Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your 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.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

choose?

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017

“I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”

So speaks Moses.

moses-restating-the-law-to-the-people-of-israel-before-they-enter-the-promised-land-henri-felix-emmanuel-philippoteaux-1815-1884

The Israelites, following their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, stand on the threshold of the land God promised them. Throughout their journey, many were the declarations about the blessings of obedience to God’s will as codified in the commandments and warnings of the misfortunes of disobedience. Now, about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice: life or death.

The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God, singing, “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” Then, in addition to “law”, using, lest any fail to grasp the point, a cascade of words, verily, synonyms for God’s will: “decrees”, “ways”, “commandments”, “statutes”, “judgments.”

But an immediate problem arises. One inherent in our humanity, which our Collect clearly identifies: “O God…through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do nothing good…”[1] “Weakness” ironically, for me, conveys the power of our freewill, poetically expressed in the words of a prayer, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[2] Succinctly stated, we humans want our way, follow our will. In Moses’ language, we “bow down to other gods” – our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh, our pride and trust in our intellects, our feelings and senses of how things and others should be, our hungers for self-attainment.

Jesus, speaking expansively of God’s commandments, amplifies our problem. In one example, Jesus reminds us of the olden law, “You shall not murder.” Then he declares that beyond our outward obedience in refraining from killing someone we, in our inward will, must renounce our right to be “angry with a brother or sister.” Given our egoistic freewill and our desire that things and others be as we want them, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ stringent definition, none of us can keep God’s commandments and therefore, according to Moses’ strict description, we unavoidably choose death!

No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?

The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. An auspicious moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice. We, near the end of the season of Epiphany, stand on the threshold of another Lent when we again will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we again will tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we again will remind ourselves of our need to crucify anew all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”

But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is for us to trust, as our Collect also says, “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.

Pontheolla and I have a dear friend whose company we enjoy. On most occasions when he comes to our home he dines and partakes of libations with us. Only sometimes does he bring anything to share to eat or drink. Pontheolla, being hospitable, doesn’t seem to mind. I, being territorial, take umbrage at what I consider his taking undue advantage. I once said to her, “Baby, all he brings is his appetite and you do all the rest!”

Precisely. In this, Pontheolla is an earthly, incarnational image of who God is and how God works. Whenever we come with even the barest hunger and thirst, as the Beatitudes commend, for God’s righteousness,[3] God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, fills us, leading, guiding us into obedience.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: Moses restating the Law to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884)

Footnotes:

[1] The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[2] From Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62.

[3] Matthew 5.6

goin’ down to Egypt

bulletin-cover a sermon, based on Exodus 3.1-12, preached on the occasion of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., commemoration at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC, on Sunday, January 15, 2017

I preach with you, my dear sisters and brothers in the Name of our ever-faithful, freedom-loving, freedom-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Moses, in an outburst of outrage, slays an Egyptian, who was beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he flees Egypt. In Midian, a safe distance away, drawing near a mountain, suddenly, “an angel of the Lord appeared” in a bush ablaze, yet unburned. God speaks: “I have observed my people’s misery…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…I have come down to deliver them.”

moses-adores-god-in-the-burning-bush-james-tissot-1836-1902-french-jewish-museum-new-york

What will be God’s instrumentality? God’s delivery system of choice? Cosmic portents? Cataclysmic earthly upheaval? An army, mighty in number and power? No. God tells Moses, “I send you.” I hear the echo of God’s voice in the soulful words of the spiritual: Go down, Moses, ‘Way down in Egypt land. Tell ole Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Moses cries, “Who am I that I should go?” God answers with a word of consolation, verily compassion, “I will be with you.”

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We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. His life devoted to a dream of equality for all people. His legacy of the necessity of continued labor of succeeding generations toward the fulfillment of that dream.

In our remembrance, we read the Exodus story of God’s declaration of a crisis and call to Moses, stirring in Moses an inner conflict. Crisis. Call. Conflict.

However, in light of Martin’s life and legacy, and from a human existential viewpoint, I bid we alter the order of our understanding of this story, perceiving first a crisis that provokes a conflict that prepares the way for God’s call. Crisis. Conflict. Call.

Moses, on that Midian mountainside, already knowing his people’s crisis in Egypt, surely was conflicted: Do I remain in safety or return, risking my life? Do I concede that the problem is implacable, Pharaoh is intractable, and the liberation is improbable or dare I believe with God all things are possible?

In this crucible of crisis and conflict, now Moses hears God’s call. In the poetry of Hebrew narrative, conveying a reality beyond the power of even precise prose, the vox Deus sounds through fire, that ancient symbol of the divine: “I have come to deliver my people…I send you, Moses, to bring my people out.”

The transcendent-immanent God works out the divine purpose within the concrete context of human history. (Verily, God’s words and deeds are historical events!) Moses answers God’s call “goin’ ‘way down in Egypt land”.

The lives of Moses and Martin embrace many parallels.

Like Moses, Martin was painfully aware of the crisis of God’s oppressed people; believing the American civil rights movement to be a latter day chapter of the Exodus story.[1]

Like Moses, Martin was conflicted about his role and responsibility, the risks to himself and his family.

Like Moses, Martin heard God’s call to freedom. Like Moses, Martin went forth, trusting that God was working out the divine purpose, many times quoting James Russell Lowell:

Though the cause of evil prosper,

Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold,

And upon the throne be wrong,

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

keeping watch above his own.[2]

Like Moses, Martin discovered that freedom ain’t free, but always costs one’s safety and one’s self.

Like Moses, Martin faced a tenacious pharaoh in the form of unrepentant racism.

Like Moses, Martin never stood in the Promised Land; on the night before his assassination, saying: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…But…I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[3]

We remember Martin. His life of love for the dream of equality for all people. A love, in obedience to Jesus, even for his enemies.[4] A love that forged a movement of nonviolent power and persuasion in which enemies were “killed” with the kindness of an oppressed people standing up as equals. A love through which lives, metaphorically and literally, were laid down for the sake of friends.[5]

We remember Martin. His legacy of the necessity to labor continually to make the dream a reality. A legacy involving us…

The church is no memorial society. We do not gather to recall sentimentally the life and labor of our dear, dead, departed leader. We gather in the power of the Spirit in the Name of a living Jesus in response to his command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Remembering his body broken, his blood shed…

Remembering that God sent Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the last victim, so that no more sacrificial victims of any class or color, gender or sexual orientation, race or ethnic origin will be crucified on the twin Calvary crosses of phobia and prejudice…

Remembering that we are called to stand on the side of the ailing and alienated, the despised and despairing, the helpless and hopeless, the poor and oppressed, the least, last, and lost in all the Egypts of this world that have yet to understand the meaning of the cross and in that invincible ignorance continue to seek and make sacrificial victims.

God, in the eternal, inextinguishable fire of divine glory, spoke to Moses and Martin and speaks to us, “I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out.” This is neither an easy word from God nor an easy work for us. So, when, not if, we ask, “Who are we that we should go?” God always answers, “I will be with you.”

So, my dear sisters and brothers, let us go!

 

Illustration: Moses adores God in the burning bush, James Tissot (1836-1902), French Jewish Museum, New York

Photograph: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC, January 14, 2012, by me

Footnotes:

[1] See Where Do We Go From Here? Chapter 6: The World House.

[2] From the poem, The Present Crisis (1845)

[3] From I See the Promised Land, delivered at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ), April 3, 1968.

[4] See Luke 6.27

[5] See John 15.12-17.

 

the presence of faith (& the faith of presence) on life’s journey

Life's a journeyI awoke this morning thinking: Life is a journey.

How’s that for a trite-ism? Or is it a truism?

A saying becomes trite through repetition, and, in that, over time, garners the character of “the wisdom of the ages.” So, I think, life as journey – for generations, proclaimed by prophets, taught by sages, rhapsodized by poets, contemplated by philosophers – is nearly an eternal metaphor, resounding with both ancient and contemporaneous rings of truth.

Some consider the start of the journey most important. Others, the destination. Still others, the steps along the way. Perhaps any of us, given the varieties and junctures of our human experience, might hold each, all, or other views of the quintessential elements of our journeys.

As I cannot recall much of my beginning and have yet to see my end, as I travel it is essential, on occasion, to stop and look around. What do I see?

As I age (as I have aged!), there are moments when it’s difficult to see beyond my limitations. My increasing slowness of step, dimness of vision, and hardness of hearing are like proverbial “trees” that occupy my attention making it hard to behold the fullest sweep of my life’s “forest.”

And looking back, I think of past prospects squandered. Moments indelibly printed on my memory at which, when coming to mind, often unbidden, I cringe, wishing vainly, “If only I could do that over.”

And looking around, I think of (or more honestly stated, I fear) the loss of potential opportunities beyond my grasp because of the sin of ageism. It’s a grievous thing to feel vital (my physicality has diminished, but my mind remains sharp, indeed, sharper, at least for now) with the gifts of understanding and wisdom gained by experience and reflection only to be viewed as old. In this, I think of the possibilities, the probabilities of facing chronic illness and growing disability.

Here I admit my envy of young people, possessing the boundless potentiality of elastic muscles and expanding minds, largely untested worldviews and evolving wills, and far horizons, faintly glimpsed, of the hard edges of existence where faith finds limits and life its finitude.

I also envy Moses. Although he saw, but could not enter the Promised Land – a metaphor for that awful experience of not tasting the long hungered fruit of journey’s end – even at the moment of his death at 120 years, his sight was unimpaired, his vigor unabated. My hero! My chosen better answer to that terrible question: As you age, would you rather be of sound body and broken mind or sound mind and broken body? I want to be like Moses, sound in body and mind until my last breath on my final day. I want to fulfill the promise of a friend’s prayer on his wedding day: “May I live as long as I want to live and may I want to live as long as I do live.”

Still, once I name this my heart’s longing, I immediately face afresh the realization that no matter what I want, I must deal with what is, much of it beyond my control. Whatever course I wish my life’s journey to take, I must walk the path on which I find myself; one on which most of the twists and turns are not (and have not been, thus I presume will not be) within my power to design or determine. And although conventional wisdom advises that even when circumstances overwhelm my strength, I can control my response (the making lemonade out of lemons approach), in my experience many have been the difficult instances when the last thing within my power was my reaction to my situation. In life’s painful poetic “fell clutch of circumstance”, I have known my feelings to run rampant, flying from one anxious arc to another and my thoughts disordered, contrary and conflicting, crashing one into another.

I also confess that in the midst life’s storms, I’ve not always found great solace in prayer, at least not the sort that appeals to a higher power to do something. Although Basic Theology 101 counsels that God may not remove life’s crises, but strengthens us to endure and prayer may not change things, but can change the one who prays, there are times when I am a biblical literalist. When calamities threaten to swamp my life’s boat, I want Jesus to wake up and do something, to still the storm, both the threat without and my terror within.

This said, as a life-long student of the Bible, I do draw from its pages understanding and wisdom that is sustaining bread for my journey.

During the storm, Jesus, before being awaken (I imagine rudely) by his disciples, was sound asleep. A posture of rest and of trust.

Many years ago, on a flight to Atlanta to attend a conference, I sat next to the late, great Quintin Ebenezer Primo, Jr., one of my earliest mentors and then Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago. The skies were turbulent. The flight, rocky. I, who hated flying (still do!), was terrified. Bishop Primo, his arms folded in peaceful repose, was fast asleep. At one point, he stirred, looked into my fearful eyes, saying, “Have faith,” and then returned to sleep. I marveled at his trust, his confidence. Later, I asked him how he could be calm in the storm’s midst, fully expecting him to tell me about his faith in God. What he did say was like (but something more real to me than) that. He spoke of life; knowing that he was alive and would not be forever. Therefore, he, daily aware of his being from the moment of birth and acknowledging his non-being at some future inevitable moment of his death, could enter with joy every moment given to him in between.

I’ve not known anyone quite like Bishop Primo. Someone who – while looking back, did not fix his gaze longingly on some past milestone on his journey, and looking forward, did not stare aimlessly into distant, yet unattained and perhaps never to be reached horizons – was so abundantly present.

Perhaps being present is what it is to have faith. A faith that, like bread, sustains me for life’s journey, come what may.

seeing me more clearly

Several years ago, about this time, I went to Paris. The City of Light. And sights. So much, too much to see.

LouvreOf all places, as an art lover, the Louvre. Larger than I imagined, I couldn’t take it all in. A wonderful, yet unsatisfying experience. I wanted less, but more. More, but less.

Musee D'OrsayA friend suggested Musée d’Orsay. An old converted railway station, it had charm. And it was smaller and filled with the seascapes and portraits of Monet and Renoir. These impressionists, who with deft, small strokes of primary color simulated reflected light, enthralled me. Yet as I drew near, I lost sight of the impression. In order to see, I had to turn aside and stand back.

Moses & burning bushMoses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight”.

Moses, in righteous anger, slew an Egyptian overseer who was beating a slave. In fear, he fled. A safe distance removed, he remembered his people in bondage. Drawing near a mountain, he turned aside to see a bush that was aflame, yet not burned.

Like an impressionist painting, had Moses looked too closely would he have seen this great sight? I also wonder. Was the bush on fire in an objective, physical way? Or is this the poetic language of Hebrew narrative to be read with imagination, for what it conveys is beyond the power of the most precise prose?

I think so. Moses experienced God. Fire. An ancient symbol of divine presence. Then turning aside to see, he heard God’s voice calling, “Moses, Moses!”, summoning him to his life’s calling to be a liberator.

In some religious traditions, the highest human aspiration is to be lifted above sense experience, beyond time and space into immediate union with infinite reality, where one’s individuality, as a drop of water in an ocean, is immersed completely in the divine. (However benevolent this cosmic act of absorption might be, it is, I think, the ultimate boundary violation.) Not here. Moses turned aside to see. In seeing, he heard. In hearing, he saw himself more clearly.

Reflecting on my often dizzyingly busy life, I understand why I, at times, try not to take time to turn aside. For what I often see and hear is the sight and sound of my own frailties. Among them, my insecurity about my identity as I strive to maintain who I am amid life’s always pulls and pushes to be otherwise. My admitted occasional envies of those I perceive as more fortunate. My anxiety about trying something new and failing or succeeding, which always raises the stakes as “they” (even I) will expect a similar or greater result the next time.

A cross that hangs in St. Mark’s Church, Capitol Hill, where I live and work, is made of broken mirrors. Every time I turn aside to look at it, the images, my images are fragmented. Together they constitute a truer representation of who I am than my “integrated” reflection from an unbroken mirror (the way I’d like to think of myself). But at best I appear as a solid image of a fractured inner reality. In turning aside, I honestly, humbly can see myself as I am. In that seeing, I hear a call no less awesome, fearsome than God’s word to Moses.

Turning aside to see myself is an act of liberation, freeing me from my practiced pretenses by which I try to impress others and to justify myself. In seeing myself as I am, I am free to hear the gospel message that God loves me just as I am and calls me to become who I was created to be, telling me that my freedom already is, always has been in my hands.

Long ago, I recognized that I was, I am a prisoner of myself, indeed, my prison was, is myself. Whenever I come afresh to acknowledge this truth, I hear a Voice telling me:

Open the door, your door and come out.
Why do you choose to remain captive to yourself?
Come out. Turn aside. See and be who you already are in me. Free.