The Natural Order (February 17, 2012)

…Opening To…

I caught a glimpse of Your splendor in the corner of my eye the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it was like a flash of lightning reflected off the sky, and I know I’ll never be the same. (Third Day, “Show Me Your Glory”)

…Listening In…

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:8-9; context)

…Filling Up…

When God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus, God implicitly commands them and us to rid ourselves of the box labeled “impossible.” If we listen to Jesus and obey him, then we trust that everything he does is the “real” thing – not a parlor trick or smoke and mirrors, not mere charisma or happenstance. He doesn’t bend the rules of a set universe, but he does bend the ones that our dangerously limited understanding has contrived.

Miracles aren’t glitches in the natural order. They are the natural order, the natural order that we dumped into the box long ago. The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop prepares us for the even greater change that happens when Jesus rises from the dead, when Jesus tips the box over and removes the first two letters from the word “impossible.”

You see, the horizon exists not to limit our senses, but to give us something beyond which our dreams can thrive. The Transfiguration we celebrate on this coming Sunday (in my church, anyway) shines in our lives with dazzling brightness, reminding us of two things. First, there is something wonderful and glorious beyond the horizon. And second, that wonderful and glorious something couldn’t care less about horizons. The dazzling brightness of the Transfiguration foreshadows the even greater brightness of the resurrection, the brightness that rises in one breath of reckless animation. We will celebrate this triumph on Easter, seven weeks and two days from today.

During the intervening time, I invite you to look at the horizon. What do you see beyond it? What sliver of light ripples across the water? I also invite you to look inside yourselves. What have you restored to the box that Jesus once overturned? What change in your life are you resisting? Reflect on these questions. And, at the same time, know that Jesus stands forever before you, beckoning you to see him in all his dazzling brightness, beckoning you to see him with transfigured eyes, with eyes that see beyond the horizon.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you command me to listen to the words of your Son, who constantly speaks life into my being. Help me to rid myself of the box that is labeled “impossible” so that I can fully give myself over to your love. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that with you all things are possible.

Labeling the Impossible (February 16, 2012)

…Opening To…

I caught a glimpse of Your splendor in the corner of my eye the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it was like a flash of lightning reflected off the sky, and I know I’ll never be the same. (Third Day, “Show Me Your Glory”)

…Listening In…

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7; context)

…Filling Up…

You could store Jesus’ other miracles in a box and refuse to believe the horizon between God and humanity is more permeable than was originally thought. But this, this transfiguration, this holy event Peter witnesses with his own eyes would never fit in the box, no matter how precisely he might have constructed those three tents.

And why not? In this event, Jesus doesn’t change. He is neither better nor more holy than he was before. But Peter, James, and John are granted the gift of seeing Jesus as God sees him – dazzlingly bright and beloved. The Greek word we translate as “Transfiguration” has been transmitted directly into our own language. The English equivalent is metamorphosis, a complete change in form or shape. So, in this transfiguration, what changes, if not Jesus?

Until the mountaintop, the disciples had seen some things, some miracles, and they thought they understood them. But their small understanding was dangerous because it amounted to just enough to create an unwarranted category labeled “impossible.” In this category, in this box, they stored everything that ran counter to what they thought they knew about the world. They were terrified of the walking on water. Their hearts were hardened about the multiplied loaves. “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” And yet, Jesus did all these things, and he couldn’t care less what they labeled “impossible.”

The change, the metamorphosis, that occurs on the mountaintop happens when Peter fails to begin his construction of the three tents. A cloud overshadows the disciples, and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Then, all of sudden, they look around and the horizon is back to normal. But nothing would ever be “normal” again. (to be concluded tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, in the Transfiguration, you changed the way Jesus’ friends saw him. Help me to look at the world through these same eyes, so that I can see your hand at work around me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that with you all things are possible.

Sacred Luggage (February 15, 2012)

…Opening To…

I caught a glimpse of Your splendor in the corner of my eye the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it was like a flash of lightning reflected off the sky, and I know I’ll never be the same. (Third Day, “Show Me Your Glory”)

…Listening In…

Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified. (Mark 9:4-6; context)

…Filling Up…

Peter, it seems, cannot handle the raw data, this overabundance of visual stimulation brought on by Jesus’ dazzling appearance and the manifestation of Moses and Elijah. He’s terrified, and understandably so. Horizons seem to exist to limit our sight, and limits are comforting. When the horizons crumble, Peter doesn’t know what to say. But, being Peter, he says something anyway: “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Now, from all those stories Peter had heard, he knew that back when the people of Israel were wandering around the desert for forty years, they lugged about a special portable dwelling, a tent really. Inside this tent, they arranged all of their sacred luggage. The people thought the tent holy because they believed God, while eternal, omnipotent and ever-present, also dwelled in the tent.

So, when Peter suggests constructing a trio of tents, he is attempting to circumscribe the event unfolding in dazzling brightness before him. He is trying to erect temporary horizons, trying to control the situation, trying to jam the impossible back into a box consisting of normal, everyday things.

When Peter sees Jesus’ biological horizon crumble, revealing the dazzling brightness of Jesus’ connection to God, Peter’s first response is to put Jesus in a holy box in order to contain him. Peter had seen Jesus do some impossible things – feed five thousand with one person’s lunch, calm a storm, heal Peter’s own mother-in-law – but this, this transfiguration is something else entirely. You could explain away those other things if you wanted to: persuasion, charisma, being in the right time at the right place. You could store those other things in a box and refuse to believe the horizon between God and humanity is more permeable than was originally thought. (to be continued tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the one in control of heaven and earth. Help me to release my need to be in control, so that I can trust that you are guiding my life along the right paths. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that with you all things are possible.

Until Now (February 14, 2012)

…Opening To…

I caught a glimpse of Your splendor in the corner of my eye the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it was like a flash of lightning reflected off the sky, and I know I’ll never be the same. (Third Day, “Show Me Your Glory”)

…Listening In…

He was transformed in front of them, and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4; context)

…Filling Up…

After the sun spills out of the distant horizon, something strange and altogether unexpected happens. As the sun continues to rise, you notice the line of the horizon crumbling into the ocean. You see far-flung images as your vision circles the globe. You snap your eyes shut, unable to catalogue the expanse of imagery.

Near as I can tell, this is how Peter, James, and John must feel during the event known as the Transfiguration. With Jesus leading, the foursome hikes up a high mountain, a pastime not unknown to Jesus’ friends, who are always chasing him up hills and through deserts. But this time, at the top, something new happens. The three disciples look at Jesus and, with neither warning nor preparation, they see far past all reasonable limits of normal human vision.

Peter, James, and John look at Jesus with new eyes. And the biological horizon limiting their perception crumbles. Until now, they have been used to seeing only what they expect to see. Until now, they have been lulled to sleep by the monotony of the mundane. Until now, they have looked at Jesus, but have never seen him. Until now.

The horizon of Jesus’ body cannot contain his dazzling glory, and the disciples see him as he really is. The horizon between this life and the next cannot veil their eyes, and they see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets they had heard stories about their whole lives. (to be continued tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, your movement extends far past my ability to see it. Help me never to forget that my eyes and my faith limit my trust in you, even though your trustworthiness is without bounds. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that with you all things are possible.

Crumbling Horizons (February 13, 2012)

…Opening To…

I caught a glimpse of Your splendor in the corner of my eye the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And it was like a flash of lightning reflected off the sky, and I know I’ll never be the same. (Third Day, “Show Me Your Glory”)

…Listening In…

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them… (Mark 9:2-3; context)

…Filling Up…

Imagine you are strolling down a pier on the cold, rocky coast of Massachusetts. You stop, lean your elbows on a metal railing, and look out at the vastness of the ocean before you. You can feel the impatient energy of morning and smell the sun about to rise. First, the door of the sky opens just a crack and lets a sliver of light ripple across the face of the water. Then, all in one breath of reckless animation, the sun spills out of the distant horizon, red and complete.

Then something strange and altogether unexpected happens. As the sun continues to rise, you notice the line of the horizon crumbling into the ocean. With the horizon gone, the thousands of miles of brooding Atlantic open before you. You see the waves crashing into the northwest coast of Spain. You see skiers flying down the slopes of the Alps. You see oil derricks pounding the banks of the Caspian Sea. Abandoned missile silos in Kazakhstan. Mongolian shepherds driving their flocks. The Great Wall of China. The DMZ. Tokyo skyscrapers. The Pacific Ocean. California a distant speck but growing…

You snap your eyes shut and grip the metal railing. You’re overwhelmed, unsteady on your feet, nauseous. Your brain attempts to catalogue all the far-flung images you just saw. But it shuts down, unable to process this excess of information. After several weak-kneed minutes, your heart rate begins to slow, and you hesitantly reopen your eyes. The horizon has returned to its accepted place at the end of the reach of your vision.

Near as I can tell, this is how Peter, James, and John must feel during the event known as the Transfiguration, in which Jesus becomes “dazzling” in front of their eyes and they see some friends from the Hebrew Scriptures. We’ll be talking about the Transfiguration this week, so get excited! (to be continued tomorrow…)

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son revealed to his disciples the dazzling beauty of his close relationship with you. Help me to nurture my relationship with you so that when others see me, they see you through me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that with you all things are possible.

Twenty questions (Bible study #8)

In the last Bible study, I talked about reading the Bible out loud as a way to focus our interpretive endeavor. When we read aloud, we are forced to make interpretive choices that silent reading misses. This is especially true when reading dialogue. In the Gospel, narrators set scenes, but most of the important information is conveyed through characters’ interactions with one another. The evangelists* present these interactions in various ways, but each uses dialogue as the main vehicle of communication.

When you study the Gospel, pay attention to how the writers structure their dialogue. What is said? What is not said? What are the speaker’s preconceived notions? What are his motivations? What is her background?

Here’s one example. Every time someone calls Jesus “teacher” in the Gospel according to Matthew, that someone is not on Jesus’ side. They are scribes and Pharisees and people asking Jesus questions to test him. On the flip side, Jesus’ disciples and those asking for healing always call Jesus “Lord.” In this way, Matthew shows that the former group doesn’t get that there is so much more going on than an eccentric teacher wandering around spouting eccentric ideas. While “teacher” is not necessarily pejorative, Matthew uses it to show Jesus’ opponents attempting to stifle the rumors of his messiah-ship. With this simple comparison of title, Matthew communicates the struggle for influence between the establishment and Jesus’ disciples.

Matthew does all that with two little words: “teacher” and “Lord.” Across the Gospel, there is very little extraneous information, so we rarely get an explicit statement of a character’s mood or bearing. Besides Mark’s use of “immediately,” adverbs are in short supply in the Gospel. The dramatic force of characters’ interactions is driven by the dialogue itself; this dialogue is charged with intent, meaning, and suggestion, so descriptors are distracting at worst and ancillary at best. Read through all four accounts of the Gospel, and I bet you could count the number of times someone’s mood is described on one hand. (Check John 11 for a couple).

The narrators do not need to intrude into conversations because the evangelists are pretty darn good writers. How would it be if the text said: The woman said flirtatiously, “How can you get that living water?” Jesus, feigning ignorance of her advance, responded dispassionately, “You drink of this water…”

I know. Not the best writing ever. Rather than infesting their conversations with adverbs, good writers develop dialogue that suggests what I stated explicitly in the above example. Here’s how John writes the conversation: The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. (John 4:11-14)

Of course, I’m making an interpretive choice when I read flirtation into this conversation, but John’s dialogue leads me there. Pay attention to what the characters in the Gospel say and don’t say, especially the ubiquitous dialogical motif of a speaker failing to answer the question that is asked.

Try this one on for size. At the beginning of the Gospel according to John, some priests and Levites come to question John. They ask him: “Who are you?” Here’s what he doesn’t say: “I’m John from over yonder a bit. My parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. I’m the crazy guy who eats locusts and wild honey and wears uncomfortable shirts.” Instead, he says, “I am not the Messiah.”** Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this does not even come close to answering their question. If sobreadboxmeone came up to me and said, “Who are you,” then responding, “Well, I’m not a toaster oven,” doesn’t really narrow it down.

But John and the Levites keep playing twenty questions: “Are you Elijah?” I am not. “Are you the prophet? Nope. Obviously, because of John’s recent activity, both he and the Levites know that this little game is about more than who John is. If it were that simple, my answer about uncomfortable shirts would have been enough. They want to know what his significance is in the history of the salvation of Israel. With this in mind, his leap to downplaying rumors of messianism makes more sense. Rather than asking him if he’s larger than a breadbox, they try a new version of their original question: “What do you have to say about yourself?” And again, John doesn’t answer their question. He speaks not about himself but about the one to whom he points: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him a direct question about himself, John points to Jesus.

By structuring a conversation in which John answers different questions than the ones asked, the evangelist offers us insight into both parties. Watch out for this kind of conversation in the Gospel (especially John’s account).

Okay, I’m approaching a thousand words about this topic, so I think I’ll stop soon. When you read the conversations in the Bible, be sensitive to how the writers put the words together. Focus on the dialogue and let it speak to you. And know that Jesus is not just talking to the woman at the well or the crowd beneath the mount. He is speaking to you and to me.

Footnotes

* This is a handy shorthand for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authorities behind the four canonical accounts of the Gospel.

** Actually, according to the narrator, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” This is one of those odd places where the narrator does inject description into conversation. But it’s so rare that these few words take up lots of pages in commentaries.

Of sandwiches and second comings

(Sermon for November 30, 2008 || Advent 1, Year B RCL || Mark 13:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to explain why the phrase “O come O come Emmanuel” is a funny phrase. But first, I want to talk about my parents’ crèche.

During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned heavily on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.

blakenativity
William Blake "The Descent of Peace"

You see, we waited until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. (Confidentially, we hid him on the shelf behind the stable until our plastic Mary came to full term.) So, for the entire month of December, our crèche was incomplete. As a child, I might have laughed at the incongruity of the scene if I had known any other Advent tradition. Jesus hadn’t come yet, but the fishing line angels were already fingering their harps, the shepherds were already choosing which lamb to present, and the cattle were already lowing (whatever lowing is).

Without Jesus in the manger, none of these activities made sense. But putting the babe away in that manger a month before Christmas removed the period of expectant waiting that Advent is all about. This is the tension we acknowledge during these next four weeks. By preparing to celebrate Jesus’ Incarnation, we are also preparing for his second coming. To be able to come again, he had to leave. But even as we prepare for his coming again, we remember that Christ abides with us even now in the present.

This incongruity is quite confusing. How can Jesus be coming again and abiding with us at the same time? This makes no sense. If I say I’m going to the kitchen to make a sandwich, I can’t watch football on the couch in the living room at the same time. (I can, of course, pause the football game with the wonderful invention of DVR, but that’s beside the point.)

I can either make a sandwich or watch football. We are used to our world working in this either/or way. We exist in time and space. At this moment in time and at this place in space, I exist in this pulpit talking to you. I can neither make sandwiches nor watch football right here right now. Indeed, many years ago I gave up praying for the ability to teleport and succumbed to the reality of our either/or world.

But we get so caught up in “how things are for us” that we forget God lives outside and above and throughout this reality. We are bound by our either/or perceptions. Our God lives an expansive both/and kind of existence. Both three persons and One God? Yes. Both fully human and fully divine? You bet. Both coming again and abiding with us still? No problem.

The problem comes when we, in all our haste and distraction and busy work, forget that Christ abides with us still. Acknowledging the promise of “coming again” is much easier for us because it takes place in some amorphous future. Now, we humans have developed an awful routine of sloughing the future off on those people who will be alive in the future. This routine has spawned the byproduct of ignoring the consequences of our actions for those unfortunate future people. If we can push those consequences off into an amorphous future, surely we can install Jesus’ second coming there, too.

But when Jesus warns his disciples to “keep alert” and to “keep awake,” he reminds them that the future has a persistent habit of becoming the present. On some day that only the Father knows the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. At some hour the master of the house will come, says Jesus. Don’t let the vague obscurity of the future lull you to sleep or you will miss the promise fulfilled in the present.

The Apostle Paul is aware that there are numerous sleepy followers of Christ in Corinth, the city to which Paul addressed this morning’s lesson. He reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ promise to come again when he mentions “wait[ing] for the revealing of our Lord Jesus” and being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same breath that he speaks about the future, Paul also focuses on how Jesus Christ abides with the Corinthians and impacts their lives in the present. Christ has given them the “grace of God.” They have been “enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind.” They are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Christ will “strengthen” them even as they wait for the day of his revealing.

With these words, Paul teaches us that the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to realize that Christ continues to grace and enrich and strengthen us even now. Forgetting that Christ is present in our lives feeds the delusion that the future happens only to people yet unborn. On the other hand, setting all our desire on Jesus’ coming again blinds us to the presence of Christ in our midst. Thus, we can’t afford to let our either/or world dictate to which alternative we will subscribe. Only by keeping awake to the presence of Christ in our lives today will we be able to keep alert for the coming of Christ tomorrow.

When we come to the altar in a few minutes, we will share that presence of Christ in our midst. We will be nourished in the breaking of the bread and strengthened to go out and enrich the lives of all we meet. We will be given the opportunity to let our haste and distraction and busy work fall away, and for one shimmering moment, we will remember that the grace of God weaves our lives together. And as the body and blood of Christ fills us, the master of our internal houses will wake us up and set us by the door to watch for his coming again.

Okay, I promised that I would explain why the phrase “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a funny one. Well, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” So, when we chant that hauntingly beautiful melody, we are saying: “O come someone who is already here.” No matter how nonsensical our either/or world says this line of reasoning is, we still pray for “God with us” to come to us. By asking us to believe that Christ will come again even as Christ abides here, God invites us to join God in a moment of sweeping both/and reality. During the season of Advent, we cultivate the hope for this expansive existence. At the same time, God jostles our faith to make sure both our presents and our futures are full of the love of God. Keep alert for the coming of Emmanuel. And keep awake for the joy of God with us.