateful we do not walk through this life alone?  Aren’t you grateful for the people that God has brought into your life?  Can you imagine life without those people who celebrate with us in the difficult times but also walk with us through the valley, the people who will sit and weep with us, mourn with us, and love us when we feel as though we cannot continue?

Jesus surrounded himself with close friends because that is what we need in life.  We need, in particular, people who will be encouragers for us.  Think of Barnabas, in the book of Acts, whose name meant encourager.  Imagine being known for all of history as an encourager – now there is a legacy!  I could give you so many examples of people who have served as encouragers to me, but I’ll share just one this morning.  In a previous congregation where I served, as the conclusion of the service, one of the members shook my hand and said, Dave, that was a really good message today.  I really enjoyed it a got a lot out of it.  Thank you for sharing it today.  My first impression, honestly, was to be disappointed, because we had a music program that day and I didn’t preach.  I thought she must have slept through the service and didn’t notice there was no sermon that day!  Upon reflection, however, I realized it was because her habit was to say something encouraging to me every week after worship.  It was that she didn’t notice I hadn’t preached; she just did what she always did, which was to offer an encouraging word to me.

We enter the valley because that is where so much of life is lived and that is where so many people live.
We all have that one place where we could just camp out forever.  Perhaps it’s the beach – that’s the favorite for a lot of us, isn’t it?  My mother-in-law lived on the beach at Tybee Island, Georgia for 18 years, and we loved to visit there.  The beach is one of the few places in the world where I can be content just sitting.  I look out at the water and think, I could sit here forever.  Now she lives on a lake in northeast Georgia, and though I really miss the beach I love the lake as well.  The lake has over 900 miles of shoreline winding through the hills of northeast Georgia and islands dot the lake.  Some of them are smaller than this room but others can cover a couple of acres.  I love to go out on the lake and pull up to one of the islands and sit on the little beaches that surround them.  It’s incredibly peaceful.  It’s quiet, there are no phones ringing and no to-do lists.  There is only peace and quiet.  There have been many times when I sat on a beach, or an island, or on a mountain overlook and thought I could stay here forever.  Have you ever felt that way?

But, sadly, the mountaintop is not where most people live.  Most people live much of their lives in the harshness of the valley, where dysfunction and disease and conflict and loss and fear and violence and so many other problems overwhelm life. As wonderful as it would be to stay on the mountaintop, we have to enter the valleys because that is where people live. 

On a fortunate few occasions we get to visit the mountaintop and have that beautiful mountaintop experience, but that is not where we get to stay long.  Some people never make it to the mountaintop.  Some people spend all of their lives struggling to be free from the valley of poverty, of disease, of violence, of loneliness, of depression and despair, of fear and so many other struggles that fill that valley.

Peter, bless him, has an interesting reaction to being on the mountaintop.  He turns to Jesus and says Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Peter’s words were accurate but the sentiment behind them was a bit off.  It was indeed good for them to be there and to experience such a momentous occasion.  What a wonderful experience they shared; who wouldn’t want to stay there? 

But Peter’s desire to build some shelters and stay on the mountaintop was the wrong sentiment.  It was the wrong sentiment for this reason – after the transfiguration Jesus leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain, back to reality, where there is chaos, confusion, and frustration.  Basically, back to every day life.  When you read ahead to the next story, you find the other disciples surrounded by a crowd and a man whose son who needed to be healed.  It was a chaotic situation and a reminder of why we prefer to be on the mountaintop and out of the valley.  I’m sure Peter, James, and John were thinking at that moment can we go back up to the mountaintop and get away from all of this?  Isn’t that a reaction we often have to the chaos and suffering and struggles of the world?  Lord, excuse me, but I think I’ll go to my safe place, to my favorite place that will insulate me from all this craziness in the world.  But here is an important truth for us to remember – any encounter with God that does not lead us down from our mountains, that does not lead us out of our buildings, and does not lead us out into the needs of the world around us is probably not a real encounter with God. 

A mountaintop experience – a true mountaintop experience – is one that compels us down from the mountaintop and into the valley, because that is where God can always be found – in the valley.  Isn’t that what the psalmist tells us in the 23rd psalm?  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  There is no valley too deep for God.  There is no valley out of God’s reach.  There is no valley where God is not present.

Kayla Mueller is a name we learned only recently.  She had been in the hands of ISIS and we were all surprised to hear the news in recent days, as her kidnapping had not been made public.  We also learned, tragically that she died in recent days.  In the spring of 2014 she wrote a letter to her family, which the family made public after her death.  Here is some of what she had to say –

I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else ... + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another.

Isn’t that an amazing testimony of courage and faith?  Her words, in a very powerful way, echo those of Paul, who also wrote of his faith while in prison, and who also wrote of being able to see the good in each situation.  I hope that if I were ever in a situation that challenged my faith that I could hold to it as strongly as Kayla.  For Kayla, the mountaintop came to the valley.  Even though she found herself, literally, in the valley of the shadow of death she shows no fear, as she knew God was with her.  Down from the mountaintop he came, and entered into the valley with her.

Some of you may be blessed to be on the mountaintop at this point in your life.  Many more of you may be in the valley, where life is difficult.  Know that God is not far away on the mountaintop, but he is in the valley with you.