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Cloud's Ilusions

My 16-year-old daughter, April, tutors a student in Pismo Beach twice a week in math. She enjoys helping kids improve their math skills, and frankly, she also loves the cash. The home where she currently tutors a middle school child in Pismo Beach is on Delano street and has a breathtaking view of the Five Cities and the ocean.

A week ago, Thursday, my cell phone rang and it was April asking if I was on my way to pick her up at her tutoring job. And then she said, excitedly, “Hurry Dad, it’s snowing!” As I mentioned the house where she was working is high in the Pismo hills—up Wadsworth and then Longview and finally Delano. I pulled up to the home in Pismo Beach where April had just finished her job and she was in the middle of the street with a huge smile on her face.

And by gosh--it was indeed snowing! Ok, maybe it wasn’t Aspen, Colorado, snow—but we’ll take it!

Now April has played in snow once or twice in her life—but she has never been in a place where it was actually snowing. She began filming the snow falling on our car on her smart phone. And when she finally got in the car she called home and said: ‘Mom! It’s snowing!”

I was so happy for April. As she said, this was a first in her life! It was so fun to see the look on her face of pure elation and awe.

We drove down the hill and decided to drive east on Price Canyon Road and I’m so happy we did. For a few minutes later we were actually driving through hail and snowflakes raining down on us from the clouds in the sky. As I drove, we both said over and over: “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” At one point we pulled the car over and took a selfie next to a field white with snow. I thought to myself what a blessing that my teenage daughter and I could share such a special moment. A day when we would never forget driving through snow as it fell from thick clouds in the sky.

The gift of snow from the clouds that day reminded me of a favorite song of mine by Joni Mitchell. In it, she sings about clouds describing them with these lyrics:

“Bows and flows of angel hair

and ice cream castles in the air And feather canyons everywhere…

“I've looked at clouds

from both sides now from up and down and still somehow

It's cloud's illusions I recall I really don't know clouds at all…”

Friends, the disciples, while up on a mountain surely enjoying the view, had a day with Jesus that they would never forget. And you could say it involved: “Cloud’s Illusions.” Yes, a cloud played a key role in Luke’s story of that day. And from this particular cloud comes not snow or rain or thunder—but the voice of God.

Luke says that Peter, James and John, heard the voice of God come from out of a cloud on a mountain. It is part of what the church has come to call “the Transfiguration of Jesus” for Jesus appearance changes right before the disciples’ eyes. If you can imagine the awe and delight on April’s face as she saw snow falling for the first time—just imagine the look of awe and wonder on Jesus’ disciple’s faces when they saw him transfigured.

Speaking of this dramatic event on the mountain, theologian and pastor, John Buchanan, writes: “Jesus took his three closest friends, Peter…James and John, up to a high mountain away from everyone else [top pray]. Something happened on that mountain [as Jesus was praying] that defies description…Their senses were dazzled. They saw Jesus as they had never seen him before. He was shining, and Moses and Elijah were there [with him.] It’s Peter…who is first to speak and [he] says, essentially, “Wow! This is great. Let’s mark the spot, build three [shrines—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah]. Then we won’t ever forget what happened here. We could even come back every year and recreate it.”

Friends, despite Peter’s cool demeanor, he, James and John, according to Luke, were actually afraid. Who can blame them? For Luke’s gospel says that “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and suddenly there is a voice [from out of the cloud:] saying: ‘This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!’ And then it was over, and the [three disciples] stood [with Jesus alone] in the silence of the mountaintop.”

Friends, where moments ago, Jesus had stood with Moses and Elijah—now Jesus stands alone. Now, whatever happened that day on the mountain, whether it belongs in the realm of history, metaphor, or poetic narrative--Peter, James and John surely carried the memory of that day with them.

Luke’s purpose in writing this passage is stated clearly: No longer should the disciples, or any follower of Jesus, look to any other figure of history or their religion, not even to the esteemed Moses or Elijah themselves, as equal to Jesus in wisdom and authority for their lives. To truly see God, to understand God’s will and teachings--they must look to Jesus.

Jesus stands alone.

And if they are faithful in doing that—in giving Jesus their ultimate allegiance, they too, like Jesus, will be able to share God’s healing love and compassion in the world—to lives lives pleasing to God. On this celebrate the gifts of women Sunday, I thank God for all the women in my life—including the women in this church, yesterday, and today, who strive to emulate Jesus in their lives.

Where would we be without women of faith? The Scriptures remind us that it was women who were the first to the empty tomb on Easter morn. It was women who were the first evangelists—women who wept at Jesus’ cross. And it was wealthy and devoted women who helped finance Jesus ministry.

The presence of women throughout the New Testament is rather remarkable given it was written by men who did not view women as their equals. And yet, the gospel writers could not deny, the key role of women in the founding of the Christian church—the key role of women in Jesus’ life—including his mother, Mary.

On this celebrate the gifts of women Sunday, I want to share with you all the true story of four women whose words and deeds one summer day, I believe, emulated the life of Jesus.

These four young women discovered in themselves the courage to love. Like Jesus, these four women heard a call to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to help men, women, and children in need of food and water and hope.

In a story published by the staff of Christian Century Magazine last month, we read: “During the summer of 2017, as temperatures [soared--four women:] Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, drove into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, part of the vast desert wilderness along the border, and left behind jugs of water and canned food for migrants.

“[The] four [Arizona] women were followed by a US Border Patrol officer, arrested, and charged with entering the refuge without a permit and abandonment of property (i.e. jugs of water and cans of beans). According to court records, the women said their actions were motivated by their religious convictions and their belief that everyone should have access to means of survival.

“For more than a decade members of the Interfaith humanitarian group ‘No More Deaths’ [including these four women] have been placing food, clothing, and jugs of water in the Sonoran Desert to aid migrants who have crossed into Arizona from Mexico. Their goal is simple: to prevent migrants from dying in the desert.

Between 1999 and 2018, it is believed that more than 3,000 migrants perished while trying to make the dangerous crossing. One of the founders of “No More Deaths” is retired Presbyterian minister, The Rev. John Fife. The son of a minister, John Fife was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to participate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. “Rev. Fife served as a minister for 35 years at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, a church with a strong focus on social justice issues. In the 1980s John Fife co-founded the Sanctuary Movement in the United States. Volunteers in the movement provided support to Central American refugees, many of whom were fleeing U.S.-supported death squads in their home countries of El Salvador and Guatemala. The sanctuary movement organized over 500 churches to help the refugees cross the border and find sanctuary in the U.S., in defiance of federal law. In 1986, Rev. Fife was convicted, along with seven other people, of violating federal immigration laws and served five years probation. The Presbyterian Church (USA) did not discipline him after his arrest—No, in fact, it elevated him to its most influential position as chief spokesperson of the denomination. Yes, in 1992, six years after his arrest and conviction, John Fife was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Truly one of our finer moments as a denomination.

Rev. Fife, now 79-years-old, believes that those four women who were arrested during the summer of 2017 for leaving water and food in the desert for migrants were doing the will of God. In the Christian Century article we read: “In the Bible, giving water to all those who thirst is a sign of God’s compassion… In the gospel of Matthew, giving water to the thirsty is one of Jesus’ commands to his disciples, and it is an explicit way of serving Jesus himself.

You recall Jesus said: ‘I was thirsty and you gave me drink—a stranger and you welcomed me.’

“[The four Arizona women] were not only following Jesus’ directive. By making their own risky journey into the desert, they were imitating the logic of the incarnation—the Eternal Word become flesh: In Jesus, God seeks out those who are thirsty and in need.”

Friends, one of the women arrested, Oona Holcomb, 39-years-old, to the judge and those gathered in the courtroom during her trial in an attempt to give them a sense of what she and her three colleagues went through said: “A quiet happens in the desert… There are intense feelings when we come across empty water containers--when we see migrants clothing abandoned in the desert we feel their presence. We wonder, Where are they? Are they OK? We come across small alters they’ve made and we feel like we are in a shared space. It feels sacred.”

Friends, in another article about the courage and compassion of these four women, and of the compassionate deed they did, I read this: “The work delivering water and food far off road in one of the most rugged and remote landscapes [they] had ever seen was grueling. With heat regularly in the triple digits, it was exhausting and disorienting.

“Oona Holcomb when asked why she did this, responded, that she felt “called” [to do this work]. [Besides leaving food and water] She and the other three women would write messages to the migrants, including, Vaya con Dios (Go with God).

Friends, last month Hoffman, Holcomb, Huse and Orozco were convicted. They faced six months in prison and steep fines. The cost of discipleship in 2019. Yes, it’s illegal in our nation today to leave water and food in the desert for men, women, and children.

Just this past Friday, despite calls by some to “lock them up” a Federal Judge sentenced Oona, Natalie, Madeline and Zaachila to 15 months probation and a $250 fine.

Centuries ago a rabbi in his early 30’s named Jesus, condemned by many as a law breaker and fraud, walked the desert of the Middle East sharing the healing and forgiving love of God. He and his disciples were often hungry and thirsty and dependent on the compassion of strangers to survive.

Once, dying of thirst, Jesus, ignoring social convention which said righteous Jews did not converse with Samaritans, nevertheless, Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman, a total stranger, saying: “Give me a drink.” And so she did.

As we celebrate the gifts of women this Sunday let the example of the four women of Arizona inspire us to find ways that we too can reach out to a broken world with God’s healing love. Our ability to do that will depend on the grace of God entering our hearts and transforming our minds.

Finally, as we journey in the world today--Who can we trust to show us the way we should go? Who do we dare give our full allegiance to? From whom do we find a vision for what it means to be the church?

A voice from out of a cloud said unto the disciples—and says to people like you and me today: “Jesus is My Son, My Chosen; listen to Him!”



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