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Remember You Are Fertile Soil, and to Fertile Soil You Shall Return

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One of the great joys of learning Biblical languages is getting to know the range of meanings for words that we so often trap into tightly constrained words in English.  One lesson that I will never forget is that the “dust” from which the first human was made could just as easily have been translated as “dirt” or “fertile soil.”  Take a minute or even a day and reflect on the difference that makes!

Yesterday I was invited to participate in the Ash Wednesday service at Chimwemwe Anglican Church, which butts up against Chimwemwe Presbyterian Church where I usually worship.  Rev. Rogers Banda, my backdoor neighbor in MEF, was recently called to serve this Anglican congregation.  I was thrilled to attend, especially because somewhere in my mind I have this idea that “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” comes from an old Anglican liturgy.  I don’t know if this is true, but it is there in my mind.  In short, I felt like I would be celebrating in the very heart of liturgical Ash Wednesday.

Chimwemwe Anglican Church has one of those buildings that has been under construction for over twenty years, being built panoono panoono (slowly, or bit by bit) as we like to say in Bemba.  With drafty holes throughout the facade and an unfinished concrete floor, then, we thought it would be no problem to burn the palms there inside the building, sheltered from the rain outside.  Of course the smoke billowed and filled the entire sanctuary.  Luckily by the (late) time people finally started trickling in there was just a thin cloud remaining.  Let me tell you, that smelly palm smoke was perhaps the most powerful incense I have ever encountered!  It was the  fragrance of dried palms that have seen a year of joy and struggle in Zambia, that were waved with Hosannas at the triumphal entry and then with shouts of condemnation at the trials.  It was the fragrance of ashes that would be placed on our foreheads to remind us of our need to repent, of our call to participate in the Passion, of our own mortality.  Really, I think Ash Wednesday has the richest symbolism of any of the celebrations of our faith.

While pondering my own repentance and mortality throughout the Bemba service, my eyes kept being drawn to what stood before the altar.  As mentioned, it was raining outside and the under-construction building facade was quite porous.  It so happened that there was a leak just in front of the altar.  In someone’s stroke of brilliance, a potted plant was placed underneath the water flow.  A problem that could lead to the slow erosion of the entire structure was transformed into a source of nourishment for life.  


So, surrounded by smoke, ashes, and death was a plant growing in fertile soil being watered through the mechanism of shoddy construction.  There are probably volumes that could be written on the range of symbolic meaning there could be in this tableau.  I am still trying to wrap my mind, heart, and soul around it.  For now I will focus on one simple reflection.


God created us from fertile soil and it is to fertile soil that we will return.  The same soil that nourishes all of life is the basis of our anatomy.  And when we return to fertile soil, we enrich it all the further.  As the living, breathing, walking incarnation of Creation, I am sure that Jesus knew this in the depths of his bones as he journeyed into Jerusalem.  So, even though he asked for the cup to be taken away from him, he accepted a death that would bring life—specifically life that would forever prevail over systems of death like the empire that killed him.  And this life persists within us, to the point of mechanizing our flaws so that nourishment can come even through them.

Remember you are fertile soil, and to fertile soil you shall return.



Posted February 11, 2016


Getting Ready for the Next Mountain

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

I preached this sermon for the joint worship of sister institutions at MEF on Friday.  Some of you may recognize the beginning, as I adapted it from a different sermon.  I pray that we may all continue seeing the cycles of life that exist in Scriptural history as well as our own histories and that we may get ready for that next mountain!  Let us walk to Jerusalem together.

Sermon 5 February 2016 MEF Sister Institution Shared Worship

In Preparation for Transfiguration Sunday

Readings: 1 Kings 19:3-13; Luke 9:28-36

Theme:  Getting Ready for the Next Mountain


Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.


This is really quite a desperate scene.  Elijah has just run for his life from one of the most powerful leaders in Israelite history.  He knows that he is in danger, and he also seems to have an idea that slaughtering the priests and priestesses was not right.  He has left behind his one companion and wandered into the desert.  The one place that can offer him solace is in the shade of a broom tree, a short, deciduous shrub with a cascade of thorny branches and yellow flowers.  There he asks the LORD to take his life, to end the difficulty of his prophetic work.


Then an angel appears with bread and water, like the manna from heaven, and tells Elijah to get up, eat and drink.  The symmetry of Elijah’s story is beautiful.  Way back at the beginning of his journey he was saved from hunger by a poor, famished widow who gave him bread when she had barely enough to feed her son, let alone herself.  Now, another chosen messenger of God brings him sustenance.  In this Elijah finds the strength to travel the 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb.


Thus we come upon one of the most profound, mystical experiences in all of Scripture.  The WORD of God comes to Elijah in a cave on Mount Horeb, asking, “Why are you here?”  Elijah explains that in his zealousness for serving God he made enemies who would kill him.  “They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!” In other words, they had done EXACTLY what Elijah did to Jezebel’s people.  


God is not satisfied with this response.  Elijah is commanded to go outside and stand on the surface of the mountain, for his God is going to pass by.  A mighty wind consumes the mountain, followed by an earthquake, and then a great fire.  Finally, a still, small voice speaks.  “Why are you here, Elijah?”


The answer?  Elijah was afraid.  He was not generally a timid or frightened person.  Clearly he was quite brave.  He had performed miraculous, destabilizing deeds in the face of his greatest enemy.  He had just stood on the side of a mountain in the midst of the fury of a tornado, earthquake, and fire without even seeming to bat an eyelid.  No, Elijah’s fear was deeper.  I think Elijah was afraid because after all his work, after all his miracles, after all his efforts to turn the people of Israel back to the LORD their God, they still did not understand.  In short, he was afraid that he had failed.


How many of us have poured days, years, entire lifetimes into seeking to fulfill our call from God only to feel that in the end we have not done enough, that we have failed?  When this happens, the most natural of responses is to give up and say, NO MORE.  Like Elijah we want to lie down underneath the broom tree and cry, “It’s more than enough, Lord!”


But the LORD says, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”  


When God says this, Elijah is encouraged, energized, and eager to go.  For, God has made it clear that his work has purpose and was not done in vain.  God has made it clear that God trusts Elijah to do this important work.  


Trust is an amazing thing.  In thinking about faith, I see trust as the absolute opposite of fear, its antithesis.  For, if we are operating with fear as our motivation, it is proof that we do not trust God’s call upon our lives, that we do not trust God’s protection, that we do not trust the power of God’s love for us.  What we see in this story of Elijah is God showing God’s trust for us human beings.  God trusts us to do the important work of the Kingdom.  How, then, can we throw our hands up, lie down, and give up because we fear failure?  


You see, God has a much broader perspective than we have.  God had greater plans for Elijah and the work he was doing.  Elijah’s mantle was passed down to Elisha and then on to the prophets throughout the years until finally Elijah was called back to stand upon a mountain once again and to pass the mantle one more time.


Let us turn to the Gospel according to Luke chapter 9 verses 28-36.  


Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.  While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!  When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.  And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”


The journeys Jesus and Elijah took to their mountains paralleled each other in a way that cannot simply be coincidental.  When Elijah met God on Mount Horeb he was fleeing the wrath of Jezebel for killing all of her prophets.  The events leading up to that are perhaps the most well known of Elijah’s actions.  He had gone to King Ahab and predicted a drought that would plague Israel, effectively making him an enemy of the State.  During the drought he had met the widow who fed him and then raised her child from the dead.  He then came back to Ahab and Jezebel to challenge their priests and bring the people back to God.  They had the great contest of prayer to their respective gods, asking them to burn their sacrificial offerings.  Elijah triumphed over the priests of Baal and then cast their bodies into the water of the Wadi Kishon.  Finally, he called forth the rains to end the drought.


In the very chapter before the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, we learn that he had just raised a child from the dead.  We learn that he cast a demon called Legion into the waters, a clear symbol of casting aside the Roman Legion soldiers.  At this point there was no denying that he was an enemy of the State who was binging the people back to God.  We learn that he calmed the storm while he and the disciples were at sea, showing that he too had authority over the weather.  Then, just before ascending the mountain he said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed.”  Their paths were so intertwined, the crowds and even Herod sometimes believed that Jesus WAS Elijah, back on the Earth.


Just like Elijah, Jesus was very aware of the possibility that those with power would kill him soon.  There was a major difference, though!  While Elijah was running AWAY to give up, Jesus was journeying TOWARD what he knew to be his fate.  


Friends, next Wednesday churches across the world will begin the season of Lent.  This is the 40 days leading up to Easter when followers of Christ commemorate exactly that journey.  We join Jesus as he walks to his fate in Jerusalem, a fate that would transform the world.


The reason we are talking about the Transfiguration today is because it was this experience on the mountain that gave Jesus the courage and strength he needed to fulfill his mission.  This was the beginning of his long walk to Jerusalem.


And who better to prepare him for this journey than Moses and Elijah?  We should think of these two as Jesus’ ancestors in the truest sense.  The two greatest heroes of the Jewish tradition, they had power directly from God, and they too had the great honor of standing on the mountain in the physical presence of the LORD their God.  They were the two people in all of history who had the experience and wisdom to give Jesus the encouragement he needed to press onward.  We must never forget the power of communing with the ancestors!


So, Jesus stood on the mountain with these two, shining in appearance.  As the Scripture says, They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  


I think that when Elijah stood on Mount Horeb listening for the still, small voice of his LORD amidst the whirlwind earthquake and fire, God was getting him ready to stand on this other mountain, to prepare the Messiah for the storm he was about to walk into.  I can imagine Elijah saying, “Do not give up.  You have not failed and you will not fail.  Even though you will be buffeted, shaken, and burned, you will have victory.  And in the end there will be a sound of sheer silence and you will know the LORD your God is there.  Instead of asking why you are there, though, God will say, ‘This, this is MY SON, MY CHOSEN, with whom I am well-pleased.’”


And so the parallels continue.  For, Jesus stood on this mountain with Moses and Elijah so that God could get him ready to stand on yet another mountain—a mountain called Calvary.  On this mountain he would once again be with two others, one on his left and one on his right.  On this mountain there would be a great earthquake.  On this mountain some would even hear Jesus calling out to Elijah in his final moments.  On this mountain, instead of lying underneath a broom tree and saying “IT IS ENOUGH,” Jesus would hang upright on a tree and say in full confidence, “IT IS FINISHED.”


And friends, hear the good news!  For, just as Elijah came out of that cave to meet the LORD his God on the side of the mountain, Jesus of Nazareth walked out of the cave.  The stone was rolled back, and the tomb was empty!  And just as Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire, Jesus of Nazareth ascended into heaven, once again in the company of two men in white robes.  And just as Elijah passed his mantle on to Elisha and the company of prophets, Jesus of Nazareth passed his mantle on to———us.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 


Friends, that mantle IS ours.  We may have encountered troubles along the way, and we have all made mistakes.  But we have NOT failed.  We must not give up.  Jesus TRUSTS us to do this important work, and we must TRUST this call upon our lives.  And we know that we should no longer be afraid, because he is with us unto the end of the age.  So, as we prepare our hearts and minds to begin our journey alongside of Jesus to Calvary next week, let us do so with a boldness that declares: WE WILL NOT FEAR.  WE WILL NOT FAIL.  WE WILL STAND ON THE MOUNTAIN, AND WE WILL JOURNEY TO THE NEXT MOUNTAIN.  WE WILL KEEP GOING UNTIL WE, TOO CAN SAY IN FULL TRUTH, “It is finished.”  


Now, can you hear it?  A voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”




Posted February 8, 2016



Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8