...God doesn’t get any less thrilling. The promises God makes don’t get any less mind-blowing. I can only conclude that it’s we, God’s people, who have moved away. Religion, paradoxically, is in part to blame for this. People who, like Moses, are willing to be completely transformed, are dangerous to those in power who want control. I think this is why religious communities have trained us over the centuries to suppress the kind of experience we heard about today – it’s just plain too dangerous.
The history of Christianity is chock full of figures who contest religious authority, in order to live in union with God. Take St John of the Cross. John was a 16th century priest, who, disturbed by the political corruption of his order, worked with his friend Theresa of Avila, a nun, to bring about reform. He was imprisoned by his opponents, for the better part of a year in a stifling room barely big enough for his body, getting breaks only to be brought out for a weekly flogging. During that time, he wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in Spanish – love letters to a God who he knew had not abandoned him. In pictures of John, his face is shining like the sun, surrounded by a glowing halo, the mark of one who has seen and come to know God. No wonder they had to shut him up in a closet – he’d seen God and he was way, way, way too much.
St John’s is only one story from our history, there are countless others. So many, that it’s almost like it’s in our DNA - “get to close to God, get too stirred up by God’s message for you, and you’ll be in trouble with your community.” Actually, it’s right there in the Bible itself. Just before the passage we heard today, before the mountaintop experience, here’s what Jesus said: “You who wish to be my followers must deny your very self, take up your cross - the instrument of your own death - every day, and follow in my steps. If you would save your life, you'll lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake, you'll save it.” (translation: The Inclusive New Testament by Priests for Equality) Stick around, and you’ll live in the kingdom, but you’ll see suffering. And you will suffer too.
As I was working on this sermon yesterday afternoon, I took a break to call a friend on the phone and I swear these were the first words out of her mouth “Oh! I just lost my boots on ebay!” She went on to tell the story of the afternoon – she had the perfect boots in her sites, at a price she could afford, she had bid on them, and then as she watched, just a few minutes until the end of bidding, her heart racing, she saw someone else’s bid, she quickly added her own, but it was too late and the boots were gone! Having myself gotten sucked into the adrenaline rush that is watching ebay bids come and go, I could really relate, and I told her, “I’m telling this story in church tomorrow!” (one of the risks, evidently, of having a minister for a friend).
Because even if you’ve never visited ebay (and please don’t start now if you’ve never been), this is how it is for us. As the real excitement of the knowledge of God is taken from us – we seek excitement in other things – in consumerism, sports, addictions, violence. And those have their own kind of thrill, but not the deep and life changing excitement promised by God in these passages we read today. I wonder what it would be like, instead of making our hearts beat fast by working out more, by finding the perfect sweater on sale, by driving too fast, by drinking more than we know we can really handle, by gambling all night or by overwork -- What would it be like to choose to risk for God instead?
Of course, just asking that question assumes something very important – it assumes that the risks we take in the name of God are the ones we choose. We know from our newspapers that many, many, many cannot choose the risks they face. UCC president John Thomas added to a recent prayer for peace in the middle east -- a group of people we hardly ever hear about -- the several hundred thousand Iraqi Christians who are left in Iraq, the remnants of a community that just over 20 years ago numbered more than a million. Now they are leaving the country in droves, unable to find protection from either Sunni or Shia militia. “Despite the difficulties in practising their faith, an Iraq bereft of Christians is difficult for the community to grasp. Christians pre-date Islam by some 700 years and have lived in the area known as Mesopotamia since St Thomas the Apostle (that’s thomas the doubter, friends!) preached in the year 30 and founded the East Syriac Church…
One Christian woman in Basra, is alarmed by the new Iraq and the militias which roam the streets of her once beautiful city. A few weeks ago, as she walked to her church a few blocks from her home, she and a female friend and their children were accosted by two men on a motorbike who shouted anti-Christian slurs. "The police were standing there without trying to prevent them from harassing us, I was terrified, not only for myself but for the whole group and especially the little ones," she said. The men on the motorbike left once the entourage entered the sanctuary of the church.” (from a June 8, 2006 Aljazeera article that I now can frustratingly not find to link to. apologies to author Firas al-Atraqchi.)
All over the world are Christians who choose not whether to risk for God, because the risk is asssumed, but what that risk will be. Will they keep their jobs, let their children go to school, worship in the churches they have called home for generations? And risk death? Every day, death? Or will they take another, just as unpleasant risk – stand in line for visas, pack up belongings, leave behind language, culture, family and friends?
For most of Christianity risk has been the way of things. Do we risk it all here, or do we risk it all in a new place, free from the persecution and violence we know, but facing new and as yet unimagined terrors?
By what amazing grace, then, are we allowed here at our church in 2007 to choose our own risks? Really, to choose to risk nothing for God, if we wish. To worship once a week, sing hymns, hear words, endure silences that demand no transformation of us? It’s so much easier for us, here and now, and in a funny sort of backward way, it’s harder too. Because we’re human, and we’d rather take the risks that in the end aren’t going to change who we fundamentally are. The foot on the accelerator, the big deal negotiated, the marathon run - these are changes that we can take back at any time.
Here’s a risk. Sometime at school, at work, at the gym, at the library, start a sentence with these words, “What I believe about God…” or “What we believe at MY church is…” In Seattle, in 2007, it wont cost you your life, at least in the way we usually use that word. But then again maybe it will cost you your life.
Look, I know what it’s like. The story about my call to ministry usually starts with me saying “Well, I’d tried a lot of other jobs and none of them really worked out, so I thought I’d try this….” It was more restlessness than rest-in-God that led me to seminary, and I wasn’t at all sure about what it would mean to live a life a faith or whether I was even willing to do it. When I first moved to Seattle, I was at a party with some new friends, a beer in one hand and Led Zepplin blaring from the speakers when I first got what it would really mean. A young woman sat down on the couch next to me. We shouted our names at each other. And then she said, “what do you do?” “Well, I’m just starting school.” (And then, apologetically) “I’m studying to be a minister.” She stared at me for a minute, then she stood up and walked away. I lost my life that day. Of course, there’s no way to compare the little ouchie of the rejection of a stranger with the suffering of St John of the Cross, or with lives lost in Iraq. But is WAS the loss of an old life in which I would be just like everyone else, in which my faith could be hidden, silent, easy.
It doesn’t always have to be like that. Here’s how it can go, if you take a risk. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when we were asking “what can we do, what can we do?” – one of the answers we got was this: as a UCC conference we could adopt another church in New Orleans, which we did. In the days since then, as a conference, we’ve sent a little money, a lot of prayers and two work groups down to our adopted church, to help out as well as we could. I know a woman who was drawn to work on one of these trips. She raised the money to go, from friends and church members. She took the time off work, and arranged things for her family left behind. And she prayed, and she got on a plane. She happened to sit next to a woman who was flying to visit her mother, and they got talking, as you sometimes do. And this woman I know started talking about the church, about the destruction in New Orleans, about how God had called her, and her faith had led her to this work. By the end of the flight, the person sitting next to her, a perfect stranger, had given her a check for $150.
Jesus said it then, is still saying it to each one here today: “You who wish to be my followers must deny your very self, take up your cross - the instrument of your own death - every day, and follow in my steps. If you would save your life, you'll lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake, you'll save it.”