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.
A Life Complete
Text: Mark 11:1-11 and 14:1-15:47
A weird thing about the church calendar is that it breaks one story into lots of little ones. And the lectionary, which divides the whole life of Jesus into 52 bite-sized chunks, sometimes makes our faith seem like the Highlights of Jesus Show. Christmas, some miracles, a few great speeches, then crucifixion and resurrection. It is especially so today, on this Sunday with two names. In about 90 minutes we go from triumph to despair. From Hooray for Jesus to Crucify Him. Today we will ponder that a bit, guided by the minister’s manual that says that on this day “a long sermon might not be desirable.”
What we should be doing in the year is reading the entire Gospel of Mark, or one of the other Gospels. The Gospels are not histories. In a sense they are in fact highlights of Jesus. Because even the earliest of them were written at least twenty years after the death of Jesus, and they probably were assembled from stories people told each other over and over again. Christianity for a long time was a word-of-mouth movement, not frozen yet in scripture. But because of that, the story of Jesus had to make sense as a whole. You cannot remember a long story if it is just little pieces. There has to be some coherent unity to it all. In short, the story of the palms and the story of the passion have to make sense together.
The triumph of the procession is not the whole story of Jesus, but it is part of the story. Jesus did not march into Jerusalem, which was in its day a combination of New York and Washington, DC, center of government and commerce—he did not march into Jerusalem and seize the throne. But folks thought he might. The people all sang “blessed is the coming of the kingdom.” They were right in their hopes. Jesus was not leading them to only a spiritual satisfaction. He had made a lot of enemies because what he did favored the unfavored and made fools of the proud and powerful. People felt that there were changes about to happen: the coming of the kingdom, in the most secular interpretation of that word.
But the crucifixion is not the whole story, either, though it is part of the story, too. It was nearly impossible to reconcile the hopes of the people with what then happened to Jesus. For us, in this compressed view of things, it seems like one of those horrible accidents. When suddenly the whole future changes. When you just wish you could rewind the clock and make what happened not have happened. When you don’t even wonder how it could have happened because it has not sunk in yet that it did.
But for Jesus, the trial was a natural outcome of the life he led and the life he preached. He did work miracles, but mostly for the sick, the hungry, the poor, and those who suffered. He did preach about a new realm, but one in which people loved their enemies, in which people did more than they had to to help others, in which people forgave each other, and in which people treated all people as if they were their own brothers or sisters (in a good way). None of what he said would have made him a candidate for a long and happy life. I don’t know if he was happy. He did not live long. He did not expect to.
Jesus lived the kind of life in which one thing led to another. And he was fine with that. He expected it, and he told his disciples about it. If they were surprised at what happened, it wasn’t because he hadn’t warned them.
We make much of the obedience of Jesus. In the first reading, we heard “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That reading was no doubt picked for today because of that verse. Some people find that his obedience is a mechanism of salvation; for them it explains the machinery behind Jesus as savior. But in any case, the fact that Jesus went to the cross against what we might call his best interests is important. It is important, but it is important because of what it tells us about Jesus.
Unlike most of us, Jesus lived his whole life through. It seems to me that Jesus was a person without guile. He was the same on the inside as on the outside. He didn’t have a strange and secret core, as many of us have. He was the same substance, less like a peach and more like an apple, only more so. A friend says Jesus was transparent to God. That is God showed through him transparently. But he was transparent to himself, too.
The obedience we see in Jesus might better be called harmony. Or it could be acceptance, but I like harmony better, sounding less passive. Jesus fulfills his destiny. Not in following a plan that was known and drawn beforehand, but following to the end the life that was most his. Not swayed and distracted by all the things that sway and distract us. And not turned back at the end either by fear or by regret. When God created the universe and found it to be good, God used the word “tov,” a word that means harmonious and fitting. The life of Jesus was tov.
One reason we follow Jesus is that we long for our lives to be the same. The story of Jesus processing with the palms and the story of Jesus being judged for his life are not told to make Jesus seem greater and us seem smaller. We also have moments of triumph and moments of trial. We can see in Jesus is that it is possible to live both those moments in the same life, live both in alignment with the people we are. It is the way Jesus lived. And the life we pray for.
Moments of Resistance
Text: John 12:20-31
They asked Jesus a question. Jesus answered them. But the answer seemed to have nothing to do with the question.
The question was: Can these Greek folks come and see you? The Greeks came to Philip. And Philip came to Andrew. And Andrew and Philip came to Jesus.
The answer was: The hour has come. But that was no answer at all. Jesus did not mean the hour had come to meet the Greeks. He did not mean: Sure, I’ll see them in an hour. Or: Bring them by, I can spare an hour. Jesus answered them—it says answered—Jesus answered them with a discussion about grain, and fruit, and hating and losing lives, and dying and glory and a question to himself.
These folks came to Jesus, it says. But Jesus answered them in a strange and unhelpful way. That’s because there are two stories here in the Gospel of John, and they smash into each other in today’s reading. There is the story in the beginning of John of the gathering of the disciples and Jesus’ traveling ministry. And there is the story at the end of John of the Passion, of Jesus’ travels to his execution on the cross. The two stories butt up one against the other right in this passage, in this verse, joined only by a conjunction. They came to see Jesus the miracle worker. But—that’s the conjunction—but Jesus’ mind was on what was to be, not what just had been.
The first part of the Gospel of John has been called by scholars the “book of signs.” The signs are the miracles that Jesus performs—like turning water into wine. There are seven of them altogether, and at the moment of today’s story, Jesus has just performed the last one: the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead.
The second part of the Gospel of John has been called the “book of glory.” Jesus is to be glorified, meaning his nature and importance are to be revealed and honored. This part of John contains the story of Jesus’ trial, execution, and resurrection. It begins pretty much with this speech of Jesus.
We are looking at Jesus standing on a threshold of his life. A moment of transition. This is the hour, he says. Now, he says. Jesus stands as if in front of a portal, a gate to something new and maybe scary, like one of those shimmering things in sci-fi movies. He stands as we do in situations like this—times of certain change but uncertain futures. Hesitating, wondering. “Now, my soul is troubled,” he says. What should I say? “Father, save me from this hour?” He wonders, should he turn away, should he turn aside?
He tells a little story to us, but I hear him telling this story as much to himself as to his listeners. Unless a grain falls to the ground, he thinks, it is just a single seed, alone and unrealized. But if it falls, then from it becomes fruit. Abundance. Life. And other seeds that yield fruit of their own. “It is for this reason,” Jesus tells us, tells himself, “It is for this reason that I have come.”
It is not for himself that he lives. A single grain, a grain living by itself, the text says. This is the beginning of the church. This focus of this story is not on the death of the seed but on its productivity. About what can happen to the seed. Jesus must do what he is called to do. Which is to live in such a way that many others will follow his life and teachings so that the world may be changed. Even if as in his case it means his death. And we, who know how the story turns out, know that even though he hesitates here, in the end he does not turn away, but steps forward.
Our lives are full of these points of resistance. Invisible resisting barriers that we can feel as we confront the next step our lives will take. As we think about love, about work, about things we own, about where we will live. Shall I marry, shall I quit, shall I move? Shall I accept? Will things work out OK? Am I making a mistake? Am I doing what’s right, or am I being foolish, setting myself up for a fall? What shall I do?
It does not take much to make us cautious. To block us. Some years ago, before the chapel here was built, some folks from Faith conducted an experiment. They walked into the sanctuary—this space—as if they had never been here before. What they noticed were visual barriers: three sets of doors, a dark space under the balcony, a big beam across their field of view. Little things, but enough to become barriers. If you were wondering: shall I go inside to check out this church, you might hesitate. You might turn away. Just a little decision made just slightly more difficult. The experimenters could feel it. Feel the resistance.
Most of our decisions fall somewhere between whether we should enter a church and whether we should follow our destiny to change the world. But the points of resistance are there. You can feel them. Sometimes subtle, often not so subtle. Points of doubt and worry. They can make us depressed or anxious, wake us up at 5:00 in the morning, keep us from speaking to people, make us think too much.
We stand, unable to move for a moment, or for years. Perhaps it would be better, we think, to turn back, to find some earlier, familiar certainty. Or perhaps it would be better to turn aside, to pursue some other option that makes us feel a little less uneasy. Or: we could just go ahead and see what happens. We just don’t know. We don’t know what’s on the other side of that portal. It is scary.
“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus said. There are no limits to this command. It is not conditional. It does not depend on favorable prospects or certain information. Followers of Jesus follow Jesus. That is true by definition, not by constraint.
But to follow Jesus does not mean to do exactly what Jesus did. But to do as Jesus did. To act in the face of fear and uncertainty. To step forward trusting in God’s good wishes for us. To reach out to others even if it does not benefit us. Even if it harms us. Jesus steps through that portal to the cross. When we follow Jesus, it does not mean we must be tried for blasphemy and executed by an oppressive regime. It does mean that even if that were the outcome, we would follow God’s call to us. This passage is not a call to suffer as Jesus suffered, but to be willing to.
Most of us will not suffer as Jesus did. Thank God for that. Not even close. But we will all stand before choices that fill us with doubt and fear before we make them. We will all feel God’s call, even though we might not name it that way. We will all feel our souls troubled. We will all feel that temptation to pray to be saved from that hour.
We do not have to pick the hardest thing. Somethings the easy thing is the best thing. We do not have to rush ahead. Sometimes the best thing is to stay where we are. There is no certainty that things will work out well. Sometimes they don’t.
But we don’t have to be so blocked by fear. Jesus by his teachings and example calls us to go places and do things we might never have dreamed of otherwise. To step forward not without fear, but in the face of fear. We can go with Jesus into the uncertain future.
Text: John 3:14-21
Other texts: Numbers 21:4-9
Horrible food. And such small portions.
Why have you brought us out of the land of Egypt? complain the Israelites. Talk about ungrateful. They had been in Egypt because they had been slaves. Moses with God’s help freed them from slavery. Now, in the desert, the old days in Egypt perhaps don’t look so bad. They have turned their gaze to the past, to the familiar. The present is uncomfortable, and the future is uncertain. As they turn their eyes back, they see a past that was never there.
The Israelites are perishing. When you are perishing, you don’t know where to look. Every option looks the same. One as good as another. Or as bad.
Who knows what they were expecting? There was no itinerary. There was no ETA. No one knew for certain where they were going. They had fled a bad situation. When you are in deep trouble, it is hard to think about anything besides “let me out of here!” “Anything is better than this thing.” But that is not always true.
Far from home, wandering in the desert, confused and anxious. To top it all off, poisonous serpents—which we imagine to be snakes—appear among them and start biting them. And the people die from these bites. After all this disappointment, then comes despair.
Perishing is like that. It is a long, drawn out, process. Not quick and sharp, but slow and dull. One thing after another, until you cannot stand one more thing. And then one more thing happens, and it turns out you can stand it, just barely.
The word means to be destroyed and means to be lost. When we are perishing our lives feel lost and small. It is a kind of spiritual claustrophobia. A severe narrowing of what is possible. A feeling that there is no point in doing anything, hoping for anything. When we are perishing our world has become tiny, gray, and without purpose. A relentless downward slope. The power and beauty of the world dwindles and decays.
Some are perishing now. And others fear it in these scary times. Scary not only because of the economy but because of war and torture in the world, because of food and water shortages, because of greed, selfishness, and cowardice. I wonder whether our outrage—an overused and scary word in itself—is not a mask for our fear of everything falling apart. The world and maybe our own lives. Too many snakes this time for us to handle.
This is not how it is meant to be. Perishing, that is. Though it has been so for at least as long as we have history. We are not meant to be fed a life of thin broth. But instead a fat feast. The Lord will prepare a feast of rich food, Isaiah once said. We are created to have abundant life.
Which is another way to say eternal life. “Life of the age” is its literal translation. John the Gospel writer likes things that are opposite—dualisms as the scholars say. Light and dark, choice and destiny, now and forever, hidden and revealed. And perishing and eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus, so that we may not perish but have eternal life. Look, God says, you can have eternal life.
As perishing is not a synonym for death, so eternal life is not a synonym for everlasting life. Though death is a kind of perishing; though everlasting life is a corollary of eternal life. For John, eternal life is life without limits, even the limit of death, but not only that limit. Maybe it is better to say “eternal living.” Eternal life is living so abundantly that it is like the kind of living God does. Eternal life does not mean unending life but life lived in the unending presence of God. Abundant does not mean excessive or profligate, but what used to be called “good.” Good life. Not everyone wants to live forever (many do, for sure), but I bet that everyone wants to live abundantly, live a good life.
We like to talk about all this stuff in words. Lutherans especially do. Luther was a wordy kind of guy. Though I’m sure his thoughts began in his heart, what he gave us were tons and tons of words. Words about how God was, how God worked, what Jesus was, what salvation meant. Luther, for all his self-professed disdain for theology, for all his earthiness, was a theologian. He liked to figure things out. And after and as he figured things out, he really liked to tell everyone about it.
Theology is said to be “faith seeking understanding.” But it is important to see that this starts with faith. All too often, we act as if it were the opposite: that understanding figures out faith. Understanding can help, but sometimes theology leads us into weird dark alleys and an emphasis on the fine points. Or into battle.
When the Israelite are perishing in the desert, God asks very little of them. God doesn’t ask to be obeyed. God doesn’t reiterate all the things he said to them before. God doesn’t yell at them for being ungrateful jerks. God doesn’t ask them to figure things out. God doesn’t ask them to believe, or to believe in anything in particular. God doesn’t ask them to trust in God. God doesn’t ask them to be religious, to be theologians, to do or say anything special. God doesn’t ask them to repent, or promise, or work hard. All God asks is that they look.
John tells us: Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. The word condemn here means to separate (as a judge might separate who is right and wrong). The word saved means to heal. God did not send Jesus to break things apart but rather to mend them. To fix the wounds, and relieve the pain. To put an end to perishing.
When you are perishing, you don’t know where to look. Every option looks the same. What God asks for is that the Israelites redirect their gaze. That they turn away from their longing for the good old days in Egypt and instead look at what God has given. What changes for the Israelites is their point of view. They attend to what is God’s. They become mindful of God.
When we say we believe in Jesus, another way to say that, one way to think about that, is that we are mindful of him. That it is not a question of thinking things through and coming to a smart conclusion, but to attending to Jesus. It is as much how we look<,> as it is how we see things. As much who we look at<,> as it is what we see.
Just as Moses held up the snakes, John says, just in this way God held up Jesus. God loves the world. The snakes still bit the Israelites, and the snakes bite us. But their power is gone. We can turn our gaze, our minds, to God in Christ. We are not meant to perish. We have eternal life.
Effective Expedient Expert Idols
Text: John 2:13–22
Other texts: Exodus 20:1–17
Lutherans have a lot to say about the Law. When Lutherans speak of the the Law, the Law of the Bible, the Old Testament Law of the Torah, not the books in the statehouse, it is always with a capital “L.” Few other Christian denominations make such a big deal of the Law. Some Christians see the Law as at best an outmoded irrelevance to them. Something not applicable to the New Testament and Christianity. Some see it as at worst a toxic burden. Something that Christians should reject as legalistic and condemning.
But that is not how Luther—who learned Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament—it is not how Luther saw it. And it certainly not how Jesus saw it, who said he came not to dissolve the law but to complete it, to fill it out.
The Law was and is a gift. The psalm we just sang together is a song of celebration and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for the law. Not only the whole Torah, which means teaching, but the Halakah, the particular 613 statutes that include the ten commandments. So we sang, “the teaching of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.” And we sang, “the statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart.” These are verses that describe a valuable and welcome privilege and gift.
The law is guidance. God gave the laws so people would not be confused and uncertain. The word for the statutes, Halakah, means a path that one walks. It is easier to walk a path than to bushwhack. Easier to travel on a road than cross-country. Easier to follow the road signs—or the GPS—than to figure out the directions at each turn. The law is a way, instructions for the good life. They come from God. They are the words of God, which is a better translation than “commandments.”
So we sang, “More desired are they than gold … sweeter far than honey.” This is how Jesus would have known the law.
The foundation of the law, expressed in the little preface to the Ten Commandments—the ten words—is freedom. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. I am the one who freed you from slavery. This is not a statement that establishes God’s authority. Not: “I am God your creator and I am a lot bigger than you, so obey.” Instead it establishes God’s compassion and trustworthiness. “I am the God who remembered you, sought you out, guided you, cared for you, freed you” What is behind these words is a God whom we know from experience we can trust and follow. We are easily distracted, tempted, and trapped. God who freed the Israelites from slavery is a God who frees us from traps.
We just heard this story in John of Jesus acting pretty violently. Throwing stuff all about, yelling (I’m sure) at the people there, whipping them or at least their stuff, dumping all that money on the ground. “Get out of here,” he says. “This is not a marketplace, not a shopping center.” Maybe we are shocked at gentle Jesus acting so belligerently. Or maybe we are thrilled. “Go Jesus, get rid of those sleaze-oids who are shilling in the church.”
But the people who were there would not have been shocked or thrilled. They would have been mystified. For the merchants were in the Temple as a convenience for the worshippers.
People had come from all over to Jerusalem for Passover. They would have been expected to make an offering of a lamb or a dove. But it would have been difficult to carry such animals on their journey to the city, so the travelers would buy the animals from the Temple merchants. They would have wanted to pay Temple taxes, so they would change their Greek or Roman money with the money changers. It was an efficient way to run the system.
The first of the Ten Commandments is this: you shall not make yourself any idol. Idols are traps. Idols are things, ideas, habits, values, or points of view that entrap us. We grant idols power over us. Idols then guide us. Money is a commonly cited example of an idol. Sometimes we do things because we want money or because we fear losing money; then we have let money control our behavior. Sometimes the desire for money or the fear of losing it makes us do things that betray our natures as children of God. Then we might say we are worshipping an idol.
There was nothing really wrong with the merchants conducting business in the Temple. It was practical. It was efficient. It was effective. It was convenient. It made good use of the merchants’ skills. It was all those things. It just had no place in God’s holy house.
We share with the Temple leaders a love for effectiveness, expediency, and expertise. But we have to be careful that we do not let these become idols that trap us and lead us astray. We do things that are effective because it gets things done. They accomplish the productive goal. We do things that are expedient because it gets things done with a minimum of fuss, bother, or conscience. They accomplish the goal conveniently. And we rely on expertise because it gets things done more quickly, elegantly, and correctly. It is efficient and prudent.
There is no problem with all this. Theoretically. But the things we do in the name of effectiveness, expediency, and expertise are not always the best things for the people involved or affected. Sometime it hurts them. Sometimes us, too. Sometimes it is better for people to be allowed to be a little sloppy, inconvenient, and amateurish.
Our love for God and neighbor overrules our love for accomplishment. Better to do something in a half-baked way than to harm others. Better to take longer than necessary. Better to do things more poorly. Compassion for others might move us to settle for less than the best, the fastest, or the most economical. It might move us to work less frantically. It might help us tolerate a little disorganization and uncertainty. It might let us lower our standards. To settle for good enough. To give others and ourselves a break.
The world needs some slack. Slack is the sabbath of everyday life. (Sabbath being the third or fourth commandment, depending on how you count). Even in these scary economic times, we need to put aside time for nothing useful. Slack is the enabler of forgiveness, at the center of Christian theology and life, to allow harm done without retribution or revenge. To not tie up all loose ends. Slack is grace.
The Temple, the church, is a sanctuary. It is an institution set aside by the culture. We come here for lots of reasons. But one reason is to be freed from idols. And to learn to escape from their traps. That does not mean that the world’s presence is not felt. We do talk about building projects and fund-raising and lending a hand with chores and accomplishments. But in the physical and spiritual space of the church—and, we hope, in our lives day to day—God comes first. And neighbor comes first. Everything else comes second.
The passionate actions of Jesus in the Temple need not shock us or thrill us. They can comfort us. Jesus comes to the Temple mindful of the first commandment and freedom on which it is based. Jesus’ job is not to make things work smoothly. Jesus defends us from compelling and sneaky idols. Jesus, the way, frees us.
Text: Genesis 9:8-17
As I said before the service, there is going to be a quiz about the first reading, the one about Noah. So, here are the questions.
Question 1. This passage describes a promise. What is the promise?
Question 2: In this passage God says “I have set my rainbow in the clouds.” What is the purpose of the rainbow?
Question 3: To whom is the promise made?
There is a fourth question, but that one will come up in a few minutes.
For the “religions of the book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the relationship between God and people is based on a deal. The formal word for this deal is “covenant,” which means “agreement.” When the Bible was translated into Latin, the word used became “testament.” Testament unfortunately also means statement, as in someone’s last will and testament. But what they were getting at was not God’s will but the deal that God and people made.
The fact that we relate to God through an agreement is remarkable. Our relationship is more than just creator and creature. More than “I’m God and you’re not.” It is as if we have a contract with God. A contract implies equal respect, even in the face of unequal power or even unequal benefit. It also implies that God and we have a common purpose, a common endeavor that we agree to work on together. We are partners with God through mutual agreement. The endeavor we have agreed to work on is the good of the world, the nourishment and maintenance of all creation, and way of being or you could say a way of living that lets us walk humbly together, humans and God. We walk as two lovers walk, side by side and in harmony, step matching step. At least, that’s what we hope for in the deal.
God made three main covenants with Israel. Each is known by the name of a person, a leader. The first is the one we read about today. The covenant of Noah. The second is of Abraham, to make a great and prosperous nation. The third is of Moses, the covenant at Mount Sinai where the commandments and the other laws were given. For Christians, there is a fourth covenant, the new covenant as we say in Holy Communion or new testament as we call Christian scripture, the covenant of Jesus and God’s promise of graceful forgiveness. None of these covenants supersedes the previous ones. They are all part of and add to the relationship that God and people share.
The story of Noah and the ark is one of the first stories in the Bible. It comes immediately after the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden and the slaying of their son Abel by his older brother Cain. There is a sort of “time passes” chapter that lists the generations from Adam to Noah, Then the story of Noah begins.
You might remember the story of Noah’s Ark as a sweet tale of animals coming two by two into a great ship that Noah built. But they go into that ship because God is about to flood the whole earth and destroy almost all life on land.
It is a difficult time in the life of God and people. God has had a kind of buyer’s remorse. It turns out that the first people were wicked, and God, the Bible says, regrets the decision to create humans. So it rains for a long time, the earth floods, and the only creatures and humans that survive are the ones on the ark.
Out of this story comes the first covenant between God and humanity. Out of this story of destruction, willfulness, obedience, and salvation, comes the first deal. The terms of the deal are clear.
It is specific. Never again will all creatures be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again will there be a flood that destroys all of life. God promises no more flooding here. This is not about general affection or about preserving life in general. What just happened? says God: it won’t happen again.
It is timeless. This is an everlasting covenant, says God. It is permanent. For me and you, for all generations, says God. The waters will never again become such a flood.
It is inclusive. This deal has collateral beneficiaries. It covers all animals as well as people. Every living creature of all flesh, God says. Every animal of the earth. The agreement is with people, but the whole earth is blessed.
And finally, it is one-sided. I’ve been calling this a deal, or an agreement. But it is more like a promise that God makes and that we attend to. As for me, says God, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendant. This is God’s work. And God takes on the task of maintaining and keeping the promise. God puts a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is a reminder. But it is not a reminder to us. It is a reminder to God. When the rainbow is seen in the clouds, God says, I will remember this deal. The remembering is not ours but God’s.
Here is the fourth question of the quiz: In this agreement between God and the world, God agrees not to flood the earth again. In this agreement, what do we people agree to do?
Right: Nothing. This is a unilateral unconditional promise given to the world through the God’s arbitrary love, which we call grace.
This is perhaps a particularly Lutheran understanding of the story of Noah. Where others might pay more attention to the wrath of God which drowned the world in the first place, Lutherans tend to see the love of God which saved it. When others might see the wickedness which brought the flood down on them as they deserved, Lutherans tend to see the nothing that people did to deserve God’s everlasting promise of life.
This is a pretty counter-cultural notion. There must be something we can do to annoy God, you might think. I’m sure there is. I’m sure we annoy, anger, and sadden God all the time. But there is nothing we can do that will make God renege on promises made. Nothing we can do that will make God abandon us. God wishes blessings for us, God’s people and God’s children.
We are now in Lent. This season is traditionally a time of reflection and repentance. But that does not mean it is a time for us to beat up on ourselves. We do enough of that without having to create a special season for it. We do not need special coaching to see ourselves as coming up short from time to time.
Lent is a time for reflection but it is not a time to blame ourselves or others. It is not a time to find, lay, or take blame. It is a time to look at what we have been and done. But not to look with hateful or guilt-filled eyes. And though it is a time for repentance, it is not a time for shame. It is a time to consider the direction in which we are going and to consider how we might go from now on. Lent is a time of grace, not a time of wrath.
It is a time for forgiveness, forgiving others and ourselves. For sins we have done and sins that others have done against us. But we do not need to pay penance. We are given forgiveness freely. It is not necessary for us to pay for that gift. We do not need to demand penance, either. It is not our place to demand that others pay us.
It is fitting that the story of Noah appears at the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God and at the beginning of this season. It is a story of God’s intense desire to extract good from the bad. And of God’s ongoing practice of renewal and rebirth. It is a story of blessing. In this season of Lent, look back with forgiveness, look forward with confident anticipation, and be thankful.
Down to Earth
Text: Mark 9:2-9
On the cover of the bulletin you’ll see Raphael’s interpretation of the Transfiguration, the formal name for the story we just heard in the Gospel reading. This image was painted around the same time that Martin Luther was stirring up the Reformation. In real life the painting is about thirteen feet high by nine feet wide. I would guess it is a little more impressive at that size than the image on today’s bulletin.
Like many paintings of this story, this one depicts two worlds. At the top is the heavenly world, the mountain top of the story. There Jesus meets with the greatest prophets Moses and Elijah. They are all kind of floating in the air, and the disciples are just below them, terrified (in Mark’s version of the story) or asleep (in Luke’s version). Below them, in the dark, are the people of the earthly world, evidently in sin, sickness, and suffering. The split between the divine and the mundane is clear, and it is clear in whose realm Jesus belongs and is comfortable. That is one way to see this story.
The story of the Transfiguration sits in the church year between Epiphany and Lent. It is on the cusp of the two seasons. From the mountain top we look back on the stories of the ministry of Jesus. What he did, what he said, and especially the people he healed. His worldly work. And also we look forward to the story of the passion. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection at Easter. His heavenly work.
The story itself sits almost exactly in the middle of Mark. Right before it, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus tells Peter that he, Jesus, will be executed. So in Mark, too, it sits on the cusp, with the ministry of Jesus on one side and the passion of Christ on the other.
In the story, Jesus invites a few disciples, Peter, James, and John, to come up with him on a high mountain. James and John are silent throughout the whole episode. Peter, as usual, has plenty to say. What he says is this: Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. It is good for us to be here. How is it good? Is it good for Peter and his buddies, or is it good for Jesus, or is it good for the world? Is it a good that benefits one of those groups? Or is the fact itself that we, the disciples and Jesus, are here that is good? I have an idea about this, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
The Transfiguration is a big deal. It is one of the church’s feast days. But it was not always so, and it did not become so until just before Luther’s time, in the 15th century. The events of the Transfiguration don’t really change our picture of Jesus.
Some say that the point of the feast is that it establishes a boundary. But if so, that boundary exists already in the events of the life of Jesus. And besides, I’m not so sure that we can turn the person of Jesus into two different characters, one pre-Transfiguration and one post-.
And if the point of the feast is that Jesus is revealed to be at least closely connected—if not coincident—with God, then we already know that. Peter has just declared a few verses previously that Jesus is the Messiah. And if it is that now we know that Jesus is going to his death, we already know that, too. Jesus just told us so.
The story is powerfully dramatic. But though it seems to be about Jesus, it doesn’t add much to the disciples understanding of Jesus, nor to ours. So what is it doing here, and why does the church think this is important? Important enough to get its own day.
When you read this story, you think, at least I do: why did Jesus invite his disciples? Especially John and James, who just hang around and don’t say two words between them. But even why Peter? Jesus doesn’t need the disciples to be there. He does not teach them anything. He doesn’t even talk to them until the end, when he orders them to keep their mouths shut about all this. Which of course, they do not.
The story seems to be about Jesus, but I think it is more about the disciples, and especially about Peter. I think that Jesus brings these three important church leaders up to the mountain with him for their sake. Silent James and John and excited talkative Peter are not there just to observe and report. They are there to be changed. It is their metamorphosis that becomes the long-term result of the events on the mountain top.
Peter says, Lord it is good for us to be here. When he says “good,” he means a lot more than that things are just fine, or fortunate. He means, in the word he uses, that it is beautiful, excellent, precious, and fitting. That it fits into the scheme of creation and the universe. That it is good in the same way that God in Genesis saw things to be good when the world was created. Peter is saying something really important and crucial. World changing.
For Peter, this event with the prophets and the voice of God establishes his vocation—his calling—in a way that was, if not casual, then unconfirmed. He sees in a way that he did not see before that Jesus is from the people of Moses and Elijah, but even more: that he is like them. That he, Jesus will change the world. And that he, Peter, will be an important instrument of that change. It finally clicks. There is a conversion here in this story, and the person who is converted is Peter.
Our lives are full of moments of change. We are often on the cusp of something that was and something that is about to be. But it is rare that we see that until it is too late, so to speak. Turning points are hard to see until we realize that we’ve made the turn. It seems like all we are doing is making small decisions here or there. To confirm the path we are on for a while or to deny it. To stay the course or make a new one. And often as not, as with Peter, the path we take depends as much or more on what someone else does as on decisions we ourselves make. But occasionally, as with Peter, we do see that we are on the cusp, that it is an important moment, that something is happening right this minute in our lives, that the future is going to be amazing.
No matter which version of the Transfiguration you read, in each the followers of Jesus are surprised. That’s the way it is to follow Jesus. You go up the mountain with Jesus. Something happens. You come down the mountain. Everything is different.
The church—Christianity—celebrates this feast because it is an event in the life of the church more than it is an event in the life of Jesus. Down comes Jesus from the mountain. Down come John and James. Down comes Peter.
Down they come to the world of sin, sickness, and suffering. The world in the lower half of the painting. The place of Jesus is not after all to be in the clouds, floating above the sorry disciples. It is to be with the sorry disciples. It is clear in whose realm Jesus belongs. The ministry of Jesus does not shut down with the Transfiguration. It is conveyed to John and James and Peter, and it has been conveyed through the church to us here in this place and in this time. Where it is good for us to be.