Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Lent at St. Paul's, Gardner

Today my itinerant ministry takes me to St. Paul's Church in Gardner, a parish served by the Rev. Bill Hobbs. Today's Gospel reading comes from the ninth chapter of the Fourth Gospel, and can be found here. Below is my sermon manuscript for this midway point in the Lenten journey.

"Rabbi, who sinned here? This man or his parents?"

In one form or another, human beings have been asking this very question throughout history.  Why did this happen? What could have been done to prevent it? Whose fault is it?

In the midst of life’s unfairness it is people of faith who need to find an answer to such questions. It is not atheists who ask why God has done something. So notice that the question doesn’t come from the crowds or even from the scribes and Pharisees. The question is posed by Jesus’ disciples—by those who have left everything to follow him. Like Job, they are committed people of faith who want to understand the problem of human suffering. Why was this man born blind? Why was that woman down the street not cured of her cancer when we all prayed so hard, for so long? Why was my child diagnosed with cystic fibrosis? Why did that earthquake strike where and when it did? Who sinned?

If you do not hear not another word of this sermon, then I pray that at least you will hear me out on this and that it will be enough for this fourth Sunday of Lent: this is one of those very rare instances where Jesus does not answer a question with a question. He responds clearly and directly. Who sinned here?  Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. Jesus rejects the notion that disease is some kind of punishment for sin. So why was this man born blind? We don’t know. All that we can say is that in this man’s healing, God’s glory is revealed—if we have eyes to see. And this, of course, is the intended irony: that having fully functional optic nerves does not always mean we can see what is right before our very eyes.

The healing itself occurs in a fairly straightforward matter: Jesus spits on the ground, makes a little mud pie from the sand and his saliva, spreads that mud on the guy’s eyes, and then tells him to go wash it off. The man carefully follows the instructions. God’s grace is so amazing that this man who was blind, now sees.

But the healing story quickly is left behind, and what we have to unpack is this conflict over the practice of keeping the Sabbath holy. As you know, Sabbath-keeping is on God’s “top ten list.” In this case, we’re talking about the accepted societal practices around keeping the Sabbath holy. The healing itself gives way to a scandal and ultimately a criminal investigation. One can only imagine if CNN and Fox News had been around how this scandal would have unfolded with a twenty-four hour news cycle.

No one wants to believe that this is the same guy; produce a birth certificate, they insist! “I’m the man,” he insists. And they keep asking him, “but how did this happen?” Notice his frustration, and how just as we sometimes see on cable news, his voice gets lost in the midst of all the shouting. Notice how his parents get dragged in and interviewed. It’s a real feeding frenzy, and the guy’s whole life is disrupted as Jesus becomes the real story.

It’s easy to caricature the Pharisees and then dismiss them. This guy was blind from birth. There is no reason that Jesus couldn’t wait a few hours, is there – I mean just until the end of the Sabbath, without ruffling any feathers? It would have saved so much trouble! Their legitimate concern is the classic slippery slope argument: if you start healing on the Sabbath, then before you know it you’ll make other allowances for work—just a few hours on the weekend to catch up on email, And before you know it the malls will be open and hockey and soccer and dance lessons will all want their piece of the Sabbath too. If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns we miss what is in fact going on in this text. If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns too quickly then we have no right to criticize all those Sunday morning activities that impact on church attendance. Seriously.

So it’s important to get this: Jesus is pushing their buttons. He wants to rock that boat. He is saying that doing the work of the Kingdom takes precedence over everything else—even the Torah. Jesus is reminding people that the Sabbath is given for humans in order to make life more abundant—not so that humans can become slaves to it.

The issue here becomes this escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. The punch-line of the story comes at the end, when Jesus says that he comes into the world so that those who are blind may see, and those who see become blind. What a statement! And then the Pharisees fall right into the trap: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Well, of course they are! They are blinded by their certitude, blinded by their smugness, blinded by their religious piety. They are blind to what Jesus is doing—in real people’s lives—because they insist on keeping their worldviews and their theologies intact.

Who do you trust for your information?  And how do any of us find the truth in a society with so much misinformation and so much  spin?  Who do you trust? What if I get my news from MSNB and you get yours from Fox News? Will we even be able to trust the facts? We literally inhabit different worlds that tend to re-affirm what we already believe and in the process, very often demonizing the “other” side.  
In Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear, one of his characters speaks these words from which the book takes its title:

We imagine we live in different nations—France, Germany, Japan, the U.S.—in fact we inhabit the same state, the State of Fear….I’m telling you this is the way modern society works—by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear…          

Fear destroys trust—and where there is no trust there is no communication. And without communication, community becomes impossible. So we are left fighting about foreign policy or how to improve public education or how Obamacare is working or about human sexuality, without even an ability to agree on the facts. And in the midst of all the pushing and shoving and shouting we find this state of fear more and more normative.

Now what strikes me so much about the Bible is not only that the angels are always showing up and telling people to “fear not”—someone has said that they show up 365 times in the Bible to say it so that we can hear it every day, one day at a time—but also that the Bible itself offers us an alternative source of information. We make the bold claim as Christians that it conveys the Word of God—that it conveys truth that shatters all of our ideologies. We claim that it offers each generation a reliable and credible witness—a trustworthy account of reality that shapes us and forms us to live in the world as friends of Jesus.

So I would tell that character in Crichton’s novel who says that there are no checks and balances and no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear that the living Word-made-flesh is a real “countervailing force”—because Jesus calls together a community of people who look to a higher authority. That doesn’t mean we will all agree or that we will easily find common ground. But it does mean that we refuse to give up hope. It means we put our trust a higher authority.

In today’s gospel reading there are a whole lot of competing agendas. While it’s easy for Christians to caricature and scapegoat the Pharisees, the truth is that they are sincere people trying to keep the faith. Their sin, however, is in their certitude. They already know the right answer, and they are blind to everything that contradicts what they already see with such certainty. In their vigilance to keep Sabbath holy, they are blind to the transformation that is unfolding before their very eyes. They are afraid, and that fear blinds them to the truth.

So today’s gospel reading is only initially about the healing of a blind man. In the end, this gospel reading is about exposing certitude—especially religious certitude—for what it is: a form of idolatry. When we are absolutely certain that we have it all down and that we grasp the whole truth and that we have a clear command of all the right information and that our perspective is “pure”—it is precisely then that we may be most blind to what is unfolding right before our very eyes. We are not blind, are we?

As a parish priest, sometimes when I had to preach a hard sermon on Christian community, and I’d call people to love one another or not to gossip or to focus on the stuff that really matters I was always amazed when sometimes the very worst offenders would meet me at the door and say, “I’m so glad you preached that sermon. They really needed to hear that!” And I would just shake my head; denial is not just a river in Egypt, is it. They? Always I have tried to preach the sermon I need to hear as good news and then by God’s grace to preach it until I believe it, and then to try to live it. Anyone who wants to come along is welcome – let those with eyes see and those with ears hear!

As I read it, this Gospel reading is a call to humility. This season of Lent began with dust and the reminder that we humans are formed of the humus—and to the good earth we shall return. We are not God and we have no God’s-eye view of the world—not even when we are quoting from the Bible. Only God sees the whole. Only God sees things for what they really and truly are.

What we see is shaped by our age, our gender, our experience, our education—shaped by the lenses we look through, and always darkly. But when we can let go of all of our certitude for long enough to look and listen, then we put ourselves in a place where we have a chance, at least, of being able to see Christ more clearly and then to follow more nearly and ultimately to love more dearly. When we confess our blindness, we can pray to God to help us to see. That, I think, is the great paradox and the great gift of Christian community because others help us to see what we cannot see on our own.

What we need perhaps more than anything else in Christian communities—in congregations like this one and across a diocese like ours—is that ability to look and to listen and a willingness to encounter others and be changed in the process of hearing their truths and insights and perspectives, even when (and especially when) they contradict our own. In a society that feels like a “state of fear,” we pause and ask God for help, for inquiring and discerning hearts, and above all for a spirit to know and to love God. That doesn’t make life easy. It just makes it possible. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Prayer of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow

I am currently in Florida at a gathering of Transition Ministers from the eastern third of this country - forty dioceses represented. The best way to describe our work is that it is something like the NFL draft: parishes that are looking for new clergy are presented, and names of clergy looking for positions are presented. We try to listen and make some matches to explore This is my second such gathering and I'm impressed at how grounded our work is in prayer. In spite of the fact that we deal with imperfect human beings (on both sides of said "matches") the work is seen for what it is: holy work, of listening for God's call.

This morning our devotions included this prayer, from Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow (1821-1867). It was a prayer previously unfamiliar to me, but that I will continue to use.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 
In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. 
Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, 
and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. 
In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. 
In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. 
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. 
Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. 
Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

This weekend my travels take me on a return visit to Trinity Church, Milford for their Saturday night Eucharist, and then on Sunday morning to St. Matthew's, Worcester. I preached the same sermon (more or less!) in both places. (If you have never been, check out the stained glass windows at St. Matthew's. The gospel reading, from the fourth chapter of John's Gospel, can be found here.

It is very difficult from our perspective to appreciate just how radical this gospel reading today is, Jesus’ encounter with an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well in the middle of the day. Notice these three qualifiers: she is unnamed, she is a woman, and she is a Samaritan. These are the keys to understanding just how powerful this encounter is. So let’s try to unpack all of that.

Let’s work backwards: what exactly is a Samaritan anyway? You probably all know something at least of that parable Jesus told about the “good Samaritan.” But here’s the thing: Jesus himself never put those two words together, which for a first-century Jew would have been an oxymoron in the same league with jumbo shrimp or government organization or Microsoft works.  

John’s Gospel is written much later—like fifty years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus, to people who are less directly aware of all this. So John sort of whispers to his readers parenthetically, just to be sure we get the point: when Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water and she seems surprised by the request. (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

So who were these people and why wouldn’t they share a cup of water? 722 years before Christ, the Assyrian army had marched into the northern kingdom of Israel and conquered it. Jews began to intermarry with their Assyrian invaders. Jews to the south looked down on them racially and religiously and saw this as an act of betrayal to the covenant. In addition to that, the Samaritans didn’t see Jerusalem (and more importantly the Temple which was located in Jerusalem) as central to the way they worshipped God. They worshipped God on Mt. Gerizim, a holy place in its own right in the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy we read:

When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. (Deuteronomy 27.12)

And then in Joshua 8.33:

All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel.

Now this isn’t intended as a little history lesson or a study in cultural anthropology. The point here is that
there is no hatred like religious hatred and usually the more similar you are, the more you can’t stand the tiny little differences in those whom you believe have veered from the true faith. One only needs to look at the some of the “recent unpleasantness” in our own denomination and the ensuing battles over buildings to get a sense of that.

So to very honest, from our perspective it would be impossible to tell the difference between a Jew who worshipped in Jerusalem and a Samaritan who worshipped on Mt. Gerizim. But by Jesus’ day almost seven hundred years of mistrust and religious bigotry had developed between Jews and Samaritans, and these differences were accentuated.

OK, so are you still with me? Jews just don’t like Samaritans and the feeling is pretty mutual. Even more interesting, however, is the verse immediately before where our gospel reading began today. It says this: Jesus had to go through Samaria. (John 4:4)  

What would you say if I told you that geographically he didn’t have to go that way at all? He could have Google-mapped it and found an alternative route and in fact normally that is what a good Jew would do. I grew up in Pennsylvania and when I head home to see my mother I travel on Route 84 west. At certain times of day you’d prefer not to go through Hartford because it can be a mess so it’s easy enough and often preferred to bypass it by taking 91 South to 291 which then leads back to 84, west of the city. Well let’s just say a first-century Jew had a similarly well-traveled by-pass route to avoid setting foot in Samaria. And everybody knew about it.

But John tells us that Jesus “had to go there.” So he clearly doesn’t mean he had no other roads he could take. For John this is code-language for God’s plan.  In last week’s gospel when we heard that the Son of Man “must be lifted up.” (John 3:14) In Greek it’s the same verb: Jesus just had to go through Samaria—he just had to talk to this woman , just has he had to be lifted up on the hard wood of the cross and stretch out his arms of love so that all the world might come within the reachof his saving embrace. He had to do it, because it is who he is. Because God so loved not just Jews or Christians, but because God so loved the world. The whole world.

What Jesus is about is reconciliation, which begins by breaking down social barriers that separate people and keep them apart. He just had to do it because it is who he is. So they aren’t just anyplace—they are at Jacob’s well: at the place where Rebecca was “recruited” to marry Isaac and then in the very next generation the place where Jacob met Rachel. Not only do Jews and Samaritans not share things in common but good Jewish boys like Jesus aren’t supposed to be talking with single-women (let alone divorced women) at the well. Jesus is violating all of the cultural norms here and if we don’t notice that from our distance of two thousand years then we completely miss the point.

So this text needs to be read in tandem with the encounter that precedes it. Were you in church last weekend? On the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus encounters a respected Jewish man, Nicodemus, in the middle of the night. Here Jesus encounters a suspect Samaritan woman, who is not named, in the middle of the day. We are meant to notice these differences—this yin and yang. But we are also meant to notice that they seem to make no difference to Jesus. His encounter with this unnamed woman goes along very much the same as his encounter with Nicodemus. He meets each of them where they are. He takes their questions seriously. He engages each of them in theological discussion. That is expected with Nicodemus—a teacher of the Law. But it totally shocking for a male rabbi to be talking with a Samaritan woman in this way. And that is why the disciples are so blown-away when they return to the well.  Astonished, John tells us. But no one had the guts to say, “what do you want?” or “why are you talking with that woman?”

We are at this famous well and Jesus and this woman are talking about living water, water that quenches not just your body, but your soul. Jesus is that living water. I’m sure there are thousands of really good sermons about the content of this theological conversation and wonderful illustrations and funny stories that a really good preacher could parade out. But for me the real power of this particular story is discovered by peeling it back to get at the core of the encounter itself: to watch Jesus and this woman sitting together at Jacob’s well and having a normal conversation in a world where they aren’t supposed to even come into contact with each other. For me that is more than enough. Jesus normalizes this encounter. It’s just two people talking. And in the full and utter humanity of this encounter we glimpse God at work in the world. The energy of this meeting invites transformation and healing because worlds collide here. But instead of violence, what we see is how old barriers can be broken down if only we are willing to take some risks. And in the process new worlds and new possibilities emerge. And I think that is very good news.

Very often when our worldviews are challenged, our initial reaction is one of fear. When people started marching in Selma, Bull Conner got the fire hoses out. Now I don’t know all that much about Bull Conner, but I suspect he went to church on Sunday, although I’m certain it was an all-white church. I imagine he sang the hymns and said the prayers. But he was way too comfortable in his own little world and he and so many others were scared out of their minds about what would happen if that world was blown out of the water, scared of what would happen if black women were allowed to sit down in the front of the bus, scared of what would happen if black men were allowed to sit down at the same lunch counter and order a BLT, scared of what would happen if little black children and little white children were in the same schools and reading the same textbooks and simply judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

So I think that this encounter between Jesus and this Samaritan woman has everything to do with us. Because I think Jesus just has to seek us out too, wherever we are, and he has to go to those places where there is still separation because as Paul Tillich rightly pointed out, sin is separation. Sin is all that keeps us separated from ourselves and from one another and from God. Jesus keeps finding people like us in the middle of Lent, in the middle of the day or the middle of the night, whether we are powerful or powerless, whether we are young or old, black or white, gay or straight in order to call us into something deeper, into the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first but where all are welcome. No exceptions. Jesus seeks us out to insist that we don’t have to live our lives in such small boxes. We are invited to see the face of God in the face of the other—the stranger, the one who is not like us.

Oh and one more not-so-little thing: we ought to notice as well that this unnamed woman preaches the gospel. She goes and tells her friends about Jesus—offering her personal testimony in a compelling and life-giving way. She bears witness to them about the truth she has discovered in Jesus, proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. She strives for justice and peace among all people and respects the dignity of every human being—imagining a day (if you will) when little Jewish children and little Samaritan children are judged not by where they worship God but by the content of their character.

You and I are sought out to continue that work. Our encounters with Jesus—in Lent or anytime of the year—aren’t mean to leave our old worlds intact. They are meant to challenge us to enter and create new worlds and to live more fully and more faithfully into the meaning of our Baptism. By God’s amazing grace we re-discover God and neighbor in the process—a God worthy of our love, and a neighbor in need of it. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Are you being fed?

One of my former parishioners really struggled with the language of "child of God." She argued that it infantalizes the people of God, especially the laity. She pointed out that St. Paul invited people to move beyond baby's milk to more solid food and that Holy Baptism looked for us to "grow into the full stature of Christ." And yet we keep calling everyone a child.

I didn't disagree with her; I just didn't think you could completely write that metaphor out of the tradition. Or maybe I didn't know how, or maybe I was too timid. But lately I've been thinking about it again. Jesus called us sisters and brothers but nothing in the gospels that I can find intends to infantalize people the way that the instutional Church so often does. It is true that Jesus said we must become like a child to enter the kingdom of God, but nothing about his ministry suggests that he meant for us to stay there. In fact, Jesus called us to "take up our cross and follow him."

Add to this metaphor of being "children" the insidious nature of consumerism in our North American culture and you have a recipe for disaster. Everywhere we go we are customers and expect to be treated that way. And as we all know, the customer is always right.

Well, actually I don't know that at all. I think often the customer is a pain in the ass. (I say this with all Christian charity.) In high school and college I worked in the restaurant business. I'd see customers eat their perfectly cooked steak and leave nothing but a small piece of grizzle and then say, "this was terrible. I asked for it medium rare and it was not cooked that way. It was medium well. I'd like a refund." And sometimes they'd even get it if the hostess that night was too tired to argue. Literally, they had their steak and ate it too. Why? Because the customer is always right.

"Are you being fed?" It was only at the beginning of my fifteen-year long stint as rector at St. Francis that I heard it, but it comes back to me like fingernails on a chalkboard in my new job whenever I hear it. It's like post-traumatic stress. Let me be clear: they were not asking me if I was being fed and fulfilled in the hard work of parish ministry. Rather, it was a question those who felt that they were not being fed and needing to alleviate their own anxiety asked of anyone who would listen to them in hushed tones. I should also point out that this question almost never gets asked after a rector and parish have been together for more than a few years and come to accept each other, warts and all. Rather, it happens when some in the congregation discover that their new rector is not the second-coming of Jesus (or more accurately, not their predecessor.)

"Are you being fed?" Parishioners, after all, need to be fed. It's in the Bible, right? Like a little baby, a child, they need to be fed by sermons they enjoy and by music that fits their personal taste and by prayers that strangely warm their blessed little hearts. The customer is always right. Maybe a survey can be sent out to everyone to see if the priest measures up. And if not, then what? Re-brand the priest?

The problem is that this language of parishioner as "customer" (and child customer at that!) is deadly to Christian community. When I was a young priest, a crusty old Canon to the Ordinary used to ask me: "are you willing to die in that ditch?" It was his way of saying to pick your fights wisely. The longer I was a parish priest, in fact, the more I was willing to let slide. In the end of course, I discovered it was not my church to control anyway. Parish ministry, like marriage, is a give-and-take. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need. All that.

But here is the thing: while every ditch is not worth dying in, knowing that helps one get clear about where it is necessary, for one's own integrity, to draw a line in the sand and take a stand. Even if one dies in that ditch. As a now somewhat crusty old Canon to the Ordinary myself, I feel strongly enough about this (if it is not yet obvious) to say that this is one of those places.

So I suggest that we ban this little phrase from our collective vocabularies. Are you being fed? Who cares! You are not a customer, but a follower of Jesus Christ! We are all called together, ordained and lay, to help do the feeding: feeding of the five thousand and feeding of the world. We are all called to take responsibility for our own spiritual growth, in fear and trembling, with God's help. And to make that move from being guests to hosts in congregations that welcome the stranger as Christ himself.

Are you being fed? That is the not the question that the manna in the wilderness of this Lenten journey teaches us to ask. It teaches us that God is steadfast and merciful and that the community is sustained by daily bread, not that Moses spoon feeds to his "parishioners," but that God gives freely to all to be gathered up each day in the long journey from slavery toward freedom.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Second Sunday of Lent, at Christ Memorial Church in North Brookfield

Today is the Second Sunday of Lent. Today's readings can be found here. My travels this week bring me to Christ Memorial Church in North Brookfield, where the Rev. Paula Sage serves as rector. 

There’s a lot going on in this gospel reading before us today. But I want to call your attention to just three details about this encounter between Nicodemus—a leader of the Jerusalem Council—and Jesus of Nazareth, an upstart Jewish rabbi from the northern hills of Galilee.

First: notice that it’s nighttime when he comes to Jesus. It’s quite possible that Nicodemus doesn’t want his respectable neighbors to know the company he’s keeping, so he avoids coming to Jesus during the daytime when he is likely to be seen. He chooses the cover of darkness for this meeting. He comes nevertheless, apparently because he wants to know more about this rabbi. He’s drawn to Jesus because he sees that the signs Jesus does are clearly of God. But he is tentative.

Jesus responds to Nicodemus somewhat sharply: Amen, Amen (twice for extra dramatic effect!) —“truly, truly, I tell you that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Now that sounds perhaps at first like something of a non-sequitor. But what Jesus is really saying is that if you see in me only a miracle worker you don’t see me it all. If you see in me merely a magician you are not seeing what this is about. To truly encounter Jesus, with our eyes wide-open, is to meet One who is heading toward the Cross, and who calls us to take up our crosses. It is to be invited to be servants for the sake of the gospel.

Second: Jesus tells Nicodemus that if you want to grasp all of this you must be born—well, how exactly? The Greek is ambiguous and has three perfectly valid interpretations. It’s anothen.

So you can say (as the NRSV that we heard today does): “you’ve got to be born from above.” But if you look that up in a NRSV Bible you’ll see a little notation, and at the bottom of the page a secondary translation that says: “you must be born anew.” If you are an NIV Bible-type, then you’ll read, “you’ve got to be born again.” But there, too, you’ll find a little note from the editors that says, in tiny little letters, “you’ve got to be born from above.”

So which is it: born from above, born anew, or born again? “Yes!” That’s what is so hard about all translation work, because sometimes a word in one language means three things and there is no equivalent word to convey all three in other language. I suppose you could have Jesus saying: “you must be born anew/from above/again” but it’s a bit clumsy to say the least!

Now I point this out because perhaps some of you have been approached on a street corner or maybe even at Thanksgiving Dinner, by someone who asks you if you have been “born again?” And sometimes when that question is asked it feels like there is a specific way we are supposed to respond. It means you are supposed to have a datable moment in time when you became a Christian. It can sometimes seem as if the answer, “I was raised in the Church and have always known Jesus and I have had many moments of little conversions along the way rather than one big one” is not the right answer. But if you listen to this text I think you will see that that aspect of a particular kind of Christian ideology has very little to do with this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

When Nick initially misses the point—he hears “anothen” in a literal way and connects it only to a literal return to the womb, as being literally born again. Which Jesus says is silly. Jesus then responds by saying that what he is really talking about is being “born by water and the spirit.”  Now you all know that language, right? That is Baptismal language, which is one reason that the lectionary puts this reading into the context of Lent. Because Lent is all about Baptism.

In the early church Baptisms only happened at the Easter Vigil—after a long period of preparation. Lent was that season for final preparation before being buried with Christ, in order to be raised with him into a new resurrected life. So this is liturgical/sacramental language—and I think it’s way past time that Episcopalians re-claim it as such. We don’t need to pick a fight or insist we have the whole truth, only that there is indeed sacramental language here, in the text. And that Jesus seems to be saying that if you are baptized by water and the spirit then you are born anothen—regardless of what some may tell you about that. By water and the spirit we are born anothen—dying with him in order to be raised again to the new life of grace.

You’ve got to then begin to live into that reality, of course. You’ve got to respond to what God has done in your life. You can’t simply be a passive recipient. So even if it happened decades ago you can “wake up” to that claim God has on your life, and respond to it and re-affirm it. And sometimes that does happen dramatically and sometimes it happens in fits and starts but however that new birth takes hold in us, we are invited to see the world through a very different set of glasses: through the lens of the Baptismal Covenant. I think that is what Lent is for by the way, to keep getting born anew, from above, again and again and again.

Think of it this way. The world says you are born, then you die, and then you become food for worms. So each and every day you are one day closer to that end. It can make you fearful and anxious—and therefore of course in search of any healer who will promise eternal youth, whether in the form of some elixir, or new diet, or a facelift, or whatever.

But we Christians say: no, that is backwards. We have already died, in baptism. We’ve been buried with Christ, and then raised to new life. We know we are dust and to dust we shall return. So all that is left is for us to get busy living by moving deeper into that new Easter life. As we open our eyes to that reality we begin to see that God so loved the world—God so loved the world—and God so loves us—that by water and the Spirit we have been claimed, and marked, and sealed as Christ’s own forever. We have been born anothen.

Third, I want to remind you that this isn’t the last that we see of Nicodemus. On Good Friday, in John’s telling of that day’s events, he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to claim to corpse of Jesus. The text says that Joseph, a member of the Council, “was a disciple of Jesus.” It doesn’t make that claim of Nicodemus, only that he came with Joseph and that he brings “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds of weight.” (John 19:39)  Together Nicodemus and Joseph take Jesus’ body and bind it with linen cloths and with the spices, following the burial customs of the day. In broad daylight. That suggests to me that Nicodemus was listening and that he was changed by this nighttime encounter.

So what might this all mean for us on this second Sunday of Lent? It suggests to me that there are many ways to come to Jesus—even if in our uncertainty or fear we come initially at night. Not everyone leaves their father in a boat and jumps right away into discipleship like Peter and Andrew and the Zebedee boys. Sometimes it takes conversations like this as perhaps the first step toward faith—the planting of a seed that over time begins to grow. I think that’s in fact rather comforting. I also think it’s just plain true.

I pray that however or wherever we may encounter Jesus again in this Lenten journey, by day or by night, that we will be ready to be challenged as Nicodemus was. Sometimes Jesus is comforting and there are times when we need that. But just as often—and maybe even more often—we need to be challenged and pushed as Nicodemus was, to open our eyes and to see things in new ways. Sometimes that will require us to let go of old patterns or paradigms or certainties.

In so doing, I pray that we will touch again in this Lenten journey the meaning of our Baptism in new ways—that is that we will become more fully aware that we are already born anothen, and that the hard part is to begin to live into that reality.

So that on Good Friday we, like Nicodemus, will not be ashamed to be there—and to ponder anew just how much God has loved the world. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Meet Me Out in the Street: Bruce Springsteen Lenten Un-Quiet Day

St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow
I am grateful today to be part of a Lenten Un-Quiet Day with my boss, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher and the Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Mass Council of Churches focused on the theology of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope. Grateful also to the people of St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow for hosting us. Below is a manuscript for the sermon I preached at the concluding Eucharist.

Over the past year or so that I’ve been hanging around Bishop Fisher I’ve noticed that he often begins sermons by saying:  “for the next ten minutes we’ll be thinking together about this or that.” It’s nice to let people know how long they are going to have to listen. Our bishop was initially formed in the Roman Catholic tradition and as you have probably realized by now, is a native New Yorker who talks pretty fast. He is a master of the ten-minute homily. But he is not standing here right now, is he? I was formed more by the Wesley boys and I most definitely did not grow up in New York City. I can barely clear my throat in ten minutes. So, for the next fifteen or sixteen minutes …

…well, what exactly? This slot in today’s agenda is a bit different from what Doug and Laura did so well this morning. What exactly is it we have been doing here today and what is it that we should be doing now? Worshiping Bruce? No; we are all clear where our true allegiance lies this Lenten season and beyond it to the empty tomb. Doug likes to refer to “the Prophet Bruce” and he’s right. I’ve never once heard him say, “The Messiah, Bruce.”  That job is most definitely taken. So this sermon, like all preaching, should point us to the living God who is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the prophetic task, whether we are talking about Jeremiah or John the Baptist or Dorothy Day, is to point God’s people to this living God and to help us to imagine what is possible here on earth as it is in heaven. The prophets help us to dream with God. As Walter Brueggemann has reminded us, the prophets are more poets than social activists and they do what all poets do: they help us to see with eyes that see and to hear with ears that hear. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, they “hold God and [humankind] in one thought at one time, at all times…whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” Bruce is a prophet of hope in precisely this sense, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.

We have become too used to a world where “the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” The true prophet calls us out to the streets, to listen for a Word on the street and to pay attention with compassion and love to what is unfolding right now in the neighborhood. My personal hope for today was that it might stir our collective imagination and that this music might touch our souls and inspire high hopes in us—because I think when that happens we have a better shot at entering into a holy Lent. If we leave here today feeling more committed to doing the work that God has given us to do, then this day will have been more than just a lot of fun. Some music narcoticizes us. It is an escape from reality. But Bruce wakes us up and points us to the streets.

So that is the reason for the gradual song which may initially seem like an odd choice. Even within the extensive Bruce canon I could have gone for something far more overtly spiritual, even if not religious. But part of what I think does make Bruce a prophet is not only that his lyrics are very often steeped in the religious language and images of his Roman Catholic upbringing, but that his language and syntax come from the streets of Jersey. So we heard these words:

When I'm out in the street
I walk the way I wanna walk
When I'm out in the street
I talk the way I wanna talk
Baby, out in the street I don't feel sad or blue
Baby, out in the street I'll be waiting for you

When you think about it, Jesus spent a lot of time himself in the streets of Palestine – way more than he spent inside of the Temple. In fact usually when he was in the synagogue or Temple he was getting into trouble with those who wanted to insist on liturgical and theological correctness—that he talk the way they wanted him to talk and walk the way they felt a religious person should walk. Out in the street, Jesus walked the way he wanted to walk, and talked the way he wanted to talk—with authority—about the Reign of God breaking into this world.

An "icon" for the day
There is another, more personal reason for this choice of gradual. This song is from the album, “The River,” which was released in October 1980, the fall of my senior year in high school. I had known of Bruce and listened to some before, but it was through that album that I fell in love with his music, and then worked backwards and forward ever since.  Springsteen’s vision spoke to me then and now about my own hopes and dreams. At some deep level the kind of music that really touches our souls brands us and marks us in those late teen-age years, at least it was that way for me. Ah, I hope when I get older I don’t sit around talkin’ about glory days—but I probably will.

Paired with the readings for this past Wednesday, where our Lenten journey began, I started paying attention to the different places in Bruce’s music where he invites us into the streets. With the eyes of a poet, Springsteen helps us to see again and again that there are operas out on the turnpike and ballets being fought in alleys every day. And that "incident" over on 57th Street. Hiding on the backstreets, racing in the streets, we find our neighbor, the one we have been commanded to love. 

Some of you who may not even be huge Bruce fans may remember the film, “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks, about a lawyer who is fired because he has AIDs. Springsteen wrote a song for that film, you may recall, which includes these words: 

I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face.
Oh brother, are you going to leave me wastin’ away
On the streets of Philadelphia?

What a haunting Lenten question! And it compels us to ask: sister/brother, who are we leaving, wasting away, on the streets of Springfield and Pittsfield and Worcester and Fitchburg and Webster? And what are we going to do about that in these next forty days and beyond?

Like all poets, Springsteen pays attention. And then he invites us to pay attention, too. Perhaps no song is more haunting than his homily on the shooting death of a 23-year-old immigrant on February 4, 1999. Forty-one shots were fired outside of Amadou Diallo’s apartment by plain-clothed officers from the New York City Police Department. As you may recall, all four officers were acquitted.

          41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
          She says, “On these streets, Charles
          You’ve got to understand the rules
          If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
          And that you’ll never, ever run away.
          Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight.”
          Is it a gun, is it a knife?
          Is it a wallet? This is your life.
          It ain’t no secret
          No secret my friend
          You can get killed just for living in your American skin.41 shots…

Bruce started playing that song again after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. But sadly there are too many occasions to play it, too many people killed in their American skin. What do we do with that? Springsteen claims that “we are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.”  I think that is a call to recognize the distance between the American reality on our streets and the American dream. 41 shots. 41 shots. The repetition invites us to repentance. We are changed—or at least we are invited to change—simply in hearing such a song.

Today’s readings from Holy Scripture are a repeat from this past Ash Wednesday.  Many of you have heard and even preached on these texts within the past 72 hours. But in this time and this place, on this day, notice with new eyes how they really do compel us to take to the streets. The poet we call “Second Isaiah” refuses to stand back and let it all be, inviting us to imagine streets to live in—not in some distant heaven but in Jerusalem and Philadelphia and New York City and Springfield.  

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us what happens when religious people take to the streets as posers rather than repairers of the breach, as people with hollow words but no actions to back those words up, as people who are holier than thou. The world does not need a Church this Lent or any time of the year to be sent out into the world to be more pious, so that we can be seen giving alms in the streets and praying on the street corners. The world needs us to be neighbors. As Pope Francis put it this past November, the Church must be reformed to create a more missionary and merciful church that gets its hands dirty as it seeks out the poor and oppressed.

Bishop Doug Fisher, The Rev. Laura Everett, and Me
As these forty days of Lent unfold, notice that after Jesus returns from the desert the gospel readings will include Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, and the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man blind from birth who is given his sight, and Lazarus coming forth from the tomb and that great encounter between Jesus and those two grieving sisters. It’s all in the Bible and yet it’s not hard to imagine this material in the hands of Bruce Springsteen: they are all about authentic human encounters that reveal something of the holy God, not in some ethereal or spiritual way but in the midst of gritty, real lives. Do you remember what Martha says to Jesus when he finally arrives to pay his respects to her brother, Lazarus? Amid the stench of a rotting corpse she says: “You know Jesus if you’d come earlier my brother wouldn’t have died…” The pathos in that statement is so palpable. But we tend to sanitize it in church; like Edith Bunker we’ve been taught to stifle it, and to avoid such raw emotion. But that is false piety, not authentic faith.

Lent is an invitation to return to God with all our hearts. In a few moments we’ll gather at the table where all are welcome—as we truly are: spare parts and broken hearts. So ultimately I think the purpose of an Un-Quiet Day is the same as that of a traditional Quiet Day: it is an invitation to the observance of a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (BCP 265)  We might add that a little Springsteen can’t hurt either.

In her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, Sara Miles writes about finding God in the Mission District of San Francisco. 
...this was my neighborhood. And it was God’s. How had I managed to not see God for so long, when he’d been sending out signals for twenty years as unsubtly as a popsicle vendor ringing the bells on his pushcart and screeching paleeeeetas every time I ventured outdoors? 
And George MacLeod, who was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland instrumental in restoring the Iona Community: 

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place, as well as the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek; and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died, and that is what He died about, and that is where Christ’s men and women ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.

Bruce himself couldn’t have said it any better. Meet me out in the street.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Behold! Now is the Day of Salvation - A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield
Thanks to the Very Rev. Jim Munroe, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral for his gracious invitation to me to preach and preside at the noonday service of Holy Eucharist with imposition of ashes. The diocesan offices where I now hang my hat are on the second floor of the cathedral; so this is where I work. So good to be with Jim and Canon Tom Callard and the cathedral congregation. The readings for Ash Wednesday can be found here.

It is such an honor for me to make that long and arduous trek down the stairs from the second floor today to begin this Lenten journey with all of you. I am so very grateful to my friend, Dean Jim Munroe for this invitation to be with you all today, my first Ash Wednesday in two decades without parish duties. So thank you for your welcome.

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul offers to the first-century church in Corinth a verse originally offered to God’s people by the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile (Isaiah 49:8). He says: “see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.

Personally, I prefer the older word “beholdfound in the Revised Standard Version rather than what we heard in the NRSV as to “see.” Behold is a far more interesting word! Behold is like a trumpet blowing. It’s more like “hey, look over here!”—as if Paul is almost shouting with jubilation because I think he is: Behold! Now is the acceptable time! Behold! Now is the day of salvation!

I wonder if this one verse might be enough to carry us through these next forty days—all the way to the empty tomb. Perhaps it is a prayer each and every one of us can offer as we begin each day of Lent, and then try to live at least that day more fully aware of the presence of God in our lives. It’s a verse that people in recovery can easily recognize because Now is another way of saying “let go and let God” and “one day at a time” and “easy does it.” So even if you can’t memorize the whole verse or where that it is found in both Isaiah and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth, just try on this one word for the next forty days: Now.

Breathe in and out a resolve to live more fully into the sacrament of the present moment which is the only place, as it turns out, that life can be lived.

How would our lives be changed if we read and marked and learned and inwardly digested just that one word for the next forty days and then continued it into the fifty days of Easter? Three months of focusing on what Paul Tillich once called, “the eternal Now.”

We can get stuck in the past, can’t we? Not just the hurtful and maybe even traumatic stuff, but even the happy stuff, the stuff we remember through nostalgic eyes as the “good old days.” But what has been done has been done. And what has not been done has not been done. God grant us the grace to let it be! Behold! Now is the acceptable time!

“Tomorrow” can be as dangerous a temptation as “yesterday.” Sometimes we worry and fret, painting the worst case scenarios about the long litany of things that are coming our way. My colleague, Pam, reminds me that it’s a scientific fact that worrying works: because most of what we worry about never happens.  Even so, we are so often tempted to spend our time fretting and worrying about what tomorrow will bring.

And alternatively, our optimism about tomorrow can be equally problematic. We are tempted to think life will be great when we finally receive that degree, or get that promotion, or when we finally retire, or find that true love, or the children are born, or the children go off to college. Here we are, right in the backyard of the Prophet Seuss, who wrote about the waiting place. Remember?
Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden, Springfield

          Waiting for the fish to bite
          Or waiting to fly a kite
          Or waiting around for Friday night
          Or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
          Or a pot to boil, or a better break
          Or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
          Or a wig with curls, or another chance.
          Everyone is just waiting.

To which Isaiah, and Paul, and the living God say: Behold! Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.
Since we cannot change the past and since we cannot control the future (or even one hair on our heads) what we can do with some intentionality is to seize this present moment and to live this day more gratefully, mindfully, and faithfully. We can open our eyes, and our ears, to the life that is given Now—to behold what is.

We speak about the wilderness as a primary image for Lent. We mean that literally, at first: the wilderness of forty years in the Sinai Desert where the Jewish people moved from slavery toward freedom. Remember that the manna that was given to them there couldn’t be saved up for tomorrow. It’s given as daily bread, one day at a time. And Jesus, after his baptism, went out into the Judean Desert for forty days before beginning his public ministry.

For us, the work of these next forty days may not be quite so literal but it is no less real: we are led, or driven, into those wilderness places of the world and of our own lives that we might prefer to avoid. After this sermon I will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a “holy Lent.” That may not look exactly the same for each of us. Some of us will let go of some things – maybe chocolate, or maybe an old grudge. Some of us will add some things like daily prayer or making time to dwell in God’s holy Word, or to feed the hungry or visit the sick. But whatever practice you may undertake, I invite you to ask how it might change you. Not as something to “get through” for forty days, but as something that will help you get back on track and re-oriented to the living God. Because that is the ultimate goal of Lent.

It is so ironic to me how resistant we Christians are to change, when we are really in the change business. I can’t tell you what it is that needs to change in your life as you embark on this Lenten journey. To be honest I’m not even sure what it is that I need to change in my own life. Sometimes we get too caught up in things to see, which I guess is why we all need trusted friends who can occasionally hold up a mirror for us, in love.

I can’t tell you what you should give up, or what you should let go of in order to make time for something else. Some of us need to slow down, while others of us need to get to work. Some of us need to get serious, while others of us need to lighten up. Some of us need to begin to recognize the gifts we have and claim them, while others of us need a dose of humility and need to step back. Some of us need to speak up; others of us need to learn how to listen. The messages we take from this liturgy will be particular to the lives we are living. And they may change from year to year, or even from day to day in these next forty days.

We live in a culture that does its utmost to deny death. But the saints of the Church have always known that it is the fear of death that prevents us from full and abundant living. And that Easter faith inspires courage to face that truth without fear. They remind us that we deceive ourselves when we think we have all the time in the world, because the plain and honest truth is that we do not.

What we have is Today. There is no re-wind or fast-forward button for our lives. There is only Now.

So what I can tell you is this: we are all terminal. You don’t need a cancer diagnosis to be terminal. All of us have a limited amount of time on this earth to do the work God has given us to do. That doesn’t mean get back to work and look busy! It means that all of us are dust and to dust we shall return. And there is no negotiating on that one!

So the only question left is this: what will you do with your one, wild and precious life? What is it that will be different about the world—better about the world—because you have lived?

Remember that you are a beloved creature of this earth, holy dust created in God’s own image. And remember that one day you, too, shall return to the earth. May these words soak in as words of hope that call us back into our skin, back to the meaning of our Baptismal Covenant; words that call us to get busy living by living this day more boldy, and more creatively, and more interdependently.

Behold! Now is the acceptable time. Now.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

From Glory to Glory: A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

The Nativity Window 
This weekend I am with the good people of The Church of the Nativity in Northborough. Their rector is the Rev. Len Cowan. Today's Gospel Reading can be found here. Below is the manuscript for my sermon celebrating the culmination of this long Epiphany Season, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Nativity also records sermons, so an audio link to the 10 a.m. sermon can be found here.

For a little more than fifteen years I served a one-of –a-kind parish in this diocese -the only one that takes its name from Francis of Assisi. When we gather at diocesan events and talk about Trinity Church or Grace Church or Christ Church or All Saints we always have to ask a follow up question: which one? All Saints in the Berkshires or in South Hadley or in Worcester? Not so, however, with St. Francis. And not so, with Nativity: you are also a one and only parish in our diocese.

What is in a name?  Before I went to Holden I didn’t think a lot about Francis of Assisi. But over time I came to realize that his life and witness were wrapped up with our life and witness as a parish. It was about more than blessing animals on his feast day or having live animals from Heifer Project in the nave at Christmas: there was a deep sense of Franciscan spirituality and a commitment to the poor and a genuine desire that we might become instruments of God’s peace in our own day that became part of the DNA of our life-together.

Yes, March 2 and it is still winter in New England!
So I don’t know firsthand what kind of mark having the name of “Nativity” has branded you with. I imagine that in part, at least, it is an invitation to embrace the mystery of the Incarnation: of the Word-made-flesh who has pitched tent among us, and we have beheld his glory. Maybe at coffee hour and then when I meet with the vestry in a couple of weeks you might reflect on that a bit with me. I hope that over the next few years I’ll gain an even better sense of what that means for you. In my new job as Canon to the Ordinary, which I have had for about nine months now, I have been on a kind of listening tour of the congregations in Worcester County. Even though I spent all those years in Holden, I realize that I was seeing these neighboring congregations from the outside-in, and now I’m able to get a bit of a sense of being welcomed in, for which I am grateful and humbled.

Just one further word about another name before we get on with the business of the day: this crazy title of “Canon to the Ordinary.” A canon can refer to three things. We talk about the Biblical canon: we have four gospels, but the gospel of Mary and Thomas are non-canonical. We talk about canon law, the rules by which we agree to organize our life together. But canon can also refer to a person—ordained or lay—who who hangs out on a bishop’s staff or at the cathedral. So Pam Mott and Steve Abdow are also canons who work for Bishop Doug Fisher.  Pam and I are both Canons to the Ordinary? So who is the ordinary? The Bishop, from the same root as the word “ordination.” So it is a fancy way of saying that I work for the bishop.

As some of you may recall, Bishop Scruton had one Canon to the Ordinary and one Archdeacon on his staff and they divided the work into two main parts: transition ministry and congregational development. Each of them worked across the whole diocese. Bishop Fisher opted for two Canons to the Ordinary and zero Archdeacons . So Pam and I are both doing transition and congregational development work, which overlap anyway, and dividing the work geographically. So I hang out with the parishes of Worcester County and in fact my wife and I now live in Worcester, while Pam works with the parishes in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires. 

I realize this is a lengthy introduction. But it brings me back to my reason for being with you today: one of Bishop Fisher’s two Canons to the Ordinary has come to a one-of-a kind parish, the Church of the Nativity, to bring greetings and our prayers of thanksgiving for your rector, Len, and for Michael's ministry and for the good work you are doing to seek and serve Christ here.  
The Children's Chapel

Now let me try to segue to the gospel for today. Whatever else it means, this parish that takes its name from our dear Savior’s birth is surely able to recall where this Epiphany season began, on January 6 when those wise guys finally made it to Bethlehem. Since then we have been reflecting not just in this congregation or our diocese but throughout the Church of what it means to allow the light of Christ to shine through us and into the world around us; to be people of the light, even in the midst of great darkness. The season after Epiphany has been a long one this year since Easter comes so late. Today we finally reach our destination, the Mount of the Transfiguration.

This vision of a transfigured Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse into who Jesus really and truly is. In fact, of course, it’s who he has been all along. Almost two months ago we were on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called out to these fishermen: follow me. In his teaching and preaching and healing it has become clear to them and through their witness to us that he is something more than a young and fearless prophet, although he is most definitely that as he challenges the conventions of his day. Along the way, we have seen a compassionate healer. On another hill, the Mount of the Beatitudes, we’ve seen a wise teacher, a second Moses. We’ve seen a friend, a courageous neighbor who eats with the lonely and the despised and the rejected.

But in this moment, on this day, in this place - Peter and James and John look at their friend and finally see him as if for the first time: God in man made manifest. They see something much more, something that will not be fully known by the others until after he is raised from the dead—something that can only be seen through the eyes of faith. The scholars tell us that this is a pre-Easter glimpse of the post-Easter Jesus. They have an encounter not unlike the one that St. Paul will have on the Road to Damascus and perhaps like one some of you have had along the way in your own faith journeys. It’s not a requirement of faith; notice after all that only three of the twelve are with him. It doesn’t make them better than the rest. But surely it is a gift to have this kind of mystical life-changing encounter with the Light of the world revealed fully in the person of Jesus. On the Mt. of the Transfiguration, Peter and James and John get to see that with their own eyes and in the process they, too, are changed forever.
A Place for Prayer

So in this lengthy Epiphany season there have been hints and guesses along the way for the disciples and for us. But today we get it full force. We behold his glory, full of grace and truth. The Light of Christ shines forth on that mountain. This, of course, has been one of the main themes of Epiphany. A direct corollary to that theme is that you and I are called to walk as children of that Light by letting that same Light shine, shine, shine in our own lives so that the world may believe—in the office, in school, in our homes, on soccer fields and baseball fields—wherever we go. In my experience, evangelism is less about what we say with our lips and more about what we live in our lives and how we are called to be yeast and salt and light as God’s holy people.

God seems to speak on mountaintops in the Bible, most famously as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading to Moses, on Mount Sinai. If you find yourself on the mountaintop in the Bible, the chances are very good that God will show up. Maybe that is for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. Whether that vista is a desert in the American southwest or multi-colored maple trees on a clear October day in New England or overlooking vineyards and olive trees in Tuscan hills, it is with good reason that we speak about “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our encounters with the living God. The landscape itself very often helps to “open our eyes so that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.” In these epiphanies, we may feel the presence of God more fully and in those moments we may know the power of being more fully known by the One who has created and redeemed us in love.

There is a temptation here, however. We may want to savor such moments by trying to hold onto them and even making them normative. They are a gift, for sure. But as I said, not a gift even all of the twelve are given in full force. And even for these three, the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. As we’ll see soon enough, in a month or so, it does not immunize any of them from their humanity and from messing up: “I do not know the man,” Peter will say. After this amazing encounter. Really, Peter?!

It is a normal human desire to want to hold on to such mountaintop moments in our lives because they are so precious. But we are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story and the Voice of God that we hear in our own journeys on our own mountaintops. That Voice says you can’t stay here: there is more to come. Keep following Jesus wherever he leads. Even we who are grounded in the nativity of our Lord must travel to that hill outside of the city gates in Jerusalem where he will die, so that we might live. To say this another way: the Mount of the Transfiguration is not our final destination. This encounter gives strength for the arduous journey that lies ahead. That is why our liturgical calendar follows the pattern we see in this gospel: we are reminded to listen. Listen to Jesus, God’s beloved. And what does Jesus say? Get up, and do not be afraid. Come, and follow me.

This Wednesday, the forty-day journey of Lent will begin again. It will take us not only through the Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted by Satan but also into the wilderness places of our own world and of our own lives—to places we are often afraid to go. And the Voice says; Listen to Jesus! And Jesus says, Get up, and do not be afraid, come and follow me. There is no doubt in my mind that our epiphanies—our encounters with the risen Christ—are not confined by these four walls. Christ shows up when we are hanging out with friends over a pizza or skiing down a mountain or in a classroom where we discover something new and amazing and wonder-filled about an equation, or a poem, or an experiment, or an historical event or how to make music that touches the soul. The transfigured, risen, Christ is present in all of those places, if we have eyes to see.
The altar in the original chapel at Nativity

And this living, resurrected Christ is also found here, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name.  Always we carry this treasure in earthen vessels and the Church is, of course, an imperfect and human institution filled with flawed human beings. Yet we come here to proclaim the Word and to offer our lives as a holy and living sacrifice, and to break the bread and taste and to see that the Lord is good indeed. Christ is made manifest here and now as surely as on that mountaintop and when that happens, every once in a while our eyes are opened and we see it and the world around us is ablaze with the light of Christ.

By whatever name we call that: an epiphany, a born-again experience, a mystical encounter, our own moment of blessed assurance – Christ is transfigured and reality becomes something altogether different from what we thought it was. We ourselves begin to move from glory, to glory. Whether we are among the three who get to see that first-hand or among the nine who have to trust the witnesses, together we are called to listen: get up, and do not be afraid. Come, and follow me.