Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 27, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 13

Pentecost 12, 2023
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.

The themes running through today’s readings are identity and community. And identity and community are key to understanding how the Episcopal Church exists, especially right now.  Because no matter where you sit on the social-political spectrum in 2023, there are people to the left of you, and people to the right of you.  We are not a monolithic group of people tied to a political party.  There is room for everyone.  All are welcome: regardless.

In any random gathering of Episcopalians, you may find yourself on the left, or on the right, or in the middle.  And you never know which until you walk into the room, and the conversation begins.  This is what drew me to the Episcopal Church in the first place.  Some people take great pride in being on the left or on the right; I prefer to be in the middle.  Because that’s where you can hear with both ears.  Having both a left wing and a right wing is what enables a bird to fly, right?

When I went to seminary in New York City, as a lifelong Republican, I was definitely to the right of just about everybody . . . for blocks around.  And now, as a person with generally progressive views, living in Stark County, I am definitely to the left of most people I meet.  My identity is who I am, but the community is where I live.  This is true both inside and outside the church: we have our identity and we have our community, and we need them both.  We were created to need them both, because that is what the Kingdom of God is like.  All the redeemed individuals, from every time and place, gathered as a community around the throne of God.

Community and identity are what it means to be part of the Church, and —as I said—community and identity are what today’s lessons are all about.  We started with that well-known story of Moses, which you probably first heard in Sunday school as a child.  (Though probably without the gruesome details about killing all the male children.)  Moses’ identity was hidden, right?  Multiple times, in fact!  What we heard today was the deceit used to save his life, because he was precious and loved.  (Think back to the parable of the deceitful man, who finds a pearl and buries it in a field and buys the whole field.)  And Pharaoh’s daughter names him Moses, “because I drew him out of the water.”  (Think back to the nature of Baptism, where we are each drawn up out of the water.)

And, as the story continues, once Moses’ true identity is known, he returns to his people, to his community, but as a shepherd.  And God calls to him out of the burning bush and reveals God’s identity to Moses.  Remember?  Moses asks God who he should say sent him?  And God says, tell them I AM has sent you.  God’s identity and Moses’ identity are revealed within the community.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, that part we heard today, he says “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”  We all have different gifts, and talents, and abilities.  That is what makes us individuals, what gives us each our identity.  But we are united  to one another in this community; we are members of one another.  This is some seriously deep and challenging stuff, I know.  We are distinct from one another as individuals, and yet our identity is in community with one another.  They seem to be opposite ideas, but in fact they go together.

Returning to what I said in the beginning here, people on the left and on the right seem to be opposite of one another, and yet they find their identity in joining together in one body.  One body in Christ.  That’s what makes this different.  What makes the Church different from other communities is the thing that brings us together.  One body in Christ.  Which leads us to today’s gospel reading.

Now this may be a little heavy for this hour of the morning, but stay with me here.  There’s a school of thought in psychology that we can only know who we are by seeing other people react to us.  That is, if we don’t have other people giving us constant feedback, we have no identity.  (The extreme edge of this thinking claims we only exist because other people think we exist.)  But when you think about it, it makes sense.  Consider the psychological damage done to people put into solitary confinement.  Consider how someone’s schizophrenia is worsened by being ignored as they walk down the street.  At a basic level, to not be seen is to lose your identity.  Community and identity go hand in hand.  To be ignored is to be forgotten, and to be forgotten is to cease to exist.

Jesus asks his disciples, who do people say that the son of man is?  What do people outside our community say?  And they respond, well, people outside the community are saying John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”  Or, it’s actually more, “Who are you saying that I am?”  You people sitting in front of me, who’ve spent all this time with me, who are my community . . . who are you saying that I am?  And Simon Peter answers, “We are saying that you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The identity of Jesus is revealed in the community.  Which is not to say that the community makes Jesus into the Messiah.  But that identity is revealed within the community.  It takes a community to know who Jesus is.  Sure, Peter gets all the credit for saying it aloud, but it takes the whole community to reveal Jesus’ identity.  And on this rock I will build my church.  The Church is built on the identity of Jesus.

And that’s a key distinction between the Church and the world around us.  In most organizations, the community is built around the identity of the real-world leader.  A cult of personality, as we sometimes call it.  And when that leader is gone, the community falls apart.  The Church is completely different from that, because our community is gathered around Jesus, who was, and is, and is to come.  The Church is not gathered around the priest, or the bishop, or the presiding bishop.  We are gathered around Jesus.  And here’s why that’s important . . .

As I said a few minutes ago, our Episcopal branch of the Church in particular is a messy bustling place, and that’s what I love about it.  We don’t all agree on everything.  In fact, it’s possible we don’t agree on anything!  But we are called into this community, into this church around this shared belief with Peter:  Jesus is the Messiah.  That’s what holds us together.  Not my views, or your views, or someone else’s views.  Because those things come and go.  The Episcopal Church was once called “The Republican Party at prayer.”  That’s not a thing people say anymore!

What holds us together is that we are gathered around the identity of Jesus, the Messiah.  And we find our identity in this community.  We know who we are because we know who Jesus is.  And that is the rock on which Jesus builds the Church.

You and I might have very different views about things social and political.  And that’s okay.  In fact, I would say that’s good.  The broader our diversity, the better!  But you and I also know that what brings us together, what forms this community, what gives us our identity is Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God.

May God give us the grace to continue living together in harmony.  We, who are many, are one body, for we all share in the one bread.


Sunday, August 13, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 11

Pentecost 13, 2023
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.

In my former life, I played at hundreds of youth gatherings and youthworker events.  And I’ve heard dozens of preachers use this gospel story to berate people into bad theology.  I have heard tons of speakers turn this story into one about Jesus condemning Peter, and ridiculing him for his lack of faith.  Over and over I've heard that the point of this gospel text is for us all to somehow get more faith than Peter, so that Jesus won’t embarrass us for our lack of faith.  That is not right.  That is turning this text on its head, and—no surprise—making it about ourselves rather than about Jesus.  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 few months, when we make the stories about Jesus into stories about ourselves, it always ends badly.

So I am here this morning to set the record straight.  Our take away from this text should not be, “If Peter had only had more faith he would not have sunk.”  Nor should our takeaway be, “Jesus is criticizing Peter for not having more faith than Peter has.”  Nor should you pay any attention to anyone who says or writes, “If you want to walk on water, get out of the boat.”

So let’s start here . . . 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.  Like when someone is doubting whether 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!”  Which is just a stone’s throw from “Hold my beer.”  But that is misunderstanding 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 a comfort.  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 is doubting is 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!  But 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.

And I also want to note, Jesus was coming to the disciples.  He was on his way.  When people say, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat,” you should turn to them and say, “No thanks.”  Why on earth would you get out of the boat when Jesus is on his way to you?  Peter’s challenge to Jesus, saying “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” is ridiculous!  And it also sounds a lot like, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread,” doesn’t it?  “Lord, if it is you, command the other disciples to hold my beer.”  Peter, little faith guy, just stay in the boat, okay?  Jesus is coming.

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 would only have enough faith, you could 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 hope I’ve made clear by now.

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 feed the hungry, or comfort those who mourn, or teach a child about Jesus.  Jesus calls to us, like he called to Peter.  And the things we do together as the people of God are no less miraculous than Peter walking on the water.  

Sure, we too 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 this morning, 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, do not doubt.  I have redeemed you and you are mine.  Stay in the boat.  I am coming to meet you, right where you are.


Sunday, August 6, 2023

YEAR A 2023 transfiguration

Feast of the Transfiguration, 2023
Exodus 34:29-35
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36
Psalm 99

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

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why we keep coming back to church.  We all have our own individual reasons, of course.  I mean, for some of us, it’s our actual career and vocation.  But I know I would keep coming anyway, just as you keep coming back.  And I think what brings us back has something to do with a shared experience.  Like, there are moments of . . . you see it too!  You feel it too!  You sense it too!  That is what binds us together in worship.  The shared experience of something happening.  Something out of the ordinary.  As CS Lewis wrote regarding friendship, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’.”

Sometimes, a worship experience is overwhelming.  Sometimes it’s just a glimpse.  But even a glimpse says, “You saw it too!”  The curtain was pulled back.  There was a thin place, a liminal space.  As someone said last month after a particularly powerful experience, St. Timothy’s is a vortex.  Something happens here.

There’s an old saying that, in worship, the priest’s role is to draw back the curtain . . . and then hide in the folds of it.  In fact that’s why we wear these chasubles that match the Altar cloths.  So the priest can disappear.  When the liturgy “works,” it’s because we are doing a thing together.  A thing that has nothing to do with me and you, except for our desire to see that glimpse again.

And speaking of liturgy, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  And that makes this the perfect day to begin our month of experiencing the so-called trial-use liturgies, authorized by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  As I explained in my last newsletter/e-mail, I have been elected a deputy to next year’s General Convention, where we will be having conversations and votes about trial-use liturgies.  And since trial use implies actually trying to use, that is what we’re doing.

And so, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, we begin transfiguring our liturgy.  Perfect.  At heart, the liturgy remains the same as it has always been.  But the outward appearance will change.  It will look and sound a little different from what we’re used to, but it will be what it has always been.  A transfiguration of our liturgy.  Which leads us to look at the prefix, “trans.”

Trans comes to us from Latin, and means across or beyond.  You can see its use as “across” in words like transaction, transport, and transform.  You can see its use as beyond in words like transcend, transuranium, and transubstantiation.  However, the word “transfigure” is different.  According to most definitions, to transfigure means to change appearance in a way that exalts or glorifies.  The Transfiguration of Jesus changes his appearance in a way that reveals his glory.

Transfiguration is a difficult concept to wrap our minds around.  If Jesus is one thing, how can he become another thing?  Jesus was fully human.  I mean, it’s right there in our Creeds.  If Jesus had a birth certificate, it would have said, “male, human.”  Not “deity, glowing on a mountain.”  And yet, there he is, transfigured on the mountaintop.  By outward appearances, it seems a pretty good indicator that people can change.

But, of course, we intuitively know this.  When we are born, we are absolutely 100% dependent on the people around us, for everything.  But now, here we all are, having dressed ourselves, fed ourselves, and mostly having driven ourselves over here.  That’s a pretty big change from the moment we were born.  People DO change.  All the time.  All of us.

But, did Jesus change on the mountain?  As we heard, while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed.”  So did Jesus himself actually change?  Or is it more like the disciples got a glimpse of who Jesus was all along?   As I read it, Jesus did not change.  It’s more like, the curtain was pulled back.  It’s more like the people around him finally caught up to seeing him as he always knew himself to be.  He is not different.  He is revealed.

So why is it so hard for us to understand this Transfiguration?  Why do we naturally assume that Jesus had to become something else in order for this story to make sense??  Because it doesn’t happen to all of us, that’s why.  It happened to Jesus.  Not to us.  We don’t have the same experience as Jesus . . . because we are not Jesus.  But do we insist on seeing the birth certificate of Jesus, in order to prove that he was born male and human, and not glowing on a mountaintop?  No we do not.  He was transfigured in appearance, but he is the exact same Jesus he has always been.

If we can accept that things can happen with Jesus’ appearance that we do not understand, maybe we could also learn to accept that changes happen in other people’s appearance that we do not understand.  What happened on that mountain was that Jesus’ true nature was revealed.  What the disciples finally saw in him was who Jesus was all along.  Who he knew himself to be.  In being transfigured, Jesus shows others who he is.  Turns out, it’s not a change.  It’s a revelation to the world.  A pulling back of the curtain

And this is why the suggested hymns for this day and the proper preface are from the feast of Epiphany.  The Transfiguration of Jesus is not a change or a new thing; it is a revelation.  An epiphany.

Transfiguration is revealing what is already there, not creating a new pretend thing.  This is Jesus.  Revealed as he truly is.  And in our blindness we have a hard time accepting it.  Transfiguration is not a threat.  It is not a menace.  It is just revealing of what is already there.  What has been there all along.  Just as God intended.  Transfiguration is pulling back the curtain, to see things and people as God created them to be.  And God said they were good.