Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Second Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 28, 2010 (Luke 13:31-35)

I never suspected that as a father I would wind up learning how to make so many animal sounds. Our young daughters naturally love to hear the noises different creatures make and, with increasing frequency these days, love to traipse around the house, pretending to be the animals, themselves. I am often drawn in and requested to mimic the roar of a lion or the trumpet of an elephant. When she’s guarding her snack from me, our three-year-old Clare will often fend me off with the fierce growl of a “mean bear,” as she calls it. Laura, our one-year old, can pant just like a dog. We expand our farmyard and jungle onomatopoeia on a monthly basis: we’ve got cats that meow, frogs that ribbit, and giraffes that chew. (Since every picture of a giraffe our daughters have ever seen shows the animal chomping on a mouthful of leaves, our girls have decided that a giraffe says >chew<, an idea that was only reinforced during our visit last summer to the Richmond zoo which affords its visitors with the singular if not slimy opportunity to feed giraffes from the palm of one’s hand.)

I suppose that if Jesus were to show up at our house one day, he’d cluck like a hen. At least, that’s what we could assume from the comments he makes outside Jerusalem, which we hear about in today’s gospel reading. It’s interesting: in all of the New Testament, Jesus compares himself to an animal only once. Although there are several times, specifically in John’s gospel, when he is referred to by others as “the Lamb of God,” and there is a reference to him as the “Lion of Judah” in Revelation, the only time he reaches into the animal kingdom and pulls out a metaphor for himself is this instance in Luke’s gospel, and he chooses a mother hen. We might expect the choice of something more extraordinary or rare, an animal that we would automatically associate with bravery or divinity, yet it is this run-of-the-mill resident of the local farm with which he identifies. It is the maternal, feminine image of a chicken—and a chicken with babies, no less—he chooses to describe his relationship toward Jerusalem, the city toward which he is travelling with his disciples.

Having spent the entirety of my life in the suburbs or the city, I’ve never had the chance to see this barnyard phenomenon. YouTube, which I scoured this week for visual examples, produced nothing satisfying. Apparently a hen, in most cases, will watch over and protect any chick from an egg it incubates. Supposedly at the first sight of danger—a hawk soaring overhead or a fox prowling in the pen—the momma chicken opens her wings and the chicks all come scurrying for shelter underneath. Then she drops her wings again, pulling every one of them in close. And there they remain until the threat has subsided. This survival mechanism serves two purposes: it both protects them from predators and keeps the chicks warm at the same time. According to what I’ve read, the hen is even prepared to offer her own life for the sake of her babies, should it come to that point.

I don’t know at what point the chicks outgrow their mother’s wingspan, or at what point they don’t feel the need to run their for shelter anymore, but this act of seeking shelter and warmth against their mother’s breast is how the each generation of chickens is reared And mother hens never seem to lose the habit. There are even some varieties of hen out there who will welcome into their broods a chick that they haven’t hatched, as if they are the foster moms of the whole coop, poultry parents with such a strong instinct for nurturing that they’re concerned for the preservation of every little baby in the farmyard.

Well, this is how Jesus understands himself in relation to God’s people, which is symbolized by that city that embodies and epitomizes the character and hope of a whole nation, Jerusalem. He stands on some road in Galilee, face firmly set on going there. Speaking from God’s own point of view, he laments the fact that, while he has lifted his wings on occasion, the chicks never come scurrying to him for shelter. He stands in the place many former prophets had stood, looking longingly at a people who had, time and time again, forsaken their role to live as a beacon of justice and compassion for themselves and others. God had given them so much, guided them through so many years, and yet they routinely wanted to go their own way, pursuing others’ ideas of greatness and power.

Considering Jerusalem’s track record for receiving prophets who suggested they repent and turn around from those ideas, it was dangerous for a prophet to enter the city. What’s more, some foxes have been prowling in those parts, and yet the residents of Jerusalem don’t seem to be concerned about their safety. With Pilate in charge, justice has been corrupted and the Roman occupiers have been allowed to tax and enslave. Yet, when Pharisees come to warn Jesus away from Galilee for fear of what Herod might do to him there, Jesus displays that fierce impulse of nurture. He loves God’s people, and despite Herod’s threats, his ministry of healing and casting out demons will not be deterred. He cares for God’s people, and no amount of prowling and snarling from Herod or any other fox will prevent Jesus from responding to their needs of preservation. And so he clucks and raises his wings—on that day, the day after, and all the way into Jerusalem—hoping they’ll recognize the sign and run underneath.

The issue is that for chicks, this is an instinctive response. Their response to their momma’s opened wings is, in a certain sense, pre-determined. They can’t help it. The wings go up, the hen clucks or gives some signal, and they are compelled by biological reflex to go underneath.

Those who live in Jerusalem, on the other hand, don’t operate on instinct. Those who have been created in the image of God, and set loose on the planet to roam at large—free-range chickens that we are—have will. We, like the folks of Jerusalem, have reason and knowledge at hand, flawed though those tools may be. We will, given the chance, often bite the hand that feeds us. We will, given the chance, kill the person who could save us. The wings go up, the signal is given, and we will still choose to press our luck right underneath the nose of the foxes and hawks that could eat us alive. We press our luck, living as though we have no need of the comfort of a faith community, living as though we can outgrow God’s nurture that is offered in the common prayer life of a congregation. We run the other way, suspicious that Scripture and the sacraments offer a false comfort and that a truer, better life lies elsewhere.

Worse yet, we will seek shelter under the shadow of any other substitute momma out there but the one who we’re created to. Free of that instinct to see Jesus as the one, true, loving mother hen—his words driven by nothing more than love and desire for our preservation—we are enticed with the temptation to find ultimate protection and warmth in just about any other relationship—with our education, our careers, our wealth, our friends, our passions.
And yet, we do occasionally glimpse signs of something like an instinctive response to Jesus as guardian. The blip in church attendance and involvement after 9/11 suggested, perhaps, that people sensed a need for togetherness and shelter against the the fear of forces that we perceive as deeply harmful. I have also heard some in the church make the prediction that the current economic downturn might, for whatever reason, lead some folks back to God and their faith communities for hope and support.

Yet, as encouraging as these trends may be, and as nice as it would be to have it a little more crowded under the wings, I’m not sure we should put our hope in them. Jerusalem, too, had a on-again, off-again relationship with God. The fact is that as long as we live, God’s desire to gather and nurture, is almost matched by our desire to wander and reject.

It would be easy for me at this point to decry and bemoan the statistics that show a steady, if not steep, decline in church membership and worship attendance not just in our own denomination, but in our nation as a whole. It would be easy for me to lecture about the lack of compassion we often show, the missed opportunities for mission and outreach, the dysfunction of the church, etc. etc., but to do so would really serve no purpose but to make people feel guilty (or self-righteous) and get you to look away from my own reluctance and forgetfulness about running to the eternal care of Jesus when I’m in need, which is constant.

After all, Jesus doesn’t do all that much lecturing anyway. He does preach and teach, but his ministry is built on healing, casting out demons, actions and words of compassion that are tantamount to lifting his wings and doing whatever he needs to get us realize it’s actually safe and warm under there.

It was my turn to lead chapel in Epiphany’s nursery school this week. Outfitted with photos of chickens and hens, I took this image to the three-year-olds and four-year-olds chicks on-site. I showed them the photos and asked them what a mommy chicken would do if a fox broke into the pen and sensed her chicks were in danger. Their responses, as you can imagine, were like a children’s sermon on steroids. One child suggested the hen would run tell the farmer the babies are in trouble. Another one was convinced that the hen would herd her chicks into the chicken coop and lock the door. A lot of them proposed that the hen would peck the fox to death, or, at least peck him away. Fierce chickens!

What I noticed is that every child knew the instinct of motherly protection. They knew the love of a momma. But not one of them ever supposed she’d protect them by actually taking them under her wing, putting her own life in danger, out in the open. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t have either.

So it is, even with Momma Jesus. There’s just know way we could guess that this would be the way he’d save us yet. There’s just know what that we could figure out, to deduce that he will hold back on the lecturing and really just spread those wings, spread those mighty arms, and take us in. Even on that day when we acclaim him as our king and shout hosanna (“God, save us!”), we would never suspect he’d go to this length, that it would come to that point.  From the streets of Jerusalem, and into the wayward avenues of our own lives, this man will raise his own arms—on the cross—and lay down his life…out in the open.

So, practice your animal noises, if you must. Trumpet, oink, bark, growl, and ribbit. But, above all, listen for those words of love and practice running for shelter. Practice snuggling in tight. His wings are still open.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year C] - February 14, 2010 (Luke 9:28-36 [37-43])

I have this hunch that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration strikes listeners of today as extremely bizarre. Maybe I’m just projecting my own impressions onto everyone else, but I’ve often wondered how we make sense of this account that is attested by three of the four gospel writers. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain with a few of his friends. Then, strangely, his appearance changes, his clothes start glowing crazy white and then two ancient figures from Israel’s history suddenly appear and hold a conversation with him. Before they know it, a cloud descends, out of which a voice is heard to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen! Listen to him!” And then, as soon as that last word is spoken—poof!—Jesus is left alone.

I mean, let’s be honest: this is not an ordinary day in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This is not, by contrast, Jesus at a wedding reception, or eating in a house with his disciples. Modern ears can make sense of so many parts of Jesus’ story. The nativity, even with all the angels and the shepherds, is familiar to us. We hear, with considerable ease, Jesus’ teachings and parables. They include references and images that we know from our own life experiences: fishing…sowing seeds in a garden…dysfunctional family relationships. Even events like his baptism and his miracles and healings don’t seem altogether too other-worldly and ethereal. We can get a handle on them. We can, in some sense, “relate” to them.

But Jesus’ transfiguration is another story. It’s too short on the details our modern, scientific minds would like to know and too long on mystery—details like, how exactly did his features change? Or, how was he different after this metamorphosis? A hazy account of Jesus’ convening with two of Israel’s most famous prophets is jarringly out of place in the life of a man who hangs out with some of the earthiest people around, and who frequents some of the most common places around. This ascent into the clouds is just not something that happens to regular human beings, which is what we come to understand that Jesus is: One of us. Flesh and blood. God as human.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that this transfiguration account is so remote to modern ears is that we are not as familiar with Moses and Elijah as earlier congregations, and certainly not as familiar as Jesus’ disciples. Here were two figures who loomed large over the Jewish and early Christian mindset. Moses, Elijah, and their individual stories factored some way into the faith and even identity of each and every Jewish person. They were the big guns, the holy head honchos of the Hebrew faith.

The most contemporary thing I might compare this to would be like being on the field, playing in the Super Bowl with Drew Brees as your quarterback, and then looking up in the huddle to see him discussing his next play with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. The association made between Jesus and these two figures would have made a profound statement about his identity and about which direction his life was going to take.

What’s more, Luke tells us the three of them are discussing his upcoming departure. Interestingly, the word in the Greek is “exodus”: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are speaking of his exodus, “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Just prior to this trip up the mountain, Jesus had made the first prediction about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Referring to that event, then, as an exodus would have rung even more clearly in the ears of earlier audiences, for that is what Moses was known for. Moses had led his people in their deliverance from captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea and the wilderness of the Sinai to the freedom of the Holy Land. Now Jesus comes to lead God’s people out of captivity through the wilderness of death. It will be an exodus to true freedom.

All of these aspects of the Transfiguration, including the cloud that becomes like a veil to the disciples and the voice that thunders from inside like the words from an ancient prophet—things that may seem mysterious and peculiar to you and me—would have had a profound effect on those who first heard about this day in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

It appears from our text that they do. Peter, James, and John are terrified as they enter the cloud. Peter, amazed at Jesus’ glory, is likely reminded further of the Feast of Tabernacles, the yearly festival during which the Hebrews commemorated the Exodus by constructing makeshift dwellings, or tabernacles, like the ones that had sheltered them in the wilderness. He doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, but he senses how good it is for them to be there and see this transfiguration, but, at least for now, they come down the mountain. There is, after all, an exodus ahead.

And, as they come down that mountain, they run into a man whose only son is overtaken by a demon. As they come down that mountain, they are confronted with the needs of the people, As they come down that mountain, they come face to face with their own failures as disciples, their own powerlessness over the true wilderness of the human experience.

It seems to me that as difficult as it may be for people like us to make sense of this particular transfiguration event, we do have plenty of similar situations in the wilderness of our own lives. In fact, I wonder how often Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist retreat center outside of Lynchburg that serves as the location for our Synod’s youth events, is thought of as Virginia’s own mount of Transfiguration. Several times a year, youth and adults from all over Virginia trek to the top of the hill for a closer encounter with God. Those of us who make the trip often claim to experience while we’re there a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and why he matters. I notice that it is difficult for many youth to leave the sense of intimacy of faith they receive there. I know that, as I read this account, I recognize quite a few sensations I, myself, have at Eagle Eyrie: a trancelike state of sleepiness; stammering and stuttering incomprehensibly with exhaustion; and an inability to articulate exactly what we saw and heard to those who weren’t there.

Our synod youth events, our congregational worship, our pilgrimages of faith and wonder bring us, in some sense, closer to God. We, like the disciples, experience wonder, amazement, an out-of-the-ordinary encounter with faith. Yet for all the excitement and terror that the transfiguration brings, the exodus of faith cannot be continued until they come back down. For all the glory we glimpse on those mountaintop, the glory we will really need to see is that which happens when Jesus confronts the demons in the valley, when Jesus confronts the demons of all on the cross. For all the thrill we get from gazing at Jesus in these moments of grandeur, the truly crucial part of our faith will come when Jesus graciously looks at us, and, in doing so, heals us.

It happens that today, February 14, 2010, is the twentieth anniversary of the most distant photograph of earth ever taken, higher than any mountain view.  On this day in 1990, the spacecraft Voyager 1 rotated in its orbit and clicked its shutter to make one final a snapshot of our solar system from almost 4 billion miles away before it disappeared into the vastness of the universe. Did you say “cheese”? The resulting image has become iconic, and I bet most of you have seen it somewhere before in either books or in movies, or on television. Very different from the famous photograph taken by early space voyages that showed earth as a large round ball of swirling blue, white, and green, the photo taken by Voyager 1 showed just how vast the universe is in comparison to our planet. The photo has been titled “The Pale Blue Dot,” named so because, in it, earth is barely distinguishable among a dizzying number of other tiny flecks as a pale blue dot.

For many who have seen it, the picture of the pale blue dot is humbling, disorienting, and incomprehensible. They are, in a sense, transfigured by what it reveals: that the surrounding universe is so gargantuan and we occupy but a microscopic speck. To them it says we are nothing special, perhaps…just one dot among many, the vista of some remote deity.

For us, I reckon the snapshot could hearken our minds back to our Lord’s Transfiguration when the disciples saw briefly what God’s ultimate glory was like before he resumed his journey back down the mountain to look on us with compassion. For us, it can remind us that an experience with God’s love and glory, though breathtaking and powerful, is not really complete until viewed from the vantage point of the cross, from the vantage point of the boy who is freed from his demon. For us, the distance from that spacecraft to earth is but a fraction of the voyage God undertakes from the top of that mountain.  For the sight of the pale blue dot communicates nothing about the fun of a snow day, or about the smile of a Valentine, or about the joy of holding a newborn baby, or about the suffering of war and torture, or struggling with demons, or the loneliness of grief. But places like that is precisely where Jesus’ exodus will take him. Places like that are on that journey from the splendor of God’s Son on the mountaintop.  Jesus is the true Voyager, going the distance in our direction.

And one day—we are promised—when his new creation is finished, we will once again glimpse him in that splendor from that land of eternal freedom. The veil will be removed from everyone’s eyes and the image of who God is and who we really are in relation to him will be revealed, once and for all. Transformed by his glory, we will share communion with all those who’ve travelled human footsteps before us and after us. I suppose, on some level, that seems incomprehensible, too. From here in the valley on this pale blue dot, it’s mighty hard to grasp. Yet it is true. Just as sure as the words are spoken and the bread is held in our hands, and just as sure as he stands risen Easter morning, it is true.

Let’s listen, then, to the Chosen. He is true.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

(image: The Transfiguration, Pietro Perugino, 1498)