Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 12

Pentecost 12, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Jefferson Bible, and I hope I’m not about to disillusion anyone when I explain it.  You see, Thomas Jefferson liked the things Jesus said, but not the miracles attributed to him.  So, Jefferson sat down with a razor and cut out all the words of Jesus, which he then reassembled as a separate book, called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”  No miracles, no angels, no supernatural anything.  Who does Thomas Jefferson say Jesus is?  A teacher.

As those of you familiar with the actual faith of Islam know, Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet.  Born of the Virgin Mary, sent by God to proclaim truth to Israel.  In fact, Muslims believe that Jesus was the final prophet sent by God, and that he will return to defeat the Anti-Christ.  But was Jesus actually God incarnate?  No.  Who do Muslims say Jesus is?  A prophet.

To his fellow Jews, Jesus was seen as a Jewish man.  One who seemed devoted to his faith, perhaps, but hardly observant enough to be the Messiah!  And, of course, the fact that he did not rescue Israel from oppression simply proved the point.  Jesus was a Jewish man who was killed by the Romans.  Who do Jewish people say that Jesus is?  An ordinary man, cut down in the prime of his life.

What about you?  Who do you say Jesus is?
Wait.  Don’t answer that yet.  Because first I want to help set the scene from today’s Gospel reading.  Well, not even the scene.  I just want to point out something in particular.  Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they answer, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  Teacher, prophet, faithful Jew.  You see?  The answers that a rational person would come up with.  You look at the facts, discount the miracles, filter it through your own faith understanding, and that’s what comes out.  Teacher, prophet, decent guy.

I like to think of Jesus nodding in response, as if to say, yes, yes of course.  That’s what you’d would expect people to say.  But what if the answer came from somewhere else?  What if God could tell us who Jesus is?  Then I picture Jesus looking sideways at them, pretending to be busy doing something else, as he’s about to kind of poke them to see if the experiment worked, almost doubting that there would be a difference.  And he asks, “But you . . . these disciples he has been teaching and traveling with . . . who do YOU say that I am?”  Poke, poke.  Raised eyebrows.  Hopeful expression on his face . . .  And all creation holds its breath, waiting on this one reply . . .

Simon Peter answers, well, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  YES!  Jesus jumps up in the air and kicks his heels together and knocks over the coffee pot when he comes back down!  It worked!  It really worked!  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  In other words, the lines of communication are open.  Simon Peter has seen with the eyes of faith.  Has seen beyond physical appearances.  Flesh and blood did not reveal this to Simon Peter.  God did!  It . . . really . . . worked!

And Jesus continues . . . “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  Okay, stop the celebration for a moment as we digress into the underworld of the word Hades.  In the Greek, it is HAH-dace, which sounds an awful lot like Hades, so we’ll just go with the regular pronunciation.  But this place, this Hades, is not rivers of burning lava and devils with pitchforks.  Hades is the place of the unseen, in Greek mythology.  In Hebrew it is sheol.  To you and me, it is simply the grave.  Death.  The place where everyone goes while awaiting the resurrection.

Now let’s look at those words from Jesus again:  And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not prevail against it.  And you may be wondering, “Since when have gates attacked anybody?”  Gates are designed for defense, not offense.  Jesus is setting a pretty low bar if he’s saying gates won’t prevail against it.  Do gates ever prevail?  Well, the gates of death do seem to prevail defensively, don’t they?  The coffin is closed; the priest brushes the dirt from his robes; and then it’s all memories.  Five months out, 5 years out, 50 years out . . . as far as we can see, the gates of death have prevailed.  Who do others say that I am when I die?  A teacher?  A prophet?  A decent person?  But you . . . with the eyes of faith . . . who do YOU say that I am?  And all creation holds its breath, waiting on this one reply . . .
On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not prevail against it.

On this rock I will build my Church.  That mention of the Church is what makes this version of the story special.  You see, this question and answer (what we call the Confession of St. Peter) appears in all four Gospel books.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all have some version of this story in them.  That’s a clue to us that it’s important.  But it’s also a cue for us to look at what is different in Matthew’s account—the one we heard today—what sets it apart from the other three times we hear this story?

The answer is the connection to the Church.  The Confession of Peter (or Peter the Confessor, depending on your view of the Church) is what Jesus will build the Church on.  This confession can be thought of as the identifier of the Church.  The marker.  The thing that lets you know it is the Church of Jesus, and not Thomas Jefferson.  Peter shows Jesus that he can answer the question, Who do you say that I am?  Even if Peter has no idea what he himself is saying!

So, what about you?  Who do you believe Jesus is?  Wait.  Don’t answer that yet, because it’s a trick question.  I asked you who you believe Jesus is.  I want to point out something that probably seems obvious . . . at least to Episcopalians.  If I ask 50 different people who they believe Jesus is, I will get 51 different answers.  Same thing if I were to ask you who you think Jesus is.  And, what’s more, if I ask just one person on 50 different days who they think Jesus is, I’ll get 52 different answers.  What we think and believe about Jesus changes all the time.  Or, at least if we’re honestly trying to answer that question.  We think and see and feel with our worldly God-given senses, and in case you haven’t noticed, they can lead us astray.

But Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples who they think he is.  Jesus doesn’t ask them who they believe he is.  He doesn’t ask for an opinion, or a current best guess, or anything we might use to sum something up.  Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?”

And so now for you:  Who do you say Jesus is?  Wait.  Don’t answer that.  You don’t have to answer that.  Because, I actually know the answer to that question, for each and every person in this room.   Who do you say Jesus is?  You say that Jesus is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light; true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

That’s who you say Jesus is.  I’ve heard you say it.  But who you believe Jesus is might be radically different from that.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  Because the particulars of your individual faith will change over the course of your lifetime.  As a little child you might believe in the Virgin Birth; 20 years later you might think it’s preposterous.  Ten years later you might think it doesn’t matter either way; and 20 years after that you might find that the Virgin Birth is the most important aspect of your entire faith system.  What you personally believe about Jesus is subject to change.  Local terms and conditions may apply.  Void where prohibited.

But what you say about Jesus has been what the Church has said about Jesus for 1700 years.  These words are not your words.  And you may not understand them, or believe them, or agree with them . . . today.  But like it or not, you keep saying them, because this is who the Church says Jesus is, and you are part of this Church, along with the saints of every time and every place, who meet us at the altar of God.  And together we meet the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, or as Peter says, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Flesh and blood have not revealed him to us, but the grace of God in heaven.

Amen

Sunday, August 13, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 10

Pentecost 10, 2017
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have been waiting for ten years to preach on this text.  Ten years.  Due to a coincidence of my travel schedule in the past, and the way the Lectionary works, every time this Gospel text comes up, every three years, I seem to have been out of town.  Until today.  So, I finally get my chance.  Please excuse me if I seem a bit giddy this morning.

And the reason I’ve been pining to preach on this text is because I have heard so many sermons preached, and talks delivered at youth gatherings, where—quite frankly—they get it completely backwards and wrong.  I have heard dozens of speakers turn this story into one about Jesus condemning Peter, and ridiculing him for his lack of faith.  I have heard over and over that the point of this gospel text is for us all to somehow get more faith than Peter, so that Jesus won’t ridicule us for our lack of faith.  That is not right.  That is turning this text on its head, and—no surprise—making it about us rather than about Jesus.  That is using this story to tell people they have to measure up, try harder, Straighten up and fly right, get more faith.  And as I’ve said many times to you over the past year, when we make stories about Jesus into stories about ourselves, it always ends badly.

So let’s start here . . . as you know, the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky into our pew rack fully formed in its final state.  The original texts were mostly in Hebrew and Greek, which is why people in seminary have to take those languages . . . or used to have to take those languages.  If you want to know what the writers of the New Testament actually wrote, it is crucial to have at least some familiarity with Greek.  And this is a case where looking at the Greek gives you a completely different understanding of the text.  That happens sometimes.

The key to getting this particular story right turns on one Greek word, which I promise only to say once.  And that word is: Ὀλιγόπιστε.  That’s the word that gets translated as “You of little faith.”  Or, in the King James, “Ye of little faith.”  And we’re so familiar with that phrase that we use it in everyday language, when someone is doubting whether, say, I could sink a basketball from half court, or what have you.  You do something surprising, or you take on some big challenge, and you might turn to your friend and say, “Ye of little faith, just watch!”  And that’s because we misunderstand this text, and what Jesus is saying here.

That little word, the one I promised only to say once, is an adjective turned into a noun.  The word means “little faith,” and it’s one word.  Jesus is calling Peter “Littlefaith,” like a nickname, or a term of endearment.  My little faith one.  It is not a judgment.  It is not a criticism.  It is comforting.  It is reassuring.

And that is why I have been driven crazy for so long at hearing others turn this text upside down, making Jesus into a scolding demi-god who walks on water and ridicules a mere human who cannot do the same.  Jesus does not mock his little faith ones.  He does not taunt us for not being Jesus!  And you know why he doesn’t?  Because faith itself is a gift from God.  Faith is granted to us by God’s grace, not because we deserve it.  And, besides, what kind of God criticizes people for not having enough of what only God can give?  It makes no sense.

We must be careful not to turn faith into a competition, where the good people get a bunch of faith and the bad people don’t get any.  We’re already living in a system that views morality in this way:  Good people get more good stuff as a reward, and bad people go to jail because they’re bad.  That’s the way of the world; that is not the way of God.  Faith is a gift; we cannot get more of it by trying harder.

Jesus says, “My little faith one, why did you doubt?”  Aha, you may be saying!  See?  Jesus is judging Peter for his doubt, which is what caused him to fall into the sea!  Maybe.  But, actually, no; I don’t think so.  Because notice what comes right before that.  As Peter begins to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”  And Jesus does.  What Peter was doubting was not his ability to walk on water.  I mean he was just doing that, for crying out loud!  That little faith one was totally walking on the water.  Amazing!  And when he begins to sink, he panics.  He screams out because he does not trust Jesus to save him.  That is Peter’s doubt.  Peter panics because he doubts Jesus’ willingness or ability to save him.

And so, obviously, Jesus yells at him, right?  No.  Of course not.  I mean, would you yell at your beloved Little Faith one?  Imagine you’re teaching a beloved child to ride a bike.  She goes a little bit and starts to fall sideways, panics, and screams out to you, and you catch her before she falls and gets hurt.  You might say to her, “My little biker, why did you doubt that I would catch you?”  What you would not say is, “You of little bike riding ability, why did you fall?”  You see how different that is?  My little faith one, why did you doubt?  It is caring, and reassuring.  And, maybe more importantly, it is not Jesus saying, “You got this,” and watching you fall, with his arms folded, shaking his head.  Not even close.  Rather, it is Jesus saying, “I got you,” and lifting you up.  When you fall, I’ve got you.

Jesus does not call us to have the faith to walk on water.  Or pick up snakes.  Or cast out demons.  What Jesus calls us to do is trust him.  Trust him to save us when we are sinking below the waves.  Trust him to save us when we all eventually sink below the earth.  Jesus will reach down for each one of us and pull us up to the resurrected new life.  Do not doubt it, my friends.

But of course, we do doubt it.  And that’s the best part, actually.  Because doubts don’t stop Jesus from saving Peter, do they?  Jesus still reaches down and pulls him up.  Peter’s fear and doubt do not stand in the way of God’s salvation.  Just as your fears and doubts cannot stop Jesus from saving you when you need him most.  Jesus will lift up you and me, his little faith ones, and welcome us with open arms.

Now I can almost guarantee you that at some point in your life, someone is going to use this story about Jesus and Peter as a way to say, if you only have enough faith, you can walk on water.  Which implies that if you can’t, you are somehow a failure.  Or cursed.  One without enough faith.  But don’t believe it, because that is not the point of this story (as I have been waiting ten years to say).

We are the little faith ones of Jesus.  And it is the power of Jesus calling to us that allows us to do miraculous things, like walk on water, or feed the hungry, or comfort those who mourn, or teach a child about Jesus.  Jesus calls to us, like he called Peter out of the boat.  And the things we do together as the people of God are no less miraculous than Peter walking on the water.

Sure, we too will have our doubts, our anxieties, our fears.  We will have moments when we think we are beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness, beyond help.  And in those moments, Jesus reaches down to us and says, “Little faith one, why did you doubt?”  And like the disciples in the boat that day, we gather together to worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

And today, Jesus reaches down in a different way, as he does every time we gather together in this place.  And in the bread and wine, he offers the assurance that he is with us, in body and blood, given for you.  As we gather at this Altar to celebrate the eternal feast with the saints of every time and place, we bring our doubts, and our fears, and our concerns for the future.  And to each one of us, Jesus says, “My Little Faith One, I have already redeemed you and you are mine.”

Amen

Sunday, August 6, 2017

YEAR A 2017 transfiguration

Year A, 2017
Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36
Psalm 99 or 99:5-9

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Have you ever found yourself listening to a story from someone and then, when they’re done, the first words out of your mouth are, “So, was anyone else there?  You know, someone who maybe has a different perspective?”

Because sometimes, a story just doesn’t make sense.  The details don’t go together.  And you’re left thinking, there simply must be a different version than this one.

That’s the feeling I get when we read this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  No matter how many times I hear it, I’m always left wondering why we have this collection of details, without some more information, or conversation, or something.  Why Moses and Elijah?  Why the cloud?  And why on earth is Peter suddenly offering to start building houses for everybody?

And it doesn’t help to go to the other gospels, because the story is almost exactly the same in all three of the ones that record it.  Jesus, Peter, James, and John climb up a mountain.  Jesus glows in a glorious state, Elijah and Moses appear, a cloud covers them, Peter asks if he should build some little cabins, Elijah and Moses disappear, they all climb down the mountain, and Jesus tells them not to say anything until he has been raised from the dead.  Cool story bro’ . . . right?

And so I want to turn to James and John and ask, “What did you guys see?”  Because this does not sound like a story.  This sounds like a bunch of random facts put together, from one person’s perspective, and—to be honest—doesn’t seem to have any kind of point to it.  That’s what I want to say, but that’s not really an option, for the guy preaching.  So, we’re going to have to dig in and figure out the point here.  And there is always a point to a story like this, I promise.

The first thing we need to do is make the right connections.  Because this is one of those times where the people hearing Luke’s gospel at the time would recognize connections that we can’t see. If you remember last week, we talked about being too close to something to see it—like a fish swimming in water, or the sunglasses on your head.  But sometimes we are too far away from something to make sense of it.  And the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those times where the vast distance of years between us and the story gets in the way of our hearing what is actually going on.  So, here come some seemingly random things to note; things that would be familiar then, and which may be new to us today . . .

First, let’s start with Moses and Elijah.  When Elijah reached the end of his life, he was taken up into heaven, and because of this, Elijah is a person who did not die . . . Or, at least, not in the way that you and I think of dying.  And Moses?  Well, according to Deuteronomy, Moses climbed up a mountain at the end of his life, and God buried him in a secret place that remains a secret.  These two giants of the faith departed in mystery, at the hand of God.  And, this means they’re both sort of “available” to be sent back by God in the fullness of time.  Especially Elijah.  There’s a prophecy in the book of Malachi that Elijah will return to usher in the day of the Lord.

Elijah is thought to attend every circumcision, so that he can keep track of who is fulfilling the Law.  He’s like God’s circumcision bookkeeper.  When your Jewish friends hold a Seder meal, there is a place left for Elijah, a cup left for him, a door opened for him.  There is an expectation among the Jewish people that Elijah will return to announce the Messiah’s coming.  Elijah will be the one who proclaims the redemption of humanity.  The point being, to those disciples with Jesus on the mountain, and to those hearing this story, it would be expected that the Messiah would be about to appear, because Elijah himself is standing there.

Now about Peter’s construction project . . . the prophet Zechariah declares that the Day of the Lord would be accompanied by a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, which is an annual festival, when faithful Jews build small dwellings and sleep in them to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.  So—although it seems absolutely bizarre to you and me that Peter offers to build three houses—it totally makes sense if Peter is making this connection:

Jesus, Moses, and Elijah would need to have booths if this is indeed the moment when all Israel will be redeemed, because everyone needs a booth in order to fulfill the prophecy.  It’s like I randomly ask my wife if I should turn on the oven.  If she is standing there with a tray of cookies in her hand, the question makes sense.  Without the cookies, I seem a little crazy.  Knowing the connection to the Feast of Booths sheds light on Peter’s offer to start building things.  That prophecy is Peter’s tray of freshly prepared cookie dough.

And there are other connections in this story as well.  For instance, as we heard in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses climbs a mountain and encounters God.  When he comes back down, his face is glowing so brightly that he has to wear a veil around people.  The 7th chapter of the book of Daniel refers to the Son of Man, glowing and white, descending from the clouds.  He approaches the Ancient of Days, who sits on a throne of fire, with burning wheels, which sounds a lot like the chariot of fire that took Elijah into heaven.

All these connections would be the backstory that listeners to Luke’s gospel bring with them to this story.  They would know about Moses and Elijah; they would hear the triggers of the Son of Man and the dazzling glory and the cloud.  Those hearing this gospel in it’s earliest days would know all the imagery, and they would naturally make the connections.  It’s not a story of unconnected facts; it is a story that is part of the long woven narrative of God and God’s people, fully connected.  And the disciples see all this taking place, and then they hear something for the first time . . .

Remember how at the Baptism of Jesus, when the dove descended from heaven?  There was a voice saying, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”  The disciples weren’t present at Jesus’ baptism, and even if they were, it’s not clear anyone else heard it besides Jesus.  But now, here on this mountain, they hear the voice from heaven talking to them.  Directly to them.  And the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him.”

Moses and Elijah and Jesus, dazzlingly white, standing on a mountain, Festival of Booths, covered in a cloud, a voice from heaven.  To anyone who knows the connections, this can only mean one thing: 

Jesus.  Is.  The.  Messiah!  This is the one they have been waiting for!  At last, the disciples understand!

Well, okay, not really.  They still don’t get it, not totally.  But here’s the important point: Anyone standing around the marketplace hearing this story, anyone hearing this story read aloud at home, or walking down the street, anyone else would get it.  This is the turning point of Luke’s gospel, because there can be no doubt that this Jesus is God’s Messiah.  And now, everyone would expect, Jesus will jump on a white horse, pick up a flaming sword, and restore the fortunes of Israel, God’s chosen people.  The wait is over!  And Jesus will rule forever on this mountain!

But, as you know, the story doesn’t go there.  The journey takes Jesus and the disciples back down the mountain.  And this is the most important point.  Jesus is now stamped in our minds as God’s Son, the Messiah, but now he comes down from heaven, you might say.  Now he descends into the dirty streets, the messy lives, the dark places of the world.  Jesus’ real mission is about to start, yes.  But it is not going to happen the way anyone is expecting it to happen.

You and I know where this story is going, and it is heading straight for the cross.  Jesus is descending from the mountain, to where you and I live.  He is coming down out of glory to redeem what would seem beyond redemption: you and me, and the brokenness and struggles of our messy lives.  Jesus willingly descends from the mountain, knowing full well what that means for himself, and does so because he knows what that will mean for us.  Jesus comes down from the mountain precisely because you and I cannot climb up the mountain.  Jesus does not stand on the mountain and call us to an impossible task of becoming like him in glory.  No, Jesus leaves his glory and comes down to get us.

And so, what is our connection to this story?  What do we do now?  The answer comes from the voice up there on the mountain: This is my beloved Son; listen to him.  Listen to him.  Listen to him tell you that he is coming back for you.  Listen to him saying he is coming to redeem you.  Stretch out your hands to receive him, in the gift of Communion, because the Messiah is here, and he has come for you today.

Amen.