Thursday, February 28, 2019

Nobody Glows? (Reflections on the Transfiguration, Year C)

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“…This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

Have you seen that TV commercial for It’s the one where a bunch of ad execs are sitting around a conference table looking at a potential TV spot for Choice Hotels. The video they watch shows a happy couple who are so delighted they have booked through Choice that they give off a radiant glow. A young ad man cynically responds to the video by saying, “Nobody glows.” The boss points to him and replies, “He gets it.”

So, seriously, who glows? The idea that a human being can emit a dazzling light is one of the things which makes the Feast of the Transfiguration a hard sell for a preacher. It’s a weird miracle story, the full cultural significance of which may be lost to time and distance. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:28-36), Jesus is on something of a prayer retreat with Peter, James, and John on a mountain top. As he prays, his face is changed and his clothes appear dazzlingly white. This would be bizarre enough, but the boys with him suddenly see the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing with their teacher, and conversing about Jesus’ “departure” which will happen in Jerusalem. There’s lots of confusing stuff here. Why does Jesus glow? How do the three disciples recognize Moses and Elijah—who have been dead for centuries—in this pre-photographic age? What exactly do they mean by his “departure?” What does it all mean?

Like all good pastors with too little time on my hands to figure all of this out, I’m just going to pick and choose elements of this story and hope to God I have something relevant to say about it. First, I’m not sure that nobody glows. Okay, nobody actually emits light, but we could use the term metaphorically. When someone is seized by great joy, don’t they seem to be giving off a shine? Haven’t we seen a bride glow as she walks down the aisle to her beloved? Or, have you seen the brilliance on the face of a new parent? There are moments which seem so exquisitely lovely, so much like a glimpse of heaven that our faces seem to radiate.

I think that’s what’s happening here. Perhaps what this story is describing is not what Jesus experiences, but rather what Peter, James, and John were experiencing in his presence. The sublime one-ness Jesus has with the Father God was something which became real to those guys on that mountain. They may not have understood Jesus, but they knew when they looked at him that they were having a divine encounter. Of course, the problem with divine encounters on mountaintops is that they don’t last forever. In fact, they’re over almost as soon as we recognize that they’re occurring. Peter is so thrilled with the joy of the Lord that he wants to pitch some tents and just stay with Jesus in that beautiful but isolated moment. Too bad he can’t.

The Revised Common Lectionary marries this story to the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 34:29-35. Moses is glowing so much after his mountaintop chat with the Lord that he has to put a veil over his face so he doesn’t blind the other Israelites. By the time of St. Paul, however, this story has been modified. Paul thought the veil was Moses’ tricky way of keeping the others from finding out that the glow quickly wears off. (2 Corinthians 3:13)

That’s why I appreciate that the good ol’ boys who cooked up the RCL have given us the option for Transfiguration to read on to verse 43. This whole section together might just hold a mirror up to who we are as disciples of Jesus. There are a bunch of different characters in this story, and they all know Jesus, but they all have different reactions.

First, we have Peter, James, and John. They’ve had the mountaintop experience. They’ve seen the glow. They want—at least Peter wants—to stay on that mountain alone with Jesus and feel that warm glow of his presence. But they can’t. None of us can. They have to get used to the idea that the world exists below that summit, and they’re just going to have to carry that small moment of bliss with them back into the smelly outhouse of daily life.

Then there are the other disciples who haven’t had the experience. They’re just plodding along, waiting for Jesus to get back. They don’t think they can do anything on their own. They seem to be suffering from a nasty case of low self-esteem or, as the sociologists call it, surplus powerlessness. Jesus actually gets a little pissed off with these boys when he’s told they were unable to cure the epileptic boy in verses 37-42. I can see Jesus saying to them, “Didn’t you guys even try?! You saw how this kid and his dad are suffering. Isn’t this your mission as well as mine?” I guess these disciples, even after witnessing myriad acts of healing by Jesus, even after hearing an authoritative gospel from his lips, still don’t really believe that God will give them the power to make a holy change and declare God’s glory. Jesus is right to be annoyed with them.

Finally, of course, there’s the dad of the epileptic boy himself. He believes Jesus can heal. At least he wants to believe it. He seems pretty desperate. He knows about Jesus, but only comes to him when he’s in real trouble. He’s the guy who proves the old saying, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” I don’t think he has a living faith in Christ. Rather, he’s got a kind of superstitious faith which turns to Jesus in his moment of fear.

There’s just so much rich stuff in the Transfiguration story that I can’t possibly do it justice, even though this is the twenty-first time I’ve been called on to preach about it at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia. So I’ll go with this: the three reactions to Jesus in this story—the ones who want to stay on the mountaintop, the ones who don’t believe they can do God’s work, and the one who stands outside and only comes to Christ out of fear—are pretty lousy examples of people living a faith.

Whether we’ve had the mystical experience or not, we all have to come off the mountain some time and deal with the real world. But we can’t assume that we are powerless in it. Jesus has called us to be people in mission to each other, and that means believing that achieving the mission is possible. Sometimes the cloud overshadows us and we are terrified, but we have the voice of Jesus to guide us as we march toward our own cross and our own resurrection.

Keep the faith, my friend, and drop by again, won’t you?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

WARNING: Explicit Material (Reflections on Epiphany 7, Year C)

Image result for Images of Joseph forgiving his brothers
"Joseph Forgives his Brothers" Fracois Pascal Gerard (1770-1836)

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27)

When we last left Jesus (in last week’s assigned Gospel from the RCL), he was delivering his “Sermon on the Plain.” He was warning folks that things change. Those who are miserable today will have joy in the future, and those who are top dogs now might just get screwed later on. In the Gospel for Epiphany 7, Year C (Luke 6:27-38), Jesus gives his disciple—and us, too!—some pretty explicit directions. These kind of boil down to two rules:

1.      We have to forgive and love all the rotten, stupid, hurtful anal sphincters (metaphorically speaking) in our lives, and
2.      We have to be selfless and exceedingly generous.

As I guess you’ve figured out by this time, I’m a pretty liberal theologian. I don’t consider that every word in the Bible should be taken literally. The Bible is made up of many writings of various genres, and I think we can get away with seeing some of it as allegorical.

But not this passage. This is literal. It means just what it says.

The trouble is, many of us suck at following these directions. Have you ever been hurt? Really hurt? Have you been molested, abused, betrayed, wounded, lied about, beaten, or robbed? If you have, I’m guessing that love and forgiveness are pretty low on the list of things you’re wishing on the sack of scum who hurt you. But loving and forgiving is what Jesus tells us to do.

The compilers of the RCL have, in their wisdom, married this Gospel passage to a reading from Genesis (Genesis 45:3-11, 15). This Hebrew Scripture narrative is part of the story of a guy who really got hosed by others. Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, is his daddy’s favorite. If dad’s obvious preference for him weren’t enough to anger his jealous older brothers, this little snot tells the other boys that he has divine dreams in which he sees himself ruling over his siblings. Consequently, the older lads can’t stand this kid. Deciding that killing him might be a bit extreme, they sell Joseph as a slave to Arab traders and tell their old man the kid was killed and dismembered by a wild animal.

Now, I know a lot of folks have felt themselves wronged by their siblings. Still, you’ve got to admit that being sold into slavery would be a pretty hard thing for any of us to get past.

Fast forward Joseph’s story to the 45th chapter of Genesis. The kid has grown up, been freed from slavery and prison, and has risen to become the Prime Minister of Egypt. He’s got an Egyptian wife, a company car, and he’s been put in charge of the Royal Exchequer and been made Minister of Agriculture. There’s a global famine going on, and Joseph is making the Pharaoh of Egypt even richer by price-gouging desperate foreigners. When his treacherous brothers show up in Egypt starving for food, he has a chance to pay them back for the dirt they did to him.

But he doesn’t.

He chooses forgiveness. NOTE: He chooses it. There’s a difference, as Gandhi and Dr. King taught us, between forgiveness and mere submission. Submission is accepting someone else’s crappy behavior because you really have no option. Forgiveness is knowing you have the power and the will to fight back and be revenged, but you’ve made the conscious choice not to do so. Forgiveness comes from a position of strength.

Generosity is also a product of strength. In her book Nine Steps to Financial Freedom, finance guru Suze Orman uses the analogy of the closed fist. If your fist is closed around what you have, nothing more can come into it. Giving is a matter of faith. Stinginess is a matter of fear. When you obey Jesus’ command to generosity, you’re making two statements of faith. First, you’re saying you believe in God’s providence. You can give because you know God won’t let you starve. You’re also saying you believe in that to which you give. You’ve made the choice to extend God’s blessings to a righteous cause. You’ve nudged the Kingdom of God just a little bit further forward by your generosity. So ask yourself: Would you rather be faithful or afraid?

Jesus asks some hard things of us in the Gospel. Reading it is like getting a performance review by your boss. How do we measure up to these instructions? Do we have the courage to live by these phenomenally high standards? I’m pretty sure I don’t. So that’s why I need to fall on Christ’s mercy and ask the Holy Spirit for the bravery and freedom to be a Christian.

I think it’s worth the effort, don’t you?

Thanks for swinging by my way this week!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Yes, But..! (Reflections on Epiphany 6, Year C)

When I first began my ministry at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia over twenty years ago, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. In my first year worship attendance jumped 15%. This past year, it dropped by 12%. I guess the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel text for Epiphany 6, Year C (Luke 6:17-26), “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (v.25b).

Nothing lasts forever. And that’s a pretty good thing isn’t it? It means that the bad times won’t last forever, either. Think about it. If you’ve ever been down, sad, worried, or doing without then you know how joyful any tiny favor or scrap of good news can be. When I was a seminary student studying urban ministry I saw first-hand how folks in low-income neighborhoods sometimes had more joyful and ebullient worship services in their churches than did folks in the more comfortable suburbs. There’s something about having little which makes you grateful for the little you have. And there’s always the promise of God’s favor—the promise that the bad times aren’t going to last forever.

And yet, we always seem to think the good times will.

Jesus, in our Gospel lesson, has been riding pretty high in the ratings. Throughout Luke chapters 5 and 6 he’s doing all kinds of wild, miraculous deeds. He’s really drawing the crowds, and, as prophets go, he’s a rock star. People are actually coming from the coast of Tyre and Sidon (v.17) to catch his act. That’s about 100 miles away. In fact, he’s getting so famous and popular that he has to choose a Board of Directors from his followers (Luke 6:12-16) just to manage his awesome ministry. Nevertheless, as with every successful enterprise, nothing is ever perfect, and trouble is always creeping around getting ready to bite us in the butt.

Yup. Jesus has done miraculous healings, but some of them have been on the Sabbath (v.6-11). His disciples have had the audacity to snack on some trail mix picked from the grain fields on the Sabbath—an act which the ultra-pious see as harvesting (v.1-5). The Pharisees feel really threatened by this, and they’re planning to get rid of Jesus (v. 11). The fecal matter is getting ready to go “splat” against the rotary air conditioner (metaphorically speaking). It’s only a matter of time.

The good times never last, do they? Not even for Jesus.

It’s the old saying: No good deed ever goes unpunished. Jesus came to liberate us from sin and our own idolatrous and deceptive self-reliance. But this didn’t jive with the Pharisees’ ideas about works righteousness and ritual piety. They liked to feel smugly superior. It was only natural that they’d resent Jesus. By teaching folks they didn’t need to rely on their own works to win God’s favor, Jesus got himself into a world of hurt. But that’s always been the way. It happened to the prophets before him, too.

Our Revised Common Lectionary marries this story in Luke with a passage from Jeramiah (Jeramiah 17:5-10). Jeramiah is called to proclaim God’s word, and he sees that things in Judah are headed into the dumper. The Babylonians are at the gates, but the king is listening to false prophets who tell him everything is groovy because they’ve made a fabulous deal with the Egyptians. They’ve put their faith in their negotiating skills, but they’ve forgotten the Law of God. The nation has forgotten God’s command to mercy and charity. They don’t realize that no nation can be strong in the world if it is weak at home. Jeramiah calls them out, naming their self-reliance for what it is—idolatry.

Jeramiah’s situation puts me in mind of the late, great Soviet Union. Remember them? The communist ideologues imagined a world of share and share alike. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” sounded pretty swell. The problem was they didn’t recognize that no program of social change could be successful without the love of God in the hearts of those who implement it. As the Psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). The communists fed the peoples’ moral indignation, but they starved their souls. Their utopian ideals were wet mud idols without the sacrificial love of God as their foundation. They really could’ve used the voice of a Jeramiah to set them straight. Sometimes, we all need that voice. BUT: if you happen to be the Jeramiah, you’re going to make people mad. As Christians, it may be good to remember that, if we’re not making someone mad, we might not be doing our job.

But back to the “woes” in Luke 6:24-26. What if we are rich, full, laughing, and well-loved? It doesn’t necessarily mean were a bunch of dirt bags, but it should make us stop and think. Being well satisfied with the things of this world should make us remember that a reversal is always looming. It’s time to be humble. It’s a time to remember that God is in charge, not us. It’s a time to cultivate gratitude, and to pray, “Thy will be done.” It’s a time to ask God how to be a good and loving steward. If you hit the lottery, get the new job, have a new grandchild, pay off your mortgage—it’s a time to remember this is God’s doing, not yours.

And, should the reversal come, should you get the diagnosis, lose your job, get the tax or the home repair bill, or be faced with a family member in crisis—this is the time to remember God is still here for you. God is here in loving friends, in the spirit of hope, and in the promise of salvation. If you can’t rejoice in these things in the bad times, you won’t recognize them in the good times.

Things change. God doesn’t. Be blessed, my friend, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Once a Jerk, Always a Jerk? (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year C)

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“…Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)

So what’s up with Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam? Both Republicans and Democrats are urging the Virginia Democrat to step down after someone noticed that he posed in blackface next to some other idiot dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe in a photo in his med school yearbook taken over thirty years ago. Does this make the governor a racist bastard? Should a stupid, insensitive, and demeaning act committed in one’s youth brand one with the Mark of Cain forever?

And what about Justice Brett Kavanaugh? Should the loutish and quasi-violent act of a drunk, horny teenager scar a man for life?[i] Are we all like Dorian Gray? What if our subsequent good works are never enough to restore the portrait of our innocence, and we must forever hide the shame of our youthful indiscretions? Are there some sins for which there can be no forgiveness? Are we doomed to be defined by our own worst act or word?

Shoot. I hope not. If anyone looked too closely into my past—which is filled with substance abuse and lots of other stuff a Lutheran pastor would rather no one knew about—I’d be pretty darned ashamed. For one thing, I grew up in a home with parents who, however loving, were not exactly enlightened on the subject of racial justice. The vile “N Word” was used routinely in my home, and, I’m quite certain, I used it myself as a child. Now I know better. I’ve repented the narrow, dehumanizing views of my youth, and I hope I’ve become a servant, advocate, and friend to all of God’s children.

I see the theme of sin’s stain in all three of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Epiphany 5, Year C. In the spectacularly image-laden passage from Isaiah 6, the prophet laments:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips[ii], and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Nevertheless, the King, the Lord of hosts, doesn’t seem to care that Isaiah has a potty mouth. He has an angel take a burning coal and burn away the sin from the prophet’s mouth so that Isaiah can be cleansed and speak the Word of God to his stubborn people. It’s a pretty impressive passage (Isaiah 6:1-13), and it strikes me that it’s about how God uses even those who feel themselves unworthy. God made the prophet for a purpose, and the prophet’s past foolish speech is nothing to God. What matters to God is how the man uses his gifts going forward.

A more dramatic illustration of the same theme is found in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-11 is the passage in the RCL). Here St. Paul confesses:

“For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (v. 9)

Persecuted? This guy set out to get Christians arrested and killed. If he were around today we’d want him tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Paul was a religious purity Nazi. Yet Jesus needed him to be on the side of righteousness. To his credit, Paul laid low in Arabia and Damascus—well out of the spotlight—for about three years until everybody became convinced that his repentance and conversion were real. Then God let him loose as a voice for the Gospel. I like the way Paul handled this, because it demonstrates that, although God may be infinitely forgiving of even the most repugnant behavior, we sometimes have to earn our way back into the human community.

The Lectionary for this week in Epiphany also gives us this touching miracle story from Luke 5:1-11. It’s about how Jesus reveals himself to his disciples through a miraculous catch of fish. The boys are so blown away by this that they leave their nets and follow Jesus. This always struck me as pretty radical since fishing—rough way to make a living as it is—seemed a lot safer than following around behind an itinerant rabbi doing God-knows-what. But what really gets me in Luke’s version of the story is Peter’s sense of shame in the presence of the Messiah. Once he realizes Jesus is the real deal, he’s afraid to be in his company. He begs off saying, “…for I am a sinful man.”

Jesus knows this already. We’re all sinful. But Jesus has a plan for Peter. He has plan for the rest of us, too, but we just may be too burdened by our own sense of guilt and shame to believe this. We’re all both saint and sinner, but the trick is not to let the sinner of the past keep us from being the saint of the present. The challenge of faith is to believe that true contrition brings true salvation, and this does a work on our hearts every day if we’re open to letting it do so.

No, I don’t want a racist to be my governor, and I don’t want a sexual predator on the Supreme Court. But I do believe in repentance and forgiveness, and I’m sure I’ll be surprised by the people I’ll meet some day in Heaven.

If not before, I’ll look forward, Dear Reader, to meeting you there! Thanks for reading this week!

[i] Just for the record, I’m pretty certain the future Supreme Court Justice really DID hurt that girl—he was probably too drunk to remember it. He most likely wasn’t even aware of the damage he did to the future Professor Ford—but she’s had to live with it ever since.
[ii] Me too. I learned cussing from my dad, and he was master of the craft!