February 25, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Simon's Mother-in-Law

During Lent we are looking at New Testament women and men who had a ‘burning bush’ moment. A time when they realized “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) Unlike Moses in the Exodus 3 story, they do not encounter a real ‘bush [that] was on fire [but] it did not burn up’. Instead, their encounter with Jesus transformed them, just like Moses was transformed by his meeting with God at the burning bush on Horeb.

Let’s meet Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She has 3 verses in Mark and 2 in Matthew that tell the same story:

“As soon as Jesus and His companions had left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever, and they promptly told Jesus about her. So He went to her, took her by the hand, and helped her up. The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:29-31)

“When Jesus arrived at Peter’s house, He saw Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve them.” (Matthew 8:14-15)

She is sick, Jesus touches, or takes, her hand and she is healed. She starts making dinner. Seems very straightforward and simple. How can this be a burning bush moment?

Simon’s mother-in-law is ill and then she is well. Her life is transformed. Rather than being an invalid, she is able to rise immediately and be a good hostess. We don’t know how long she had been ill, but she must have been very sick to remain in her bed when guests arrive. Nearly every woman I know would drag herself out of bed to welcome company, unless she was deathly ill. For a First Century Jewish woman this would be even more important. It was part of the code of hospitality handed down for generations from the time the Hebrew people were nomadic shepherds. The first responsibility of any household is to welcome the stranger and the guest. 
In the painting of Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter's Wife by John Bridges, we see Jesus reaching out to the sick woman. By taking her hand, Jesus crosses a ritual boundary. She is a woman, she is a stranger to him, she is sick (and therefore ‘unclean’), yet he touches her. In that touch she experiences the ‘burning bush moment’. Jesus acknowledges her humanity and in his touch; she receives healing as well as affirmation. Jesus offers her love and she has a new heart for service.

‘She began to serve them’, or ‘minister to them’ says the Gospel record. The Greek word is diakoneó, meaning to serve or minister. There are many other places where the same word is used. One is Matthew 4:11 where we hear, after Jesus temptation in the wilderness, the ‘angels came and ministered to him’. It is also the word in Mark 10:45 when Jesus says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t just get up and make supper, she offered ministry. In her healing, her burning bush encounter with God, she received empowerment to minister to Jesus and his disciples. In joyful offering, she gives of herself as she provides a meal. Unlike Martha of Bethany’s initial response, she did not find the task onerous because she was serving the Lord.

Sometimes work or serving or ‘doing one more thing’ can seem like just too much. We want to crawl into bed and pull up the covers. If and when we are able to change our perspective and see the ‘burning bush’ of Christ in those we are working with and for, the task becomes ministry. We are no longer the slave to our job description, we are diakoneó, ministering and serving God in our work or conversation. We can look for God in everything we do.
As Browning states, "only those who see [the burning bush], take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries." What might help you see the face of Jesus in something that is difficult and doesn't feel like ministry? Look for the burning bush moments every day. 
When have you felt that you were offering ministry to God when serving someone else, or just doing your job?

February 18, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: New Heart

Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” I’ve always thought that is a beautiful quote. I think that as Browning says, we encounter burning bushes a whole lot more than we know. Sometimes, of course, the sun creates real burning bushes or blazing skies (like the one below from my backyard) to remind us of that truth. At other times, the burning bush may not be as obvious. It could be something we read or see. Perhaps it is found in nature or in listening to someone’s heart cry. Burning bushes can be found as we search for answers and when we find them, and lots of other places.
When we think of burning bushes, we think of Moses, yet each of us probably comes across a burning bush, or two, every day. In Exodus 3 we hear the familiar story. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:1-5, NIV)

Moses saw something unusual and he ‘turned aside’ as the King James Version says. It can be easy to be too busy to take the time to stop, or we may not even notice the ‘bush is aflame with God’ so we simply ‘sit around it and pluck blackberries’. When we do pause, we encounter the One who creates all things, who tells us that we are on holy ground and invites us to be part of the work of transforming the world.

The collect from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday says, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Lent gives us a chance to allow God to work on creating new hearts that are aware of the burning bushes we pass and willing to transform the world. St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:7) God is working all the time. Each day is a day of salvation, a day of new beginnings. Every day is a chance to encounter a burning bush and take the time to ‘see this strange sight’.

This Lent I invite you to meet some New Testament women and men who encountered a burning bush in the form of the Living Lord and were changed. Simon’s Mother-in-Law, Nicodemus, Martha of Bethany, and the Samaritan woman each recognized the Flame of God and were changed. They had a ‘burning bush moment’ and emerged with a new heart.

Have you ever been changed, even briefly, when you met God in a burning bush moment? 

February 11, 2018

Go Tell It: Watchman

We are coming to the end of our Epiphany exploration of the Christmas carol Go Tell it on the Mountain. We’ve seen how mountains are the perfect location for proclaiming news, and that God very often breaks into our day to day lives. It doesn’t matter if we are shepherds or CEO’s if we are aware we could feel the brush of angels’ wings and hear their song. And we’ve been reminded that just as the lowly manger held God, so our human bodies also have that image imprinted on us. Our lives are meant to seek and serve the God of Love.

The final verse of the carol Go Tell it on the Mountain says, “He made me a watchman/Upon the city wall,/And if I am a Christian,/I am the least of all.” This recalls several citations in the Bible. Ezekiel 3:17-19 says, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel…hear the word of my mount and give them warning.” Isaiah also notes, “I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem. Who shall never hold their peace day or night.” (Isaiah 62:6)

Jesus also states, “keep watch, because you do not know the day on which your Lord will come…If the owner of the house had known in which watch of the night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” (Matthew 24:42-43)

The word ‘watch’ is derived from Old English and pertains to ‘remaining awake’. So in order to be a watch-man (or woman) you have to stay awake and alert.

It is, as Caela Wood notes in d365.org too easy to be distracted, “I have a difficult time staying present in each moment of my day. Maybe you know what I’m talking about? I wait in line to buy lunch but instead of paying attention to the room I’m in, I scroll through Facebook or respond to a text. I chop vegetables for dinner but I’m actually miles away thinking about what I need to get done tomorrow.”

She goes on to note, “those moments when I’m actually really truly there — those moments feel special. Holy. When I look at the face of someone I love and notice their smile. When I set aside my worries at bedtime and just breathe for a few moments before falling asleep. When I push my body to complete a new task that requires my full concentration. In those moments, I am Peter on the mountain with Jesus. I want to stay in the moment. It is good to be here — wherever “here” is.”

What sort of things distract you from being truly aware of what’s happening around you? Do you ever find yourself on auto-pilot during the day and wonder what happened when you were zoned out? How can you make yourself more aware of God acting in your day-to-day activities?
The Old Testament citations from Isaiah and Ezekiel insist that we should not only be awake and aware, we must also proclaim what we hear from God. We need to tell out the Good News of God. The song says, “Go, Tell It On The Mountain,/Over the hills and everywhere;/That Jesus Christ is born.”

As we head into Lent, we need to tell not just about the Birth, but also the Life and Death and Resurrection of the One we call Lord. We need to tell what God does in our lives each and every day. We can only do that when we are awake and aware of God’s actions in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

And so we come full circle and return to the proclamation in Isaiah 40:9 “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!

How can you ‘tell the good news’? Who will you tell it to?
Next week, we’ll start a new Lent series.

February 4, 2018

Go Tell it: Seeker

For the past 3 weeks we’ve been following the shepherds as they watch their flocks, experience the touch of angel wings, and visit the ‘lowly manger’. Now, the carol Go Tell it on the Mountain invites us to personally come close and look for God in our lives.

The song says, “When I was a seeker,/I sought both night and day;/I asked the Lord to help me,/And He showed me the way.” What do we seek? How do we know when we find it?

The word ‘seek’ has been around a long time, and traces back to a Latin word sāgīre, which is to perceive by scent. We, in fact, ‘sniff out’ the answer to our quest or quandary.

Most fables and fantasy stories have at their core the idea of someone seeking. The hero or heroine is looking for a solution, or the way home, or just the answer to a quest. Those who sought the Holy Grail were seekers wanting to find the Grail and enlightenment. Dorothy in Oz is seeking a way home. Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings are seeking the way to destroy the Ring and thereby destroy the evil Sauron.

There are religious ‘seekers’ too. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s many young men and women sought ‘enlightenment’ in Eastern religious practices. Throughout the centuries, people have gone into the desert, or joined monasteries, or made pilgrimages as they seek to be more holy and to find union with God.

As Christians, we may be seeking a closer relationship with God. It may be that we are seeking the answer to what we are called to do with our life. Perhaps we seek to ‘understand all mysteries and all knowledge’ (I Corinthians 13:2) Maybe we are seeking in the wrong direction. Knowledge is not what we really should be seeking. First Corinthians 13 reminds us, “as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:8-13)

The song says, “I asked the Lord to help me,/And He showed me the way.” What we need to seek is Love. The way is shown by Jesus. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” (Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37). Jesus was quoting, and expanding, the Deuteronomy 6:4-5 law “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” He was reminding his listeners that God is sovereign. From our loving service to God flows the ability to love and serve one another.

It is too easy for me to get caught up in words, and trying to find the knowledge and truth in them rather than the spirit of these statements. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians “prophecies…will…end…tongues…will cease…knowledge…will come to an end.” All the ways we try to define and outline God are going to stop, leaving only us face to face with God.

George Studdard Kennedy’s poem Well tells of a soldier who dreams of coming to the ‘great white throne’. He looks into the eyes of God, which are the eyes of everyone he has known. He sees the eyes of “My wife's and a million more. And once I thought as those two eyes were the eyes of the London whore.” He is self-convicted at his callous actions and God says, “Ye did 'em all to me…For all their souls were mine.” The soldier has seen the eyes of Love and through the eyes of Love sees his life and how he has fallen short of loving his neighbor.

That’s not the end of the story. In despair, the soldier asks to go to Hell, and is told that instead he is to “Follow me on by the paths o' pain, Seeking what you 'ave seen, Until at last you can build the "Is," Wi' the bricks o' the "Might 'ave been.”

The song says, “When I was a seeker,/I sought both night and day;/I asked the Lord to help me,/And He showed me the way.” We are each called to build Now with ‘bricks of the might have been’. We are called to see the world through the eyes of Love. We are to seek to love our neighbor as ourselves.