Moses

may our faces shine

When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, she met through a mutual acquaintance another young woman from Istanbul, named Nilgün.  According to Banu, one time early on in their friendship, Nilgün made a comment about me to her.  She apparently said my face has nur.  That’s a Turkish word which means “light,” but it’s light in the sense of celestial or heavenly light.  I don’t have to tell you that was a gross exaggeration—no, a gross misunderstanding!

We do speak of people’s faces as shining, don’t we?  We think of someone’s face lighting up for a certain reason.  On this day, the Transfiguration of the Lord, we consider the appearance of actual nur, the true shining of heavenly light.  And we’ll consider what that means for us.

1 ex and mk
“Moses” by Michelangelo

Notice Michelangelo’s sculpture entitled “Moses.”  Is there anything about it that strikes you as odd?  Could it possibly be you never knew Moses had horns?

There’s a word in Hebrew, קׇרַן (qaran), appearing three times in the Old Testament reading in Exodus.  The word for “shining,” it means to “send out rays.”  However, it can also be translated “to display horns.”  It comes from a word that literally means “horn” ( קֶרֶן, qeren).

For centuries in western Europe, the version of the Bible most people read (at least, those who could read) was a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.  In this version, we have a different picture of Moses after he speaks with God.  Instead of “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone,” it says, “and he did not know that his face was horned” (v. 29).

Instead of Transfiguration, we get something we might expect on Halloween!  So, in his own way, the Italian master is paying his respects to the Moses of today’s scripture.

Horns or not, Moses is the first person in the Bible to be transfigured with the light of God.  This is after his second trip up Mount Sinai.  Remember what happens after his first encounter with God on the mountain—when he receives the Ten Commandments the first time?  There’s the incident with the Golden Calf.  The people get tired of waiting for Moses, and they pressure Aaron into devising some physical symbol of the divine they can see in worship.  Plus, they just want to have a really wild party!  Moses appeals to God to not wipe the people out, and he is summoned back up the mountain.

As we come to today’s reading, Moses is on the way back down the mountain, completely unaware he is literally beaming.  But the looks of terror on the faces of Aaron and the others clue him in that something strange is going on!  How is it that the face of Moses is shining?  The scripture says, “because he had been talking with God” (v. 29).

2 ex and mkEliezer Segal, teacher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, speaks of the Jewish legend which goes into a little more detail.  It says after God finished giving the Torah, “Moses wiped the pen on his forehead, and it was this ethereal ink stain that continued to radiate as he walked among the people.”[1]

He’s speaking of the way Moses gets actively involved in this second trip up the mountain.  Remember, he’s already interceded on behalf of the people.  Now, as opposed to the first time, it’s Moses, not the Lord, who provides the stone tablets and then writes on them.

Segal sees a lesson to be learned here, as he wonders, what is it that can make our faces radiate light?  He speaks of the spiritual energy flowing from the face of Moses and looks for a comparison.  He says it’s “not to be compared to fire, but to electrical power, which can exist only in the form of a current that flows continuously to and from its source.”

The connection is also made to us.  “Religious inspiration must also be a continual dialogue and struggle between the Creator and [we] creatures.  When that current is interrupted, or even if it fails to return to its source, then the energy has no use, and we find ourselves donning our figurative veils.”

In our epistle reading, St. Paul makes a similar connection.  He says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Co 4:3).  It is veiled; the radiance of the gospel doesn’t shine through.  Those traveling the vale of tears who reject the light of life fall stricken by the wayside.

Of course, it’s our gospel reading (Mk 9:2-9) that tells the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  That’s why it’s on the calendar.  And for our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s not only his face, but his entire body radiating with the light of God.

3 ex and mkOn that fateful trip up the mountain, Peter suggests dwellings be built for Jesus, as well as for Moses and Elijah, who also appear with the glory of God.  In effect, Peter wants to hold on to the experience—he wants to trap that light.  He, not surprisingly (because wouldn’t we?), wants to capture the moment.  But the moment is gone.  And as the scripture says, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  He needs to be quiet and listen.  The power and energy of God can’t be treated as something static, like something engraved in stone!  Like love, it increases the more we give it away.

Like Peter, we’re often guilty of trying to trap the light.  How often do we avoid letting our own light shine?  How often do we avoid letting light shine onto the paths of others, so they can see for themselves?  And it’s not like there’s some false choice between living the life and saying the words—they go together.  If letting our light shine is our heart’s desire, the opportunities will arrive.  Actually, we won’t have to wait very long—opportunities abound.

It may be asked why Transfiguration is observed on the last Sunday before Lent.  Right before the Transfiguration story, Jesus has just predicted the passion, the suffering headed right for him.  That is, unless he keeps his mouth shut and stops being such a headache for the powers that be!

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the disciples he “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’” (8:31-33).

The light of Transfiguration helps to illuminate the sometimes dark road of Lent.  And if it’s not exactly dark, Lent is still to be a time of reflection, of renewed repentance and reconsideration.

I think we all know that light is not an entirely benevolent force.  After all, it can cause us to go blind!  That’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life.  My eyes have always been sensitive to light.  Especially when I was a boy—and especially if someone were taking my picture in bright sunlight—it would be no time at all before I would start squinting.  During winter, I’m given a reminder of that when sunshine is reflected off a field of snow.  (I think I would make a great vampire!)

Still, much more than simply not being benevolent, light can be positively destructive.

4 ex and mkAs I said, we celebrate Transfiguration on the final Sunday before Lent.  Traditionally however, it was celebrated on August 6.  Tragically, the 20th century provided August 6 as the anniversary of another kind of light.  It, of course, was the day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one of the most horrific events in human history.  Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn!  (On a bitter side note, the first atomic bomb test was actually nicknamed “Trinity”!)

Let’s return to light as a spiritual reality, not just a physical one.  Just as with the light from the sun, the light from God can also be blinding.  Exhibit A: the veil needed to cover the face of Moses!  Faulty, frail creatures that we are, we can only take so much light at a time.  We often resemble cockroaches, who when exposed to the light, scurry off into dark corners!

We are indeed exposed, uncovered by the light.  Our shadow side is revealed.  Our shadow side isn’t necessarily bad; it’s the stuff about us we suppress and repress.  It’s the stuff about ourselves we find embarrassing; it’s the stuff we want to hide.  But guess what?  Even as painful as it is, God wants to shine the light into those deep canyons.

If we believe what the psalmist says, it’s for our own good that we just go along with it.  Speaking of God, we hear “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12).  We can’t hide from God—we only hide from ourselves.

God is good.  God understands our weakness, and graciously provides a veil until we can handle more light.  God sends a cloud, as with the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration.  God lovingly protects us.

So in the end, we need not fear the light.  We can share in the transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can trust the light that shines on the dark places in our lives—the places we are ashamed of.  We can help others, especially those who have plunged into darkness, to let their own light shine.  We don’t have to hold on to the light; we don’t have to hold on to mountaintop experiences.  Jesus says we are the light of the world.

5 ex and mk

May our faces shine.

 

[1] www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S980222_SunshinyFaces.html


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

1 Dt 34

Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

4 Dt 34

But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

6 Dt 34

I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.


we saw it (heard it) for ourselves

I’m a fan of Star Trek—of all of the TV series and the movies.  But I’m not one of those characters who wear Vulcan ears or try to speak the Klingon language!  One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the one called “Transfigurations.”  (What a coincidence!  Today just happens to be Transfiguration!)

For those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I’ll try to be brief in my description!

1 transfigurationsThe crew of the Enterprise discovers in the wreckage of a ship a seriously wounded alien.  (They’ve never encountered his species.)  It turns out that he has amnesia, so they refer to him as “John Doe.”

“John” makes astonishing progress in recovering from his injuries.  But there’s something else about him.  His body is undergoing transformation at the molecular level; every now and then, he convulses in pain.  Still, one wouldn’t know it by his behavior.  John has a comforting, peaceful presence; it endears him to everyone he meets.  And John has power.  He demonstrates his ability to heal—and even to bring somebody back from the dead!  (Does this sound familiar?)

Slowly, John regains his memory.  When he’s told by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) that they’ve figured out the location of his home world—and plan to return him there, he says that he can’t go back.  But he still doesn’t know why.  He only knows that he was trying to escape from his planet.  He believes that he’s on some kind of mission.

Eventually, we find out what it is.  The Enterprise is stopped by a ship from his home planet, the captain of which demands that John be turned over to him.  The man is furious at John, but more than that, he’s afraid of him.  He claims that John is a fugitive, sentenced to death for subversive activities.  When Picard dares to question this other captain, the Enterprise is hit with a field that paralyzes everyone on board—they can’t even breathe.

John touches a wall and sends a wave of light throughout the ship, healing the entire crew.  In that moment, he attains perfect clarity.  He now knows who he is and why his leaders are terrified of him.  He explains that his species is on the verge of a wondrous transformation.  That’s why he had to flee—to have time to let the process run its course.

And then, before everyone’s eyes, John is transfigured.  His entire body begins to glow with intense light, until he is transformed into a being of energy.  He says there is now nothing anyone can do to prevent him from returning to his people and telling them that they, too, can embrace the transformation.  No one can stop him from letting them know that they, too, can be transfigured.

The story of this transfiguration is a fictional one.  (By the way, I think the plural title “Transfigurations” speaks to how all those witnessing John’s transformation are also changed.)

There is, of course, another transfiguration which is mentioned in St. Peter’s Second Letter.

A quick note on that: this letter was written after Peter’s death.  There’s a reference in chapter 3 to the letters of Paul, which are now being gathered together and beginning to have the authority of scripture.  The deaths of Peter and Paul were pretty close together in time.  There’s no attempt by the author to trick anyone.  Writing in the name of someone else was a common practice in those days.  It was a way to honor revered teachers, to speak in their voice.

2 transfiguration

Now, back to the transfiguration of Jesus.  As we see in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain (17:1-9).  And then, before their eyes, he begins to shine like the sun; he radiates with the glory of God.  He is joined by the epic figures of the Old Testament: Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the prophet among prophets.

Second Peter is addressed to an audience which is plagued by disbelief and mistrust.  The years are going by, and the Lord hasn’t returned.  Prophecies and predictions are spreading around.  People are gathering followers and saying, “Listen to me!  God has let me in on the secret.”  We might even say they’re promoting conspiracy theories.

Isn’t it great that we don’t have to deal with that foolishness today?  Hold that thought!

Our author says, “Ignore those false prophets, those silver-tongued, slippery devils.”  Instead, he says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16).

I like how the Revised English Bible puts it.  “It was not on tales, however cleverly concocted, that we relied…”  It wasn’t even on tales as cleverly concocted as Star Trek!  Another version says “any sophisticated myths.”[1]

Maybe that’s ironic, since we might consider ourselves today too sophisticated to believe such a ridiculous story.

The late Dwight Peterson, who taught at Eastern University, deals with what we just saw, our writer’s concern to establish the reality of the apostles’ experience and to not simply dismiss it as fantasy.

He says, “His appeal to the Transfiguration is an attempt to root the eschatological expectations of the church in the eyewitness (and ear-witness) experience of those who were present at the Transfiguration.  They saw Jesus ‘receive honor and glory from God’ that day, and they heard the authoritative voice from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.’”[2]  They saw the majesty with their own eyes, and they heard the voice with their own ears.

This letter is presented as Peter’s last will and testament.  Right before today’s reading, we see in verses 13 to 15: “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”

There’s an effort to reassure the church that even when Peter is dead and gone, his message will continue as a firm foundation.

3 alternative facts

The false prophets are presenting a competing version of reality.  To refer to them as “false prophets” and “false teachers,” as he does at the beginning of chapter 2, is definitely putting a negative spin on things!  This is a picture our author (or artist) paints of people who are, not simply mistaken, but have an intent to deceive.  I’m not sure all of them have such motives, but nowadays we have become familiar with the term “alternative facts.”  It’s kind of like the movie The Matrix (1999), in which the human race is dealing with parallel realities, and the truth depends on whether or not you’re aware of the other reality.

Fortunately for the early church, they aren’t held hostage to alternative facts.  Second Peter exposes the alternative gospel that is being disseminated.  The writer bases his argument on “the prophetic message” (v. 19).  Another version says, “All this confirms for us the message of the prophets,” that is, the true prophets, adding, “to which you will do well to attend” (REB).

He wants them to pay attention; it will serve them well.  It will serve as “a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19).  Hold on to this reality; hold on to this gospel “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”—“until day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds” (REB).

The glory of transfiguration shines into our sophisticated, sarcastic, and jaded darkness.  The temptation to be cynical these days might possibly be the greatest any of us have experienced.  For those, while yawning, say they’ve seen it all—maybe for us, if we say the same thing—that light of transfiguration, the radiance of the morning star, will glow ever more brightly and show us the new thing that God is doing.  That is, it will happen if we throw open the shutters.  That revelation cannot be denied.

Like the story in Star Trek with the transfiguration of John Doe, it happens before everyone’s eyes, including the frightened captain who would have him killed.

That prophetic message is true, because it isn’t based on “human will, but [on] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God” (v. 21).

4 transfiguration

We are on the doorstep of Lent, a time of reflection, repentance, and even lament.  Too often, our eyes are closed.  We turn away from the light.  What transfiguration needs to happen in our lives?  Or perhaps better, to what transfiguration do we need to bear witness?  To what do we need to testify?  There are those who would convince us of alternative facts, false prophecy, a fake gospel, fake good news.

The good news for us is that we can say, “We saw it for ourselves.  We heard it for ourselves.”  We have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

 

[1] Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 156.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=28


bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

1-billboard

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?

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In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.

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The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!

 

[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.

[7] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3313


imagination and love

I want to begin with some quick stories about my own calling, about vocation.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com
Two of them go back to when I was in the Assemblies of God.  The first one involves my pastor.  He told me one time that if I could possibly avoid becoming a pastor, then I shouldn’t do it.  I thought to myself that’s some easy advice to take!  I had absolutely no intention of doing his job.  The idea of pastoral ministry was not at all appealing to me.

I still felt the same way when I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college.  I just wanted to study the Bible and learn some theology.  My second story comes from a conversation I had at that school.

One of my professors had an autistic son.  (By the way, it was his class on Jeremiah that helped sparked my love of the prophet!)  He contacted the denominational headquarters to see if they had something along the lines of Sunday school lessons or any material he could use with his son.  When they responded “no” to him, he took it pretty hard.

Now, he had graduated from the Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta.  His advice to me was that, if I ever sought ordination, I should do so with the Presbyterian Church.  Again, that was easy advice to take and reject, because I still didn’t give a fig about being a pastor.

The third story comes from when I was at seminary in Philadelphia.  Again, I still was not interested in being a pastor!  I was in a two-year program, the Master of Arts with an emphasis on Faith and Public Policy.  I liked the idea of a combination of spirituality and politics.  As the time for graduation approached, no doors for opportunity were open.  I was feeling a bit depressed.

One night, Banu and I were going to have dinner with some friends of hers.  On the way, I was telling her my sob story.  She suggested that I go into the Master of Divinity program, which is the one for pastors.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Of course I had always wanted to be a pastor; I just didn’t want to admit it!

For someone who claimed that he was not at all interested in pastoral ministry, I was certainly taking deliberate steps in that direction.  God has a wonderful sense of humor.

If it seems that I resisted my calling, it’s nothing compared to what we see with Jeremiah.  He has been appointed a prophet, not only to his own people, but also “to the nations.”  The Lord tells him that this has been the plan since before he was even born (v. 5).

How does Jeremiah react?  Is he jumping for joy?  Does he say, “Sign me up!”?  Not exactly.  “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  We’re reminded of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses tries to explain to God that he isn’t the right guy for the job, and he even provides a laundry list of excuses to make his case! (Ex 3-4).  Surprisingly, God isn’t convinced.

Still, the sense of inability—the feeling that we’ll just screw it up—when asked to do something for God can actually be a good thing.  Bruce Epperly says that, in the Bible, “one mark of an authentic prophet is a protest of inadequacy when she or he is called to speak [on] behalf of God.  People don’t run for prophetic leadership as they do for public office; they are called, often against their will, to speak on God’s behalf in challenging situations.”[1]

That sense of inability, of failure, might be a pretty good sign of “faithfulness and spiritual well-being.”  Author Madeleine L’Engle when asked, “‘Do you believe in God without any doubts?’ [is quoted as replying], ‘I believe in God with all of my doubts.’”[2]

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian hammer is about to fall on Judah.  People are nervous.  And at the same time, corruption and idolatry are everywhere.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing injustice—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s brutal honesty about his calling and ministry.  In verse 8, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says to him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.  I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you” (vv. 7b-8).  I’ll be your teleprompter; stick to the script.

Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

image from mshowalter.files.wordpress.com

I think that hearing about Jeremiah and his struggles opens the door to questions we don’t often entertain.  What have been our own conflicts, our own struggles, in God’s call on our lives?  Have we been able to put it into words?  Do we understand what it means to be called?

Going back to what I said earlier about calling: at the most basic level, we are called to hear the word of God, however it comes to us, and to respond.  That response must be in love and clothed in prayer.  Jeremiah loves his people.  That’s one reason why it is so agonizing for him to say what he does.

Think of how different it is among us today.  Binyamin Lau speaks of this when he says that true prophets must indeed “love [their] people.  Even when the harshest reproach is called for, [prophets] must consider [themselves divine emissaries] whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn.”[3]  (Not to stay at a safe distance and lob hand grenades!)

He goes on with something I think we all see.  “Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.  Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.”  I fear that I find myself too often playing that role.

Too often, I find myself lacking in imagination and love.  And what a good segue to my title!

In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there are questions posed to those being ordained and installed (W-4.4003).  This goes for ruling elders, deacons, or teaching elders (also known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament).  Among the questions are trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior, receiving the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and promising to abide by our church’s polity.  My title points to the final one: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Will we pray for and seek to serve the people with energy—with desire and passion, and not in a lackluster way?

…with intelligence—with our best thinking, and not just going with the flow?  And then those last two:

…with imagination—with our creativity, and not being afraid to dream?

…with love—which sums everything up, everything that is good and faithful and, indeed, holy?

Will we serve lovingly as a privilege, and not grudgingly as a burden?  (Although to be honest, at times “lovingly” might not be foremost in our minds!)

As I suggested earlier, all of us are called, whether or not we’ve been ordained to a position within the church.  In the life of faith, each one of us is called by God.

Again, there’s some good stuff in our Book of Order on this.  “[We] respond to God’s call to honor and serve God in every aspect of human life…  God hallows daily life, and daily life provides opportunity for holy living.  As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.  For Christians, work and worship cannot be separated.” (W-5.6002-3)

As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.

Bruce Prewer tells the story of a woman who cleaned city offices in downtown Melbourne.[4]  She worked long nights, with her shift ending at 7am.  She would be bone tired, exhausted, as she headed down the busy street to catch her train home.

“Although weary, she walked with a perky step, for she was one of those special people who believed she was called to [be] Christ’s cleaner in those offices where she spent the long hours of night.

“She knew herself as called by Jesus and she hoped she had done him proud.  As she encountered hordes of people [pouring out] from the station to start work, many of them impatient, sour and grumbling, she held her head high with a dignity only the God of Jesus Christ could bestow.  She cherished her vocation.”

This is a woman who knew she was called, and she answered her call with imagination and love.

We here in this congregation are called by God, and we have the opportunity and privilege to respond with imagination and love.  Especially in this interim time, there is the chance to dream of untapped potential.  We can ask, “Why do we do this?  Do we still need to do this?  Is there another way to do this?  Is there a better way to serve that holy spirit of imagination and love?” image from thecostaricanews.com

Sometimes we might get impatient.  We get impatient with this business of proceeding with a deliberate and intentional process.  We might not see the wisdom in it.  We might think it’s useless.  “What are we waiting for?  Let’s get on with finding our new pastor!”

Would it surprise you to realize we’re more like Jeremiah than we think?  We can chafe and grumble about our call.  Of course, the comparison with Jeremiah might be overstated a bit.  God probably doesn’t need to say, “I am with you to deliver you.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you.”

Having said that, whether it’s impatience with the interim process as a congregation or our own individual calls, God is there.  Whether it’s our call as a community to move ahead in faith—or our very real concerns about reaching out to that certain person, about gut-wrenching decisions on health or employment, about knowing that there’s something we really don’t want to do—God is still there, looking after us.

As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to destroy and to overthrow whatever hold those dark forces have on our faith.  As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to build and to plant whatever makes for imagination and love.

 

[1] Bruce Epperly, “Living the Word,” Christian Century 127:2 (26 January 2010):  20.

[2] Epperly, 20.

[3] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 6.

[4] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C50sun21.htm


Jeremiah, larger than life

During his lifetime, the prophet Jeremiah achieved very little that a cold-eyed observer could legitimately call “success.” In a way, God is already preparing him for a life of “failure” while still a youth. Regarding the people he’s being sent to, God warns, “They will fight against you” (1:19).

And fight, they do. The prophet is denounced, ridiculed, slandered, arrested, beaten, and basically abused in a number of ways. Not many people at all listen to him. Later in his life, he and his friend Baruch are kidnapped and taken to Egypt by a group hoping to flee the wrath of the Babylonians.

So Jeremiah lives a life without much success, objectively speaking—and then he dies!

But if people don’t listen to him during his own lifetime, they really begin to in the centuries after. He gains almost legendary status. In 2 Maccabees, he’s credited with nothing less than saving some of the most holy artifacts, including the ark of the covenant itself. It is said he climbs up Mount Nebo, (where Moses gets his look at the promised land) and hides the ark in a cave. And just as with the final resting place of the lawgiver himself (Dt 34:6), no one knows where Jeremiah stashes it.

That’s not the only tale told about him. Jeremiah is included in other fantastic stories. And speaking of fantastic stories…our next Bible study will be on the book of Revelation. We’ll be using Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code to help us along.