Repentance for Tragedy?

sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent (Luke13:1-9; Isaiah55:1-9; 1Corinthians10:1-13)
Among great philosophers, the ancient Greek Heraclitus said the only thing constant is change, while modern day mind Dan McGown reminds us that the only certainties are death and taxes.
With that, we’d have to expand the list to note that tragedies also seem all too regular and catastrophes much too common. The exact crises and numbers of victims may vary, but we’re never far removed from some sort of disaster. Unfortunately, it’s always been that way and likely will remain ever thus.

So also, today Jesus is discussing current events, two topics that would’ve been at the top of newspaper headlines or trending on Twitter in his day, though by all accounts, these persecutions and accidents are small potatoes. Other than this passage in Luke, there’s no record of these people killed by Pilate nor even of where the tower of Siloam was, much less the calamity of it collapsing. One is human-perpetrated evil, violence from a brutal despot. The other natural evil, an unintentional mishap, nevertheless causing devastating destruction.

By the fact that Jesus needed to address them, we might suspect these events were evidently a big deal at the moment, but soon faded from memory, supplanted by another horror, some new tragedy in the endless funeral procession. As I was reading past commentaries on these lectionary texts, looking back over three year increments the calamity du jour had been bombings in Madrid and federal government budget sequestration and an earthquake in Haiti and another in Chile and terrorist attacks and an immigration border conflict and after the “Titanic” movie won Academy Awards, which is a twist for not letting the wreckage disappear but resurfacing it for other purposes. Some of these moments you may recall, others are recessed farther back in memory.

I could similarly ask for three examples: what has been the worst news this week? In spite of still being able to name problems, we may say it’s a relief that today we don’t have to address the pressure of the hugest and hardest enduring questions confronting us with shorthand titles like “Paris” or “9/11” or “Katrina” or “Bangladesh” or “Exxon Valdez” or “Hiroshima” or any other days of infamy (a phrase itself that inescapably makes us continue to tremble from Pearl Harbor).

Large scale and small, passing or persistent, we’re continually prompted toward theological conundrum: Does God cause these events to happen? Are they punishment? Is God randomly cruel? Is God inattentive to suffering or impotent to repair it, or actually nonexistent? In official terminology of trying to discern issues of God, evil, and suffering, it’s the question of theodicy. Less officially phrased in protest, it’s “C’mon, God! What gives?!”
As we engage this topic, we might first do well to note that the deaths Jesus is talking about are remote. He isn’t dealing with the families of the victims or those who have been terrorized and traumatized by bloodshed and abuse. The question is more detached and speculative.

Yet we might also note that such distance has become more difficult for us. The pace of tragedy is increased by our 24-second news cycle that so continuously leads with what bleeds and updates us uninterruptedly with the latest shooting or senseless oppression or tower collapsing. The distance is decreased, as threats on the other side of the globe make us worry. Plus that somehow either is used to or unintentionally manages to keep us immobilized in fear. We stress at airports and for food supplies and in schools and over viruses and we attempt to barricade ourselves inside locked houses and big vehicles and with castle laws and even by conversing with those of like mind. This means we don’t do as well at assessing our fears and the problems and crises around us. All of it hits too close to home, so we aren’t able to remove ourselves to ask the larger questions. Even the answers of faith, instead of a firm foundation, become doses of a fleeting antidote, tiny disclaimers of responsibility rather than reservoirs of relief.

We would be well-served by more speculative examination. I always say that at a funeral or in a hospital room is the wrong time to try changing somebody’s theology. We need to be working on this and asking the hard questions so that we’re ready and well-prepared for when we need it, not as we’re grasping at the edge and gasping for breaths in the midst of trauma.

A starting point is exemplified in a phrase from 1st Corinthians, about past deaths being for our sake. Paul recounts stories of Exodus and Deuteronomy about those who died in the wilderness. He writes, “these occurred as examples for us.” This perhaps parallels the concept “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet we need to use it cautiously. If a past event may be employed to make things better for us, we are using it well. But we should not and cannot say that the crimes and disasters of history were caused for our sake, as mere learning opportunities. To say from the Holocaust “never again” is a lesson we must continue striving after not just in genocides but in our broad patterns of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred. But to claim that any death any suffering is worth it in order for us to know better or try harder is more than we ought to claim.

There’s another problematic phrase in this 1st Corinthians reading. (For how full of grace Paul can be, this reading instead seems densely packed in obscuring good news.) Besides the stuff on making examples and whether former difficulties were for your benefit, another questionable concept comes in a phrase that gets used at all the wrong times and becomes itself abusive. Though it tends to be offered with kind intentions, I’d almost like to eliminate this idea from our theological grab bag. The phrase is that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength,” with a corrupted paraphrase as “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

First of all with this, we should clarify that nowhere in Paul’s understanding do the temptations come from God. It is not God who is putting you to the test or trying to see how much you can endure. It’s a despicable direction to say that you just need to put up with it because God won’t give you more than you can bear, so whatever you’re suffering must not be yet to your threshold. That leaves God as the bad guy and is essentially a message for you to buck up.

That distinction may not prove to be much resolution in the face of oppression or natural disasters, but it is critical amid crisis to be ready to declare that God is not causing those harms, or arbitrarily inflicting hardship on you. Instead, as Paul uses this concept, it is we who are testing or tempting ourselves. We are liable to lead ourselves astray and forget about or turn away from the good news of Jesus we share in community. That direction of turning is fundamental to this season of Lent, when we again focus specially on gathering together and being renewed by baptismal blessing from the God who promises to care for us. We re-turn to God.

This also at last returns us to our Gospel reading, which could have a difficult or misleading notion with Jesus talking about repentance. Again, it’s a critical trajectory to trace. Some of Jesus’ neighbors were killed by the vindictive Pontius Pilate. Did God cause it or allow it because they were worse sinners? Our hopeful answer is resoundingly reinforced by Jesus: By no means! How about those smushed when the tower toppled? Was it because they were worse offenders? No, I tell you! Are some lives worth less, because of location or religion or morality? No. Because of gender or age or how much or little good they accomplish? No. Because of some indeterminate quality, an attribute known only to and judged solely by a hidden God, and of which we nevertheless need to be extraordinarily cautious lest we too perish?

Here, for our typical understanding, is where the rub lies. Jesus says, “repent, or you’ll perish like them.” Having been assured that God is not vengeful, capricious, or malicious—much less simply careless—these words cannot stand as threat. Since God is not testing you and since the misfortune of others cannot stand as a warning of divine displeasure, the issue of repentance is not a question of shaping up or reforming your status as a bad sinner or worse offender.

The better solution is to notice what Jesus means when he invites you to repent. Contrary to a sense that repentance is acknowledging how shameful or miserable you are and just how awful your existence must be and turning from the error of your ways, this repentance is turning toward a gracious and loving God who invites you to abundantly shared life. Even in the worst moments, you have hope.

The repentance here is precisely turning away from the distorted image of a God who is out to get you, who is lurking with punishments, standing in the way of your wellbeing. That is the worst of oppressive inventions and the opposite of who God strives to be in your life and for the life of this world. This is not a God who surprises you by dropping towers on you but who surprises you with love, constantly and unconditionally. This is a God of patience. Like when a fig tree refuses to bear fruit and is unable to bring about any good, God is a gardener begging for more time, getting God’s fingers dirty to dump manure around you. This God is like Ann Ward walking into the office in the middle of a cold winter afternoon with a bag of bright green flavorful spinach from the hoop house, bringing good from unexpected places.

“My ways are not your ways,” God proclaims in our 1st reading, “my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” When we expect retribution, God in Christ is ready rather with abundant forgiveness, and continues begging your pardon, with hope for the despairing, who won’t abandon you in the time of trial, won’t give up on you even when you’ve given up.

Repentance isn’t earning that from God, but turning to see God is already and always there

 

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Chicken Citizens of Heaven

sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent
(Philippians3:17-4:1; Luke13:31-35; Genesis15:1-12,17-18)

For three of the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, I had to do tasks like learning about types of government and organizations like Unicef and Amnesty International, reading the Constitution and a newspaper, examining how security, climate, and economy affect current events, reading historic speeches and writing to elected officials, discussing the importance of taxes and volunteering for a charity, attending a school board meeting or court session and multicultural events celebrating various heritages. These were aspects, then, of Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World.

That’s a good list, and we might go far to continue engaging such practices. However, besides community, nation, and world, today we have an additional “citizenship” in front of us: the reading from Philippians declared that we share Citizenship in Heaven. It’s a great phrase that Paul uses, and beneficial for us to spend some time examining and pondering what it means and—in the words of the Scout merit badges—“what it takes, the rights, duties, and obligations of a responsible and active good citizen.”

Perhaps one of the first important things to note is that your citizenship in heaven is not about location exclusively. Just as you simultaneously serve as a citizen of the community, nation, and world, your citizenship in heaven is also an overlapping category. That’s worth saying to counter a belief that would claim faith is mainly about going someplace else. When that becomes the case, then how you live here doesn’t really matter, much less what happens to others. Why bother to care for the earth if you’re destined to fly away to heaven?

So if this being a citizen of heaven isn’t about ending up elsewhere, not just for after you die, but is about engaging life here and now, rather than location maybe we think about it in terms of loyalty or values or practice. Along those lines, we might well say that heavenly citizenship is exactly what leads our children to be guiding us with “change for change” and concern for water resources around here, and in Michigan, and internationally. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

That also highlights another factor. If heaven were mostly about where you went when you died, then that’s a fairly inactive enterprise. If it’s about later, for the time being, you can just passively wait for it to happen. Perhaps it’s possible to be uninvolved, a citizen without laboring at it; indeed from voter turnouts and factual awareness of issues and time spent working on our democracy, we know there is all too much apathy and lack of involvement for our more typical types of citizenship.

Yet this citizenship of heaven as Paul envisions it is entirely active and engaged. It’s not just for later but for now, and it makes a difference for your life. In fact, this is so dynamically involved that it’s got the “energy of dynamite.” That is the actual Greek phrase in our text; our words energy and dynamite come from these words that are more blandly translated in our version as “power that enables.” Sure, that’s already saying something pretty great, that Jesus is enabling your citizenship, that he activates your capabilities and triggers your powers. But it conveys the whole experience for us so much more dramatically with those explosive original words: Jesus is changing you to be an active heavenly citizen. To live into this role, he’s not just recommending concern or repeating obligations. No, he is filling you with the energy of dynamite. Wow!

You might wonder just how thunderously grand or motivationally invigorating this could be, though, if in our first reading Abraham was brought into his role of citizenship by sleeping through it. Well, we’ll explain some of that with the peculiarities and mysteries of faith, with the paradox of Jesus.

But it doesn’t need to be a category unto itself. If you consider yourself a citizen of Madison, you have to trust a sign that would tell you you’re crossing into Middleton. You’d trust flags hanging around to convey that you are in your nation of the United States. You may consider yourself an engaged citizen of this world though you haven’t tasted the water of Flint or traveled to villages receiving wells or maybe even know the source that delivers to your own tap.

So it was with Abraham. Even asleep he came into his role as a heavenly citizen because of trust. In language that resonates throughout scripture but nevertheless may sound antiquated in our ears, he reckoned it was right. There wasn’t proof. In fact, just the opposite: he was asking about an heir, about having a child. God promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars overhead and the sands of the beach. But no proof. Not even a downpayment or head start on that solution. Even if they’d had ultrasounds, Sarah wouldn’t’ve had anything to show. All they could do was trust, even in spite of the evidence. They reckoned it was right.

This is, perhaps, among the difficult things about this heavenly citizenship, that it is somehow not dependent on the statistical quantifications or factual evaluations to which we’re accustomed. It turns out—just the reverse—that this is more usually found under the sign of its opposite. We may glimpse some of that with Abraham, that his deliberation and acceptance came while he was unconscious and unaware, and that Sarah encountered this serious matter with a laugh which she came to embody and birth. We could see it in this declaration of a mighty and multitudinous nation which was for generations unpopulated, in slavery, and without a homeland.

Yet, as always, the center of this faithful understanding comes to us in Jesus. The energy of dynamite that is unleashing transformative change on our world is embodied in Jesus whose way of life is so much about dying. It’s even striking in the imagery he uses for us today, of fox and hen. A couple weeks ago a red fox had trotted through the parking lot here and I posted on Facebook, excited about it, thinking how it had habitat in our prairie. But Emily Wixson was quick to reply in concern for our chickens. We know in a fight who is going to win. Yet in contrast with typical images of control and power and what it takes to be in charge, Jesus picks the wrong part. He claims to be a chicken.

And he calls King Herod a fox. Now, the first impression would be that the fox is going to kill the chicken, that if there’s a competition between them, between this political ruler and Jesus, that Jesus is going to lose every time. And, indeed, we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen: Jesus is going to die at the hands of the authorities.

Yet there’s also maybe a hidden twist in Jesus calling Herod foxy, so to speak. In our Old Testament portrayals, foxes show up when places are deserted or abandoned. Their realm is amid desolation. So maybe when Herod thinks he’s so in charge, Jesus is playfully suggesting that this rule is not so grandiose or powerful as he may think, and that indeed the chicken’s time has come home to roost.

This is the question or the challenge for those of us who trust Jesus, who trust his vision for the world and trust our lives under his caring wings, those of us who seek to live faithfully as citizens of his heaven. The way of love that Jesus revealed and embodied does not seem to be the winning way. It sure seems that the violent and ruthless and powerful and deceptive are able to win control. Even if you are held under the protective wings of this chicken Jesus, that may seem of little value if foxes can show up and again rip you to shreds.

But Jesus’ words to the fox Herod are not to give into to those appearances, not so quickly to try to claim glory and triumph and victory. “On the third day,” Jesus says. That third day makes all the difference for this chicken way of love, this heavenly citizenship that is dedicated in giving itself for the life of this world. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work.” As we say again today in words of the ancient creed, it is on that third day that he rose again. On that day, Easter. On that day, resurrection. On that day, death is invalidated—it has lost its strength. The energy of dynamite is no longer with the foxes with the fiercest gnashing teeth. The energy of dynamite, the fullness of God’s investment and power is in our abilities to love, to gather under warm wings and to cradling bosoms and to nurturing hearts. It is not in taking life away but in giving life for each other.

Two last words from Philippians. One is “conformed.” On Transfiguration two weeks ago, we mentioned the Greek word “metamorphosis,” on taking on a different form. This word is “symmorph,” just like “conformed” meaning to take on the same form. This sort of conformity is good news as you are being transformed to be the same shape as Jesus. Look at his pierced hands as he gave up his life on a cross, but also those hands that bleed no more, where the injury cannot hurt, where death has no power because life reigns. As he gives you the energy of dynamite, it is so that your life may be given away for the sake of this world he so loves, and that his work may be finished, complete in you.

That is a word of hope. The other is a word of challenge for us in these days. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, over the capital city, the seats of power, the place of the foxes. He laments knowing it deals in death. And it is that place of foxes that he loves and wants to gather under his wing like the mother hen. In our own environment, the culture much too malicious in these days, it is vital to know that Paul’s word for citizenship is exactly what becomes our word “politics.” When politics is embodied only as a bad word, an ugly thing, you are called and invited to trust and live into the politics of heaven.

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Sharing the Road

Closing Reflection Sermon for 1st shared Madison Christian Community worship service, 1st Sunday in Lent      (Deuteronomy26:1-11; Luke4:1-13)
So here we are (or were), coming to the conclusion of this service together as Madison Christian Community. Though I’ve been tasked with giving final words, a summary drawing it together, really I had better just wrap it up quick, because we’ve got families who are headed off for tobogganing or brunch groups, or just leaving!

But even that fact that there’s more coming is exactly appropriate for this moment. You’ve engaged in diligent, faithful planning and deliberation over the past year and a half. That has led to this moment, to welcoming two new pastors simultaneously for the first time in MCC history, and now this first shared Sunday service. You may feel that the journey is complete, that you’ve reached the destination you were seeking on the Road Ahead. Like our Deuteronomy reading, you may anticipate that this—at last—is the Promised Land, that God has brought you to a good place.

But, of course, in another way we’re just getting started. There’s so much more good to come as we’re “sharing the road.” Incidentally, if you were looking to sing that sending-hymn-unofficial-MCC-theme-song of ours in Greek, you’d use the word “synod.” Where an “exodus” is a road going out, synod is the word for being on the way together. Those are fitting words to reflect on at the end of this worship service. In just a few moments, there will be an exodus, meaning you’re going to leave, to go out from this nice, warm, assuring gathering to the chill isolation of doubts and trials and temptations and just regular routines. As Jesus insisted over against the devil, it is an unmiraculous life—no magical fast food, no apparent guardian angels, no clarity of majestic divine authority. That may be difficult and disappointing.

Yet even as you go out—yearning to be back here, with those who believe like you do, and try to live life like you do, and where you’re again reminded and assured of God’s blessing—even as you go out, just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean that you are being scattered. Many of us will go separate directions, but this isn’t just a fragmentation or, as we considered on Ash Wednesday, a disintegration.

For starters, you’re still community. You are God’s people. Deuteronomy declared the whole batch a bundle, from those engaged in the holy priestly tasks to the aliens who seemed so different, all in it together, cared for by God, even the crops growing from the soil part of the God-given community.

Beyond that, one more word for us. (You’re already discovering I’m a word geek, or to use the word-geek-word, a “lexophile.” Words are “affectious” to me, to use Sam Szalkowski’s spelling bee word.) “Community” is to be joined as one, in service to each other, from Latin. Similarly, you are “companions,” those who have shared bread. You will not be separated by distance or discord. Through this meal we shared, the Holy Spirit does her work of binding us together in the Body of Christ, members of one another, companions broken to sustain each other, to nourish and enjoy and provide. You don’t go alone!

Dear companions, sharing the road, how good it is!

 

http://psalmimmersion.bandcamp.com/track/sharing-the-road-ps-133

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New Ashes

sermon for Ash Wednesday (Luke5:30-38)

 

Acacia and I have been working on home improvements as we prepare to move closer, remodeling our house to be lived in. Some projects are smaller, like wiping down cupboards or patching holes in the wall. Others require more effort, with the sledgehammer I’ve been walloping old kitchen floor tiles. It can get still more extreme than that: along my bike route to church, there’s one house that has been completely torn down in recent weeks and they’re starting from scratch on that lot.

This isn’t a check-in on settling in a new place so much as a theological question of Ash Wednesday. As we confess our sin and enter a time of repentance we can be asking what this project involves and just how extensive it is. Are our lives basically in order, just needing some tidying up, getting cobwebs out of the corners and an occasional coat of paint to freshen us up? Or are we in rougher shape, needing more diligent and intensive work, a serious upgrade, of tearing out and gutting what’s gone wrong? Or, finally, is the only thing to be done to start over, to get rid of the entire corrupt former structure and go completely back to the beginning?

This may feel like a personal matter, dependent on your circumstances. You may feel self-satisfied that overall you’re doing what you should. There are always things we could do better or do more of, those points of correction. But you may consider mostly you’ve got it figured out. If so, you may find Ash Wednesday strange, since this seems more extreme and intense than suggesting tweaks to your behavior.

Given that Lent is 40 (or so) days intended as an extended chance to focus on spring cleaning and discipline and—in the literal meaning of the word repentance—“turning” your life around, perhaps the in-depth nature of our confession tonight and the severity of the smudge on your forehead indicate a bigger task, requiring serious evaluation and careful planning.

This is reinforced by a pair of observations: first, we are invited to be serious about this. Second, we are not isolated. Faithful examination and reflecting on how God wants us to live ought well be the core of life, including evaluating community. As an example, we may claim to be keeping the commandments if we haven’t committed murder lately. But when we notice the homeless who need shelter, the hungry who need food, the sick needing treatment, creatures who need habitat, prisoners desiring rehabilitation, the strangers who’ve been left out—we see we’ve fallen short and come to realize that withholding or obstructing life is anti-Jesus and so becomes equivalent with murder. And it’s exacerbated by our society. We’re complicit with wars and special interests and internal combustion engines and prejudice and greed and ignorance. We have much to confess together.

That may be more miserably severe even than the mark of ashes on your forehead. With such a culture around us often identified as going exactly the wrong direction, we may wonder what we can do and just how originally revolutionary our faith is, whether it’s best to tear things apart and start over from scratch.

Speaking against that is the fact that we are called to care, to love, to adjust our behavior. If there’s no incremental gain, then there’s no point in trying. We might as well give up.

But speaking for the view of rebirth or regeneration is much of our Christian witness, right up to the Bible’s last pages that expect a new creation. That isn’t just a tapering of chaos and sorrow and death, but a radically different establishment. “Everything old has passed away,” it says. This is our language of baptism, too, daily a death of the old self and a rising with Christ to newness of life. This is the fertile belief of the “happy exchange,” where Jesus takes away death and gives you life, takes your sin and in forgiveness shares righteousness, removes sorrow and weeping and fear to fill you with joy.

In the paradoxical view of faith, this remains both accomplished yet also unfulfilled. Your sin has been washed away, though we continue gathering to confess and practice forgiveness. You still strive after improvements even as you expect a total renewal. You have the promised newness of life, and yet wear that burnt remembrance of death.

Amid this faithful discernment, we may associate the terms of renovation and innovation. Literally, renovation is renewal, while innovation is bringing something new in. You renovate a fixer-upper, but an innovator starts with fresh creativity and previously unexplored directions.

One further word with these Latin roots, we might as well also go to supernovas, flashes of brightness that are enormously new in the heavens. Not just linguistic play, they quite directly can be seen as part of Ash Wednesday. See, the explosions of supernovas are what have dispersed the elements fused in the cores of stars across our universe. The smudge of a cross marking the remembrance that you are dust includes the stardust that has formed the elements of your body.

Yet then comes the phrase “to dust you shall return.” Supernovas dispersed stardust that went on to become you. And one day in death you will disintegrate, again dispersing your elements to be reused—somehow it must be seen, to renovate—the world around you. But is it all, then, a matter of entropy, of dispersal and disintegration? Again in church language, is this only about God’s mission, sending us out? Do we expect a time of reintegration and restoration, of being re-membered into the body, gathered back to reunite with those heavenly stars that were our origin in ethereal lightness? Is there no going back? And what’s our way forward? What’s the point? What’s the ultimate end?

Further, then, outside of the discoveries of science, our faith expects new beginnings, resurrection, rising from the ashes of our past, a fulfillment to come. Compared with the conservation of matter—that your atoms can’t be subtracted or added to, of how you’re recycled cosmic materials that will go on to other purposes—comparatively this consummating belief is huge, an almost incredible innovation.

Not to summarize but a last bit more to promote pondering: in the ancient novelty of this day: your ashy forehead, at the very least is fertile soil for new growth, as fires don’t only destroy but foster birth, like our prairie restoration. You also, then, are meeting a restoration, a renovation, the innovative, creativity from God, in ways from small to grand, from momentary to eternal, from personal, to societal, to universal.

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The Transfiguration of You

sermon for Transfiguration of Our Lord
(Luke9:28-36; Exodus34:29-35; 2Corinthians3:12-4:2)

Sometimes these pieces of lectionary and liturgical seasons come together so well to enrich our experience of faith.

With that, it was cautioned in worship and preaching classes against inventing too much on one’s own; that if I were choosing Bible readings, I might get into a rut of focusing on gratitude or hitting you over the heads about not gossiping or with pet projects and favorite verses overemphasizing Romans 8 or Genesis 1. So using lectionary Bible readings gives variety and a chance to notice peculiar ways the readings relate to each other (as we see today). It can also make us have to wrestle to find good news.

To highlight benefits of the shape of liturgical seasons, we celebrate this festival of Transfiguration as the last Sunday after Epiphany. This season began several weeks ago with the Baptism of Jesus. In both of these Gospel readings, a heavenly voice speaks over Jesus: “This is my Son, the beloved.” “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” For a season that is pointing our attention to Jesus and revealing who he is in our midst, these bookends help clarify and reinforce it.

Similarly, Transfiguration is the Sunday before we begin the season of Lent. Lately we’ve returned to an ancient pattern of the Lenten season being a time of spring cleaning, of preparations, of rejuvenating our faith and getting ready for baptismal celebrations and new life of Easter. But for a while the Church had observed Lent as a time of sorrow and lament and focusing on the crucifixion. In those former dismal times, Transfiguration could have been a final burst of brightness before dim difficult weeks of drudgery. Now it isn’t so much a sustenance to get us through but is another sort of bookend, a glimpse of resurrection that we are living toward and anticipating.

These experiences of faith in the carefully planned shape of the seasons are potential and a possibility but not, however, a given amid the shape of our lives and other rhythms. For example, this year it’s been tough to hold this whole season of Epiphany together as a unified whole when we have been in transition and going through so much change, with goodbyes and hellos, together as this MCC community and as individuals.

Another example of how these seasons do or don’t function is that next week is the 1st Sunday in Lent, not of Lent. Sundays are always mini-Easters, a weekly chance for resurrected good news. So Sundays should always be filled with Hallelujahs, even as the rest of Lenten days could be more quietly reflective. But if we don’t have opportunity to live into the season other than on Sundays—if that’s our main time for church and for faith and for God—then to feel the contrast we have to remove the joyous praise and reshape Sundays to feel “Lent-ier.”

Our lives may contain lots of faithfulness but still are not defined by the rhythms of the church year; we face also odd politics and illnesses or hurts and busy days and our personal celebrations and struggles. Yet amid all of that other stuff, this churchiness may glance off of us and shape us to some degree, and God is still continue working to form us.

That’s actually also where we can be seeing ourselves in the perspective of this day. For all the intention and glorious display, in the end this has to be about our ordinary lives and how God is made known not just in grand encounters but in the very commonplace. On a day of readings filled with shining faces (and maybe shining faces the lectionary has smushed together but which don’t really match), it takes some work to get to our own faces, some figuring on how the readings relate and wrestling for good news. But, again, that’s a fruitful and exciting task, so let’s get to it.

We can go ahead and start with Moses in the reading from Exodus. In the course of the story, Moses has already had a lot of time visiting with God, from the burning bush and the “let my people go” with all the plagues haunting Pharaoh and parting the Red Sea and escaping from the Egyptian army. Then they came to Mount Sinai. Moses went up to receive 10 Commandments, plus regulations and guidelines for living in community, and also recipes and a calendar of holidays and more. While Moses was long-engaged in that work, the people got bored and impatient and—as they say about idle hands—ended up making a golden calf. Moses, though also very angry, argued or interceded or prayed for his people, and God reminded Godself, I AM “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity” (34:6-7).

Well, after all of that, Moses had smashed the original stone tablets of the Commandments, and so had to go back up the mountain and ask for a photocopy. As Moses returns, our reading says that he didn’t know his face was shiny because he’d been talking with God. It was so brilliantly beaming he had to put a cover over it.

Aside from wondering if he still needed a flashlight to get around at night or how this goes against Jesus talking about bushel baskets and telling us to let our light shine before others, at the outset we can’t help but notice that this is a peculiar, particular situation for Moses. It’s apparent that, after time talking to God in prayer, none of us has ended up with glowing faces. Moses is special.

The image on your bulletins shows some of this. This Michelangelo sculpture, besides seeming to show Moses’ potential as an arm-wrestler, also depicts him with two horns. Some have said that Michelangelo was working with a bad Bible translation, but the Hebrew word here actually is the word for horns (nrq qaran). Some figure that’s a word for beams or rays of light, which can, indeed, be the same shape as a horn. Others figure that horns may be okay in themselves, because the altar also had horns, and that was a holy place connected with the presence of God, so this is another way of saying that Moses also was where they could go to meet God.

We might note that the reaction to seeing Moses was that the people were afraid. Now, if he had horns growing out of his head we might especially understand the fear. Even if he was extra shiny, people might back away. But at the core, there’s something about God’s presence that is dangerous and unapproachable. So Moses has to put a bag over his head just so people would be willing to talk to him.

That might bring us to the Gospel reading. Some of that fear and uncertainty persists in Peter’s reaction. If we met the grandest of past saintly heroes brightly shining in community neither would we have any idea what to say, and would likewise mutter something incomprehensible. This is the paradigm of a mountaintop experience, the guru-est of gurus up there, basking in a warm glow of ethereal wonder. With Moses, Elijah was the other big name of our Old Testament, as law and prophets, these were the embodiments of the scriptures themselves. In other parallels this is like having Einstein and Galileo together, or Shakespeare and da Vinci, or Gandhi and Mother Teresa, or (with the Super Bowl today) Vince Lombardi and Jerry Rice…or whatever ultimate pairing you can come up with. With apologies to history’s gender inequity, perhaps we could see Sarah and Miriam in the biblical role.

Yet more importantly, from that dazzling, grandest, highest, premier, ultimate setting, we have a huge contrast, a change of tone, even altering the mood lighting. Unlike the Exodus reading where Moses had to keep covered up afterward, in this setting the glow dissipates. In the next verses, Jesus heads back down the mountain and gets back to work, facing problems and met by crowds of people who need his help and who can be frustrating. You know, like regular life.

Even more, in Luke’s setting this Transfiguration is a transition point in the Gospel. From here, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, which means toward betrayal and arrest and the cross and death. It might be that the Gospel writer wants a residual hint of this brightness to linger in our minds as we go on to face so much darkness and sorrow and desertion and, it would have to seem, God-forsakenness.

These contrasts become even starker with our reading from 2nd Corinthians that brings our lives into the picture. For readings about shiny faces, this one faces in the opposite direction. Not only are we not in the elite mountaintop tier of the greatest sorts of heroes, not only do we not seem so luminous or glorious, but even seem so regular or dull that we have lots of room to doubt whether our lives could be the place of God’s presence and work.

Paul uses the image of a mirror in this reading. When we look in mirrors, we expect to see more wrinkles or gray hairs. We may expect bags under our eyes and not-quite perfect smiles. Our teeth don’t even glow bright white, much less our foreheads beam a shining ray of light. That’s not to disparage what we see. It’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t be pleased or content when you look in the mirror. It’s just reality, just regular life. None of us looks in the mirror and sees horns growing out of our head, marking a special relationship with God and the divine presence at work in us.

Yet in contrast to those fabulous stories and the saintly heroes of bygone times, in contrast to haloes of light and marks of glory, still Paul says that when you look in the mirror, when you look at each other’s very normal faces, what you are seeing is the place of God’s work. That face is even more glorious and miraculous than the face of Moses. In the presence of Jesus, with this one who went to a cross and died and rose, through the encounter with him here in worship, in Word and Sacrament, in notably unremarkable bread and a splash of wine, through meeting him in the faces of each other and in the faces of those in need, through this ministry, you are being transformed into his same image. When you look in a mirror, you look like Christ. When you look at each other, you see Christ. When God looks at you, you are the very image of God. Today isn’t just the Transfiguration of our Lord; it’s his transfiguration of you.

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