Category Archives: Epiphany

‘They Have No Wine…’ John 2:3



“They have no wine.” That’s all Mary says to Jesus after noticing the newlyweds’ embarrassment. Could she be more indirect?

He knows what she wants but he’s not feeling ready. He tells her it’s not time to reveal his glory and suffer the consequences. The wine he could make would be free to the guests but cost him plenty.

Mary marches right over to the serving table as if he’d said ‘no problem’ instead of ‘no way.’ She once said a costly yes; she’s not about to take no for an answer from him.

Because they have no wine.

It’s human history she’s talking about. Life’s disappointed guests have been milling around with empty glasses from time immemorial. She’s waited long enough for the mighty to fall, for the poor to dance at the wedding, for the kingdom’s elixir to flow. Three Persian potentates once bent their knees to him. Why is he still knocking out chairs and cabinets in Nazareth? She wants him out of the house.

He gives in and produces liquid heaven in preposterous quantities. He squanders it on us, the undeserving who can’t distinguish rotgut from Rothschild. He becomes the wastrel we need him to be.

Thank you, Mary.

Prayer
When we are reluctant to act on our callings, O God, send Mary to remind us, “They have no wine.” Get us out of the house.

Epiphany: Hide and Seek with the Divine

Our planet has come full circle: things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the North, is winter.

But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.

A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain.

A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud.

A season of unveilings, it starts with a glimpse of baby skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments.

A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

In the dead of winter, the church gives us God-sightings, gives them as if to persuade us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact stirring all the time, ardent, vivid, and porous. As if to say that this stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, a startling game of hide-and-seek with the divine. As if to say that heaven’s flame burns hot here too, not just on the other side of Peter’s gate.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces — Epiphany is the church’s way of impressing on us that discipleship is as much being spoken to as it is speaking, as much adoring as serving, as much perceiving as doing, as much finding as seeking.

Seeking is never over, there is always more to find. But in Epiphany, the Spirit seems to desire for us a momentary end of seeking. She brings us to an encounter with the immense and saving beauty that burns in Jesus, the bright beauty destined for us all.

She lights the lamp and leads us:  “Come closer,” she says. “You’re getting warm. Now over here. A little more. Yes, yes. Now do you see…?”

And if we are attentive, we do perceive it. We fall on our knees.

 

 

 

Epiphany Year B: Who Is Jesus?

 

Epiphany is the mystical season par excellence, the season of coming to know beyond knowing, of coming to love what we come to know. It is a season of light, but it is also a season of deepening mystery; for just when we think we have grasped him, he slips away, inviting further following and more profound revelation and the testing of our love. Just when we think we have grasped him, he asks us the defining question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and we need to start over.

Worship during Epiphany Year B brings us gospel stories that ponder Jesus’ identity and recount people’s responses to him as, in the light of his presence, their hearts open to the gift of God’s mercy.

In the first week’s story, wise men “from the East”—scientists and philosophers—discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own.

Next, John baptizes the grown-up Jesus, and at that moment—as Jesus is identified with sinners— the curtain lifts and we hear that he is God’s cherished child, that God is pleased with him.

Two more stories are about people who perceive in him the “Lamb of God” who pardons sins and reconciles enemies. When asked by these would-be followers where he lives, Jesus says, “Come and see.” In following him there, disciples receive deeper revelation of who Jesus is and what his way is about.

On the last Sunday, we experience a disorienting moment atop a mountain. There the disciples see Jesus suffused with the glory of God. They are so enthralled that they wish they could remain forever enveloped in that great, transforming light.

We often say that light is the season’s theme, and it surely is. We watch Jesus call followers, who seem compelled by his light. We watch him teach and heal, “leaking” the light that is in him all around, revealing God’s intentions and the character of God’s Kingdom. We see the light that lives in him lift shadows of despair, violence, and injustice.

But for all the light that is dawning; for all the revelations of Jesus’ identity that abound in these texts; for all the excited talk about the Messiah and the Lamb of God; for all the rush to get in on the ground floor and follow him; for all the hope that the Kingdom of God might finally be near, confusion about Jesus does not go away. In fact, the mystery deepens.

It won’t be long (Lent begins early this year) before we are reading stories in which even his closest friends scratch their heads, perplexed by the implacable enigma of this man. Even John the Baptist, who had earlier recognized him as God’s chosen one, will ask, “So, are you really The One?”

There will be so many claims swirling around him that Jesus himself will eventually ask his disciples, “What are they saying about me?” And “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”—a question that will still haunt him — and us — when he’s hanging on the Cross.

When we are asked, “What is your faith about?”, many of us answer that it is about love, or justice, peace and reconciliation. But if that’s all we say, we may be sidestepping its one truly distinguishing characteristic—the person of Jesus himself. If Christianity is not about him and about the ways in which he is a window onto the character of the God we worship, it doesn’t have much that is new or distinctively compelling to offer.

And that’s a problem, because many of us grew up in traditions in which Jesus was not a sympathetic character. He was a stern, all-seeing judge of our sins. He was the one in whom, on the Cross, God took out the wrath that was meant for us, and so now we feel that we owe Jesus an eternal, un-payable debt.

Or he was an ethical exemplar—for some, a this-worldly political figure whose revolutionary stances we admired; for others a cardboard character, a flesh-and-bloodless moral paragon, too perfect to feel close to or even to admire.

Some of us got the “gooey” Jesus, all long light hair and dreamy eyes; a white, romantic, handsome guy from Central Casting with a lamb draped over his shoulders, and he embarrasses us now.

Some of us dismiss Jesus as a mostly made-up character in a story too weird and implausible to credit.

If the Christian faith really is, in the end, not just some generic ethical teaching about love and justice; if it not merely a religion that stems from a long-ago and far away mythical Jesus, but is in some sense about Jesus, the embodied kingdom of God; if he is the “way, the truth, and the life” as the gospel says he is, sent to lead us in a unique and graceful way into the arms of a God determined to restore all creation in justice and love; if Jesus is somehow necessary, then maybe the project of Epiphany is to let him ask us, over and over, the same question that he asked his first followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

Maybe in these few weeks of Epiphany, we might make a deliberate effort to drop our learned responses to him, our preconceived ideas about him, our skepticism, even our distaste, in order to ponder his mystery with a new and genuine openness to what the Spirit might reveal to us about him.

We call ourselves followers, disciples, but some of us hardly know the one we are following. Maybe it’s time to walk and talk with him, maybe this is a chance to see whether in the talking and in the going—in the practice— the transforming light he shed wherever he went might envelop our lives too.

If he is the one the Christian tradition claims he is, things could really change. But that remains to be seen. It remains to be seen, it remains to be heard, to be touched, and even to be tasted, in this precious season of Jesus, this season of light.

 

 

 

 

Epiphany: A Brief Primer


Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival that pre-dates the celebration of Christmas. For many centuries it was (and still is in some parts of the Church) the second most important celebration of the Christian year, Easter being the first. Epiphany is also one of the two major festivals in the Christian year on which it was customary to initiate people into the church through baptism, the other being the Great Vigil of Easter. Its length (5-8 weeks) depends on the date of Easter, which determines the start of Lent.

“Epiphany” means “revelation.” During the season of Epiphany, Christians contemplate the figure of Jesus as a revelation of God’s hopes for the world. It is a time of growing insight into the way we believe God was working for our good through Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, justice, and reconciliation. Who he is for us and our salvation “dawns on us” gradually during this season of light.

Epiphany begins with a double commemoration—the visit of the Magi to the child in Bethlehem, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river.

The story of the Magi, or ‘wise men from the East’, is found in Matthew 2:1-12. These mythic Magi are ancient astrologers, the scientists and philosophers of their day, who follow the trajectory of a new star from their own countries to the manger in Bethlehem, after eluding the machinations of King Herod. There they acknowledge the Babe as a ‘new king’ and a revelation of God, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they return home ‘by a different way.’

The gospel of Matthew says nothing about the meaning of these gifts, but later Christian imagination assigned symbolic meaning to them. Gold honors the Child’s royal lineage—Jesus is said to be descended from the house of King David. Frankincense, a costly incense, recognizes his divine origin—Jesus was said to have been born “of the Holy Spirit.” Myrrh, a bitter ointment, foretells the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

Because of the importance of Epiphany, we have countless homilies and commentaries on its meaning from early Christian preachers. Three aspects of Epiphany stand out in these sermons:

The visit of the Magi symbolizes the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promise of salvation. The non-Jewish world is given a great gift through the birth of this Jewish baby in Bethlehem: we come to “sees the light” with our own eyes and receive the blessings of God’s promises given first (and forever) to the Jews. We are, in Paul’s words’ “grafted on” to the ancient tree, adopted into the family and made heirs of the Promise.

The Magi’s visit also stands for the illumination of secular learning with the light of faith—human knowledge deepened, corrected, and perfected by the encounter with divine mystery. The wise men discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own, by their own lights. Epiphany is thus the feast of the learned and the wise who know much, but who also humbly bow before divine wisdom, acknowledging their own limits and unknowing in light of the vastness of the mystery of God.

The journey of the Magi was also a way of speaking about vocation, or faith’s steady calling to the human heart. Epiphany is a season of callings—Jesus chooses his disciples and begins schooling them in the ways of the Kingdom of God. Christians have always seen in the Star a sign of beckoning for the Church and for each and every disciple. Following the Star perseveringly our whole life long leads us to our deepest desire, to wholeness and fulfillment through our obedient responsiveness to God.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3:13-17, the author places Jesus in the company of ordinary people—“sinners”—who have lined up at the Jordan to be purified and prepared by a baptism of repentance. These are the same people with whom Jesus will most closely associate himself throughout his ministry. “I have come,” he said, “to look for the lost.”

The early Christians saw in Jesus’ submission to baptism—which they believe he did not require, not being a sinner—a revelation of his human solidarity with the poor and the despised who knew that they were in need of God’s mercy and had no one else to turn to. In the story, a heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s son, but we come to know precisely what sort of son we have in Jesus when we are shown that he identifies himself with sinners.

The heavenly voice also reveals that God is “well-pleased” with him (and presumably with this identification). Christians have traditionally understood this epiphany as an assurance that, by extension, God has also accepted us as beloved children and is well-pleased with us too, especially when, following the practice of Jesus, we live in solidarity with those whom the world rejects, and work for justice and peace.

The One Down God: Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

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TEXT: Matthew 13:13-17

Not every story about Jesus made it into the gospels. And not all the gospels tell the same stories. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary only in the gospel of Luke. Jesus turns water into wine only in John. And only Mark ends his account of the resurrection on a note of fear. Different communities prized different stories. So when a story shows up in all four gospels, you know it represents an early Christian memory that everybody thought was too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Jesus’ baptism is one of those stories.

We always read it at the start of the Epiphany season between Christmas and Lent. It’s a season of insight and revelation, when hidden things are made plain. All the gospel passages assigned to Epiphany’s Sundays shed a little light on the mystery of who Jesus is. As we watch him speak and act in these stories, our picture of him clarifies, and we catch glimpses in him of who God is and what God is up to in the world.

And sure enough, in Matthew’s version of the baptism story, we get a big revelation about who Jesus is. It comes right after Jesus wades out of the Jordan. The heavens open, the Spirit alights, and a voice declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.’

But we also learn a little more about who God is and what God wills. There’s no thunderclap, bright light, descending bird, or James Earl Jones voice accompanying this revelation, however. To see it, we have to go back to the flustered conversation John has with Jesus in the opening lines. Did you notice it?

Jesus presents himself for baptism, but John doesn’t seem pleased. He doesn’t say, “Good morning! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He says, “I know who you are. Please go away.” He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. “Me?” he says. “You want me to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!”

Why does John try to keep Jesus out of the Jordan?

The clue is in the kind of baptism John was offering. John was baptizing ‘for repentance.’ He believed the messiah had come. That’s why he’s preaching a message of urgent change. And, we read, crowds of people were coming to him, ready to repent of their sins, change their lives, and receive the appointed one.

They symbolized their willingness to change by immersing themselves in the river. They washed away their sins, they sloughed off their old lives, they left all that sorrow, hurt, and regret in the Jordan, and went away to live clean in the new age that was already dawning.

And now, here is that new age in person—Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah, the sinless one, God’s chosen person. But if that’s who he is, what’s he doing here lined up with sinners? Why is he asking for a washing? Isn’t he already clean? Besides (and here’s a second clue to the revelation), isn’t it humiliating for someone ‘high up’ like Jesus to be baptized by someone ‘down low’ like John?

John is the opening act, not the main event. The understudy, not the lead. The bridesmaid, not the bride. So how can an inferior baptize a superior? That’s not the way the world is arranged. You know that if you watch Downton Abbey.

‘Why you?’ John wants to know. ‘And why me?’

“Because,” Jesus answers, “in this way we do God’s will.” In this way everyone sees what God is up to. And what God is like. I go down in the river below you. You stand above me. You go one up. I go one down.

Ah! The revelation dawns. We know from the voice that speaks after the baptism that Jesus is God’s dear Son. But it’s when he submits to the baptism in the first place that we discover what kind of Son this Son of God is.

Who and what is the Son of God? He is one down, immersed in the river of human frailty and sin, turgid with tears and suffering, malice, carelessness, indifference, failure, and endless regret.

Why is God pleased with him? Because he gets into that water with us, side by side.

“Me, baptize you? God forbid,” says John. “You’re the messiah, the big shot of God. You should baptize me.”

“God forbid,” say all of us who spend most of our lives doing everything we know how to get ahead, climb the ladder, be somebody, go one up.

“God forbid,” say we all, who fear being one down like we fear quicksand and the dark.

“God forbid,” says everyone who expects their god to act like one and lord it over the cosmos.

“No,” Jesus says, “we’ll do things God’s way. I’ll go down. With you. Where you are. In the deep where all your hard stuff is swirling around. Where there’s the danger you could drown, danger you could get lost, danger you could succumb to your despair. That’s where I’ll go, a sibling in your own flesh. That’s where I’ll always be. That’s how you’ll know that God is not against you. That’s how you’ll know you’re not alone.”

And so, Matthew’s story says, John consented, and Jesus was baptized.

There’s another story in another gospel that sounds a lot like this one. We read it on Maundy Thursday. Jesus gets up from the table, pours water into a basin, and wraps a towel around his waist. Then, on his knees, he moves from one foot to the next, washing the dirt away.

He comes to Peter. Peter recoils. He tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. “Wash me? Not you! Get up! You’ll never wash my feet.”

Peter’s frantic with embarrassment. Jesus is the Teacher, the Lord. Peter is the follower, the idiot disciple. This isn’t proper. It should be the other way around. Peter watches Downton, too.

But Jesus says to him, “If I don’t wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” If you don’t let me serve you, you won’t know me, or God. If you insist on proprieties, you’ll miss the gospel. If I don’t kneel before you, you may never know the converting grace of love.

And so, the story says Peter consented and let Jesus wash him.

‘The King and I’ is an old, dated movie. I’m showing my age just by mentioning it. And you’re showing yours if you remember it. But there’s a scene in that movie in which Anna, the English governess of the Siamese king’s children, learns the protocol for being in the royal presence. No one’s head must ever be higher than the king’s. If he’s in the room and you’re taller than he is, you have to stoop or lower your head so that his remains higher.

The king enters the room. Anna lowers her head. Then playfully—but also to show that he can—he lowers his. She lowers hers again. He stoops down. She stoops even lower. Finally he drops to his knees, and she has to go flat out on the floor. The point is made.

But now imagine that scene the other way around. Imagine a completely new protocol—the king has to go one down. No one’s head can be lower than his. He’s the one who ends up prostrate before the governess.

This is Jesus.

And this is his God.

Over the centuries, a great many Christians have been embarrassed by this revelation, put off and dismayed by a God who stands in the sinners’ line, who bathes in our messes and kneels at our feet. We’re always trying to turn the one down God into a one up God, and when we do, we justify all sorts of pompous nonsense and bloody mayem in the name of God’s one up-ness.

But sometimes, some blessed times, we’ve managed to love the one down God. We’ve let ourselves be drawn to the sweetness of Christ’s humility, swept up in his kindness, his refusal to lord it over us, his eyes that look up at us and not down.

The have-nots have never had much trouble loving him, but even some privileged and powerful people have fallen hard for his humble, hidden majesty. And when they have, they’ve found themselves in the Jordan, over their heads in human empathy and solidarity, immersed in a mystifying kind of joy.

I think of Francis of Assisi, the dissolute son of a wealthy merchant. He had an epiphany about the one down-ness of God while he was gazing at the figure of the abandoned Christ on the cross. It took Francis a long time—don’t believe all that medieval nonsense about instantaneous conversions—but eventually he fell in love with the poor and humble Christ. And out of that powerful attraction, he began giving away everything he had, and most of what his father had too.

This profligacy did not endear him to his proud and influential father, who was apoplectic at the sight of his privileged son one down among the leprous poor. But Francis was smitten by them. He ended up a beggar among the beggars, a disowned and displaced man. He waded into the Jordan with Jesus and never looked back.

Not everyone who’s attracted to the one down Jesus ends up disowned and begging like Francis. His is not the only way. Your heart can be broken open and your life re-humanized by the revelation of God’s humility in all sorts of ways. We each have to find our own path downward, as individual disciples and as a community of disciples. But one thing is true for everybody—if we feel even the slightest attraction to the one down God, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves in some discomfort, torn between the life we have now and the joy we sense is waiting for us under the river with him.

I once had a testy discussion with a woman new to our church about the foot-washing that was part of our Maundy Thursday service. She was aghast at the thought of it. “Why do you do such a weird, uncomfortable thing in this day and age?” she wanted to know. “We don’t wear sandals. Our feet don’t get dirty and need washing like they did in Jesus’ day.” Apparently she’d never distributed clean socks to homeless people. When she said ‘our feet’ she meant the clean healthy feet of people like her. “Furthermore,” she declared, “foot-washing is unhygienic, awkward, servile, and embarrassing.”

I said, “Your point?”

She said, ‘Well, all I know is you’re not touching my feet.’

But she surprised me. And maybe herself. She showed up, got her feet washed, and washed other people’s feet, too. Later, she confessed to a deacon that she’d wept when one of the oldest members of the congregation got down on his knees kind of creakily to dry her feet. She also confessed she’d gotten a pedicure earlier in the day. I guess foot-washing is more tolerable if your feet look good. I guess you can go one down as long as your feet are still one up.

But I’m not knocking her, believe me. It wasn’t a small thing for her to dip her beautifully lacquered toes into the Jordan with Jesus. Even a faint light in a great darkness is light. Even a slight unveiling can illumine the world, and maybe save it.

It was something big, her timid embrace of the distinguishing mark of a disciple: kneeling, one down. It was something, her beginner’s acceptance of the inescapable paradox of Christian faith: down is glory, lowliness is joy, embarrassment is glory. It was something, that start, that little falling in love, that little baptism, that epiphany.

And on this day of Jesus’ baptism, I wish something like that for us all.

My Baptism(s)

There’s a family story about my birth that, like a lot of family stories told and re-told over the years, is probably only tenuously true, but it’s a good story all the same. This is how it goes:

My parents had decided that if they had a girl, they would name her Janice. This was a merciful way of naming a child for my grandmother without actually saddling the child with my grandmother’s name, which was Janetta. But my mother’s labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and her pain was great, and at a particularly difficult moment, she—who had never been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus—was heard to scream, “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

But there’s another story about my birth that I cherish more than this one. It seems that when I finally did come out, I came out yellow. I must not have looked very strong, because one of the nurses, who was Irish and devout, took me quietly to the far side of the room, dipped two fingers in some water, traced a cross on my brow and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Now, in Catholic theology in 1947 this was known as a provisional baptism—an emergency baptism in case of death. Had I expired in the delivery room that morning, what that nurse did to me would have been a real live valid sacrament, and I would thereby have been spared an eternity in Limbo—a state of being in which the unbaptized soul of an infant enjoys all the natural happiness one could possibly enjoy, but where God is not present, and never will be.

But I didn’t die. I pinked up! And so I was baptized officially a month later with an honest-to-God-priest and a big baptismal font. My provisional baptism had indeed been provisional. It didn’t ‘count’ in the end, and so it became simply an amusing story about the way I came out yellow, but not a story about the day I became a Christian. That happened, according to my baptismal certificate, on January 21, when my family brought me to St Mark’s on Dot Ave in the Ashmont section of Dorchester.

The church I belong to these days does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this community of faith, we don’t baptize babies because we believe they need to be baptized. Baptism for us is the cool forgiving river through which we are swept into the church. It’s a sign that we belong to the family of faith. It’s the way we pledge allegiance to the new polity we call the kingdom of God. It’s the act by which we are called to follow Jesus, and it’s the moment when we are given a ministry to carry out with him in the name of God’s compassion.

It isn’t a cleansing of original sin, but a promise that if we do sin, we will not be left in our sin; there will never be a moment in all our lives when we will be bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord—for God’s is a love that is incapable of holding our sins against us. No, we do not baptize in order to snatch people from the jaws of hell. We baptize in order to bury them deep in the heart of Christ’s life.

God knew me and loved me from the day I was formed in my mother’s womb, as psalm 139 so beautifully sings. Some scriptures say that God knew us even before we were formed in the womb. The point is that there was no place on the day I came yellow into the world, nor is there any place now that I’ve gone completely gray, that is devoid of God’s presence. Catholics have finally come around on this conviction too. You never hear talk about Limbo any more. That nurse need not have worried about my being cut off from God on the day I came weakly into the world. I was never in danger, mortal or immortal.

I do not, of course, remember my baptism, either one of them. But I like to imagine the day I was baptized because it is a source of comfort and courage and hope for me to know that, once upon a time (well, twice upon a time), the God who is always kind and merciful was merciful and kind to me in a very specific way, by enrolling me in the company of the faithful, making me a member of the body, a daughter of the church.

But a strange thing happens when I imagine my baptism. In my mind’s eye I never see the sanctuary of St Mark’s on Dot Ave. I always see a delivery room at the Boston Lying-In. I always hear a capped nurse murmur the trinitarian formula. I feel her fingers trace a watery cross on my head. I see me, pathetic, in her arms, a new creation in Christ. And I have to tell you that I always well up with affection for her. As far as I’m concerned, her baptism of my jaundiced little soul was anything but provisional. If I am indeed a Christian by baptism today, I believe that it was at that moment in that place and by her hand that baptism “took.” 

I don’t believe what she believed about baptism. But it doesn’t matter. What moves me so much, and the reason I prefer her baptism to the priets’s, is that on the day she baptized me she was worried sick about what would happen to me. She didn’t want me to get lost. Baptizing me was her way of making sure that the little creature she held in her hands who was created by God for God and destined for the divine vision, would in fact see God. What she intended for me was the fullness of temporal life in the church should I live, and the fullness of eternal life in God should I succumb.

I was in no danger. Baptism was not required. Even if I had been in danger, it still would not have been necessary. But that is not to say that it did nothing for me. Her baptizing of me has given me a way of thinking about the church into which the sacrament ushers us. She has become a prototype of the church at its best in my mind, the assembly of graceful people who care about what happens to you, today and tomorrow and forever. People who would move heaven and earth to help you get free of every danger, mortal and immortal. People who do everything in their power to set you safely on the Way and won’t let you get lost.

The church is about a lot of things, but if it isn’t at least about this kind of concern, we may have missed the point.

Feast of the Transfiguration: It Is Good for Us to Be Here [Luke 9:28-36]

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–Icons of the Transfiguration from the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery

A sermon for pastors and preachers

We’ve heard and preached on this story many times, we know how it goes. Jesus hauls Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. As we watch the trio ascend, we think about an earlier climb when Moses went up Mount Sinai to talk to God. There was glory shining all around in that story, too – lightning, thunder, and clouds. When Moses came down, his face was aflame with God’s brilliance, and he was lugging those big stone tablets that eventually ended up in Judge Roy Moore’s courthouse down in Alabama. In this episode, Jesus lights up with that same brilliance. Just like back then, God speaks from the cloud. God issue a commandment in this story too—“Listen to him.”

It’s an amazing scene. The disciples are overcome with what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” Then Peter blurts out his desire to set up three tents there to capture the experience. He wants to stay. But the glory dissipates as fast as it gathered, and Jesus doesn’t linger. He gets the disciples off their face and onto their feet, and they all trudge back down the mountain, back to “real life.”

And we feel sorry for poor, impulsive, clueless Peter. His desire to stay up there, indulging in radiant stupefaction, is an escapist, self-seeking temptation. Jesus knows better. Mountaintop epiphanies, it seems, are not meant to last. They are at best rest stops, gas for empty tanks, carrots to keep us going through challenging lives. When the disciples have to suffer, as they one day surely will, maybe the memory of this glorious moment will warm them and make their agony less awful. But you misunderstand Jesus if you think the point of following him is to bask in his light.

The disciples have a hard enough time grasping the odd, counter-intuitive sort of Lord and King Jesus is; if they stay up there they might never learn that he came to serve.  Down on the ground, suffering is everywhere. Jesus could not escape his own, but he tried hard to alleviate everybody else’s. And that’s what disciples must also learn to do. We should consider ourselves blessed if we get an occasional peek at glory, but we can’t rest in it any more than the disciples could. We have to go down the mountain and shoulder our ministry. Glory is fine, but only after you pay your dues. Peas first, then cake.

Now, that is a good way to interpret this text, and it can be a necessary corrective to “bliss ninnies” who think the best way to be religious is to gaze at your navel. The great 16th century mystical saint Teresa of Avila was always on the lookout for this kind of evasion in her convents. Whenever a goose-bumpy novice, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry. Visions and voices are all well and good, but only if they don’t render you indifferent to the needs of your neighbor.

The only problem with this way of reading the story is that in our zeal to warn people away from evasion, we tend to moralize the Christian life almost to death. We make it a series of shoulds and oughts, and suggest in more than sideways fashion that worship or prayer or simple divine enjoyment is all well and good, but none of that has any value in and of itself unless we are also getting our prayerfully clasped hands dirty in the trenches of active mission.

Our repeated messages about coming down the mountain–getting back to work, doing our duty, loving God not directly but by loving our neighbors, measuring the size and strength of that love by our holy productivity–seem to assume that if we didn’t constantly exhort our people to do things, they would slide into a fog of contemplative rapture, never to be seen or heard from again. The truth is that things are exactly the opposite in most justice-aware, liberal-leaning, activist congregations. It’s a lot easier to get people on the picket line than down on their knees. Most people don’t even know what we’re talking about when we moralize about the dangers of being awestruck with divine beauty.

What a shame if we fall into the trap of telling people they must live the one sacred life they have been given according to a faith that regards ecstasy as some sort of temptation. What a shame if we fall into the trap of asking people to live by a gospel that turns out to be, in the end, just another taskmaster, just another voice among the many voices that remind us all constantly that we have not done right enough or well enough or just plain enough enough to measure up to expectation and merit approval and reward. What a shame if we take texts like this one and turn them into so much finger-wagging.

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Yes, it is plain from the text that Jesus didn’t want his friends to put up those three tents. Yes, Peter was befuddled by the strange experience and “did not know what he said” when he blurted out, “It is good for us to be here.” Yes, Jesus took them right back down and yes, they plunged into the hard work of healing and teaching. There’s no question that engagement with the world is an essential component of discipleship, and that the suffering it brings requires of disciples courage, determination, and perseverance – none of them glamorous things.  But we should also want to know why Jesus would show his friends the unutterable glory of God radiating through him and not mean for them to enjoy it. And why should we label Peter obtuse and ridiculous because he wants to make such beauty and such glory –  the very pleasure of God – last and last and last?

What the disciples received that day on the mountain was not a gallon of emergency gas or a quick breather for the work crew. It was a gift of mercy, pleasure and love. They were given a glimpse of the richest and most fundamental truth about our lives, and they were meant to react to it precisely in the way they did, with awe. Just because it wasn’t time for them to enjoy it permanently doesn’t mean that they were wrong to want it permanently, or that by wanting it so much they somehow missed the meaning of the event.

Peter saw that the glory of God’s mercy and deep pleasure rested uniquely upon Jesus. This story is an epiphany, after all—a story meant to reveal something of the character of God. Its main point is clarifying the identity of Jesus, and it does so in part through the awe-struck wonder this revelation causes in the disciples. But Peter must also haves sensed that this transfiguring light was in some measure also about him. About us all. And for us all. The merciful pleasure God takes in Jesus, the joy of God’s goodness that glows like a million suns, is Peter’s origin and destiny too. It is the origin and destiny of the whole creation. We were all made in ecstasy and intended for ecstasy. Glory, and its lovely twin, Joy, is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Why does preaching so often seem to say that the only permanent thing we were made for is duty, when the truth is that we were made for delight? Why do we imply that people were made only for purpose and production, when the truth is that we were made for pleasure? Why do we help people think that the church was called and gathered only for relentless hard labor in the vineyard of Christ, when the truth is that we were called and gathered for praise, thanksgiving, and freedom – for visions, for dreams, and for the ‘royal waste of time’ we call ‘worship’?

In moments when God’s glory breaks through our flat world of fact and rationality; in times when God’s mercy transports us to the real real world, the one Jesus called the kingdom, full of justice and reconciliation, forbearance and peace; in moments, as another preacher put it, when the dazzle of God’s love squeezes through the fissures in our denial and defenses and explodes into our lives – in those moments we are drawn inexorably to God like people who have been living sun-starved for years in caves, and we too want to pitch tents on the mountain. We too want to stay and stay and stay.

We know those moments. The flood of confusion the first time someone loves you – yes, you. The time you were forgiven when you should never have been forgiven. The day you got through the whole of it without a drink. The night your first child was born. The moment you really heard the poet’s question, “What will I do with my one precious life?” The time you turned on the news and found out that that the wall was down and the tyrants were dead and people were crossing borders, singing. Or the morning early when you went for a hike, and the cloud that had threatened rain lifted suddenly, and from the top of the mountain you saw clear to Canada, and it took your breath away; and in the strange slanting light you felt somehow held, beloved, alive, and it was like The First Morning, and you believed it was possible to be new. Even in the midst of the hardest grief, it comes to us, this glory, in some stillness, in a face, a touch, a place, a smell. We know those moments. And we have all wanted to pitch a tent on those heights and stay and stay and stay.

It turns out that we cannot stay – the traditional interpretation of our story is correct about that. But the reason we cannot stay is not because it isn’t good for us to be on the summit and desire such glory. It is in fact the supreme good. To want that glory is to desire God. It is also true that while we await the final, full breakthrough of divine pleasure upon the world, we have much work to do. But this work is not the busyness and effort, the demand and expectation, the dread and drudgery, or the purpose and plan that we have been taught is pleasing to God. The work of people of faith is more wonder than competence, more surrender than skill, more beauty and imagination than plans and programs, more gratitude and praise than effort and exhaustion, more tryst than task.

The call to discipleship is not to save the world: that’s God’s job. It is rather to witness in word, deed, and in awed silence to the fact that God is in fact saving and re-creating everything, even now. Our calling is to become increasingly alert to the places where transformation has already secretly begun, and to point them out and tell the truth about what we see (often at the risk of our lives) to those who cannot see them or do not believe what they see, and who therefore languish in cynicism, sorrow and despair.  The mission of the church is to testify by overt gesture and by secret resistance, in private and in public (“in all places, everywhere and without ceasing”) that grace is even now sparking in the stubble, glory is already lighting up the mountain, and all people, strangers, kin and enemies, are even now being plucked from death, included in the sweep of mercy, and brought home to sit at the table of peace.

Our calling is therefore also to develop a capacity to see beyond common sense and ordinary sight. To see the world’s suffering unflinchingly, exactly as it is, and to see God already working right there a someday resurrection. To spot the tracers of love in the bloodstained firmament and to announce them like watchers on the wall at daybreak, and by our fearless announcement bring hope to everyone who swears all hope is lost. And this means we must learn to pray and to pray contemplatively, to re-calibrate the eyes of the heart by gazing on God. It means we must open ourselves to fire.

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The calling of the church, our calling, is the hardest work there is – stubbornly to trust the un-evident more than the evidence at hand. To resist the caution of the earnest, the sensible, and the balanced. To be glad that God is full of the kind of generosity that mocks our guilt-ridden, self-important social action strategies, unhinges our anxious time management techniques, and beats the heck out of our prudent long-range goals. The mission of the church is to be delighted by this odd God who pays latecomers the same wage as those who grunt all day in the sun. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about the strange pleasure of largesse, and it is our calling not to be ashamed of this gospel.

God’s will is to love the sinner, love the sinned against, empty the haughty, fill the poor, mend the brokenhearted, abide the unacceptable, bless the weak and inadequate church. And in the face of all this divine nonsense, our calling is to lose our senses too, to be like this God. It is a very hard calling, make no mistake, because it feels so much like doing nothing, and we have a terrible time shaking the notion that if we aren’t doing something, than neither is God. And yet our ministry is in the end to be the fools who understand that the very best thing we can do for the world is simply to strike a fascinated pose before the alien beauty of grace.

In the late 4th century in the Syrian desert, a young monk named Lot went out from his cave to consult and older, wiser monk whose name was Joseph. Lot said to Joseph, “Abba, the best I can, I say my prayers, I fast, I meditate, and I serve my neighbor. What else is there to do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said, “To do? Nothing more. But you could become all flame.”

All flame…

It would be good, it would be very good, for us to be there.