Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Next Day

Every year, on the Sunday before Lent starts, we read the story of the Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recall the moment for us, and we read each account in successive liturgical years A, B, and C. This year, Year C, we have Luke's story. There are several subtle differences between the accounts, which allow the preacher to nitpick her or his way through a specific text. Often, I will use these differences to highlight some of the important themes in each version even if I leave those specific observations out of the sermon. This year, though, I'm making a pretty big preaching choice based solely on the way Luke portrays this encounter, and I think that it's worth exploring here.

This Sunday, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have an option of reading Luke 9:28-36 or extending the reading to include the next episode, which concludes in verse 43. In the other two years, we aren't given the option of extending the reading, and, unless the preacher uses the rubrical option of expanding it, the gospel lesson concludes as Jesus urges the disciples to keep the transfiguration event to themselves. I find that bizarre. In fact, if I hadn't checked the RCL for the other two years, I would have assumed the opposite to be true because if there is any year in which the scene at the bottom of the mountain does not belong it is when we read Luke's version.

Matthew and Mark say essentially the same thing. They conclude the transfiguration with something like "As they were coming down the mountain..." and then immediately pick up the next story with "And when they had come to the disciples..." or "And when they came to the crowd..." In those two accounts, there's no break in the action. There is a real sense of immediacy to the encounter that awaits them. Not only is there no narrative interlude to split it up, but there isn't even the passage of time. It's immediate. When they get down the mountain, they are met by the disciples and a crowd who are waiting on Jesus to come and fix the problem that awaits them (see below). Luke's version is very, very different.

When Luke finished the transfiguration story, instead of depicting Jesus telling the disciples to keep quiet as they plod down the mountain, Luke offers an editorial summary: "And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen." That might not sound like a huge difference, but read the next verse: "On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him." That's a totally new story! There's not even an attempt to connect the two. Luke isn't interested in suggesting that one followed the other in quick succession. He wraps up the first with a transitional editorial remark and then lets a whole day go by before starting the next encounter fresh. I think reading them together in Luke's version is to make something out of nothing. Save it for Years A & B, when you can lengthen the reading and make the point.

And what might that point be? The encounter that waits for Jesus is the story of the father whose son is seized by an evil spirit. When Jesus is told that his disciples could not cast it out on their own, Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as making a connection with what had happened up on the mount of transfiguration. Mark has Jesus explain to the disciples that "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Bingo! Prayer! And Matthew? His focus is on faith: " He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” But Luke? Luke gives us none of that. There is no explanation. There is no encouragement. There is no connection with the transfiguration.

I say leave it out. If you can't find anything to say about the transfiguration, go read it again. There's a dozen sermons at least tied up in this story. Don't preach the next day. Let the transfiguration tell its own story. If this were Mark or Matthew, I'd say that the following episode points clearly back to the transfiguration itself. But not this year. I say let it go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Keep Watch!

Behind the altar in our church are three stained glass windows. Unlike many churches, we don't have a central window that features Jesus. Our large window represents our patron saint, St. John. I like to joke that we at St. John's think so highly of ourselves that we'd rather put our own face up there than Jesus'. Once you recognize who is portrayed in the other two windows, however, it all makes sense. Accompanying John are the other two disciples from Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:28-36): Peter and James.

Peter, James, and John. Those three represent Jesus' inner-inner circle. Among the disciples, they are the three whom Jesus takes with him up on the mountain to pray. They are the only ones who see his appearance transfigured. They are the ones who recognize Moses and Elijah and hear the Father's voice. And, as they come back down the mountain, they are told to keep these things to themselves. They were entrusted with a fuller revelation of Jesus' glory and were trusted to keep it quiet until the time was right.

No one can know why these three were chosen. Peter, of course, is known as the first among equals--the primary disciple upon whom Jesus builds the church. It makes sense that he would be there. James and John were brothers. In the synoptic tradition, they were called into discipleship shortly after Peter and his brother Andrew, which suggests that these four are particularly important to the early Christian tradition. Then why isn't Andrew invited along? I'm not sure, but there's something about these three that helps this moment happen.

The line in this passage that catches my attention this morning is the narrator's description of the three disciples during the transfiguration event: "Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him." They were tired. So often, the disciples were tired. Jesus was a "prayer warrior," able to keep long hours in communication with his father. The disciples struggled to keep up. This time, though, they managed to stay awake. And their alertness was rewarded. Luke suggests to us, therefore, that they might have missed it. And, had they missed it, there would be no story to tell. This moment of Jesus' glory being revealed is shown to an audience--a group of three who can confirm this story later--much later, when things had fallen apart, when their master had been killed, and when rumors of his resurrection were spreading.

Fast-forward several chapters to Luke 22:39ff., and we find the disciples again struggling to stay awake. This time, Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his companions are unable to keep watch with him. Unfortunately for the preacher this week, Luke doesn't identify which disciples he took with him into the Garden--presumably, therefore, all of them. But Matthew picks up the link and tells us that "Peter and the two sons of Zebedee" went with him. Regardless, in the later episode, we watch as the disciples miss the opportunity to see what is revealed in the Garden. What might it have been? What might they had seen if they'd kept awake? What sort of glory was shown in that place? Or maybe, even though they slept, the days that followed showed them the whole story.

The fullest epiphany will come at Easter. That's when the world sees what that three disciples saw on the mountain top. Jesus is the Son of God, whose glory cannot be hidden. This week, though, we are invited to keep awake and see with Peter, James, and John the foreshadowing of the Easter epiphany. Like them, we may be weighed down with sleep. The sermon may be boring. The lesson may be overly familiar. We may have stayed up too late getting ready for our Super Bowl party. Or maybe, and more substantially, our faith has gone to sleep. Maybe we've lost the ability to stay alert to the ways God is working in our lives. This week, we are beckoned to pay attention. Something exciting is happening. Jesus will show us who he really is. If we miss it this week, we may have to wait until Easter to see it again.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Prayer Changes Everything

Something happens when we pray. It may not be what we want or hope or even recognize, but something happens when we communicate with the Almighty.

I remember a Sunday school teacher from my childhood who taught our class how to pray. "It is talking with God," she explained. "Some people talk to God in a very formal way--like the prayers we say in church." That made sense. Why wouldn't one compose his words carefully when speaking to God? "Others," she went on to say, "talk to God as if he were a friend--the same way we talk with those we love." That was revolutionary for me--not because I was thrilled to know that I could talk to God in such a casual, chatty way but because I discovered that people would even think to do that.

Prayer is talking to and listening for God. For some, the radical part of that statement is found in the action. We are able to talk to God?!? And, if we listen to the sounds of our heart and the quietness of our mind, we might hear God speak back to us?!? Communicating with God is a remarkable thing. For me, though, the real amazing strangeness of it isn't found in the talking and listening but in the one with whom that communication is shared. Those who know me at all know that I take talking for granted. That God might listen and that God might invite me to listen is the revolutionary part.

When people tell me that they speak to God in prayer as if they were speaking to an old friend, I find myself baffled. Yes, I understand the premise of their statement, but I cannot identify with the experience. For me, there can be nothing casual about communicating with the Holy One. Although I trust that another opportunity will present itself, I approach prayer as if I were the visionary behind a techy start-up with a 30-second window in an elevator to make my sales pitch to Bill Gates, whose investment could transform my life forever. This is God! No, not every word is carefully composed, but, when I enter the presence of the Almighty in prayer, it isn't a casual chit-chat over a cup of coffee with Motown tunes playing in the background. Prayer takes every ounce of my heart and mind and soul. I want to give it my all every time--or else I'd better wait for that other once-in-a-lifetime chance to make my elevator pitch.

On Sunday we will read the story of the Transfiguration--the moment when, in mountain-top prayer, Jesus' countenance was changed to a "dazzling white" and he was joined by Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). We read this story all the time. Not only do we read it on August 6, when the story gets its own feast-day celebration, but we also read it every year on the Last Sunday after Pentecost--our final Sunday before Lent. In this encounter, we are invited to see the real power of prayer--not that prayer would change our circumstance but that prayer might transform us.

Jesus' face and clothes shone with dazzling white light. In the act of prayer, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. They get to see how communicating with the Father can draw out evidence of Jesus' inner nature. In the act of prayer, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, who represent Law and Prophet--other means of divine-human communication. Eventually, the Father's voice speaks, confirming Jesus' identity as God's Son. And, in all of this, we, too, are invited into the life-changing act of prayer.

Prayer is communicating with God. The act of entering God's presence and being called on by God to speak is remarkable. Usually, in the holy presence of God, the whole world keeps silence, yet we have discovered in Christ that God invites us to speak. And then he deigns to speak with us in reply?!? This is remarkable indeed! This act of prayer, which we could easily take for granted, is powerful. It has the ability to draw out of us evidence of God's nature. It has the power to change everything because it has the power to change us.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Paul's Wedding Speech

I'm willing to bet that most of the people in our congregations this Sunday will be as familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 as they are with almost any other biblical text. It is, after all, the go-to reading for weddings. And, in all the years during which I have been paying attention at weddings, I have heard it read well only twice. But, as they say about fishing, golf, and other, um, pleasurable activities, a bad reading of 1 Corinthians 13 is still pretty good.

"Love is patient; love is kind." The biggest challenge for our congregations and their preachers, of course, is to ground this "love passage" in a context other than a wedding. Paul wasn't making a wedding speech. Paul wasn't writing to couples about their marital problems. Paul was writing to a church community that was struggling to hang together despite differences is ethnicity, class, culture, and post-Baptismal Spirit-led ministry. Last week's reading from 1 Corinthians 12 was Paul's use of the body image to explain how the members of the body--individual Christians--are inseparably bound together. It's a beautiful metaphor and one worth revisiting over and over until it truly becomes inescapable. But this week's lesson is how Paul sees the body image coming to fruition. Love, for Paul, is what makes it possible for an eye to say to a hand, "I really do need you," or for an conservative African Anglican to say to a progressive American Episcopalian, "We belong together."

In his post from yesterday, Steve Pankey reminds us of the transition from chapter 12 to 13, writing a beautiful and brief post on the half of a verse the lectionary left out last week: "I will show you a more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31b). Go read his post. It will take less than five minutes and is totally worth it. As Pankey points out, this is a key verse. It's what helps us see that the "love passage" isn't a wedding speech; it's a recipe for the Christian life.

But I want to invite preachers to consider letting Paul's unintended wedding address be the foundation for a sermon on Christian love. Yes, I cringe every time a bridal couple tells me that their 13-year-old cousin will read 1 Corinthians 13 at their wedding. Yes, I think Paul would be unpleasantly surprised that this part of his letter is read primarily at weddings (shocked that it was read at all and baffled that it has become the go-to reading at weddings). But I think Paul (and the today's preacher) could use the familiar context for this chapter as a bridge into the call to be bound to one another in love.

Marriage is still among the most familiar images of a loving commitment that we have in contemporary society. The union of husband and wife is a testament to the same sort of deeper, non-sexual Christian love that Paul has in mind for the entire Christian community. As I tell couples during premarital counseling, when they are 65 and are still holding hands at the cinema, they will be an unspoken testament to the world of selfless, sacrificial love. No couple endures the ups and downs of marriage for 40 years without being committed to the union that ties them together. Sure, marriages fail, and church relationships fail, too. We are human after all. But we are called to enter those relationships with the same lifelong commitment, and we are called to maintain those relationships with the fuel of love that keeps them possible.

Without love, a marriage falls apart. It's just too hard to live with someone for that long unless you love her or him. There must be a commitment to the other that transcends one's priority of the self. The same is true in the Christian relationships. No matter how good the preaching is, no matter how powerful the miracles are, no matter how insightful the prophecy is, it's too hard to stay together without love. Love is what ties us together. Perhaps Paul's message for today's church is that we should take our Christian relationships as seriously as our marital relationships.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Expectations Undo Receivability

Last year, I went back to St. John's, Montgomery, where I had served as a curate for five years, as one of their Lenten speakers. It was an honor and a challenge. It had been almost four years since I'd left. I remembered my time there fondly and felt fondly remembered by the congregation. But they hadn't heard me preach in a while, and I wanted to do well. I wanted to make them proud that, during my time there, they had raised up a good clergyman who was doing good work for God's kingdom.

The text I chose for the sermon was the office reading for the day, and, although I don't recall it right now, I do remember very distinctly feeling led to preach a sermon with a prophetic edge. Don't hold me to it, but there may have been a line in the sermon about how "arrogant, rich people need the gospel, too." It went over about as well as you would expect. It was a pretty good sermon, and I certainly stand by it. If I had preached it in my regular congregation, I think it would have been well received. I gently chide them frequently, and they are accustomed to a little honest ribbing. But this congregation was excited to welcome me home. They were happy to see me. And, although some people offered positive comments after the sermon, most people were turned off by its sharp tenor. They were looking forward to reliving all the good times we had together, but the gospel is the gospel, and it isn't always warm and fuzzy.

To a much stronger degree, in Luke 4, Jesus was enthusiastically welcomed by his hometown congregation until his message took on a sharp and prophetic edge, at which point they turned so thoroughly against him that they tried to throw him off a cliff. How did it all fall apart so quickly? Why did Jesus seem to stir the pot instead of graciously accepting the people's compliments? Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Why did he need to tell the provocative stories of Naaman the Syrian and the widow at Zarephath in order to summarily douse their enthusiasm?

The hinge around which this dramatic reversal turns is easy to overlook. Jesus wasn't just picking a fight with his hometown buddies. More than his provocative words, the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth became the stumbling block over which the congregation could not pass unimpeded. Take a closer look at how things unfold.

After marveling at Jesus' words, the congregation remarks, "Is not this Joseph's son?" That's true, of course, but it is only part of the truth. Jesus is God's son, and to identify him purely as Joseph's offspring is to miss the point of who he really is. In response, Jesus begins a short exposition on hometown prophets. "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" But why would they have quoted that proverb? It isn't in the bible, but it makes sense. One might say to a snake oil salesman, "If you're really able to heal other people's infirmities, then why can't you heal yourself?" It's a challenge to his authority. Jesus felt challenged. It may not be fair to say that he was worried that he could not live up to their expectations, but it seems clear that their expectations were misplaced.

The fact is that he couldn't do feats of power in his hometown. Luke doesn't make that as clear as Matthew and Mark. Consider Mark 6:3-6a, for example:

[3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. [4] And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” [5] And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. [6] And he marveled because of their unbelief. (ESV)

Although the premise is different (no quoting of Isaiah 61 here), it's a similar engagement, and the result is the same. Jesus was ineffective at home. He didn't do great deeds of power in his hometown. Although his teachings there were remarkable, the end result was empty. As Mark puts it, "He marveled because of their unbelief."
I like the way Luke says it: And [Jesus] said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." I might be making more of this than I should, but the Greek word for "accepted" is in its root a word that means "receivable." Consider that connotation. A prophet cannot be received in his hometown. There's a connection between the familiarity and the expectations that accompany it and the audience's inability to receive the truth that the prophet brings. Why? Because expectations get in the way. To the residents of Nazareth, Jesus would always be Joseph's son, and Joseph's son didn't come to earth to save God's people; God's son did.

How are your expectations getting in the way? You might not have grown up in Jesus' hometown, but maybe you did grow up in his church. Have you become so accustomed to the way things were that you can't see what God is doing today? Expectations inhibit our ability to receive the gospel. They stand in the way of God's surprising work. What are your expectations? Can they be shaken off?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is He Speaking to Us?

This Sunday in the RCL, we read the second-half of Luke's two-sided story of Jesus' visit to his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:21-30). I label it "two-sided" because the same statement of salvation that Jesus declares from Isaiah 61is good news to some and bad news to others. The difference is whether we hear it with arms and hearts wide open or with hands and minds tightly closed.

Although we do not hear it in church this week (and a strong argument can be made for expanding the lesson and reading it anyway), the central passage behind Jesus' encounter with the angry congregation is Isaiah 61:1-2a, in which God's anointed one (i.e. "messiah") declares that God has sent him to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners, thus declaring the year of the Lord's favor. Initially, the congregation is overjoyed. "What good news!" they said to one another. "This is it! This is what God's people have been waiting for!"

And then the other shoe drops. (Insert the second side of this gospel story here.)

Luke tells us that "all spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Somehow, though, by the end of this short encounter, the congregation was enraged--angry enough to chase Jesus out of the synagogue, run out of town, and hurl him off a cliff. What happened? How did it all fall apart so quickly?

There's more to say about expectations and Jesus' unraveling of the hometown crowd's understanding of who he was and what God's messiah represented. For now, though, suffice it to say that Jesus' understanding of the good news of Isaiah 61 was radically different from that of the congregation, and the disjuncture was so violent that it almost got him killed.

As if pulling the rug out from underneath the people, Jesus tells two short and upsetting stories. First, he recalls the story of Elijah providing food for the widow at Zarephath even though "there were many [unfed] widows in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to her house even though she was an outsider--a Gentile. Then, he tells the story of Naaman the Syrian, who was healed by Elisha the prophet even though "there were also many [uncleansed] lepers in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to the general of the Gentile army. The message? Yes, the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 is good news, but Jesus shows them that they don't own it. It's bigger than them. It's bigger than us. And they didn't like that. And I don't blame them. I wouldn't like it either.

God's love is easy when it's intended for me and for other people I love. But when it belongs as much to another as it does to me, I am challenged. That's the two-sided nature of this story. When Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and declared, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he was ushering in a new era of salvation. And, yes, that salvation was for the congregation gathered in the synagogue, but it wasn't just for them. And, as long as they--or any of us--thinks it belongs only to us--it turns out that we never had it in the first place because we didn't understand how salvation works. Here's how I'd summarize it:

The good news of salvation is about you,
but it isn't only about you.
If you think it's only about you,
then it isn't for you after all.

That's good news for those whose arms and hearts are open, but it's terrible news for those whose hands and minds are closed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Maybe Heaven is Overrated

I'll admit that blog post titles like that one are designed to grab your attention, but today I mean it. Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and, as I ponder his Damascene road reversal, I find myself wondering whether 20th-century Christianity became so obsessed with heaven that it set itself up for a 21st-century decline. Over the last hundred years, has the church communicated itself to the unchurched world so narrowly as to define the Way of Jesus as a path to the Pearly Gates that contemporary non-Christians are shrugging their collective shoulders and saying, "So what?"

Although it happened over a year ago, my Facebook news feed let me know (again) that Alex Malarkey, who wrote The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven as a memoir of his near-death journey to paradise, retracted his story, forcing the publisher of his book to pull it from store shelves. The NPR story quotes his open letter to the publisher, in which he makes a confession and bold plea for a return to scripture: "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven...I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth."

Yes, it did get him attention. Yes, people are eager to read stories of kids who almost die and go to heaven. Yes, people are desperate for any "verifiable" confirmation that their belief in a paradisiacal afterlife is reasonable. Why? Because Christianity is a big enterprise. Millions of people have given their hearts and minds and souls and lives (not to mention wallets) to follow Jesus. It would be nice, many think, to get a clear and unmistakable verification that they are headed in the right direction. And by "right direction" I mean "one-way ticket to heaven."

But, if heaven is the only thing Christianity has to offer, I am not sure the world is interested. And if "heaven" is the church's way of describing that everlasting destination where only good people go, I know that I'm not interested. And neither is Paul.

The complete and total reversal that Saul/Paul experienced cannot be overstated. In Galatians 1, Paul wrote about his pre-Christian life: "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." He was as Jewish as any Jew. He was as accomplished and laudable as any faithful child of God, and his status was enshrined in his persecution of the way of Jesus. His resume was built upon his anti-Christian activities. And then, of course, he was struck blind. Jesus himself appeared to Paul. God himself recruited Paul away from his zealous Judaism and appointed him to be chief apostle to the Gentiles. And how did this happen? What made Paul reverse course? The answer wasn't heaven.

Before his conversion, Paul wasn't headed to hell. Paul was a faithful Jew, and God doesn't send his faithful people to eternal damnation. And Jesus didn't appear to Paul and say, "How would you like to spend eternity with me in paradise?" Paul would have shrugged his shoulders and said, "What's your point?" Paul had everything he needed. Paul was a Roman citizen. He was rich and powerful. He had connections. But what Paul didn't have was a knowledge of the fullness of God's grace and the peace that comes from it.

Before he met Jesus, Paul did everything right, but his quest would never be over. The gospel of Jesus offered Paul what he didn't even know he needed. Paul's life was turned upside-down by his introduction to the idea that God's choosing of him--God's preference, God's justification, God's complete approval--wasn't dependent upon what Paul did but upon what Jesus had done. The salvation that Paul found--the good news that inspired him to risk his life preaching the gospel across the known world--wasn't a happy destination when the work was finished but a freedom from the work itself. And that's what the church must reclaim if it will make sense in the 21st century.

Yes, I believe in heaven, but salvation isn't merely a ticket to everlasting life in paradise. It's much more than that. Over the centuries, heaven has been the way Christians have tried to describe what it means to rest in Jesus. But, in the language I hear from most contemporary Christian leaders, it has become a reward and not a promise. If the church continues to tell the world that heaven is what God has in store for those who love him, for those who believe the right things, for those who go to church, and for those who follow what the bible says, the church will only push the world further away. The world doesn't need more work. The world doesn't need that kind of heaven. The world needs grace. Like Paul, the world needs to be set free from its struggle. Heaven should be an afterthought. Grace is a gift for today.