Lights, Sounds, Visions: Transfiguration

Transfiguration 8-6-17

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9

In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd.  We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects.  But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.

Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God).  Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets.  There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.

I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to.   It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage.  The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith.  The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”

So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God.  Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.

By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented.  Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.

But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us.  Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.

Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?

The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight.  St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real.  Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof.  God has the last word: Listen to him!

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

3rd Sunday Lent, 3-19-17

Exodus 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Our first reading – is so much like the society we live in; I read it and I think about shopping malls and huge department stores full of children demanding every thing that catches their eye. Just two chapters before, God had opened the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk thru on dry land and the Egyptian army, which was pursuing them, was destroyed.  The Israelites had their freedom after generations in slavery.  Then in the next chapter, the people had become discouraged in the desert and feared they would be without food.  God provided them with quail for meat and manna for bread, as much as they needed.  Now there is an uprising because of the scarcity of water; the people are full of anger and rebellion, and Moses fears they will kill him by stoning, the death reserved for someone who has sinned against the community.

But I don’t find it amazing the people were full of blame and empty of faith in the face of all their blessings. What I find amazing is that God doesn’t sweep them all into a garbage bag and start over with a new nation.  Sorry, I know that was a Grinch-like, heart-two-sizes-too-small thing to say.

But Moses nearly worked himself into a nervous breakdown over freeing these people, and there is no hint that the faintest idea of thanking him ever crossed the people’s minds. We would say he was “between a rock and a hard place”, and a miracle of God was the only thing that saved him.  No wonder we see deserts as places of trial, temptation, hardship – and we see water as life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, freeing, forgiveness.

By the time our Psalm was written, someone had figured this out. Our Psalmist says, “For he is our God, and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides; let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.” But notice that the Psalmist uses the image of a “rock.”  Moses had feared that rocks would be hurled at him by an unruly mob and he would be killed.  Then rock had been a geo-physical thing in the desert, used by God for the miracle of water, almost an image of grace.  Now the Psalmist speaks of God as the “Rock” – an image of steadiness, reliability, permanence, dependability, an instrument of safety, certainty, and protection.  Being between a rock and a hard place is all right – if God is your rock.

St Paul backs up the image of the Psalmist. He says, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Paul had been a “Grinch” of a guy before he encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus.  Now, he deeply believed, even as he waited on death row to be martyred, that God’s love, the rock of his salvation, would bring him to eternal life regardless of the most difficult “hard place” one can imagine.

And then we read John’s account of “the woman at the well.” I have a confession to make about this woman.  At first, when I read about her, I liked her even less than the rebellious Israelites in the desert.  She comes alone to the well, not with the other women, as she should have; she spoke to Jesus, as she shouldn’t have.  She’s pretty bold, even hard in her responses, saying, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” She’s not ashamed of immoral behavior, but blunt and in-his-face about where the Samaritan’s place of worship.  Given a little attitude in her voice when she says, “I know that the Messiah is coming…he will tell us everything”, her response is rock-hard, rude.  No wonder she was alone and shunned by the community.  No wonder the women had decided this woman was beyond their help, a lost cause, evil.  She seems to have chosen the hard place she’s in, determined to deflect any attempt to help her with stony bitterness.

Then a miracle happens that makes Moses and his staff hitting the rock look simple. All Jesus says to this woman is, “I am he, the one speaking with you.”  These few words accomplish in seconds what it took 40 years to accomplish with the Israelites.  She not only took to heart what he said, but she was quick to abandon her water jug, having accepted the living water.  She told the others with such intensity and certainty that they believed her and come to Jesus themselves, saying, “We know that this is the savior of the world!!”

Perhaps the woman would have done well in our society, been a great corporate CEO with her edgy repartee, blunt questions, and boldness in sorting out a situation. Perhaps the rigid limits on women in that society, reflected in my own negative initial assessment of her, contributed to her outcast status.

Maybe the love that Jesus felt for all God’s lost children was enough to dissolve the stony fortress this woman had constructed around herself.  Maybe it was a miracle healing; the living water of the Spirit broke open her rocky heart and that water power-cleaned her soul.  I don’t know what happened.  She was like a forgotten potted plan, wilted and dying, suddenly transplanted near a running stream of water, becoming a strong, food-yielding tree.

I do think some conclusions to these readings are warranted. I have 4 to offer:

  1. God loves us, despite how badly we behave. God gives us freedom from oppression long before we learn how to live freely. We need to look to God for ways to get out of our hard places.  Love can provide enormous freedom.   Status quo and expectations can be jails.
  2. God is the faithful one. Us – not so much. But God is good and provides for us.  God created a world that gives us water and food and shelter and all we need, if we look.  God gives us good people to pray for us, who lead us in God’s ways, if we listen.
  3. The Psalms are full of wisdom. We need to give thanks, we need to worship, and we need to recognize we are God’s people. We need to make sure our hearts don’t get rocky.
  4. People are not always what they appear to be. Society is not always just. Outcasts are loved by God and sometimes used to wake the rest of us up.  All of us need a brain-flush on occasion with some living water of repentance and renewal.  Lent can happen at any time.

 

 

Grasphing the Gracious Gift

1st Sunday Lent A,  3-5-17; Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 ;  Ps: 51:3-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19Matthew 4:1-11

 Grasping the Gracious Gift   

This reading from the second & third chapters of Genesis always makes me sad. It is likely one of the most used and abused, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible.  It has been used to prove that women should be oppressed, that men are spineless wimps, that God’s creation is faulty, and that both humans and snakes are inherently evil – when that was never the intention of the story.

What was the intent? It’s a beautiful creation story and by far more sophisticated in its vision than anything comparable found in the ancient world.    It is older than the story we find in Genesis chapter one, and shares themes with other creation myths in the Mesopotamian region.  And just in case you feel the need to explore your Bible a little more closely, check out the creation story in the book of Ezekiel chapter 28 that you’ve probably never heard.

But there are two things we really need to pay attention to here. First – the eternal question of evil.  God in chapter one is said to create a good world.  God is pleased with it.  When you read Proverbs chapters 3-8, you find this theme again and again.  So, where did the cunning of the serpent come from, and why did it lie to Eve?  Interesting question, but that’s not really what we need to know, so I ask the 2nd question, and that is- what was Eve’s reason for making the choice of listening to the serpent’s lies?  The text tells us, “the tree was… desirable for gaining wisdom.”  The serpent had said, “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (little “g”) who know what is good and what is evil.” Sometimes I wonder if the story suggests that in Eve’s ears, she heard that she would be like “GOD”?

So what was humanity’s relationship to God when they were created? God had created humankind, and blew the breath of life into man.  God gave mankind the power of naming the animals, and thereby giving man power over animals.  God gave these humans the very best of everything.  In chapter one, the creation of humans is the climax of creation, the grandest and greatest of creation, actually in the divine image.  We are not God, but we are a reflection of God.

And somehow Eve thought that the glory of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God was something she and Adam could grasp by eating a piece of fruit. It is a concept still pitched by marketing snakes.  Buy this car, and you will look rich and powerful and women will be attracted to you.  Drink this diet soda and your body will be sleek and desirable.  Take this drug and your sports performance will be Olympic.  It’s the same old lie.  And why do we still fall for it?  Because we want to grasp the goal without developing the grit.

What does scripture say? Look at Philippians 2: 5-11:  “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Which is why in Psalm 51 David doesn’t say to God, “The devil made me do it.” Instead he claims his evil choice of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed.  David admits his desire to be all-powerful (like God) is wrong, too great to be grasped.  He asks instead for the “joy of (God’s) salvation” – a joy which God, and only God, freely gives to those who empty themselves of the pride of power, the need to control that which they did not create, the desire and greed for that which was not theirs to grasp.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reassures us there is a way out of our folly. He teaches that although these impulses of pride and control and desire haunt us, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift- of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for (us).”  What was the gracious gift?  It was his good and selfish choice of being obedient and coming to us as a humble man to face and overcome our murderous actions – actions which grow out of pride and power and control and desire.

Of course, Jesus was never one to simply tell us how to live and walk away, shaking his head at our endless repetition of the same bad decisions. He demonstrates it for us, he lives the trials; he shows us success and gives us solutions.  Our reading from Matthew is only one example of that.  He is tempted at his most vulnerable, when he was near starvation, when he saw power at hand and close enough to reach for, when he was shown glory and fame in its most magnificent and attractive forms.

Shucks, I hear the word “temptation” and I think of double chocolate cake with Breyer’s mint ice cream with chocolate chunks in it. But the solution is still the same- obedience.  Trying to grasp the joy of the stomach or the joy of ego or the joy of stuff never really works, only the freely given joy of the soul lasts beyond the end of the day.

This time of Lent is when we re-set our moral compasses, when we hold out our intentions in the cold light of day and ask if we act with justice and love. We look at those things we do without thinking the rest of the year and consider the fruit of our actions.  What do we seek to grasp, what do we reach out for?

Value the Valuable

8th Sunday Ordinary time, year A, 2-16-17, Isaiah 49:14-15, Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-93,  1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 6:24-34, 2-16-17

Most people recognize this gospel passage about the “flowers of the field.” We can connect to it.  We still treasure flowers, so many years later.  We give them to people to speak of our love, when we beg forgiveness, when we try to console people for their losses.  We wear flowers when we dance, and when we marry.  We print flowers on our clothing, on our wall paper, on our stationery, and on gift wrap.  We grow flowers in our home gardens, in public parks, and as part of the landscaping around shopping malls.   Our lasting fondness for flowers is not just the result of a well-planned media effort by the Florists Association.  Even the harder hearts among us, deep down, recognize flowers as one of those gifts of the earth, a fragile miracle of creation.

Jesus, as always, got the message exactly right, when he used flowers as the memory token of God’s love. I can imagine Jesus as a toddler, running to Mary in that funny little way toddlers run, with a dandelion or some weedy-flower clutched in his little cubby fist, gurgling with joy as he presented it to his mother.  Jesus, of all people, knew intimately what it takes to make a beautiful field of “wild” flowers.  I suspect he spend long hot hours in the family garden as a child,  hoeing with a stick, hauling water from a stream or well, making sure every precious plant in that garden grew to feed his family.

We so glibly repeat the doctrine of Jesus as “fully God and fully human.” Do we remember that for many years, we have no records of Jesus living anything other than the ordinary life of a young Jewish boy? Yet the story of Jesus in the temple with the teachers brings us to believe that his understanding was deeper than even his parents expected.  He must have considered the perfect timing of our world. The breeze, blowing the fragile seeds of the flowers, needed divine help in finding the perfect meadow, the spot of rich soil, the moisture so precious in the dry Middle East, and the clouds parting for the sun – all coming together to bring about a brief and fleeting beauty of the flowers in the fields.

Many of Jesus’ stories and parables use homely, earthy images that everyone listening to him could relate to. But anyone who has tried to craft a few paragraphs that possibly might hold the attention of an audience knows, that to write reasonable well, much less create a lasting image that could withstand thousands of years, that would be copied and translated and minutely studied by scholars ready and able to dissect them, is another matter.

How do you tell children that an invisible God loves them intimately? Why not tell them about the flowers.  Even the youngest child knew what a treasure those flowers were – to bring to Mother, to weave necklaces out of, to run and roll in their sweet scent.  All the children listening to Jesus had gathered the dead flowers along with the cut grass, to be thrown into the fire.  They understood such beauty had value, and the idea that God would lavish such joy on a weed that would last a few days, was proof enough that God would lavish love on them too.

How do you convince poor, needy, over-burdened adults that they are valuable to God? Why not point to the birds.  Many birds have a very short life span, and yet are seen soaring in the sky in joy, lazily drifting on the wind currents. They get their sustenance free, found as seeds in the flowers or on the ground, or as leftovers in the food trough of other animals.  Their homes are made of the leaves and sticks and mud that wait for them.  Everything seems to be provided by God, lavishly given at no cost.   Their life seems so simple.  Then why do we worry, why are we anxious, why do we search out the Coach purse at $500, the newest styles, the hot labels?  Science has proven that constant stress and worry shortens life.  Why do we whine to God that we can’t take the stress- the stress we have brought upon ourselves by valueing what is not valuable?  The birds and the flowers are the model God provides for us to learn to enjoy what is simple and free, like the love which rains down on us.

How do you persuade the sick and forgotten, those who have made a mess of their lives and have been shamed again and again, that God finds them beautiful? Jesus offers them new direction, a new path.  Seek God.  Watch how God loves – with the goodness of creation and the abundance provided for us by the earth.  Yes, when life has not gone well for a while, don’t allow the past to pile up on you and smother you.  The rain will fall on you, good or bad.  Spring always comes back to the world, regardless of the hard winter the warmth of the sun always returns.  Each morning is a new day.  When Isaiah spoke with the people of Israel who had disobeyed God, who had broken their relationship with God and been held in captivity for years, Isaiah spoke of the certainty of a mother’s love.  Even should the unthinkable happen and the mother should forget her child, God will never forget.  God will never abandon.  God will never be without tenderness.

This is the image we need as we face the beginning of Lent, a time to consider our response to God’s love, the tenderness and forgiveness offered to each and every one of the entire family of humanity. It is a message which does not scold and upbraid us for our faults, our turning from God, our refusal to love each other, much less God.  It is more like the doorbell ringing, and the people who have offended us and abused us coming to us, repentant, offering remorse and apologies and, yes, a bouquet of beautiful flowers, hoping to repair our relationship.  Or perhaps we are on the other side of the door, ready to say that we were wrong and intolerant, greedy or thoughtless.  It is a time to sow seeds of peace, of love, of compassion, or of forgiveness, that we may truly be ready for the blossoming of the flowers of hope and joy.

The Good Gift

Christmas Eve, 12-24-16 Isaiah 9:1-6; Ps 96: 1-3, 11-13; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2:1-14

Our scriptures tonight articulate the idea of Christmas better than I can.  Isaiah starts it off with a review of what we read in Advent. He highlights love and hope and peace and joy, just as we have done for 4 weeks now. Then he makes the jump: “For a child is born to us, a son is given, Wonder-counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Then the Psalm echoes back, “For the Lord comes to rule the earth, let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice.” Not to be outdone, our 2nd reading joins in with “The grace of God has appeared, saving all, as we await the blessed hope, Jesus Christ, to cleanse a people as his own, eager to do what is good. In the Gospel, the angels have the last word, as they should, “Glory to God in the highest.”

The Christmas Story does not begin in the Gospels of the New Testament. The Christmas Story starts in Genesis. God creates a good earth. After each “Day” of creation, God declares creation “good”. Then suddenly in the Garden of Eden, the serpent appears with evil lies and temptation. Why did that happen?

I have never had much success with questions starting with “why”. The problem began way back when I asked, “Why is the sky blue?” My mother said, “The sky is blue to match your blue eyes.” But as an adult, I still ask “Why did the Holy Child, the Messiah, the Son of God, come to earth to be with the likes us?” Answer: To rescue us from the evil problem; to see that we come safely back home to a place of no death and no evil. My mother was right; it’s good to keep it simple. The baby came to pick us up, clean us off, and take us home where things are “good”.   It was just too big a job for us to do alone.

So, in the next week, there will come a time when the house is quiet, the discarded gift wrap is in the recycle bin, and the dishes from the figgy pudding are in the dishwasher. Sit with this story of the Coming of the Christ Child from the 2nd chapter of Luke, and read it again.  Read it for the images.  Let the words lull you into a pleasant meditation.

Consider all the rich phrases. Consider what “being of the house and lineage of David” means, and the implication of” no room in the inn”. Consider the lowly shepherds, getting the news directly from angels and being personally invited to visit the newborn.  What would make the angels say this is “good news of great joy for all people”?   Savor all these images in a symbolic sense, and think how they might translate to this city and this culture.  The idea is not to dissect the words like a science project, but to delve deeply into them and wrap them about you like a blanket.  Stay with it long enough to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

My favorite Christmas poem was written in the late 300’s. Please indulge me a minute as I read it to you.

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending he – of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, ever more and ever more.

O that birth forever blessed, when the Virgin, full of grace, by the spirit blest conceiving, bore the savior of our race – And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, first revealed his sacred face, ever more and ever more.

Let the heights of heav’n adore him; angel hosts, his praises sing.  Powers, dominions, bow before him, and extol our God and king.  Let no tongue on earth be silent, every voice in concert ring, ever more and ever more.

Christ, to you with God the Father, Spirit blest eternally,                      Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, and unending praises be:      Honor, glory, and dominion, and eternal victory,   ever more and ever more.

God Bless you, and Merry Christmas.