A Foretaste of Glory

spring

 

 

Earlier this week I wrote the pastoral letter for the newsletter, I know you haven’t seen it yet, but I wrote it in the midst of that lovely, unseasonably warm weather we were having. It was as if we were being given a glimpse of what’s to come, and sometimes we really need that glimpse, that promise, so we have something to hold onto when things get hard again. We all knew that the unseasonably warm weather wasn’t going to last. I have friends in warmer climes who were posting pictures of cherry trees in bloom, others sharing pictures from beachside vacations, but even if we had this moment of glory, we all knew that we had several more weeks of cold, of mud, of rain, not even the glittering, crystalline images of winter, but the muddy inbetween of not quite spring.

 

So as I began to struggle with this scripture and how it relates to us, to our time, to current events and how it might be calling us out, or offering reassurance when we most desperately need it, all of this came to mind. The disciples had only recently named Jesus as the messiah, to which he had responded, “you know, that means I’m going to die. Horribly.” Peter immediately said, no! it can’t be! Jesus rebukes him, ‘get behind me Satan.” A little harsh I think, but it did get the point across. Don’t tempt me. If you follow the story you know that Satan has already tempted Jesus with the whole, “be a winner! Make Jerusalem great again!” motif. You can be the next King David! You can have hundreds of wives, dance in the streets, never lose a battle. You can be a winner! Jesus denies him. And when Peter wants to offer the same, ‘but you can’t die, you’re a winner! You’re going to save us all! Restore the kingdom, make everything great again!” narrative, Jesus denies him too.

 

Poor Peter, it must have been so confusing! Jesus was, by all accounts, really charismatic and powerful, clearly a healer, certainly a leader, wiser than anyone who tries to trip him up, but then he says, “well, you know I’m going to die, like a criminal, totally abject, painful, shameful death.” Of course Peter and the other disciples, let’s not pick on Peter alone, were astonished at this statement. It was unbelievable.

 

So Jesus invites them on a hike. Just take a walk with me up this mountain. That should have been a warning sign, I suppose. Mountain tops have a reputation in Hebrew scripture; God seems to hang out there often. Perhaps the disciples should have had some awareness of what was to come, but who really is ready for dead men, missing men, or God to appear? Who is ready to see their beloved friend transform into someone glowing and holy?

 

Now this is one of those scriptures that people want to see as both metaphorical and historically true. We want to see Moses and Elijah showing up as metaphorical symbols of the law and the prophets brought together in Jesus Christ, as the living, Elijah never did die, he was taken to heaven in a flying chariot, and the dead, Moses died and was buried, brought together in Christ. And we want to believe that Jesus was literally transformed, glowing and bright, before the disciples in actual fact. That he ends this episode by telling them to “tell no one” as he often does, doesn’t make it easier for us to discern how much of what we hear and see in this scripture is actual or metaphorical. It is one of those texts that asks us, do you want the facts, or the truth? And we are reminded that the truth of God with us is larger and more fantastic than any literal story could ever contain. God with us, God of God, Very God, is just too amazing to understand. “No one can look upon God and live” but…here we see God, God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the overshadowing cloud, God in the thundering voice. God is present and we and the disciples, live to tell the tale.

 

God, however, is always present, is always showing up in small and fleeting ways. We are called not only to see God when God manifests in glory, rippling, radiant robes, and shining face, but in all the small and passing ways. The worshipful song of a bird, lost in the trees overhead, the glistening ice coating the tree limbs stretched high above the plains, the dancing electric lines on the telephone poles, whipping back and forth, up and down, God is all around us and so often we miss it. We miss those subtle appearances but this one time, taking the disciples up the mountain God decides to make a big showing up, a great showing forth. And the disciples are appropriately stunned. They want to set up house and stay there, far away from the maddening crowd, from the sick and the needy, but God takes them back down the hill. God insists there be no setting up of permanent shelters, but sends them back into the fray.

 

God who loves us more than life itself, who gave up life, liberty all of that, for us, that we might live free, full and abundant lives, tells us we cannot stay on the mountain. Oh, we might need to see the mountain, to see the glory of God made large and manifest, because we are so very slow at seeing it in the light shining from the newborn baby calf’s eye, the glittering ice covering our electric lines, the wind whipping through the plains, the delicate destruction of moss or fungi recycling crude fixtures once again. Because we resist seeing God in the midst of all these natural processes and want to see God only in the glory of the moment, all shining and bright, full of glittering gold and power, but God, very God, comes to us in the fallen, the weak, the vulnerable, in the unfortunate and the untimely and it takes practice to see that. It’s not that we can’t, we can and we do, but it takes practice and faith to stop and see God there. Some part of us longs to see God triumphant, conquering, forcing God’s will, shape and form on the world! Ta-da! But God, very God, as we meet in Jesus, resists this temptation and insists on a more vulnerable, tender, and loving way. God, very God, refuses to force God’s self upon us or upon anyone or anything. And God triumphant, leading a chain of the conquered behind him as any conqueror would have done in ancient Roman times, simply refuses to show up.

 

God is not interested in conquering anyone or anything. God who might shine like love incarnate, more powerful and tender than we can begin to imagine, refuses to be the conquering hero. This moment, on the mountain, with God’s very glory exposed, is a tender moment, shattered by the crude and misunderstanding statements of one who just doesn’t get it, just like we fail to get it so often.

 

The glory of God shines all around us, tender and full of the most mighty transcendent power, and all too often we fail to get it, because we are looking for something else, someone else, that mighty conquering hero God who will put to shame all who have ever hurt us, and God sees the offer, and refuses it. God sees our invitation to be the conquering hero, to be the triumphant ruler, and refuses it. Yes, God can shine in glory and power. Yes, God is powerful and omniscient beyond our ability to understand, and no God does not use who and what God is over and against us but always for us and even those who have hurt us, who we see as our enemies.

 

Over the next few weeks as we make that walk towards Golgotha, Christ reminds us that there is more coming. That no matter how dark the valley we are walking through, there is another side. God shows up in so many ways to remind us that no matter how dark or difficult the times may be, there is a bright future ahead, a time of glory. We have this resurrection faith that insists that not even death will have the final word. God tells us that God is here in all the small things, in all of the small graces, seeping into our lives like sea water into the sand, firming everything up. Our invitation is find all those places where God is seeping into our lives, holding us together with love and kindness. May it be so.

Perfection and Other Lofty Goals

story-to-tell

So, part way through my sermon I almost tripped off the edge of the chancel, and that is why there is a quick outburst of laughter in the middle.

 

 

Arriving at the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount we are left with a new way of being in the world. One which gives preference to peace and reconciliation even before seeking God’s favor, even before seeking to reconcile with God, reconcile with your neighbor, with your sibling, with the stranger among us. The law, especially as we find it in Leviticus, focuses a great deal on one’s personal cleanliness, one’s personal righteousness, but Jesus redirects us to the communal nature of the law. He says the law and even our faith exists for the other.

 

The dilema that a Jew of Jesus’ time might have struggled with would have been how can I help the other, the poor, the downtrodden, the unclean if I am to remain clean, pure, and holy? How can I lift up the stranger, beaten and left in a ditch, if I am to remain clean and holy and touching him, interacting with him, would contaminate me, make me unclean. Again and again we hear Jesus confront the Pharisees, these good, godly, church-going people like us, as he tells them that their personal salvation involves losing their ritual cleanliness and purity for the other. Again and again he transgresses the purity laws to reach out to the most despised, the most lost, the unclean, the unholy, the forgotten, the dismissed.

 

If the pharisees of his day valued personal righteousness and purity over charity to others, what are our idols? We get to ask ourselves is, if the Pharisees of that day were so concerned with their ritual cleanliness that they struggled to reach out to the least of these, what keeps us from doing it?

 

Those good religious people in Jesus’ audience might have expected him to instruct them on how to be better at following and maintaining the law, at adhereing to what already was. Just be better, work harder, you can do it! but Jesus flips everything once again, be pure? No, be kind and meek, be righteous? Better to be a peacemake and seek reconciliation with those who have wronged you. Forgo any righteous attempt at retaliation or vengeance, Jesus tells us, instead reconcile.

 

In 2008 Julio Diaz showed us what this looks like. Julio was a 31 year old social worker living in New York city and he had a pretty simple daily routine. On his way home he would get off the subway one stop early and go to his favorite diner to eat dinner. But one night in April of that year his routine was disrupted by an angry young man with a knife who approached him as he got off the subway and demanded his wallet.

 

Now, in our storybook world of what is right and wrong, this is the place where a superhero should have shown up, knocked that kid on his backside and righted that wrong. An eye for an eye, right? Justice, right? But that’s not what happened.

 

As this youth was walking away Julio was struck by how small and fragile he looked, one young teenage boy against the world and he called out to him, “Hey, if you’re going to be out robbing people all night, you ought to take my coat too. It’s going to get cold tonight.” And the boy turned surprised. “I wasn’t going to do anything tonight anyway,” Julio explains, “just going to get dinner at the diner and head home. You can join me if you want.”

 

Warily the teenager decides to join him and they eat at Julio’s favorite diner. This youth watches as Julio greets everyone by name, as he chats with the server, says hello to the dishwasher. “You know everyone here. Do you own this place?” he asks.

 

“No,” Julio responds, “It’s just my favorite diner. I come here all the time.”

 

“But you’re nice to everyone, even the dishwasher.” Puzzled, intrigued, he just had to ask.

 

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to be nice to everyone?” Julio returns.

“Yes, but I didn’t think anyone really lived like that.” The youth says and the story of his anger, his pain, his hopelessness begins to unfold.

 

Julio looked beyond the outrageous behavior of this young man and saw a brother, a neighbor, a hurting child. His response is not a trick, not a manipulation. No one is more wary of being sold a false bill of goods that our younger generation. We promise them a loving, gracious, Christ centered community and they notice when we fail to live up to it. Their pain is prophetic. It calls us to return every time we slip up, every time we move away from the path Jesus has laid out for us.

 

We have been called to be the light of the world, to join Julio in taking risks and reaching out to those acting out in pain, grief, and frustration. Blessed are the peacemakers, if you even think ill of another you are liable to the punishment, do not resist evil but respond with love and grace.

 

Jesus calls us to a different paradigm, one where we love one another so much we commit to holding the tension between difficult choices. One where we commit to both/and solutions and refuse to give up or force our solution on others. We are called to refuse any invitation to belittle others or demonize them, to see in them the image of God especially when we don’t understand.

 

When we hold these two scriptures in tension this morning we avoid the desire to push an agenda. The Leviticus scripture seems to speak so eloquently to our day and the issues we are facing, but when we hold it in tension with the semon on the mount we know we are called to deeper dialogue than, “I’m right, you’re wrong, scripture says so.” We are called to listen deeply to those we disagree with until we can hear and understand the issues that are driving their choices, we must listen with our hearts. We must listen with our hearts to every cry of anger and frustration until we can hear every fear, grief, loss, or cry of despair that lies underneath it. and we must seek to reconcile over and over again, and impossible number of times, promising to those we love and to those we don’t even understand, that we won’t abandon them or dismiss them, that they matter and we will continue to seek to understand.

 

Julio could have fought that youth. We would have applauded his bravery. He could have called the police and had him arrested. We would applaude his holding the young man accountable. He could have organized a neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for such young men and we would applaud his community service, but he didn’t. He opened his heart to him, saw him with compassion and gentleness as if it were his little brother making bad choices and he called out to him. Julio never says it was his faith that caused him to offer his jacket to this boy, but we know he is Christian by his love—isn’t that what we are trying to accomplish? That the whole world would know we are Christian because we walk the path of Jesus Christ.

 

This weekend at Presbytery we all listened as a woman spoke about a new component to their church life. How it was that this small church heard about migrant farm workers and dairy workers and reached out to them, how the local dairy, who employed so many of these recent immigrants said to them, “You are first in recent memory to reach to our workers.” How it hurt their heart to hear that no one had said to all these people, “You are a child of God,” “You matter!” “We care about you!” and now the entire congregation gathers to learn Spanish, to sing in Spanish, to worship in both English and Spanish as their lives have been enriched and their hearts filled with love for the neighbors they had simply overlooked for years.

 

She shared another story that touched my heart, one I can’t hear without imaginging tears streaming down this man’s face. She said that they had decided to celeberate the Dia de los Muertes, and one young man, a man in his mid -40’s, said through a translator that he had never been able to memorialize his father. He placed his father’s picture on the altar and talked about having been far from home when his father died and that he had no community with which to mourn, to grieve, to honor the gifts his father had given him, the loss he felt. Until now.

 

Who are the invisible and unseen among us? Who are we called to reach out, to uplift, to call to, “Hey, you need a coat, it’s going to get cold.” “Hey you! You can come to our church. You can come and worship with us.” “Your presence would bless us in ways we can only begin to imagine!”

 

We are called to a radical, gracious love that will take us places we never thought we would go, that will enrich our lives beyond anything we can imagine. To be brave and to be bold and to be present. We are called to hold that tension when we have disagreements. To hold it with the promise that I will not abandon you, I will not walk away, I will not silence you, because you matter too much. To hold that tension, creativily and let it work in us and change us and transform us, and take us some place new. May be it be so.