Monday, February 26, 2018

Get Behind Me, Satan!

'Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”'
--Mark 8: 31-33

In one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou?, the philosopher and loudmouth Ulysses Everett McGill attempts to enlighten his friends on exactly what the devil looks like.  There are all manner of lesser imps and demons, Everett says, but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurkated  tail, and he carries a hay fork.  Of course the response from Tommy Johnson is, Oh no!  Hes white!  As white as you folks!  Here's the scene:

Who and what Satan is might be the most intriguing question for people of faith because it gets to the heart of a bigger question:  what is the nature of evil?  The scene in O Brother reminds us that there is no single, clear image for evil.  In the Hebrew and Christian Testaments a variety of words are used to describe one who is an incarnation of evil.  According to Strongs Exhaustive Concordance, in the New Revised Standard Version of the Biblethe one we read in the Episcopal Churchthe word Satan appears 47 times, devil appears 34 times, Beelzebul appears 7 times, and Lucifer does not appear at all.  These numbers vary depending on what translation youre using, but the point is clear:  there is no one word or proper name for evil. 

So when Jesus uses the word Satan in addressing Peter, what does he mean?  Does he literally mean that Peter is Satan?  Well, yes (in a manner of speaking).  In Hebrew the word Satan means adversary or accuser, it is more title than name. It was used regularly by folks in biblical times to describe anything that stands in the way of God, that diverts humanity attention from heavenly things to earthly things, as Jesus puts it..  The serpent from the Garden of Eden was called Satan because he stood as an adversary to Gods wishes.  Nebuchenezar, the King of Babylon, was called Satan because he had taken Gods people from their homes and into exile.  The dragon from the Revelation to John, itself an allegory for the Roman Empire, is called Satan because it fights against the forces of God and God's people.  Anyone clearly not in-line with God was given that title  In Peters case, he had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah four verses earlier.  This is such a significant moment that it gets its own feast day in the Church, which we call the Confession of Peter.  In one breath he appears to get it, but when Jesus lays out the planthat he must suffer and diePeter shows that no, he doesnt get it, and tries to rebuke Jesus  and convince him that this is not Gods will.  To see that happen must have broken Jesus heart, and so yes, in that moment Peter was Satan, he was the adversary, the one standing between Jesus mission and Gods divine will. 

An icon depicting Jesus' rebuke of Peter (a.k.a. Get behind me, Satan!)

If we understand that wordSatanas more of an adjective than a proper noun, then it can help us somewhat better understand what folks back then understood of evil, as well as the nature of evil in our own time.  While the people of Jesus day did not believe that there was one single entity who embodied evil and made the whole world bad ("The Devil made me do it!" wasn't a thing back then!), they did believe that evil was real, that it lurked all around them, taking many forms.  Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, evil is still very much real!  There are some dark, scary forces in the world, all different manners of Satans, the last two weeks alone have proven that.  We sometimes think they have to look like the cartoon character Everett describes in O Brother, or a person like the Florida gunman who was so obviously sick and twisted, but more often than not they look like Peter.  They look like someone who thinks hes right, that hes got it all figured out, who thinks he understands better than even God does.  These Satans look tame, even well-meaning, but they can cause the greatest destruction.

This season of Lent is the perfect time for us to examine our physical and spiritual lives, so that we may renounce all sorts and conditions of evil and be prepared to be reborn ourselves through those baptismal waters on Easter.  Today we are given the opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ask the question:  what is my Satan?  What or who is keeping me from truly embracing Gods love?  What or who is keeping me from respecting the dignity of all Gods people and living into those other baptismal vows?  What adversaries are standing between me and God, cutting me off from God's goodness and keeping me from seeing that goodness in myself and others?  I will confess to you that my Satan is pride.  So very often I think that everything is about me, that I have to have all the answers, that if something goes wrong it will be all my fault, that people will call me a failure, and that the whole wide world will collapse.  It would be a lot easier if my Satan was a cartoon character.  Still, this Lent I am trying to fast from the temptation of giving in to my Satan, so that my pride wont cause me to be a Satan to someone else, particularly you folks. 

What about you?  What is the adversary, the Satan, that is trying to get you to set your mind on earthly things instead of heavenly things? Maybe it is something like pride, or maybe you're holding on too much to material possessions, or perhaps your need to keep your power is cutting you off from God.  It may also be that your Satan is an actual person, someone who is abusing you, trying to stand between you and the love of God, who calls you a failure or dehumanizes you.  All of these Satans can be overwhelming, but we must remember that they are not what make us worthwhile. God alone makes us worthwhile.  We need nothing else.  The Satans of this world will never win because we belong to God, and while they will (literally) try their damndest to pull us away from God’s light and love, we have Jesus Christ, who has already defeated, and will defeat, every evil of this world.  Stand fast, stand firm, brothers and sisters, and know that Jesus is by your side, giving you the strength to speak with his own voice, to cry out as often as need be:  Get behind me, Satan!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Listen To Him!

'Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.'
--Mark 9: 2-9

“Listen to him!”  the voice said.  We have heard this voice before.  A few weeks ago at Jesus’ baptism the same voice called Jesus “My Son.  The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  But now the proclamation of Jesus’ belovedness comes with a special instruction for the audience:  listen to him!

An Eastern icon of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is one of those that we hear every year at this time, in these last days before we head into the season of Lent.  I suspect that’s because immediately after this moment Jesus heads up that long, difficult path toward Jerusalem, to death on a cross.  In the same way, we are headed into the long, often difficult path of Lent, which will also culminate at the foot of the cross.  Each year we hear this story, but the wonderful thing about Scripture is that each time we hear, the Spirit seems to bring something new to our attention, some new word or phrase that grabs us.  For me, what has kept grabbing me has been those three words:  listen to him. 

I have to laugh because we obviously didn’t listen to him.  For proof, just go up to Mt. Tabor, to the Church of the Transfiguration, and when you walk inside you will see the gorgeous high altar head of you, and to either side you will see the chapels of Moses and Elijah.  Yeah, we built the dwelling places anyway!  We didn’t listen. 

The Chapels of Moses (left) and Elijah (right) inside the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.

I wonder why we are so prone to not actually listen to Jesus.  One reason I suspect is a phenomenon that one of my clergy friends likes to call the religion of Jesus vs. the religion about Jesus.  The religion of Jesus is what we might call the religion of the original 12 apostles and all those disciples that followed Jesus in his ministry.  This religion is grounded squarely on the the Gospels more than any other Scriptures, and is concerned with what Jesus said, how he lived his life, the example he gave for those who chose to follow him.  The religion about Jesus, meanwhile, is the religion that grew up in the days after Jesus' death and resurrection, when folks told stories about Jesus, but he was kept in isolation.  This religion became concerned with doctrine and dogmatic laws and became a mirror image of the very faith that Jesus himself often criticized.  It became concerned with matters never addressed by Jesus—such as who could get married or who could be ordained—rather than matters that he addressed so often—such as economic justice for the poor, release for the prisoners, and the deconstruction of top-down power models.  In short, while the religion of Jesus sees him as a living, present reality, the religion about Jesus keeps him bound to distant years in Palestine, as the hymn says. We Christians have always had a choice:  to we proclaim the religion of Jesus or the religion about Jesus?  Do we have a relationship with Jesus that is alive in the present reality, or are we just holding Jesus in pristine condition in isolation, apart from our daily lives?

One of the best versions of the Transfiguration story that I have seen is in the graphic novel Marked by Steve Ross.  Here Jesus is depicted as a clean-shaven, somewhat androgynous person of color preaching in a dystopian, occupied land in an unspecified time period.  There are some great illustrations of the stories from the gospel, but the Transfiguration is one of my favorites.  Here we see Jesus climb up the mountainside, only to step off the ledge when he gets to the top.  In the air he is met by Moses and Elijah—who bear a striking resemblance to Frederick Douglass and Louis Armstrong.  As he’s talking with the law-giver the greatest of the prophets plays his trumpet and Jesus begins to glow with radiant light, causing Peter to take out his camera.  But before he can snap a picture the camera explodes.  He doesn’t understand why such a thing happened.  “I just wanted a souvenir,” he says.  “My friend,” Jesus replies, “there are some things you just can’t freeze in time.” 

 A panel from Steve Ross' Marked showing the Transfiguration.  

Do we just want a souvenir, a snapshot of a moment in time to keep forever?  Do we just want to build a tent and let Jesus stay there, isolated from the rest of the world? I suspect the answer is no, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog!  Brothers and sisters, we may be heading into Lent this week, but we are Easter people.  We live in the ever-present reality that Jesus IS alive.  He is still moving, still speaking. Peter and the others could not see what was right in front of them, they wanted to preserve it forever, and that kept them from seeing his glory in the present moment, and that is why they did not listen.  But we who have seen his glory, we know his love, his savaging grace, and his power to heal body, mind, and spirit.  We've seen it, and know it to be ever-present.  Our message, our gospel, is not to be kept hidden.  It must not be veiled—as St. Paul says—but rather it is to be proclaimed and shared with all, but to do that we must listen to him. 

He is still speaking to us:  ““You cannot serve God and mammon,” he says, (Matthew 6: 24); I desire mercy, (Matthew 9: 13); “You give them something to eat,” (Mark 6: 37); “Anyone who is not against us is for us,” (Mark 9: 40); “Do good to those who hate you,” (Luke 6: 27); “When you give a banquet do not invite your friends, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” (Luke 14: 12); “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” (John 8: 7); “Love one another, as I have loved you,” (John 13: 34).  I could go on.  Those aren’t words from parables, brothers and sisters, those are commandments, teachings from our Lord that are still being spoken in our own day.

This church thing we do is not about just retelling these stories and remembering isolated moments in time.  We don’t go to church just to see our friends and feel better about ourselves but to meet the living God in the living Christ.  At the holy table he is made known to us and feasts with us in bread and wine.  In his Gospel he still speaks, calling us to listen and go from our places of worship to share that Good News that, yes, he is alive, that yes, his message is real, that yes, there is hope and justice and salvation for this world that he loves so much.  No snapshots or dwelling places are necessary because he cannot be contained in them anyway!  We are not just about Jesus, we are of Jesus.  He lives in us and through us, and he is still speaking to us.  Let anyone with ears to hear listen to him.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Remembering Who We Are

'Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning? 
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;

who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?

He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;

because he is great in strength,
mighty in power, 
not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,

"My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.'

--Isaiah 40: 21-31

Many of us probably think of the prophet Isaiah as that guy who predicted Jesus’ birth; after all, we read a lot from Isaiah around Christmas time, particularly chapter 7. But Isaiah is more than just the guy who predicted Jesus.  Did you know that the Book of Isaiah has 66 chapters, making it the second longest in our Scriptural library behind the Psalms at 150?  Or did you know that scholars have deduced that a single author did not write the whole book?  In fact, we can split Isaiah into three parts:  before the exile in Babylon—chapters 1-39—during the exile—chapters 40-55—and after the Israelites return home from exile—chapters 56-66.  There’s a lot in this book, but today we focus on chapter 40, the beginning of what is called Second Isaiah. 

An Orthodox Christian icon depicting the prophet Isaiah.

Picture this:  we are living in a land that is not our own.  There had been rumors about a great military power that was sweeping through our home, but we figured there was no way that those folks would come for us.  That was during our grandparents’ generation!  Now, somewhere in the greatest empire on the planet we sit by a river and long for home.  We try to remember the traditions of our ancestors, the promise of hope that God once gave us, but it’s been almost 70 years, and we are starting to forget.  Among us, however,  is a person who claims the name of a prophet who lived many years earlier—Isaiah—and he is not preaching a message of gloom and doom as the First Isaiah did, nor is he blaming anyone for causing this pain and misery.  Instead, he is giving us a message of hope and calling us to remember. 

The prophet throws out a bunch of rhetorical questions to get our attention:  Have you not known?!  Have you not heard?!  Has it not been told to you?!  Have you not understood?!  We're starting to forget that great promise:  the one who sits above the circle of the earth, the one who brings princes to naught and makes earthly rulers as nothing, is the same one who calls everything by name, including you and me.  Great in strength, mighty in power, this is the one to whom no one and no thing can be compared.  We grumble, though, saying things like, “My way is hidden, and my right is disregarded by God,” feeling as if God has abandoned us, but the prophet, again using a rhetorical question, bounces back:  Have you not known and heard?!  The Lord is the evelasting God.  Everlasting.  That means lasting for ever, from before ever, never-ending, never giving in, and never forgetting.  God did not forget us, says this Second Isaiah—or Deutero-Isaiah, as he is often called—and if we would just remember that, we will endure, knowing the God who made us, who loves us, who sits by those waters of anguish with us and holds us when we cry, that God, the everlasting God, will deliver us.  We need only to remember who we are, and who is our God.

The people who heard this prophecy did remember. They did endure.  And they did know justice and salvation.  It’s amazing what happens when the children of God remember that they are the children of God.  History is full of examples where God’s people, downtrodden, beaten, and seemingly forgotten, have remembered who they are,  that this God is an everlasting God, and that justice and salvation are real.

Fitting, then, that we hear this prophecy at the beginning of February as we celebrate Black History Month.  Each Sunday this month my congregation will be singing hymns from Lift Every Voice and Sing II, a hymnal composed by the Episcopal Church in 1993, made of African American spirituals and old gospel tunes. And as we sing songs like Give Me Jesus, We Shall Overcome, and yes, Lift Every Voice and Sing, we will be reminded of the faith of our brothers and sisters who endured the same pains as those to whom the prophet speaks in this reading today.  And like the folks who heard Second Isaiah preaching, our brothers and sisters, by the grace of God, remembered God’s promise of salvation, justice, and hope.  Through enslavement in a land that was not their own, black codes and Jim Crow laws, and every which way that racism continues to rear its evil head, our brothers and sisters endure and stand tall and proud because they know the love of an almighty and everlasting God who delivers God’s people now, just as way back then, from the bonds of injustice.  That example continues to inspire all of us, as we work for justice in our own time, well beyond the month of February. 

Lift Every Voice and Sing II, the hymnal out of which all of our congregation songs will come this month.

This inspiration comes from our God, who manages to always bring a message of hope in the face of overwhelming adversity. Second Isaiah speaks at the darkest, most despair-ridden time in the lives of the Hebrew people, and yet his message, the thing that is brought back to the minds of those who heard, is how precious and irreplaceable and life-giving God’s word of hope is.  Those same words of the prophet cry out to us even now.  When we are feeling shame and fear:  Have you not known that God loves you?  When we are lost and don’t know where to go:  Have you not heard that God walks with you?  When we cannot escape the traps of our lives and feel utterly alone:  Have you not understood that you are beloved of God? Our God is a God of deliverance, a God who never forgets us.  We need only open our eyes and our spirits to see the majesty of God all around us, reminding us of who we are and whose we are.

I heard a story last week of a man who was being accosted at gun point.  The man showed no fear, and when the gunman asked how he could be so calm, the man told him, “Because you have no power over me. I belong to God, and God will deliver me, no matter what you do!”  The gunman, as the story goes, walked away, amazed at the man’s faith.  I don't know how true that story actually is, but its point is clear:  this is what happens when you remember, deep down at the core of your being, that you belong to God.  You can face anything because ultimately no force on earth has power over you if you know that!  That’s what the prophet was preaching.  That’s the example of faith we honor this month.    That is the Good News for all of us right here and now.

So brothers and sisters, if you feel broken, beaten, afraid, and alone, remember.  The architect of the universe holds you in those almighty hands.  You too are marked as God’s own forever.  You too can stand and endure, locking arms with one another, singing spiritual songs of praise and glory.  For this is who you are:  beloved children of God.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever!