Monday, February 24, 2020

Shining In Resplendent Light

'Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”'
--Matthew 17: 1-9

Where is your Mount Tabor?  That’s the name of the mountain in the Palestinian desert that is historically regarded as the site of Jesus’ Transfiguration, where he shone in resplendent light while conversing with Moses and Elijah.  It is a moment when Israel’s past, present, and future collide, a truly holy moment, one that Peter is so taken by that he unwittingly blurts out, “This is awesome!  Let’s build tents and stay here!”  The glory, the goodness, the very light of God is revealed on that mountain in that moment.  Where is your Mount Tabor?

Mount Tabor, as it is seen from a road not unlike the one Jesus and his disciples would have walked.

Where is the place where you have encountered the light of God shining with such raiment, so powerful that you have to squint in order to bear it?  I’ve shared with some of you on this blog that I grew up on a mountain.  I would often walk around the strip mining job site behind our house, and overlooking the gap in the mountain below I would somehow feel this closeness, this connection to God, where all seemed to be at peace, and I knew that all manner of things would be well.  

But as I have also shared, I came down from that mountain, and I believe very much that one of the lessons that the story of the Transfiguration has to teach us is that we do have to come down from those mountaintop experiences.  We have to travel into the gap, facing whatever perils and fears we may find.  All the while we may wish we could get back to that shining mountain top.  

The story of the Transfiguration, though, is sandwiched between two moments in which Jesus’ followers are faced with the reality of his impending death—as they travel on the road toward Mt. Tabor Jesus rebukes Peter for insinuating that his death can and should be prevented, and immediately after they come down the mountain Jesus reminds them that, like John the Baptist before him, he too must suffer and die at the hands of the religious and political establishment, as he sets his face toward the long journey to Jerusalem, which, as we all know, will end at the cross.  Clearly, there is something to be said for such a holy, beautiful encounter occurring when it does, both in the Scriptures and in our own church calendar.

Every year on the final Sunday prior to the start of the season of Lent, we hear this story, albeit from a different Gospel each time. This week marks the beginning of our penitential season, in which we recall Jesus’ own fasting, temptation, suffering, and death, while at the same time pondering our own mortality.  At no point in our Lenten journey is this made clearer than at the beginning, when on Wednesday we mark our foreheads with ashes and the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’  Yet as we embark on this, our own journey that will end at the foot of the cross, it’s appropriate for us to hear this story once again, a story of ordinary, flawed people getting a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, a story that reminds us that the journey is not all gloom and doom.

An Eastern icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus

How beautiful is this moment of the transfigured Jesus conversing with the Moses the Law-Giver and Elijah, greatest among the prophets, shining in such a way that not only is he gleaming, but so are the rocks, the dirt, the trees, and those three frightened disciples!  It is stunning and mysterious also because of its paradox—the conversations about the inevitability of Jesus’ death that both precede and succeed this moment.  Here we have an occasion that is truly significant for us today, one that illustrates how we experience moments of elation sandwiched between a harsh reality, and recalls for us how we live in the constant tension between the highest mountaintop and the lowest valley, a tension that reminds us that darkness and light, death and life, belong together.   

That is not to suggest that suffering is to be romanticized, far from it.  Jesus’ own suffering is tragic in every sense of the word, as is the suffering that we endure each day.  Yet, the Transfiguration is a pledge, God’s commitment to resurrection, a foreshadowing, if your will, of the promise that each of the various roads to Jerusalem that every faithful disciple takes is, in fact, a glorious road to life.  

Yet like the Resurrection itself, the Transfiguration is a moment that only really gains its meaning in hindsight.  Peter, James, and John, clearly have no idea what’s going on.  They’re dumbfounded and terrified.  They make foolish suggestions that they don’t really understand.  In the moment they, like us, cannot bear the awesome reality in front of them.  And what is that reality?  That Jesus and all the creation around him were always shining that way, and it was only on that occasion that those three disciples had the eyes to see.  Every now and then we have those same eyes—this is why the term ‘mountaintop experience’ doesn’t just reference times when we are close to God by way of altitude, but by means of our hearts being strangely warmed by God’s resplendent light.  We often kick ourselves because we only notice these moments in hindsight, but think for a moment about how Jesus responds to those three disciples.  He doesn’t chastise them for making stupid suggestions or for not understanding the importance of the moment.  What does he do?  He does the same thing he does to the leper, to the two blind men, and to Peter’s own mother-in-law:  he touches them, and then he speaks words of reassurance.  Even when we impatient, confused disciples of his miss the point, and even when we don’t fully grasp the significance of the moment when we are in it, he meets us with the same amazing grace.  Jesus touches us and reassures us that, like Peter, James, and John, we have that same resplendent light shining all around us, all the time.  Though we walk through the darkest, longest valleys, though we must often go to our own Jerusalem, bear our own cross, and even die to it, that same light that shone on the mountaintop still shines in the mountain’s gaps, and the road we travel is paved by the footsteps of Jesus, who has gone on ahead of us.

Writer Frederick Buechner, talking about the Transfiguration, once said: “Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it's almost beyond bearing.”  It does still happen, brothers and sisters.  And it very often happens at the unlikeliest of times and in the unlikeliest of places, and yes, even among the unlikeliest of people:  Peter, James, John, you, and me.  
So where is your Mount Tabor?  Maybe it’s an actual mountaintop, but could it be someplace a bit more unlikely? Could it be the hospice or hospital room?  Could it be inside the prison gate?  Could it be on the side of the road, when we break down and curse our rotten luck?  The Transfiguration invites us to consider the crazy idea that God’s light did not just shine on and around Jesus that day, but that it still shines all around, within, and from each and every one of us, each and every day. We need only have eyes to see.  

Monday, February 17, 2020

Difficult Texts, Blessed Hope

'Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”'
--Matthew 5: 21-37

An Eastern icon of the Sermon on the Mount

At first glance, the passages from this past Sunday do not seem to contain any Good News, but rather a series of prohibitions.  The church where I serve had a very hard week, wherein we lost two of our dear members in just over a day.  It was hard to preach this text and find hope in the face of such a difficult time (the other lectionary choices didn't help!).

Yet because he is the very embodiment of Good News, we focused our attention on Jesus and this rather perplexing section of the Sermon on the Mount.  Last week, we heard Jesus tell his followers that they were to be salt and light—preserving and enhancing the love of God already in the world, and illuminating that love in parts of the world where it is difficult to find.  That’s what they are SUPPOSED to do. But today Jesus tells them what they are NOT to do.  It’s important for us to remember that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is mirroring the actions of Moses, as he goes up the mountain to give a new teaching, and like Moses bringing the Law to a wayward people lost in the desert, Jesus unpacks and refocuses that very same Law for a people holding on to its letter more than its spirit.  This isn’t meant to vilify anyone
maintaining a strict observance of the Law helped Jesus’ people cling to their cultural and religious identity in the middle of Roman occupationbut it is meant to remind the people what the Law is really about.  It’s when we figure that part out that we find the Good News in such a tough passage.

In a nutshell, Jesus is not giving new laws, nor is he condemning the old laws themselves, but rather he is reinterpreting them as ethical standards, which take us far beyond civil rules and religious observances.  Christianity, it has been said, is the "anti-religion," meaning that it deconstructs religiosity, making it less about devotion to rules and more about a way of being in the world, which is why anyoneand I mean anyone, from Roman soldier to Jewish house servantwas able to find a place in the community of Jesus followers.  The teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures—Jesus’ Scriptures—were not ending points, nor was one expected to “get it” by being slavishly devoted to them.  This is why Jesus masterfully uses hyperbole when he says things like, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven,” as he said last week.  He isn't serious. Instead it’s a dig at the scribes’ slavish devotion to the Law and the false Gospel that following the rules to the letter in order to get into Paradise is the point of religion.  That’s clearly not the case for Jesus.  The point is something more. 

It is about relationship with God and one another, about understanding what is at the heart of our rules, and our Scripture, and our faith traditions.  Jesus takes the scriptural teachings on murder, adultery, divorce, and oath-taking and re-forms them, not out of a lack of respect, but just the oppositeas a way of showing his followers that he does, in fact, believe strongly in the real, ongoing presence of God in the law and in the Scriptures, but which would have to mean that God is still speaking through them, even if what God is saying is something new for their time.  So what is God saying, according to Jesus?  

‘Thou shalt not murder’ is the 6th commandment, but Jesus says that’s not enough. We aren’t supposed to have any anger at all in our hearts, otherwise we’re already damned to the hell of fire.  But does he mean this literally?  I suspect he doesn’t, as we’ve already pointed out that Jesus loves hyperbole.  In fact it’s less a teaching on not being angry, and more a teaching on what we do with our anger.  Murder stems from anger, after all. Reconciliation is the ultimate goal here. That’s what justice is—the reconciliation of God’s people one to another.  The commandment is given for the purpose of our being in right relationship with one another.

The next commandment is ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and Jesus explicitly confronts the reality of sexual objectivism when tackling this topic.  Because first century Palestinian women were literally the property of their husbands, adultery was only a crime if a married man fooled around with a married woman, since in that case he was messing with another man's property.  If the woman was not married, then it wasn't adultery, and thus was not considered "unlawful."  This section of the Law if taken literally only benefited the man, and gave no rights at all to a victimized woman.  By collapsing the distinction between thought and action—"don’t so much as look at a woman with lust in your heart"—Jesus makes clear that no one is to be regarded as a sex object, and the burden to not be involved in the act of adultery is, according to Jesus, placed on the man (the one with the power), so that women are not held responsible for "enticing men into their sexual misadventures," as Amy-Jill Levine puts it in her commentary on Matthew.  Does Jesus literally want men to rip out their eyes if they have a lustful thought?  No, but it’s important to note that it is the man's own eye that causes him to sin, not the clothing that the woman is wearing.  The whole point here is to denounce the dehumanization of women, so that the dignity of everyone is respected.

Likewise, the section on divorce—which Moses said you could get in Deuteronomy 24— is meant to put the onus once again on the husband, as divorce would have left a woman open to charges of adultery and lack of any social and financial station.  By no means is Jesus telling us that women caught in abusive marriages should remain in them, and shame on preachers who have said as much.  But in a time when men would regularly break relationships for what could be seen as petty reasons, Jesus reminds them that being in relationship with one another is the whole point, and much like the piece earlier on murder, he implores his audienceparticularly the mento not go to the extreme measure, but rather to work toward the healing of the disrupted relationship.

Lastly, there is the section on oath-taking—found in Leviticus 19.  This is not simply about what one says, like in a courtroom, but about what one does.  Our actions, Jesus points out, should justify our truthfulness, and so if we live a truthful life, then there is no need to take such oaths.  The taking of an oath to guarantee one’s word implies that otherwise one’s word cannot be trusted.  Does this literally mean we should never take an oath in court again?  Once more, no. Jesus is being hyperbolic to get his point across. But in our own time and place, where for reasons of national security or public relations or personal gain the truth is regularly slanted or distorted, truthfulness must be the characteristic of the life lived as a follower of Jesus. What he is calling for is a simple, unabashed honesty in the full range of human relationships.  One’s "Yes" is to mean yes, and one’s "No" is to mean no.  And that’s that.  

It may be that Jesus’ teaching here on the mountainside is tough for us to comprehend, especially since we are not obligated to familiarize ourselves with those laws of Torah like his original audience. And we may think that we have to take him at his literal word to pluck out our eyes, or never so much as get mad at someone. If we were that literal about Scripture, though, would we not fall into the same legalistic trap as those whom Jesus chastises for remembering only the letter of the Law but forgetting the spirit of it? Here in the middle of teachings on murder, adultery, divorce, and oath-taking we do find Good News: in the reminder that we must always see beyond the literal words of our rules to find their deeper meaning and spirit, asking what they are doing instead of what they're simply saying.  

Our world now, as it did in Jesus’ day, cares little for accountability and the reconciliation of relationships.  But behind what might sound like prohibitions from Jesus, lies the vision of a restored humanity: where the dignity of all is respected, and that which is dead is made alive again through meaningful, intentional, and reconciliatory relationships.  For us who are weary, tired, sad, or frightened, we need that vision  We need to know that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus there is hope for a world that is healed and made whole by the everlasting love of God.  And that is Good News!