Tag Archive: ISIS


This was last Sunday’s sermon at Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA

The resting human heart beats an average of 60 to 100 beats per minute.  Thump.  Thump.  Thump.  In addition to pumping our blood and keeping a steady supply of oxygen flowing throughout our bodies, the heart has long been seen as the center of thoughts, personality, actions, emotions, and wisdom.  So I’d venture to say it’s pretty important.

These texts we have for this morning are tough.  And they’re tough not because they have hard words or are particularly difficult to understand.  In fact, they’re fairly straightforward.  But they’re tough because we don’t like what we hear.  Deuteronomy tells us that the law was a gift given to help people to live out the covenant in the new land of Israel, and by living them out, help other nations see who God is.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’re elevating human rules to a divine status, while ignoring what is truly important – hearts that follow God.  And James gives instructions for the new Christian community, calling them to turn from the things of the world in order to live out of their faith.

Each of these texts calls us to a higher standard of living.  As Eugene Peterson translates James: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other.  Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”  Ouch.

These texts hold up the mirror and call us to take a long hard look at ourselves to see where we are missing the mark, falling short and not following God.  They remove the excuses we so artfully craft about our words and deeds and call us to account.  They strip everything down to some basics and challenge us to live out our faith in the world.  They call out, “when did you last say something unkind or hurtful about someone else?”  “How many times have you refused to help another in need because you were ‘too busy’ or wanted that extra money for something else?”  “When have you found yourself looking down upon someone else?”  “Have you been envying what your friends, family, or neighbors have?”  These questions make us squirm.  We don’t want to think about them or answer them.  We don’t want to think about how our speech and action might reflect our hearts.  We rush about, perhaps rarely taking time the think about the effect our words and deeds have on others.  But it is necessary to slow down and sit with them.  To ask God to reveal in us those places where we are not living out the life to which we’ve been called.

As some of you may know, I am a “Walking Dead” fan.  Last summer, Jeff and I began binge watching this show on Netflix.  I’m sure binge watching is another sin! For those of you who don’t watch, the walking dead or “walkers” are zombies who have begun wreaking havoc on society, bringing about an apocalyptic scenario.  The show follows a small band of very different people as they try to survive.  One would think that the zombies would be the scariest part of this show.  But the surprise is that the real threat – the real underlying danger – is not from the undead, but from the living.  The people who have survived the apocalypse are capable of far more hurt, pain, deceit, inhumanity and death than the zombies are.  That’s why the show is so interesting.  Zombies are fun, but the psychology and group dynamics are fascinating.  You watch an episode and think, “who would I be in this situation? And how would I respond?”

And so it is with us.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’ve got things all backwards – it’s not all about the rituals that keep us clean on the outside or insure that we’re eating the right foods.  No, we should be more worried about the inner workings of our hearts and whether or not they are leading us down the wrong path or are following God.  The threat could be coming from the outside as with zombies, but most likely, it’s coming from within.  A truly scary thought indeed.

It is abundantly clear that the human heart is capable of evil things.  This week has brought reports that the Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, that ISIS continues its reign of terror, of two journalists shot and killed in Roanoke, of the continuing struggle against racism, of infidelity on the Ashley Madison website, of migrants and refugees displaced by violence and searching for a place to lay their heads.  The list, unfortunately, could go on and on.  It is easy to hear this and to feel paralyzed by the evil within our own hearts and that we see taking place around the world.

So where is the good news? James uses this beautiful phrase that I love.  He calls us to “…welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”  Looking at our asphalt driveway, I’m always amazed at how weeds manage to push through asphalt and concrete, driveways and sidewalks.  These hearty little plants find a way to thrive in spite of their tough circumstances.  The Word of God, planted in our hearts, has the power to bust up our rocky and hard hearts – to burst through the hardness of our sins and selfishness – and bring about the beautiful flowers and fruits of the kingdom.  The word of God – the grace and promises of God – implanted in our hearts are slowly at work, calling us to account for our sin, bringing forgiveness, and inspiring us to live out God’s love in the world.

Because God loves us far too much and far too generously to leave us with hard and sinful hearts, God becomes human, even ripping apart the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to get through to us.  And at the end of Mark’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, God will once and for all rip apart the Temple curtain that separated God from humanity.  That says something about God’s heart for us.  God’s actions, retold throughout scripture and seen on the cross and in the resurrection, reflect God’s tremendous love for all creation.

Ok, it's not exactly a baptismal image, but Andy escaping Shawshank Prison is definitely being given new life, and the rain is a great reminder of baptism! (From: http://6f9e5b2993b2676fe5af-84a7d838f746c494b9783302a5a26cce.r46.cf5.rackcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Shawshank-Redemption.jpg)

Ok, it’s not exactly a baptismal image, but Andy escaping Shawshank Prison is definitely an image of being given new life, and the rain is a great reminder of baptism! (From: http://6f9e5b2993b2676fe5af-84a7d838f746c494b9783302a5a26cce.r46.cf5.rackcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Shawshank-Redemption.jpg)

That’s the love and the life we’ve been welcomed into in baptism.  When we were washed in that font, we were raised to new life in Christ.  That’s not just a nice phrase! It is an invitation into a new way of being, a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking, and a new way of living.  Each and every one of us has been freed from sin, death and the devil in order to live a new life – a life of Christ-like love and service to others.  As James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  We live out our faith and show others that our hearts love God when we care for orphans, widows, the marginalized, and all those in distress.  And we point to God’s action in our lives when we refuse to give in to the ways of the world – the ways that would tell us to use others for our own personal gain, to put personal riches and power above the poor and the voiceless, or to turn a blind eye to violence, hatred, and injustice.  Because, miraculously enough, the human heart is also a place where wonderful things can happen – transformation can occur, compassion can spring up, kindness and empathy, charity and generosity can flow forth.

We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ and to bear fruit in God’s kingdom.  It is not easy.  It is difficult and frustrating because we run smack dab up against our own selfish desires and the temptations and priorities of the world.  But we are not alone.  Christ has called and equipped us for this work and he will see it through.  Look around.  These are your sisters and brothers whom you have been called to support and with whom you have been called to worship God and serve in the world.  We will not live up to this godly life perfectly – no one can.  But we have been welcomed into this new life in baptism and these texts today call us to pause and think about what it looks like to live that life out.  To ask for forgiveness where we’ve fallen short.  To celebrate and give thanks for the way that God’s implanted word has begun to transform our hearts.  And to dream with hope, wonder, and awe about the amazing things the Holy Spirit might do in our lives and in this place to help others know God’s incredible love.

I’ll leave you with an Irish prayer from the 15th century that is a wonderful reminder and a promise of God at work: “O Son of God, do a miracle for us and change our hearts.  Thy having taken flesh to redeem us is more difficult than to transform our wickedness.”  If God can take on flesh to redeem all of creation, think about how God is at work in our hearts.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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My sermon from Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday, preached at Community Lutheran Church

I love mountains.  You could probably even say it’s in my blood since my maiden name is actually Peake!  On my dad’s side are Scots and English folk who settled in the mountains of western North Carolina, probably because it reminded them a bit of the old country.  Almost every year growing up, we’d travel to western North Carolina to visit the land grandparents and great-grandparents called home.  It’s on the side of Roan Mountain where there’s a wonderful Rhododendron festival every year.  I love that land.  I love hiking around it.  And I love the connection to the past I feel there.

It also holds a special place in my heart because it’s where my Grandpa is buried.  And it was at his funeral that I first really heard the Gospel and tried to mumble along as best I could with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  On a sunny day, on a mountainside in North Carolina, I encountered Christ and had my own mountaintop moment.

My family's land in North Carolina

My family’s land in North Carolina

The festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord comes at the end of the season of Epiphany.  It comes at the end of the season of light as we’ve been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike.  The season where Jesus has been revealed through not only his words, but in his actions.  And now, we find ourselves on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John.

They’re just hanging out and all of a sudden, Jesus is transformed before their eyes, shining in dazzling white clothing – clothes so white, no one on earth could bleach them that white.  This is not only an Oxyclean moment, rather the Gospel is getting at the fact that Jesus was divinely transformed, what we call the Transfiguration.  He’s shining brilliantly in glory and not only that, but Moses and Elijah, two figures who represent the law and the prophets are chatting with him.  Looking at Moses and Elijah, people thought to come before the Messiah, the disciples are terrified.  And poor Peter, in his shock and terror, stammers out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He’s trying to be productive and helpful, but he’s missing the point.  Jesus is revealed in divine light and radiance and Peter wants to start a construction project.

Then, suddenly, a cloud overshadows them and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  And before they know it, Peter, James and John are alone again with Jesus on a high mountain.  They’re confused and wondering about what they’ve just experienced when Jesus tells them not to say a word about this until he’s risen from the dead.  Well, that should help clarify things! If we keep reading, we’d find that the next verse says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”  These poor guys have just seen something crazy and wonderful and now they’re baffled about what rising from the dead means.

In Mark’s Gospel, there are three major events that occur: Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration and the crucifixion.  At each of these moments, Jesus is identified as the Son of God.  In between, Jesus keeps telling people and unclean spirits to be quiet about his identity.  However, at the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed so that the disciples can catch even a fleeting glimpse of him in glory – a preview of the resurrected and victorious Christ.  They don’t understand what it means at the moment, but after the resurrection, they will.

Maybe you’ve had a moment when you’ve encountered a glimpse of the glory of God.  Maybe it was very clear that it was God at work.  Or maybe it was baffling and confusing and you found yourself questioning what happened.  Maybe you wanted to share it, but didn’t know how.  Maybe you can’t think of a time when you’ve had such an encounter.

Whatever the case may be, mountaintop experiences can be beautiful, terrifying, inspiring and confusing.  But we are doing ourselves a grave disservice if we live searching for these experiences.  The reading for today shows that as quickly as this amazing event happened, it was over, and it was time to go back down into the valleys and wildernesses of everyday life.

I know that I have had some mountaintop encounters in my life and I long to experience those things again.  But as wonderful as those moments are, I know that the more important question is how do I live in the every day? The struggle is, how do I continue to be faithful in the meantime when things aren’t so clear? The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus walks with us in the valleys of our lives, too, and not just on the mountaintops.  Jesus does not abandon the disciples for glory or to keep chatting with Moses and Elijah, but comes down off of the mountain to live with them in the difficulties of the world.  He descends in order to go all the way to the cross – the place where the love of God and the brutality of the world collide.  While glory is alluring, the way of God is a downward path – it’s not the climb up the mountain, but the one down to which we should pay attention.  In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “When I was sinking down, Beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.”  Christ lays aside his crown, comes down off of the mountain, and walks with us.

Peter says, “it is good for us to be here.”   And it is good for us to be here in worship and in the church, but how do we come down from the worship high of Sunday morning and go back to living in the mundane and weary world?  The disciples hear the voice of God speaking from within the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  This command to listen has the sense of, “keep on listening” or “continue listening.”  It’s as if God is saying, as you go down into the valleys, away from the brilliant glory you’ve experienced on this mountaintop, keep on listening for Jesus’ voice.  Don’t stop listening.  Remember what you’ve experienced and keep on listening.

So how do we listen in the middle of our overflowing days and weeks? One way of listening for God is keeping Sabbath or finding ways “live Sabbathly” throughout the day.  Our Lenten series this year will look at what it means to observe and keep the Sabbath, especially in the middle of our jam-packed lives.  What does it mean to slow down and to spend time simply delighting in God? Peter, rather than taking in the glory of God and rejoicing in the moment, tried to capture it – to spend time building dwellings.  Part of living Sabbathly is not trying to commoditize everything, but to appreciate work and play, rest and delight in the goodness of God.

Another way to keep listening is to be mindful of the ways that God’s light is shining around us, even in the most difficult of situations.  I will be the first to admit that it’s sometimes really hard to see God’s light while navigating crowded roadways with crazy drivers, or dealing with bureaucracy, or in difficult relationships.  But I am often surprised and amazed at where and how I encounter Christ.  In a child reaching out for bread at Communion.  In my dog as she reminds me to slow down and take in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.  In laughter and teasing over a family meal.  And, often, in pain and suffering.

In moments when I’ve felt most isolated and troubled in my own life, I have experienced more clearly Christ’s comfort and love.  And I’ve encountered this in others as well.  Once, I saw it in the beautiful way a man in hospice looked at his death and trusted heaven to be the most incredible and unimaginable surprise.  Lately, I’ve been reading about Christ present in the lives of every day Rwandans who, after the horrific genocide, practiced unfathomable forgiveness and reconciliation.

And this week, I see Christ’s light shining through the life of twenty-six year-old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS while trying to assist refugees escaping the war in Syria.  While it is still unclear how she died, it is clear that even in captivity, in the valley of the shadow of death, she reflected the light of Christ.  In a letter to her family, she wrote, “And by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.  I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.  I am grateful.”  In another letter, she wrote, “I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”  She also explained how she was even trying to teach the guards how to make origami peace cranes.

We may have wonderful mountaintop experiences that move us, confuse us, and cause us to reflect.  But our Gospel reading reminds us that we always come down from the mountain, and more importantly, that Christ comes with us.  We are never left to fend for ourselves in the difficult, messy and sticky parts of our lives.  No, Christ is always there.  And along the way, we catch glimpses of his glory in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  We are recipients of Christ’s glorious light as it shines through others, but we are also called to reflect and shine God’s resplendent light in our lives.  And in this process, we, too, are transformed and transfigured.  As we go out into the world, may we continue listening for God in our lives and paying attention to the way we encounter Christ, not only on the mountaintops, but in the highways, valleys and wildernesses of our lives.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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