Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Ups and Downs
Life has its ups and downs.
On the upside is upbeat. Things are looking up. It’s uplifting because we’re flying high. Up is where the penthouses are and the desks of the big-shots. Upgraded.
And up is where the heavens are. Up is where Jesus went when he ascended, and Elijah went up, too. Jesus rose from the dead and now Jesus is up there, sitting at the right hand of the father. Up on the mountain is where Moses went to get the law. And up on the mountain is where Jesus went with a couple of his disciples to meet with Moses and Elijah. Up is where the word of God came from: up is where God spoke from the cloud and up is where the Spirit came from like a dove. Up is the direction in which we lift our hearts in thanksgiving and hands and voices in praise. Up is where God lives.
On the downside is downtrodden. In the dumps. Where we hit bottom before we turn up again. Down is a downer. Down is where the mailroom is and the basement apartments. Down is the dark underground. Down is where we get down to work and down and dirty.
And down is the place of death. Down is where Jesus went after being crucified. It is where he went when, as we say in the creed, he descended into hell. Down is where the story goes after the mountaintop. Back down to the world of flesh and suffering and joyful desire. Down is where Moses came to find his people worshipping a golden calf idol. Down is where Jesus came to walk to his death. Down is where we live.
Matthew, the Gospel writer, is interested in high places and highfalutin ideas. In Matthew, Jesus’ great sermon is made from a mountain—known therefore as the sermon on the mount. In contrast, in Luke’s version, Jesus preaches down on the plain. In Luke, the ones who are blessed are poor and the hungry. In Matthew, they are poor in spirit and hunger for righteousness. In Luke and in Mark, the followers of Jesus call him master or rabbi, meaning teacher. In Matthew, they call Jesus Lord.
Is Jesus an up kind of person or a down kind of one? Is he mostly a divine creature who lives in the clouds, one who even in his lifetime hung around with the likes of a timeless Moses and Elijah? Or is he mostly immanuel, God with us, down here in an earthly and earthy way? Which is primary?
The dogmatic answer to this is that Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human; that is what we teach. But the dogma is a knife edge from which people—who are not easy with mysterious paradox—tend to fall to one side or the other. As even the early writings—the Gospels—demonstrate.
The centuries have not settled the issue. Five hundred years ago Martin Luther and his contemporaries were arguing about where Jesus was now that he had ascended to the right hand of God. The context was a debate about whether or not Jesus was in the bread that we eat in Holy Communion. There were those who said that if Jesus was sitting next to God, then he was up in heaven and could not be down here on earth, in the bread. But Luther said, first, that Jesus could be anywhere he felt like, as often as he felt like it, even if it meant two places at once. But more, Luther had a very down to earth view of Jesus. Jesus was a friend of the earth, of us, poor earthy creatures, and was glad to continue to be with us down here, in whatever form.
This up and down business about Jesus and God is not inevitable. That is, the position of God and us does not have to be along a vertical axis, God high and we low. This notion is not something that is in the nature of things human and divine. It is just the way our imaginations picture it. The home of God could just have easily been off to the unreachable left or right. At the end of the earth, for example, beyond the edge of the sea, as gods sit in some other faiths. Or in a secret cave. Or in the middle of the earth, or an emerald city, or in an alternate reality.
What we think about God is that God is hard to reach in normal life by normal methods of travel. God is separate. Up in the heavens is a good spot because we cannot travel up by our own means. We cannot fly. Gravity pulls us down again. When we try to fly, as Icarus did, we are destined to fail, as Icarus did, a sign of hubris, thinking himself to be above the life of mortals. We cannot fly to heaven on our own.
You may wonder why today’s Gospel story—called the Transfiguration—should merit a Sunday of its own. In the three-year cycle of readings, it appears every year, along with only a handful of other special days like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost. Every other story has to wait three years before it returns. The Transfiguration does appear in each of the three first Gospels, which means that in the earliest Christian tradition the story was considered important and widespread.
The story doesn’t really add much to our or the disciple’s knowledge of Jesus. They already have decided and declared that he is the Son of God. It does not provide decisive new evidence. It does not advance the plot. Jesus has already established that he comes from the spiritual line of the Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets). At best, it confirms Jesus’ provenance, his pedigree, his class of people. So maybe evidence is not the purpose or the point.
People find the transfiguration story to be disturbing and confusing. That is because it seems magical and mystical. It has ghosts in it, and clouds, and bright lights, and voices from God that speak directly to some humans. And Jesus seems comfortable with that. It’s the disciples who are freaked out.
It is not that Jesus does something extraordinary. In all the Gospels he has already presided over some major miracles, healing people, feeding multitudes, raising people from the dead. The transfiguration is not more miraculous.
But it is less earthy. This is not a man of the people doing things with divine assist. What happens is way beyond people-things. It makes Jesus, who seemed to be down here, up there. That’s one reason that Peter wants to build those booths: he wants this experience to be made more mundane, daily, attached. And in the end, Jesus does come back down here. Not only is it not his time to stay on the mountain, as some argue, it is not his job.
The story of the transfiguration says: there are parts of Jesus that are not human, in a major way. We cannot elide this or ignore it. The story of the transfiguration is put right smack in the middle of the Gospels, up on a mountain. It is in the way. We cannot get from the ministry of Jesus to his passion without going through the transfiguration.
There are many who see Jesus in daily things. Luther did, and likewise Lutherans do by tradition and teaching. Jesus is earthy, a person of the earth, as we are. People discover Jesus in events of their lives, in compassion, in stories, in teachings.
But many discover Jesus in a moment that cannot be explained easily, not connected to daily events. Mysterious moments. Those discoveries are powerful. They can support one’s faith life for a long time. Sometimes, when things get rough and dubious, the memory of that moment is all that keeps one faithful and true. It can be all that one has to keep one trying to know God and to praise and thank God. It can sustain us when the life of this earth is too hard, or vicious, or disappointing, or crazy.
We are creatures of the earth, down here. But we need the food of the heavens, up there. We made in God’s image are persons, as Jesus was, of divine and mortal ancestry. Mystery is as essential to us as pragmatism.
We, like the disciples, abide in two worlds. After hearing the voice in the cloud, the disciples fall down in fear. But Jesus touches them. Rise up, he says. And then he says, come back down with me.