Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sermon - 14 February 2010

St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2 | Luke 9:28-43a

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

It has been the custom for many many years now that on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, and before the beginning of the Lenten season this coming Wednesday, we read for the Gospel the account of the Transfiguration of Christ — in a three year rotation from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and this year Luke. (I remember before this became our custom. Some of you probably do too, but I’ll leave it up to you to confess whether you do or not!) I remember thinking at the time, what a splendid way to conclude the Epiphany season celebrating the Manifestation of Christ before entering our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross and the Resurrection. I still think that!

So today we celebrate this climactic vision of Jesus Christ in glory by his closest disciples, Peter and John and James. But it may be helpful to back up a little and pick up the context. About eight days earlier (Mark and Matthew say it was six, but I’m not going to go there just now!), Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter replied, “You are God’s Messiah” [9:20]. We know that story. And Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone” [9:21], and went on to predict his upcoming suffering and death. And he continued, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” [9:23-24].

So it is in this context that the disciples of Jesus — Peter and John and James, and all of us through the centuries — now are given the vision of Christ in glory. In glory — in Biblical imagery, the presence of God — and in that divine glory appear also Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the great figures of God’s chosen people Israel. Moses, of whom we hear in the first reading today, coming down the mountain with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining with the glory of God [Ex. 34:29]. And the prophet Elijah, who you may recall was whirled up to heaven in a chariot of fire [2 Kings 2:11]. And Moses and Elijah converse with Jesus about his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” [9:31]. “Departure” — a word that can also be translated as “death.” In the midst of the divine glory, they talk about Jesus’ death. Hold that thought.

In the original Greek of Luke’s account, the word most English translations render as “departure” is exodos, literally “going out,” and thus figuratively “departure” (that is, from this life) or “death.” But here’s Moses, talking with Jesus about his “exodus.” How do you suppose Luke means his readers and hearers to understand this? I think so, too. All of the above. For the people of Israel, the Exodus from Egypt was their deliverance from slavery into freedom. And now, for the people of God, the Exodus of Jesus on the cross is our deliverance through death into life.

But I think it’s interesting to see just where this event, this experience, goes. First of all, Peter — God bless Peter, his mouth well ahead of his brain, as usual — Peter says, “This is great! This is so religious! Let’s build shrines!” Whereupon God interrupts with the cloud of the divine presence, and proclaims, “This is my chosen Son — listen to him! Did I say build shrines? I said listen to him!” And then it’s all over. The three say nothing about this at the time, as well they might not. They go with Jesus back down the mountain, and the next thing that happens is that Jesus heals an epileptic boy. Everything is back to normal. To the extent that Jesus’ ministry of healing is “normal.”

One of the deep questions with which many people wrestle — actually, most people wrestle with this at least sometimes, including me, and I assume including you — anyone who doesn’t wrestle with this at least sometimes just isn’t paying attention — is: “If God is good and God is omnipotent, why is the world so screwed up?” This question is called “theodicy,” which is derived from Greek words and means, roughly, “God’s justice.” (Although the word does not occur in ancient or biblical or patristic Greek, as far as I know; it was coined in the early eighteenth century by the philosopher [Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz.) We talked a little about this question last fall when we were reading Job. The problem is that there just are no easy answers to this, on either side. Christian or other “religious” answers, in the way they are articulated, often seem to me to be shallow and cheap. On the other hand, agnostic or atheist answers — or refusal to seek answers — also seem to me to be shallow and cheap. I don’t want to seem to be minimizing the seriousness of this question; nor do the Scriptures themselves have any simple solutions.

But there are some hints, some directions, and I think the Gospel today offers them, in the turn from the Mount of the Transfiguration to ministering to the needs of people, a second prediction of the Passion, and the start of the trek up to Jerusalem where the cross awaits. What God is up to in Jesus is not about power, not as we understand power. But what we want is power — God’s power, especially as it may serve as source and support for our own power. And it can be a severe test of our faith when God does not exercise divine power, particularly in the way that we want God to exercise power, in the way that we want God to enable our own exercise of power.

So now we prepare to enter into the Lenten season, to start our own trek up to Jerusalem, where the cross awaits. And yes, in the end there is power — but no kind of power we could ever have imagined.

[See Walter Brueggemann’s Reflections on this Exodus passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible; he includes references to Paul’s discussion in 2 Corinthians 3 as well as the Transfiguration narratives in the synoptic Gospels.]

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sermon - 7 February 2010

EPIPHANY 5 — 7 February 2010
St. Paul’s Durant — 9:00

Isaiah 6:1-13 | Ps 138 | 1 Cor 15:1-11 | Luke 5:1-11

Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

A remarkable man, this Simon Peter whom Jesus chose as chief of his followers—after Jesus himself, and your patron St. Paul, whose own writings we have, we probably know Simon Peter better than any other figure in the New Testament. A hearty, blustering man, whose mouth was usually several steps ahead of his brain, a man of many promises made and somewhat fewer kept, a man who swore unswerving loyalty yet sold out at the first temptation before the night was out—and then wept bitterly for his faithlessness.
In today’s Gospel we get a typically human glimpse of Peter—Peter, as he is confronted by God’s power in Jesus, as he confesses his sinfulness, begging that God’s Holy One depart from him, lest his weak and silly soul be burnt up in the radiance of the awesome righteousness of God.

It’s part of long-standing Christian tradition that we spend a lot of time whining about what sinners we all are, how unworthy we all are, how much less we are as persons than we are meant to be, how in our unwholeness we are as nothing before the holiness of God. Sometimes when we talk about our own sinfulness and unworthiness we’re just fishing for the reassurance that we’re really not so bad after all. But often enough we really mean it. And it’s good that we mean it, and it’s good that we say it, because it’s true. We are sinners, we are unworthy, we are as persons far less than we are meant to be and called to be, in our unwholeness we are as nothing before the holiness of God. It’s true of me, it’s true of you, it’s true of Simon Peter.

But we mustn’t stop with that, because that’s only half the truth. The full truth is that God knows perfectly well what we are, and God loves us anyway—loves us enough to go all the way to win us back. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us,” St. Paul writes to the Romans [5:8].

Too much concern over our own sinfulness can be a dangerous thing, actually. It focuses our attention on ourselves, and we become fixated with the notion of how rotten we are, and spend so much time moaning about our own unworthiness that we can no longer see God and the life God is calling us to. If all we see is our own sinfulness, we grow to detest ourselves. And pretty soon we detest everyone else, too. Because they’re even worse than we are; or, what’s really even worse, they’re better than we are! And so, having learned to detest ourselves and one another, we learn to detest God as well.

Christian people in the past, and some even yet in the present, have taken this sort of attitude: we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (as the noted American colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards put it in his most famous sermon). But this can result in the sterile heartlessness of puritanism perverted — and then all too often we go out and displace this hostility onto everyone else around.

Well, we do need to take our sinfulness seriously — but in a way that leads to confession and repentance. It has been suggested that our society has lost its sense of shame, and we need to recover that — not that we may be degraded, but that we may be moved to repent. Repentance is turning around, changing direction, letting the past be past and starting anew by God’s grace—repentance is not morbidly wallowing around in our own filth or hammering on the gates of heaven with noisy protestations of our utter wretchedness. God knows perfectly well how wretched we are—God knows it far better than we do ourselves. And God says, “All of that is really quite beside the point, you know; the point is, I love you and I want you.”

The Scripture readings today all have to do with how God calls human beings who are really quite unworthy of being called; but you see God doesn’t care about that. We hear Isaiah’s account of his great vision of the LORD in the Temple in Jerusalem. And he said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” And a seraph flies to him and says, “Well, we can fix that! (Though this may hurt a little.)” And God says, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah says, “Umm…send me?” And God says, “Okay! You’re on!” (This is kind of like what God said to Jeremiah last week, you may recall.)

Then we hear St Paul proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the breaking in of new and eternal life, the death of sinfulness and unworthiness. “Unworthy? I’ll tell you unworthy!” says Paul. “I persecuted God’s Church! I’m not worthy to be called an apostle. But my unworthiness doesn’t have anything to do with it! So by God’s free gift, no strings attached, here I am, me of all people, an apostle of Jesus Christ!” We might think that Saul of Tarsus was the last man in the world God would want to do business with. But that’s the kind of God God is. God doesn’t call us because of who we are; God calls us because of who God is.

Jesus summons us all to proclaim and enact God’s Reign with him, to catch people for God’s Kingdom. He calls us with those joyful and exhilarating words which we so rarely see in the employment ads any more: “No experience or qualifications required. Will train.” Jesus calls us, not because we are worthy, but precisely because we are not worthy. Yet he loves us, and his love gives us worth. We can cry with Simon Peter, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner!” But Jesus replies, “Yeah, yeah, I know that! But that’s just why I won’t go away! So don’t be afraid! It is you whom I am calling! Come! Follow me!

“(And bring a net!)”