Mountaintop Moments

Maybe I’ve mentioned it before, but my wife and I lived and worked in South Korea for 18 months. It was a life-changing experience. Though it happened in 2000-2001, some of the moments I experienced remain fresh in my mind.
One of my favorite things to do on the weekends was to take day-trips to Buddhist temples. These day-trips combined a couple important things – a unique and deep experience of the culture of the Korean people and an experience of the wonders and beauty of nature. Why the latter? Because temples in Korea and in East Asia in general are most always in the mountains. The monks and nuns training and practicing meditation and quietude need a contemplative and quiet environment. Mountain tops provide that.
My favorite Buddhist temple to visit and I visited it a couple times was a temple called Keumsan. It is in the mountain range in the southwest of the peninsula. I remember Keumsan temple most fondly because it hosted one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever experienced.
Off the beaten path and a steep hike up a hill from the main temple, there is a hermitage. Unlike the larger temple below, the hermitage was empty of people. There was no one around. In South Korea, which would fit inside the state of Kentucky but has the population of the whole West Coast, finding time and space away from people is rare and a valuable commodity, that is if you are not a hermit secluded away in one of Korea’s many mountains.  So these moments of being alone felt refreshing right away.
As I neared the hermitage, the sound of the temple’s wind chimes became more prominent. The sound of the chimes and the wind harmonized. It recalled my grandmother’s wind chimes that she always put out in the Spring.  The wind chimes would serenade the Spring, producing a song that mirrored the moments.     
I walked into a kind of Buddhist chapel. As is custom, I got a stick of incense, lit it with a match. With the incense in between my joined palms, I bowed and offered the incense, placing it in the receptacle of sand and ashes. I then retrieved a meditation mat. I placed the mat down and readied myself to meditate. The smell of incense wafted past me, arriving and fading with the wind’s inducements. The wind chimes composed a meditation lullaby and I entered a silence that sang along, sensing God seated with me. A half hour in, I stopped.
I exited the chapel as if new. Quiet, a friend, followed me. Grace and Gratitude to God accompanied me.
I sat on the steps of the hermitage chapel. The wind more imminent. The stillness more intimate. The wind chimes more sonorous. The trees dancing. The moments exchanging moments. The oneness therein. The hymn, Amazing grace, came to mind. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! No more words needed.
In our lectionary reading on this Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus calls his disciples to the mountaintop. Did you know God calls us to the mountaintop? God calls us to quietly experience God’s presence?
In the Hebrew tradition, and in other traditions around the world, God is experienced most powerfully on mountaintops. The idea is wee move closer to God the higher we climb a mountain. God meets us closest to the heavens is the idea.
So, in the Jewish scripture, our Old Testament, there are stories of God meeting his faithful on mountaintops. Noah and his Ark after the storm rest on a mountaintop and God meets them there and promises with a rainbow to from there on out choose mercy. Similarly, God meets Abraham with his son Isaac, and tells Abraham the age of human sacrifice is over, that the God of Israel never demands such a horror, for the God of Israel is a gracious God.
And then there is the example of Moses and Elijah. Jesus in our story from Matthew 17 calls his disciples to the mountaintop. The expectation is that they are going to the mountain to sit with God in prayer and meditation, something Jesus often did. In the process of prayer and meditation, Jesus meets Moses and Elijah in a radiant moment on a mountaintop, a moment that Peter and John witness.
Moses and Elijah have experienced these mountaintop moments with God. Moses famously received the 10 Commandments, the Torah, and other divine directions from God on a mountaintop which he then brought down to the people. As these mountaintop moments continued, Moses, the author of the book of Deuteronomy says, came to know God face to face. The author of Exodus adds a lovely description of God and Moses intimate relationship. Exodus 33:11 says, “the Lord would speak to Moses, face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
 This is what can happen at the mountaintop. Now, we don’t need to physically go to a mountain. The mountain is just a metaphor. The mountaintop is a metaphor for those moments when we spiritually ascend, when we in our quiet moments, rise in our spirits to meet God and learn of God’s ways. This is what worship is all about.
 And what can happen in those ascendant moments when we are still and seek to know God? We come to know God. We come to know God intimately, like a friend.
Elijah, too, experienced these mountaintop moments. In fact, in the same spot Moses did. In 1 Kings 19, after Prophet Elijah overcame the empty, false god known as Ba’al, God dispatches Elijah to Mount Sinai. I Kings 19:11-12 says this, ““And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice.”
The Lord is in the still, small voice, the one we hear most clearly and most beautifully in those mountaintop moments when we are still and seek to know God.
This understood, it is no coincidence that the Transfiguration unites Jesus with Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop. Now, the gospels don’t specify which mountain. I personally think as some scholars do that it is Mount Sinai where the transfiguration story happens. Jesus comes to the same mountain to which God called Moses and Elijah, the greatest messengers of God. Jesus is not only the New Moses and the New Elijah, he combines them in his sole person, the story makes clear. God confirms this with the words “This is my beloved, my son, listen!.” Jesus will renew and reestablish God’s way like Moses did. He will rebuild and revitalize God’s community like Elijah did. And all the while, God will be as close to him as the mountaintop is to the heavens. He will be as close as a son is to a loving, proud father. 
I’d like to close with this. The metaphorical mountaintop not only brings us into the presence and realm of God. It also affords us an expansive view of the world around us. This dual gift of meeting God and truly seeing the world brings to mind Christ’s greatest commandments to us – Love God and Love the world. We learn how to do these things most powerfully in those mountaintop moments when we are still and know God is with us.
So, as we depart from here, may we be reminded of this important truth – God calls us too to the mountaintop of prayer and praise. Let us meet God there. Let us learn of God’s way there, and return to the plains as a living lesson, showing what following Christ means.

Live at Apollos'... and Love Your Enemy


I begin this morning with letting you in on the trade of sermon writing. It is an essential trade of the minister, and each minister does it a little differently. Some read and some work off notes. Some ministers look ahead and have their sermons planned out for the next few weeks. Some feel it better to be more flexible and responsive to present happenings, and don’t plan too far ahead. Some preachers begin writing the sermon or outlining the sermon on Monday. Some wait till later in the week though they are thinking about it throughout the week. Some even wait till Saturday to actually put the sermon down after pondering it the whole week. The minister of my childhood church didn’t write his sermons and hardly used notes, and he’d get up really early Sunday morning, take a prayerful walk, and he’d go through what he wanted to say.
In other words, the trade of preaching is extremely diverse. Each preacher is different, and the tricks of their trade is very individual. What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Yes, diversity reigns when it comes to the trade of preaching. For this reason, preaching is more an art than a trade.
Well, in our reading from I Corinthians, there is mention of a preacher named Apollos. Another preacher, an evangelist preacher, by the name of Paul writes the church in Corinth and mentions Apollos. Paul indicates there is division in Corinth. Some are attached and more in line with Paul who founded the church in Corinth. Others are more attached and in line with Apollos the church’s current pastor, if you will. Paul is calling for unity, and end the division around himself and Apollos. He points to Christ. Christ is the hub, the center which the wheel revolves around. Christ and his salvation unites all things, even planter and waterer.
Maybe you’ve heard of the famous quote usually attributed to St. Augustine: "in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." Well, Paul is saying let’s focus on the essential of all essentials, Christ.
But maybe you’re wondering, who is Apollos? Well, Apollos and his involvement in the earliest days of the church, points us to another example of diversity. The early days of the church show a great deal of diversity.
Apollos is introduced in the book of Acts, chapter 18. Verses 24-28 say this,
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
The talk about the baptism of John and the implication that it was not fully sufficient, what is that about? Well, the beginning of the next chapter, Acts 19, tells us:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
The suggestion here is that only baptism in the name of Christ brings the Holy Spirit. But there were Jesus-followers who were baptized in the name of repentance as John used to do it. It is suggested in Acts 19 that they didn’t have an understanding of anything known as the Holy Spirit. They are still called disciples, however. They simply didn’t see things like Paul did at the time. This changes, of course. But again, there was a diversity of thought even a few years after Jesus’ departure.
In the church, Apollos is known as Apollos of Alexandria. Alexandria is in Egypt now, but was founded by the Greek emperor Alexander the Great. Alexandria was a thoroughly Greek city as was Corinth. There is another renowned Jew living in Alexandria at the time. His name is Philo. He became one of the most important philosophers of the time or any time. He was known as an Hellenized Jew. To be hellenized means to become Greek in culture. So, Philo offered a Greek philosophical understanding of the Jewish faith. Philo fused the philosophy of Plato with a Jewish understanding of God.
The reason I introduce Philo here is that many believe Apollos was a student of Philo or a fellow Hellenized Jew, a Jew influenced by Greek philosophy. In this case, Apollos would have been a Hellenized Jewish-Christian. His was a Jew influenced by Greek philosophy who came to follow Christ. Again, we have an example of diversity in Apollos’ own life and thought.
Finally, Apollos is ministering in Corinth, a Greek town. The church in Corinth was a Gentile church full of Greeks raised in the religion of the Greek gods and in the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. That Apollos was influenced by the latter helped him in being a minister in Corinth.
A Jewish-Christian pastoring a Gentile church – again, diversity. And how do we approach diversity? Paul seems to agree with the Augustine-attributed saying, "in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity."
I want to finish up our time with one of Christ’s most famous statements. I read it this morning – “love your enemies.”
Is this a real commandment from Jesus? Are we expected to love even our enemies?
I am the father of a 6th grader. My son is a great kid. He is fun and funny. He is resilient and forgiving. He is compassionate. And he is really bright. One of the things he’s not at this point is studious. He doesn’t like to study. But because he is so smart, I still expect him to do well in school. I expect him to get A’s and B’s, not C’s. Yes, this is a lot to expect. But I expect it.
Well, with Jesus and his command we love our enemies, it’s similar. Yes, loving our enemies is a humungous ask and task. Nearly impossible sometimes. But the expectation is there. Christ expects us at least to work toward that goal. Will we always meet the expectation? No. Will God hold it against us? No. Will God be disappointed? We can’t deny that the answer to this question is “yes.” I am disappointed in Corey getting a “C.” Because I know he’s capable of a A or at least a B. It is essential we try to love our enemy.
The goal is the goal. The goal is to love deeply, to love like God loves, to love all. Loving our enemies is the good grade Christ hopes for and expects in us. We should work toward that aim as best we can. We do this by studying, by practicing, by praying, by letting go of self and self-centeredness and letting God work through us. That is the work we are called to do as Christians and as a Christian church. Let us do it together.

Paul, the SBNR OG?

There is a new label you may have heard. Ministers certainly know the new label. In fact, we deal with the reality the label points to all the time. That label refers to people who are otherwise spiritual but are not actively involved in a church or any religious organization. In fact, they will often rail against organized religion. The label has become so common it has been shortened to an acronym – SBNR.
The spiritual but not religious. SBNRs. We all know folks who fit the description. Maybe some of you feel an affinity with such folks or maybe would even accept the label yourself.
What’s for sure, SBNR’s are growing in number, far outpacing folks claiming a specific religion or church.
Now, there is some credence for the idea of being spiritual but not religious in the scriptures, but with a very specific idea of what it means to be spiritual. What it means to be spiritual according to the scriptures is what I’d like to discuss today.
I’d like to begin by suggesting to you that the SNBR originals, the Spiritual but Not Religious OG’s, are the two most important figures in the Christian New Testament, Paul and Jesus.
We see Paul’s SBNR provenance quite clearly in today’s reading from I Corinthians, verse 15 especially: “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
But what does Paul mean by “spiritual”? What makes someone spiritual versus nonspiritual?
Paul tells us in verse 10. God reveals to us spiritual things through God’s Spirit. God through the Spirit moves us to be spiritual. The Spirit of God, the breath of God, breathes out who God is and leads us to understand God’s wisdom and love. Those who take in, those who internalize this breath of God, the breath that exhales God’s still speaking voice, those who receive God’s spirit which tell us about God fully, come to understand spiritual things.
Verse 12 says it all, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”
Being spiritual for Paul means receiving the spirit of God into our own spirits. The spirit of God infusing the human spirit – that is what makes someone spiritual for Paul.
Okay, we see what Paul means by spiritual. Spiritual means our spirits are infused with God’s spirit. What about the BNR though? What about the “but not religious?” Is Paul against religion?
If a religion is void of the Spirit of grace, love, and freedom, then, yes, Paul, like Christ whom he follows, is against religion. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, makes this specific. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says this: “God has made us competent to be ministers of Christ’s new covenant, not of letter of the law but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
It is the spiritual life that matters most. Our religious faith ought to give way to a spiritual life that grows in God. A religion of rules and regulations, of rotely being religious just because, is not primary for Paul. A spirituality of grace and relationship is the point. The letter of the law kills. The Spirit of grace gives life.

So, Paul would be okay with the idea of being spiritual but not religious as long as we see spirituality as a gift from God. In fact, the aim of religious faith is to be spiritual in the truest sense of the word – receiving the Spirit of God complete with grace, love, and wisdom into our hearts.
However, what Paul would urge against is dismissing the importance of community. Being spiritual alone, on your lonesome, and not connecting to a community that seeks to do God’s work together, this is a recipe for disconnection and self-centeredness. Let’s not forget, Paul is talking to a community of Jesus-followers in Corinth. And he uses the language of we and us not I and me.
We speak God’s wisdom
God has revealed godly wisdom to us
We have received the Spirit that is from God so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
And we speak these things in words not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit.
We have the mind of Christ.
A spirituality without the we, a spirituality without a community, is not spirituality in the truest sense for Paul. Spirituality and community go together. A spiritual person lives its finest and truest life when it lives as part of a community focused on the Spirit of God, the spiritual life, and collectively living out the mind of Christ.

Speaking of the mind of Christ, we don’t see the mind of Christ more clearly than we do in the chapter from Matthew we’ve been reading from these last couple weeks and will continue to read from for the next couple. Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount found therein gives us the perfect picture of Christ’s mind.
Last week we read the beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in the spirit and the mournful, those empty at heart and starving for justice, the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and persecuted…
This week we read:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In a couple weeks, some churches will read these later words from the Sermon on the Mount,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
Yes, those rich and full with worldly power and pride may laugh at Jesus’ words as they did last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, they may see such divine wisdom as foolishness and hence laughable, they may see it as naivety and nicety instead of the mind of Christ and hence the ultimate Christian aim, but we as the church, as the extension of Christ in the world, as Christ’s light in the world, we know better. At least, we ought to.
As I come to a close, I say this: worldly power will use and abuse religion. Religion void of a spirituality based in grace, love, and compassion is a tool worldly power prefer. For it is so easy to use such a graceless, hateful, and callous tool when worldly power is all you seek. Godly power is the way of the Spirit. Godly power is the way of Christ and his kingdom. Godly power is found secure in those living the spiritual life, a life moved by grace, love, wisdom, and compassion. And godly power is not sought or possessed but shared with those who are powerless. Let us as Christians and as a Christian church embody godly power and share it with those we meet along life’s way. Amen.