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The Three P’s
I had an epiphany the other day. I observed God at work in the world. A man told me the truth about his situation, and without going too far into it, it was very refreshing. He told me that his addiction had made him a criminal, his search for money to finance his crack use caused him to give into his criminal mind. His admission meant more to me than a hundred jokes, a thousand sermons, a sweet song or even a good movie.
I had an epiphany during the super bowl. It was a night of fine entertainment. We were watching football, but I was in a room full of nonfootball people, so we switched back and forth between the Superbowl and NCIS – Naval Criminal Investigation Services – definitely multi-tasking on the TV screen. But you know how there are so many time outs, commercials and penalties and stoppages, you can watch other things without missing the concussive hits of the game. How many people cringe every time there is a hard hit. Every one of those hits means a player loses more of his brain function. During the game that’s all I could think of.
So it’s a week later and I read a PD article about how Bernie Kosar, one of the best known and beloved Quarterbacks of the Cleveland Browns, is undergoing a special brain treatment program to counteract all the concussions he suffered in his 12 years as an NFL player. Bernie found a Dr. who administered a controversial treatment for brain trauma. After just four treatments his speech and thinking improved noticeably. And I have another epiphany. And so there is hope for so many athletes who were walking zombies due to bone crunching hits taken during their NFL careers.
God is at work in our world. God is constantly breaking into life with miracles and healings and sometimes we are not even paying attention.
Well, as Christians, supposedly, we recognize these miracles. The followers of Jesus certainly did; what do we know about them? They follow Jesus around for 3 years, observing every event of God’s grace, and then, when he dies, take over his ministry. In today’s story, there is danger and intrigue, failure and epiphanies; the transfiguration is a story of the disciples witnessed a transformation that changes their lives forever.
The disciples gave up careers, jobs and lifestyles to follow Jesus; and when they followed him up the mountain, they got more excitement than they bargained for. The transfiguration is one of the first miracles that Jesus performs. They go to the mountain top, and exhaustion sets in. And while they are dreamy-eyed, they see Jesus surrounded by a blaze of lightening-bright light, and joined by two of the most important heroes in traditional history. In this miracle, the glory of God’s history is revealed, and in witnessing this transformation, the disciples themselves see their future. And without a word of explanation, off they trudge back down the mountain. No stopping to reflect on the moment, no rest for the weary. . . life begins anew, new tasks, new responsibilities, people need us now, let’s go. And immediately they find chaos; one of their patients, a child with demons, is still sick. So now, Jesus takes over. Heals the boy. Saves the day. In the nick of time. It is a moment of reckoning. Dazed and confused and overwhelmed, they must have been overwhelmed by it all; lost, exhausted, overwhelmed, ready to quit . . .
I know the feeling. Mission trips are like that. Almost every trip I have ever taken has elements of exhaustion, suspense, danger, intrigue and miracles. I have seen some of the meanest and some of the most beautiful sections of the world. Like the country of Haiti, or the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. In Haiti, I have seen families who have nothing, eating out of what they scrounge at the dump. Most of my friends in Haiti are happy to have a little rice and beans, one meal a day. There is so much poverty and hunger and anxiety and death in that place that the situation is always overwhelming to me. A translator named Carter and I were talking one day. He did not eat with us; I had just finished lunch; and I asked him if he was hungry. No, he said. Thanks. And he said “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “sure.” He asked me “are you rich?” I told him that by American standards, I am not rich, but middle class. And that the majority of Americans are middle class. Then he asked me: How often do you eat? I told him, well, maybe two or three times a day, and maybe a snack. Carter said, and I will never forget it, if you eat each day you are rich. That conversation was a transformation.
And on a summer day in Wyoming, we drove for hours up a narrow, rutted, winding dirt road to crystal clear lake with snow capped mountain-tops all around. We threw snowballs in July. And the sights are etched into my mind as one of the most beautiful pristine places in the world.
The poorest of the poor taught me something about freedom. Seeing the beauty of God’s creation freed me. We are free in see God at work in Jesus. But, how do we find freedom in our every day life? We have to be open to the three P’s: Pain, power and poverty.
First we will be free when we get in touch with our pain. If you have ever experienced chronic physical, psychological and/or emotional pain in your live, you know it can be overwhelming. It guides your thoughts, words and behaviors. And usually it goes on for a while, with no healing, because, naturally, we don’t want to complain. We don’t want to bother anyone. Many suffer silently. But, you know, we cannot heal it if it is kept a secret. God does not operate alone.
We open ourselves up to the pain AND God’s healing that comes soon after. Like in today’s story, we must be open to God’s potential to overcome, places that are safe, for example, in doctors’ offices, and in pastor’s office or a trusted friend to whom we can talk; take the opportunity to tell the stories so as to bring healing. Find a prayer group. Prayer groups are sacred spaces. Healing happens when Jesus comes into our midst, as he did in the story, and brings a freedom that we had not known before. Sharing our pain is the first step towards freedom. The next step happens when there is a shift in power.
Power shifts when we stop trying to do it by ourselves and let God do the healing. We cannot do God’s work, we are simply and profoundly the conduits of grace for the healing of the world. So we have to shift power from ourselves to God. The world worships the power of control, money, authority – the power of effectiveness, getting things done. Yet, in scriptures we find Jesus telling stories about ultimate power is the giving away of power. Jesus tells us, in actions and words, “I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus on the cross shows us how to die so that humanity will live. Ultimate power is giving one’s life for our neighbor, becoming vulnerable, going with the flow of God’s world. We stand with St. Paul in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, when he says:
“Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. Changing our understanding of power to be a servant and a leader; a conduit of grace, is the second path to freedom.
The third step on the path towards freedom is becoming intimately connected to the poor. We find freedom in our connecting with the wounded, broken, slightly irregular person who is no longer the stranger, but is a person we know and relate to.
At St. Paul’s Community Outreach most days people come looking for help. I am reminded of the quote from Mother Teresa, “Here is Jesus in another distressing disguise. We connect with the holy one when we connect with the one who has nothing except the clothes on his back.
Having a poor person as a friend is a rare achievement. Serving the poor is more frequent, though still rare. The truth is, one can never know authentic joy unless one embraces suffering and enters into it deeply. But intimacy and closeness to the poor takes a lot of time – time most of us have little of, because we have so much to do to pay the bills and keep a roof over our head. In preparation for the ultimate freedom that draws us towards God, it is clear that Jesus has to be obeyed: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
“If you love me, then feed my sheep” Jesus commands Simon Peter, son of John in John 21. “Look,” he says to them, I just fed 5000 from a couple of fishes and 5 loaves of bread, surely you can do the same. I have healed the boy, surely, in the name of our God, you can do the same. I was just transfigured in a lightening storm, and this same God who brought us out of bondage, this is your God, and surely you can heal in God’s name too.
Today we’ve been to the mountaintop and experienced the transfiguration of our LORD. We’ve had a transfiguring experience that changes our life. But we cannot stay there on the mountain on retreat. Jesus leads us down out of the heights and lifestyles of the holy ones, back to reality where there is still so much healing needed, where there are powerful forces that threaten our very existence, into the places of real need, where our ministry is vital and fulfilling. And that mountaintop experience has given us so much new courage and new hope and new faith. And we are able to ask God to give us new role models: people who know how to process their pain; people who are confident, courageous and have self-control. My role models have given up holding on to power and have turned their own authority over to God on a regular basis, countless times a day. My role models work side-by-side with the poor, for the poor, advocating for justice for all of God’s children.
Let the Gospel message soak in a bit, think about what truth is being given to us. Pain, power and poverty – it is time to be critical of the culture and our habits and sufferings. And, possibly, we will find it in our hearts to repent, to come back to Jesus, stronger, leaner, ready for the next challenge he puts before us. Let us pray:
God bless us all as we move closer to the kingdom you are preparing for us. Help us to strive after Jesus, the name above all names, the blessed one, the savior of us all. Help us give our pain and suffering to you, Jesus. Let us give our anger, frustration, anxieties and sadness to you, that you help us carry these burdens. Make our load lighter Jesus. Show us the path to the freedom that you offer so freely and graciously. God be with the people of this church. Bless them with leadership that makes new commitments to each other; bless them with an ability to build teams of disciples to heal our broken world full of people who are suffering and many don’t even know it. God be with us. Help us to make good decisions, based on your words of hope, faith and love. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.