Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year A] - February 26, 2017 (Matthew 17:1-9)

The late Jim Valvano, basketball coach for the NC State Wolfpack, whose team won the NCAA Championship in 1983, had a very unique and some would say outrageous way he’d begin each season of practice. Before they would practice a single free throw shot, before they would run any passing drills, before they’d even do laps around the court, Jimmy V would have his players dress out and bring them out on the court with a ladder. He’d put the ladder underneath the basketball hoop and then hand them a pair of scissors at which point he would have the whole team practice cutting down the net. In case you’re not familiar with college basketball, the act of cutting down the nets from a basketball hoop is reserved for tournament champions. Only one team gets to do it, obviously, and it is done right at the end of the final victory. As the television crews come onto the court and the wild, celebrating fans are corralled back into their seats for the presentation of the trophy, someone brings out a ladder and the winning team-members climb up, one-by-one, to cut the net down. And in the Men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament, which will begin in a little less than a month, the song they begin playing in the background is “One Shining Moment.”

Practicing that championship ritual, that end-of-the-season, final, culminating ceremony is how Coach Valvano began his season. It’s a bit outrageous, but I suppose he did that in order to get his players to glimpse the glory that could be theirs before they descended into the hard work and discipline and day-to-day drudgery of the season. I suppose he did it to inspire them forward, to give them a vision of what they could be before the season had a chance to disillusion them.

In many ways, that is what the Transfiguration of Jesus was for his disciples. This whole experience is outrageous, if you look at it. Even Jesus refers to it as a vision once it’s over, as if something about it wasn’t quite real, almost a figment of their imagination. Whatever it was, it was a glimpse of the final glory of Jesus, a brief peek, if you will, into One Shining Moment that would be a precursor, a little foretaste, of the Everlasting Shining Eternity Jesus would bring at the end of his story.

An 11th century icon of Christ's Transfiguration. This is at St. Catherine's
Monastery, which sits at the base of Mt. Sinai
The fact of the matter is they needed a brief peek, they needed a glimpse of that glory, for two main reasons. First of all, they don’t really have a clue about who Jesus is. They’ve never been given the information that Jesus is, for example, God’s Son. For those of us who have the benefit of reading the gospel of Matthew, that’s something that’s been more or less clear since the beginning. We know the story of his birth, and the miraculous, mysterious events that surrounded it. We have heard about the angel that visited Joseph in dream that informed him his son would save the people from their sins. We also know about the events at Jesus’ baptism, how he went down in the water and when he came up a voice boomed from on high identifying Jesus as God’s Son.

None of the disciples, you see, were there at those occasions. For them, Jesus is a rabbi with some very compelling (if not confusing) teachings and an incredibly insightful understanding of God’s law. For them, Jesus is a teacher and leader who also has the ability to work some miracles every now and then. There have been a small handful of vague references to Jesus and God the Father, but no one has an idea of the depth of that relationship until this One Shining Moment.

Who is Jesus for you? Hearing the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is an excellent time to ask ourselves that question. Is he an idea in your head? How do you see him? What’s his point?

Sorry for the blurriness. This was in the days before cell phone cameras.
I remember one of the the first times I really grappled with these kinds of questions and the difference between the Jesus in my head and the Jesus that’s out there, as a real person I was in Hong Kong for a trip during seminary and we were at a Chinese Lutheran Church one morning during worship and Sunday School. Some kind of special faith formation event was going on between the worship services that morning—much like our Explore Camp Day today—and there were some materials and pieces of art laid out on a table. And among those pieces of art was a pair of painted plates. One plate had nothing but Chinese writing on it, which I couldn’t understand. The other plate, however, was a picture of a man under a tree surrounded by a bunch of children. One of the children was even on his lap. And it took me a second to figure out who I was really looking at because all of the figures were Asian. It was Jesus blessing a bunch of children, but Jesus had what I would consider—and what I think the artist would have considered—Asian features. Even the tree they were under looked like something out of an old Asian piece of art, branches kind of bending downward like a willow. While my brain understood that Jesus was not Asian, it made me acknowledge that in my mind’s eye I had always formed Jesus into a white, Caucasian Jesus. I had essentially imagined Jesus just as a wiser, more capable version of myself and the people that were around me most of the time.

In a way, those plates transfigured Jesus for me. They presented him in a new way that made me pause and really consider not just what but mainly who it is that I believe has named and claimed me in faith.

"Transfiguration" (Raphael)
Jesus can often come across so much of the time as an idea, a concept that can be mulled over in our heads rather than a person that can be beheld, that can amaze us. We can so easily reduce Jesus to some kind of moral teacher, or even just a moral teaching. We go through life and its complex situations thinking in terms of “What Would Jesus Do?” almost as if that were some kind of philosophical question. And those kinds of questions and outlooks aren’t necessarily wrong or bad—because disciples are supposed to imitate their leader—but neither do they quite offer a complete picture of who Jesus is. On the mount of Transfiguration the disciples don’t hear, “This is a great wise teacher. He’s got great ideas. Listen to him!” Or “This guy’s a great example. Ponder him!” They hear, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!”

Disciples of yesterday and disciples of today may begin to follow Jesus with the hopes that they will just end up as better people. But the reality is that following Jesus means being given something better. It means being granted new life, a bright, unending future. It means being given Jesus—being in his presence, knowing him, sharing life with him—which is reward enough because he is the Son of God.

So, one thing this net-cutting event on the mountain does is tell the disciples more about Jesus’ identity. The other reason God gives those disciples a glimpse of the future glory is the one we already know. We know it in our bones, but we try to ignore it, deny it. Peter becomes voice of our denial because what we know (but have a hard time admitting) is that we have to head back down the mountain for a while and life is way different down there than on the top. Christian faith doesn’t call us to an escape from the world. It calls us to a greater engagement with it, and that is not always fun and games. Just as the Wolfpack learned from Coach Valvano that the season requires practice, drills, and sweat, we learn from Jesus that discipleship will involve a cross.

That is, in fact, what Jesus has just finished telling them when he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain that day. He has let them know that the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and be killed, but on the third day be raised again. It is on that mountain where we will see the nature of God truly revealed before our eyes, where we come to terms not just with a new kind of ethnic Jesus or fresh interpretation of his teachings—but that we are following a God who does not hold himself back from the darkest parts of our journey, a God who offers all of his life for us to have his. It is a God who is willing to lose everything, absolutely everything, to climb down into all of our “things” and make us new.

A faith, he is telling them, which is built on seeking out transfiguration experiences, linking them together, one mountaintop experience after another, will ultimately become problematic. Faith is built on learning to listen to Jesus, the Son of God. And faith is, most importantly, coming to know that when all fades away—when the cloud of our glorious vision dissolves when the exhilaration of a fresh new understanding of God wears off, when reality of whatever life has handed us hits us in the face—we will not be left alone.

I said two, but there we hit on a third little thing about this outrageous event. It involves some irony. Peter, you see, wants to do something so that he and the others can stay with Jesus. He sees the vision, beholds the glory, and wants to build some huts in order to remain with that God. But in the end, it is Jesus who does the staying. All that fades away and Jesus has to touch the startled disciples and show them that he, alone, is left. He shows them he will travel with them back down the mountain.

Brothers and sisters, I hope you come to know that the exciting, mountaintop experiences you have with God may become like a drug, enticing you to find more, but Jesus will remain. Your faith may get wobbly—like mine does—but Jesus will remain. The season before the championship will get rough, filled with disillusionment, but Jesus will remain. You, me, we all may forget to listen, forget what we’re heading for from time to time, but Jesus will remain. The valley below may get dark and dreary, but it won’t end there. Jesus remains. And pulls us through. He holds us fast and he promises the end will come, the victory will be won, and, let me tell you, it will not involve just one but a zillion back-to-back shining moments!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 1A] - February 12, 2017 (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37)

Moses makes it sound like such a no-brainer!

He stands there with all the people of God on Mt. Nebo at the very boundary between the wilderness of their wandering at their back and the Promised Land of milk and honey in front of them and he says, “Choose this or choose this.” The way behind them, remote and dangerous and filled with the peril of the competing tribes, was like choosing death and adversity, and the way in front of them, with the land they could occupy, beautiful and promising and filled with abundance, was choosing life and prosperity.

Yes, Moses makes it sound like a no-brainer, and you’d better believe that if I had been an Israelite standing there that day, after having lived through forty years of wandering and wondering in the harsh, godforsaken desert, I think I would have known exactly which choice to make. To choose life was to choose a home, a future, the good things God had promised me. To choose life was to realize that the commandments and laws God had given us weren’t arbitrary rules that made life less fun, but were a way of blessing and honor and right living. The commandments were, as Moses pointed out, a gift to help God’s people live in community, the way to prevent them from surrendering to the chaos of their desires and to fully enjoy the freedom God was giving to them.

But choices, even when they are pared down to the basics and set in life-or-death contrast to each other, are rarely no-brainers. We find a way to make it more complicated that it should be, to make everything seem equal. The stakes aren’t quite as high as what Moses was presenting, but I can tell you that Melinda and I have had the most intense disagreements of our marriage when it comes to making decisions about where to eat when we’re travelling on the road. Even when we have learned to narrow down options offered on those blue highway signs to just two alternatives, we seem rarely able to come to some sort of clear decision. It’s as if we’re choosing life or death: fast food or sit-down dinner. Cold subs or hot meal. If Bojangles’ isn’t listed as an option, then we’re really lost. Sometimes, at complete loggerheads, we have inadvertently made the decision not to decide and instead travel on down the road, ever hungrier, ever angrier. The fact of the matter is no matter how clear and obvious the choices are—even if they are laid out before us as getting food and staying hungry, blessings and curses, life or death—we still find we are unable to make the right choice so much of the time. And so to some degree I can imagine those ancient Israelites, frozen in their bickering and looking at Moses’ obvious choices on the blue sign by the side of the wilderness road and still wondering what to do.

Martin Luther spoke a lot about this. His understanding of Scripture and observation of human behavior led him to believe that we don’t really have the freedom to choose what’s good for us. He called it the “bondage of the will,” which is a fancy way of saying that even our ability to discern and decide is tainted by sin. There is a darkness in here (our heart) that we must acknowledge. Captive to an innate desire to put ourselves first, we tend to do whatever we want to do, to satisfy some of our most immediate desires, which aren’t always innocent and harmless. There are interpretations of the Christian faith that say we need to “make a decision” for Christ, or that our salvation is dependent on accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, but Luther would have said that just can’t be done. To say so doesn’t do justice to that inner darkness and assumes we are somehow moral or pure enough on our own to bring about God’s grace. To say it another way, Moses can stand on the edge of the Promised Land and lay out the choices as if it is a no-brainer, and the people of God are still going to struggle with it, are still going to choose death and adversity, if not now, then at some point down the road. And God, in God’s infinite grace, will hold out the option of life again and again.

Then along comes Jesus, a new prophet and rabbi and descendent of Moses, and he sits down on a small mountain not too far from the River Jordan and gives another description of the land that lies before them which his followers could go in and occupy. And as he speaks about it and their choices, they learn this land they could dwell in, this kingdom of God, is far more beautiful and abundant and complex than they might ever imagine.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Gustave Dore)
In this land, for example, no one expresses or maybe even feels anger with one another. They certainly never insult one another, label one another. In this kingdom people practically jump at the opportunity to practice forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. They apologize readily when they’ve done wrong and hurry to show mercy to those who’ve offended them. People in this land don’t manipulate relationships for their own benefit. They don’t objectify women or men or children and don’t take advantage of anyone who is vulnerable. When they speak, their words are trustworthy in and of themselves and they are so honest in their speech with each other that there’s no reason to take oaths or get anything notarized.

It’s a kingdom that anyone would want to lay claim to and live in, far better than the purposeless wandering they find themselves in now. It’s a place where each person deals with one another in the perfectly correct and most beautiful way, and even though, deep-down, they know it resonates as something really right, the people still hear it all as just more commandments and more laws they’re supposed to follow. “Do this, don’t do that”…in fact, now it seems to be a place even more rule-bound than what Moses had described.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes each commandment, here the fifth, the sixth, and the eighth, and rather than lessening them, loosening them up a little, he expands them, makes them more strict and detailed. What is meant by murder, as it turns out, is actually broader than just physically taking someone’s life. What is meant by adultery is broader than just having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. What is meant by bearing false witness is more than just gossiping and lying. And the choice to enter there and live in that land is, once again, not as much of a no-brainer as we might expect.

There was a story this week where a prominent news organization that had recently aired a story about people’s views regarding the recent election and politics. The organization posted it to their Facebook page, like usual, and got thousands of comments lambasting one of the people interviewed in the article. Most of the comments were quite rude and mean-spirited. So, in an interesting twist, the news organization reached out to ten of those people who made the comments and offered them the chance to sit down and learn from the person who was interviewed in the story, the person they had insulted and called an idiot. Only two accepted.[1] Life is offered—a chance to live in abundance and harmony—but so often we just can’t seem to choose it.

The good news is, however, that God knows this. After travelling with us in the wilderness, God knows about that inner darkness. And the Teacher who sits on that small mountain and offers up this beautiful kingdom for us understands we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. He is not content just to stand at the edge and explain what his Father’s kingdom is like or point us how to get there. He is going to take us there, himself. He is going to become that kingdom, giving himself over to us. And to do so he is going to confront the darkness we bear within and die to any belief system that is based on our choosing and deciding.

He is going to represent a choice, you see, but not our choice, not our choosing. Jesus is God’s choice for us. Jesus is God’s life for us. Jesus is God loving us, and redeeming us from ourselves. And henceforth having faith and living as one of God’s children will be more about God’s decision to have us than our decision to have God. Having faith and living in God’s kingdom will more about God’s holding fast to us in love and mercy than about our holding fast to him.

Last week in one meeting here one person shared the story about an elementary school teacher in Charlotte, NC, who has created a personalized handshake with every single one of his fifth-grade students. Each day, when they arrive at school, they form a line at the door and, one by one, as they enter the classroom he has prepared for them, he extends his hand and holds fast to each one of theirs in their own unique way. Some of the handshakes are pretty elaborate and involve turning around, waving limbs in the air, incorporating fist bumps and snaps. He has committed them all to memory—that is, how he holds fast to each student, how he claims them for the day and offers them the classroom. The administration loves it. “The only way to help our scholars achieve at high levels every day,” says the principal, “is to embrace the need for meaningful and deep relationships.”[2]

So there is Jesus, the Teacher, embracing relationship with us, holding to us fast so that we can enter the kingdom and live with him forever. See him there, at the font in the water, welcoming us in, maybe giving us a fist bump. Then again at the table, with his body and blood, reaching out his hand for a high-five. One at a time, over and over, the decision is made and we respond, held fast: “I’ve chosen to love you deeply, my child,” he says. “You are a no-brainer.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 5, 2017 (Matthew 5:13-20)

Several years ago my sister, father, and I started giving my mother a hard time because she suddenly became very particular about how dark it had to be for her to go to sleep. It had to be completely, 100% pitch black, and if somewhere there was the littlest light shining—maybe the dull glow from a streetlight outside the window, maybe from an alarm clock beside the bed—she would not be able to fall asleep. She would lie there awake, irritated by the light. She even got so dependent on having utter darkness whenever it was bedtime that she started to travel with a roll of electrical tape in her toiletry bag. When they’d turn off the main lights of some hotel room, inevitably there would be other smaller lights around the room still shining. Little light on the thermostat? She’d slice off a piece of electrical tape and cover it up. Little light emanating from some device in the bathroom? Slice off another piece of electrical tape and slap it on there. It was like a little bed time ritual, one in which she discovered how difficult it actually is to control the amount of light when it is supposed to be dark.

You can imagine how awful we felt when we realized that she had developed quite a serious eye condition that left her extremely sensitive to light. (Moral of the story: don't ever, ever tease your mother). And you can imagine how silly I feel now that I have somehow developed a similar nightly ritual. I don’t have an eye condition, but for some reason I, too, need as little light as possible. In fact, there are some nights I don’t get good sleep and I’m convinced it is because there is this little teeny weeny green light on our printer and it is keeping me awake. Mind you, the little light is about the size of the head of a pin, and it sits on our desk about 5 feet away from our bed, but when I wake up in the middle of the night it IS THIS BRIGHT. I’ve made a special cover for it, not out of electrical tape, but out of black construction paper, and when someone prints something it often knocks that paper out of the way. You think I’m crazy, but that teeny tiny green light ruins the darkness.

“You are the teeny tiny green light that will ruin the darkness,” Jesus tells his disciples. It’s a good thing to say, and the right time to say it. Jesus has just begun what many consider his most thorough, most important teaching about the kingdom of God and it’s totally imaginable that they’re starting to get a bit overwhelmed by the sound of it all. He has come on strong, even mentioning right up front the fact that they may face some persecution, some blowback, for their beliefs and their works of mercy. And so now he gives them an idea about how special and important and influential their witness will be. Like a city situated up on a hill that stands visible for all those in the valleys and hillsides, like a candle set on a table in a room at night that enables people finish their work, like the small bit of salt that flavors the dish it is in, they will have an effect on the world around them. And even if someone walks around with electrical tape, they will prove by their very presence that it is actually very easy to banish the darkness.

Light is difficult to control. Just a little teeny tiny bit can make a huge difference. In a time long before people knew the physics of light—that it had characteristics of both a particle and a wave—Jesus is telling them that their very actions in Christ’s name will be mysteriously explosive, impossible to shut away. As little photons of good in an evil world, disciples could beam and bounce off of others and transmit holy energy to them, and like a wave their actions could reach distances far beyond the distance their legs could ever take them, like when a prayer shawl stitched here warms a person in a hospital on the other side of town. And long before anyone knew the chemistry of salt—that it is a stable compound with positive and negative ions (polar opposites!) which allow it to dissolve and spread into a larger surrounding substance—Jesus is telling them that although they might be small and pretty ordinary-looking and totally different from each other they would be able to season and enrich an entire community, like when a church’s Jesus stained glass window brings joy to thousands of people driving up Monument Avenue. Incidentally, this scripture is what one architect used as he presented his initial ideas to the building Team back in December as the congregation contemplates a new addition.

But Jesus is not just lecturing on the power of positive change, or spreading random acts of kindness. Those things are nice, but Jesus is talking about something more serious here. By calling them salt and light, Jesus gearing up his followers to understand they will represent to the world the true life of the kingdom of God. Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of the law, the culmination of all that God desired to teach and convey through the giving of the law and the words of the prophets in the days of ancient Israel. When Christ lives in them through faith, they will display that fulfillment of God’s desires for the world through their own words and actions. That is perhaps why for so long the first thing said to a new daughter or son of Christ after they pass through the waters of baptism is, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

However, as important as your one teeny tiny green light is …or yours…or yours…Jesus is actually not speaking about individual lights here. He is speaking to his disciples as a group, as a community. Each time he uses the word “you” in this passage, he is actually using the plural form of that word, which we don’t have in English…unless, of course, you live in the South. He is saying, “Y’all are the salt of the earth. Y’all are the light of the world. Let y’all’s light so shine before others.”  In other words, it is not each person’s ability to shine that Jesus is focusing on, but their power as a collective.

I think this can be especially challenging for Americans to remember, for we are really fascinated by the power of the individual. We tend to like stories where one person makes a difference. In fact, not just here but elsewhere in the gospels Jesus seems far more concerned about the impact his followers have when they function as a group.

"Pentecost" (Salomon de Bray, 16th cent.)
Early church historian Robert Louis Wilken drives this home in his book about the first thousand years of Christianity, the years from Jesus’ death and resurrection to about A.D. 1000. The communal aspect of Christian faith cannot be overstated, especially because they were formed in a time of great persecution, when it was often a death sentence to be identified as a follower of the risen Lord. “The early Church,” he says, “was a community with a distinct anatomy; it was not simply an aggregate of individuals who believed the same things.”[1] It came into existence, he says at another point, as a community, not as a bunch of individuals. That is to say, the first Christians would have a very difficult time with the modern understanding some seem to have that someone can be a follower of Christ apart from the church. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even seem to make much room for that understanding, either.

In any case, baptism and faith make a person part of a body, and that body, and the way it moved and functioned together, was what had the quality of light. By the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples of Christ learned to work together to display the love of Christ, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into their houses, to cover the naked, to offer their lives for the sake of others…and when they did so their light broke forth like the dawn.

It seems to have been this “y’all” characteristic of discipleship that led Christians to create the first hospitals the world had ever known of. In ancient Greece and Rome, when people worshipped many different gods and goddesses, people who were sick used to go and sleep in the temples of certain gods with the hopes they would be healed. Within the first few hundred years of its existence, the church transformed that trend. They designed and built structures where the sick could come and be tended to. They trained people that we would call doctors and nurses to take care of the sick because that is what they had known Jesus to do. The earliest hospitals were, of course, very rudimentary, but they were no doubt a new kind of salt for the earth.

It is this y’all characteristic that still attracts attention today. One of my colleagues who went to high school with me ended up getting ordained as an Episcopal priest and served right down the road from me when I was in Pittsburgh, is now the rector of a parish down in Waco, Texas. We’re only really in touch through Facebook these days, but I found out that he was invited to participate in a very rare experience a couple of weeks ago. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who was until recently a self-described atheist, scheduled a meeting with the pastors in Waco. Apparently Zuckerberg just wanted to listen to what pastors had to say, and he was especially keen on hearing what the pastors said about the communities they served—what was important to them, how they functioned. In an article about the meeting, my colleague said you could have knocked him over with a feather. They had no idea they were going to be interviewed by such an influential person. Zuckerberg, who practically invented the concept of social media and who has made it the force it is today for connecting with people and spreading information, suddenly seems to want to learn from pastors of small congregations what is really important to communities and how they work together?[2] It almost wonders if someone might be seeing our light.

In these tense times when it seems there is so much that wants to pull people apart, when there are clear, competing visions and desires for what our human communities and even our country wants to be, the light of Christ evident through the Church is especially important. We can even disagree about political and social issues of our time here—like positive and negative ions that mysteriously still work together—because ultimately it is the truth of the cross that illuminates our lives. It draws us together, pulls us in to its forgiving and cleansing center, telling us that we aren’t just a bunch of “yous,” but one great big y’all. It draws us in and reminds us that there is something in our witness that can shine, that we exist as that one community in the world which by its very presence reminds the world that God loves it, cares for it, has died for it so that it may truly live. That is flavor, my friends. That is some kind of seasoning.

And, lest we forget, even when the world seems really, really dark, sometimes all it takes to ruin it is a teeny tiny green light.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The First Thousand Years. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2012. p 35