Archives for July 2017

Pivoting, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 3, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45cl; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Prudence Crandall may sound like the name of a character in a Jane Austen novel, but she was a real-life force of nature in 19th century New England. Crandall started a boarding school for girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, impassioned to raise educated women. One day, she received an application from a young African American girl named Sarah Harris. Crandall admitted Harris, creating the first integrated classroom in the United States.

As Crandall accepted more and more students of color into her school, more and more white parents pulled their children out. Local merchants refused to do business with the African American students, and the townspeople ostracized them and plotted to pass laws that made their education difficult or impossible. Vandals even set the school on fire, which prompted Crandall to close, for fears that the children’s lives would be in danger. We remember Crandall in early September as one through whom God worked for the sake of bringing forth justice in our world.

We look on these moments in history with a sense of clarity—we believe that Crandall was inspired by God in her resolute will to teach girls of every color and race, and we believe that, if we were to find ourselves in her position, we would do the same thing. The problem with this line of thinking is that it often takes Crandall’s agency out of the mix and assumes that the path she took was the obvious one, that she had no internal conflict about what educating her girls might cost, and that perhaps a famous composer provided her a triumphant soundtrack to reassure her along the way. Most of us have discovered by now that life does not play out like a Hollywood film.

God does not often appear to us in burning bushes as She did with Moses—although Jesus comes close every now and then on pieces of toast, potato chips, and in cups of coffee.

When God appears to Moses, Moses has had quite a life. Born to a Hebrew woman, he was left in a river for his own protection, and the Pharaoh’s daughter found him and eventually took him as her son. As he grew, he became increasingly disturbed by the way the Egyptians treated the Hebrews. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrews; Moses intervened and killed the Egyptian. For fear that he would be punished for what he had done on behalf of a Hebrew, he fled and found a new tribe, a new family.

One day Moses is going about his business, keeping his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, and the angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a flaming bush. Moses leaves the path he is walking to explore the phenomenon, and he finds himself on holy ground. He encounters God in this place off the path, and God reminds him of the people he left behind. “I have observed their misery,” God says. “I have heard their cry…indeed, I know their sufferings…and I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

Until this moment, and for a while after this moment, Moses was not a radical. When he killed the Egyptian slave master, it was not a well-calculated, pre-meditated, politically-motivated demonstration. He was not protesting the pharaoh, as far as we know. Yet something stirred within Moses, even while his life was about blending in and surviving; the stirring within him led him to deviate from his path to go where God seemed to be calling him. God met Moses in the midst of his internal conflict and called him to follow a different pathway.

The disciples had a similar encounter with God in Jesus. At some point in their years together, Jesus starts to reveal that he expects to undergo some significant suffering at the hands of the powers that be. He shares that he expects to be killed. His disciples probably react in some of the ways you might expect, but it is Peter who pulls Jesus to the side and rejects these grim predictions. Immediately Jesus rejects Peter’s resistance to reality. “Get behind me, Satan!”

“Join the path on which I am walking,” Jesus seems to say. “Lose the preoccupation with the way you wanted or expected things to be, and get on board with reality!” Sometimes we need to hear the same message, and often it needs to feel like a slap across the face to be effective.

During the opening Eucharist of the 2017 Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached a barn-burner. During the sermon, Bishop Curry bounced around the stage in his typical fashion, splashed water from the font all over a crowd of exuberant teenagers, and repeated a phrase that will forever be engraved on the minds of all 1,500 people in attendance: “If you want to change the world, follow Jesus.”

Indeed, following Jesus has, does, and will continue to lead us on a path of personal and communal transformation. It is not, however, we who change the world, but rather God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who changes us.

God sneaks into our inner life and pivots our consciousness. God calls us out of our routines to notice the plight that weighs heavy on God’s heart, and the more we follow Jesus, the more we read the gospels, and the more we pray and meditate on Jesus’ life, the more we will encounter those in need. Not only that, the more we seek God, the more God will lead us to face our enemies, face our fears, and face the challenge of risking everything for Jesus’ sake.

This is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go to the place we would not normally go, to follow a path that leads to the outsider, and to seek an encounter with the Living God. When we follow that path, we often find ourselves in intimidating circumstances, but God is with us, and where we find ourselves is on holy ground.

The Reverend Curtis Farr is the Associate Rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. Match strikes flint for Curtis in the pulpit, where he approaches Scripture playfully, seeking to inspire greater participation in God’s mission of reconciliation. Curtis is from the Pacific Northwest and loves hiking in the woods or kayaking on a secluded river. He can often be found impersonating Neil Diamond at your local karaoke bar.

Download the sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Leaks, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 27, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

 You promise you won’t tell anyone?” is usually the preface of a juicy story. It means someone trusts us, wants to confide in us, thinks we can keep a secret, or at least thinks we will only leak it out to one person at a time.

Secrets are hard to keep. Have you ever kept one for a year, two years, ten years, without telling anyone? Have you ever kept one for an hour? A really good one?

Secrets want to be told. They want to be disclosed and they usually come out eventually. Just watch any detective show and you’ll see that in the end, everybody talks to someone. Or you could just watch the news, as experts ponder “leaks” from government agencies and the meaning of such secrets.

Secrets are like beach balls being held underwater; they want to pop to the surface, they want to be leaked out.

Jesus, at the end of our Gospel lesson, tells the disciples to keep his identity a secret. His conversation with Peter about his identity as the Messiah is deep and profound. Peter’s confession is lauded as a monumental achievement and Peter is granted so, so much authority and power because of this.

And then Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah.

Do you really think they could keep this secret? Could you have kept this secret?

When the first disciples meet Jesus, this is the question on their minds: is he the Messiah? Is this the promised one, the anointed one, the one we have been looking for, generation after generation? They were really asking, “Is there anything to hope for?”

And Jesus showed them there was something to hope for. He showed them in miracle after miracle that he was the Messiah. And here, in Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by Roman and Greek gods, Jesus asks a pointed question.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Opinions abound, in their day and in ours, about who Jesus is. How one answers this question matters a great deal in this text—and we should consider carefully how we answer it. From this story, we can be sure that simply saying what we’ve heard other people say isn’t enough for Jesus. Jesus wants to know what we think; Jesus wants to know who we think he is.

Can we also be struck by the fact that Jesus wants to know what people say about him? He’s not too cool to ask this. Jesus has a real relationship with his disciples and like all good relationships, it’s mutual. There’s a back and forth, a sharing of life. Jesus isn’t polling the whole Judean countryside. He wants to know who his disciples think he is. Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

How does he know this? How do you know this?

Jesus says it’s an awareness, a knowledge that comes directly from God. And there’s power in knowing Jesus is the Messiah. It’s the power to withstand the gates of Hell, to hold the keys to the kingdom, to bind on earth and loose in heaven. In this one small moment of spiritual awakening, Peter gets all the tools he needs for his life’s work.

Maybe that’s all we need here today. Maybe we need the certain knowledge that Jesus is the anointed one, the promised one, and that we have hope. Maybe this will change the world.

So why did he tell his disciples to keep it a secret?

Well, we do know a couple things about how Jesus operated, especially before he went to Jerusalem. He told people to keep quiet his work and identity a number of times. Perhaps he was controlling the timing of his ministry, the timing of his death, and the timing of how he would redeem the world.

We also knows Jesus was not real big on public displays of faith, if a person’s heart was not right. The Pharisees cornered this market. Jesus hated their behavior and called them out on it.

And maybe Jesus is telling the disciples to keep this secret because he is like the Hebrew midwives who lie to Pharaoh, keeping the births of the Hebrew babies secret, so they can save the newborns. Jesus knows that his new and fledgling flock needs to grow stronger before he can depart. He wants to protect them; he protects them with his secrets.

Maybe Jesus is like Moses’ parents, who secretly put him in a basket and launch him out in the river with the faith that God would care for him. By hiding him in the basket, they kept the secret of his life so he could live.

The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship is to be guarded, kept, and only told to the few who can hear it. Jesus’ parables were meant to confuse and confound, to cloud the mind of the proud and disinterested and to give life to those who were seeking hope and life.

And if you’re bold, let’s take this secret just a bit further. Jesus’ pronouncement to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” has often been understood to relate to our Sacrament of Reconciliation. This power to forgive sins that Jesus exercises is scandalous, and he gives this power to his disciples, who carry it to the ends of the earth.

There are secrets disclosed and kept in the confessional. There is the secret sin that is confessed by the penitent. Maybe it’s not a secret, but it usually is. It has usually caused an infection in the soul and it needs to come out. And then there’s the secret of forgiveness. After the absolution, the priest or Christian you’ve confessed to never talks about it again. In fact, the priest never even talks about it with you again. Now that’s a secret.

Maybe the secret of Jesus’ identity is more training in how to exercise the power of binding and loosing, through secrecy, not mass marketing. This secrecy of his anointing is what gives him authenticity.

And this is how we evangelize. We internalize the secret of Jesus’ Messiahship, who he is and what he came to do, to the point where it just comes out like a secret we can’t keep to ourselves. There is an old saying that what we hide, we become. If we hide and conceal evil, we become evil. If we hide good things, especially the good things we do, we become good.

It is worthwhile to ponder this secret, even if we cannot figure out the riddle completely. It is clear from this story that Jesus wants us to contemplate who he is. I wish I knew the answer, but that’s the problem with a secret, don’t you know.

Or, maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows his disciples can’t keep a secret and that they are going to leak his identity all over the Judean hillsides, and fishing villages, and synagogues, and dinner tables. Maybe he knows this about them and this is his strategy for getting his message out, one whisper at a time.

Maybe this is his strategy for us today. Maybe he wants us to leak it out too, one whisper at a time. I dare you to try to keep this secret.

The Rev. Dr. David W. Peters serves as a chaplain in the Army Reserve and as the Associate Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Tex. He is the founder of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship, the author of two books, the father of three sons, and is married to Sarah Bancroft.

 

Download the sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

On Breaking Boundaries, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 20, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

This week we continue our Pentecost tour through Genesis, Romans, and the parables and stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. We have two unsettling encounters: the meeting of Joseph and his brothers, and the meeting of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

The Genesis stories of our founding fathers and mothers are often perplexing. In the last weeks, we have heard Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, deceive his father Isaac, and flee from his brother’s anger. We have heard Laban deceive Jacob, substituting his daughter Leah for Rebecca in the bridal tent. We have heard Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Yet God has kept his promise to Abraham, and continued to bless the children of Israel. God’s love, we have learned, is unconditional.

The character of Joseph is as complicated as that of his father Jacob. Sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, he has risen to a position of power in the palace of Pharaoh through his skill as an interpreter of dreams and a political advisor. He has predicted a seven-year drought and helped Egypt prepare by storing a quantity of grain. Unaware of Joseph’s position, his brothers have come to Egypt from drought-stricken Canaan to buy some grain. They do not recognize Joseph, who sells them the food, but then practices some deception of his own. He secretly hides a silver cup in the sack of his younger brother Benjamin, so that it will appear that the brothers have stolen from him. In an act of supreme irony, he demands that the brothers leave Benjamin with him as his slave. At this point, brother Judah begs Joseph to let him stay in Benjamin’s place, because the loss of the child of his old age will surely kill their elderly father. This is where today’s reading begins.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, who are understandably horrified and afraid at this turn of events. Joseph responds with this spin on their attempt to get rid of him: it wasn’t you who sent me to Egypt, but God, who sent me before you to preserve life. And indeed, if Joseph were not in Pharaoh’s house, the children of Israel would succumb to famine and die out. Once again, God has saved the children of Israel.

This passage is sometimes read as one of forgiveness and reconciliation, as Joseph forgives his brothers and the family is reunited. The fact that Joseph is revealed as a manipulator and deceptive character, setting his little brother Benjamin up for a charge of stealing, makes one wonder about this interpretation. As an individual, Joseph is hard to love. In this story, Joseph appears as a difficult character, playing a role in the larger story of God’s love for God’s people, Israel.

Today’s passage from Romans confirms that God never rejects God’s people. Paul points out that he is a member of the tribe of Benjamin. The passage might even be read as being addressed to Joseph by Benjamin. Even though you, Joseph, and the children of Israel have been disobedient, the gifts of God are not revoked. God is merciful, always, to everyone.

The story of the Canaanite woman’s faith has a problematic element as well. Jesus has crossed from Galilee into the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is gentile territory. A woman begs for mercy and healing for her afflicted daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David. Jesus, once he deigns to answer her, gives an unsettling reply: I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Not to an outsider, a woman, a Gentile. Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, he refers to her and her daughter as dogs. Yet she persists, again addressing Jesus as Lord, and insists that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table. Not only does she see clearly who Jesus is, but also she understands how great is his power to heal. God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflow; there is enough for not only the children of Israel, but also for the entire world.

Let us assume that we are not dealing with grouchy Jesus in this passage, but rather with teaching Jesus. Jesus is illustrating for his disciples that true faith is persistent and open-eyed, and extends to a wider world beyond the Jewish community. Here it’s helpful to look back at his explanation of things that defile, which precedes the story of the Canaanite woman’s faith.

The Pharisees and scribes have challenged Jesus, asking why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus replies: It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. What goes into the mouth is flushed out into the sewer; it is a passing, temporary uncleanliness, unimportant. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Evil intentions such as murder, theft, and lies are what truly defile.

In today’s reading, Jesus has crossed the boundary between the land of Israel and gentile territory. He has redefined boundaries of what is clean and what is unclean, and he has redefined the boundaries of the kingdom of God, extending the kingdom beyond the borders of Israel. What comes from the heart of the Canaanite woman is faith: faith that God’s love and God’s mercy extend to all. In today’s passage from Genesis, Joseph’s brothers have crossed the boundary from their home in the land of Israel into Egypt to discover to what lengths God will go to preserve the house of Israel. Both stories remind us of the greatness of God’s love and mercy.

Reading these two stories during the season of Pentecost, when we celebrate the role of the Church in the work of God in the world, reminds us that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries. God’s work, and the work of the Church, is to meet outsiders and grant them a place at the table. It comes down to remembering that we are all God’s children, that God’s love is unconditional, and that God’s mercy extends beyond all boundaries. So perhaps reading today’s passage from Genesis as a story of reconciliation is not so far-fetched after all!

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she leads weekly Taizé prayer. She is writing a book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.

Download the sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Our Faith inside the Boat, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 13, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

Sometimes today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.” The interpretation goes like this: Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith. Peter, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life where Jesus calls us to take courage, leave the safety of the boat, and come to him. If we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will not sink, despite the wind and the waves. If only Peter had not become distracted. When he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water. When he got anxious and sidetracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter, whose name means “rock,” went down like a stone. Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith. Jesus wants us to walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives. And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. If you do an Internet search on “walk on water,” you’ll get links to business consulting firms, fashion companies, science projects – all of them proponents of going the extra mile (another biblical phrase that’s gone mainstream). It has become another phrase along the lines of “thinking outside the box,” “The early bird catches the worm,” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission. No doubt Jesus wants us to have the gift of faith. He’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, “With God, all things are possible.” He’s the one who told some fishermen to leave everything to follow him. He’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, that if we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, get up and move, and it would. When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the box,” didn’t he? No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow.

But is that really what Jesus really wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson? One thing that’s true about Matthew’s gospel is it’s interested in community. It’s really interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the body of Christ in the world, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together. Matthew really isn’t interested in great heroes of the faith, singular individuals who go above and beyond. If, like Peter, they go swinging their legs out over the side of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples behind trying to row and manage in the storm, we’re likely to see such an individual take a few steps and then plunge beneath the waves, surely to drown, if not for the grace and love and forgiveness of Jesus who always, always, reaches out to save, even when we get confused and fearful and full of doubt.

So I wonder if when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” the meaning isn’t, “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith,” but is, instead, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the Church. And no wonder. Think of a ship, a vessel large enough that it takes a number of people doing diverse things to get it to move. A ship is a great symbol for the church. Moving through the waters on a gorgeous day can be simply glorious. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand. Sometimes, though, life on the ship can get routine. The same chores need doing every day. The wind doesn’t always do what the sailors want. A large crew means a variety of people, which means a variety of ideas and personalities. The ship’s mission can be jeopardized by those who are tempted to set sail alone, or mutiny, or jump overboard. But any problems on the ship have more to do with the sailors than the Captain – with a capital C, as in “Christ” – because the Captain has provided for the ship. The Captain gives Word and Sacraments, the community of sailors, and even gave them their seaworthy ship to guide them into the ultimate safe harbor. Christians have long treasured this image of the Church as a ship: beautiful, but vulnerable; seaworthy, but subject to storm and winds and waves.

In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples, those who would follow him, get into a boat, and head out across the sea. The gospel says, “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side.” Jesus would meet up with them again. First, he was going to take some time by himself to pray.

But a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get to the other side. He comes to them, walking across the water, the very picture of God that they knew from their scriptures. Psalm 77 says, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. … Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” In Job 9:8, God overcomes the powers of chaos, pictured as a stormy sea. It says, “God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.” Jesus would not leave his disciples alone in the boat to perish in the storm, but comes to them, and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

And then there’s Peter. And while we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the box, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first is say something. He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “If it is you …”

If.

There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if,” and they’re not pretty. The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert, “If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, people mock him, calling out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins his voice, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.” 

If.

Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid. Of course you’re afraid in the midst of a storm. But why did you doubt? Did you really think I wouldn’t come? Did you really think I wouldn’t save you? Did you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever, ever leave you alone?

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus and Peter get into the boat. The wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples. The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them. And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. Even then. Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. They worshiped. But some doubted.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Even still, in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise. The command is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he gives them a promise – all of them: “And remember,” says Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Storms will blow up in all of our lives. But Jesus has not left us alone. The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease is still with us. He still has work for us to do. And yes, it will mean stepping out in faith, but not getting out of the boat, not going it alone, not leaving the community of disciples. The purpose of a ship is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.

There are plenty of adventures ahead, and Jesus will bid us follow. And he will say to us, in the midst of any storm, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Download the sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Be Transfigured, The Feast of the Transfiguration – August 6, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

We should be observing the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost today, but this year, there is a break in the pattern. Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which always falls on August 6th, and this Feast outranks Pentecost 9. In fact, there are only a handful of feast days so important that they take precedence over a Sunday, and all of them are feasts related to Jesus himself. Today we commemorate how Jesus was transfigured before his closest disciples, Peter, John, and James— how his glory was revealed in dazzling white light, and how God’s voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”

“Transfigure” is not a word often used in conversation nowadays. We might use “transform” or “alter” instead, or even “change.” There is an interesting question with the Feast of the Transfiguration: who is it that’s really being changed in this story? Jesus appears to be changed. Luke writes “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” But the truth is, Jesus only looks different to his disciples. It is Peter, John, and James who are really transfigured, their eyes now open to see Jesus as he really is, clothed in light and revealed as the Son of God. And the disciples’ lives are changed too, after this experience of God’s presence: before, they thought they were following a remarkable teacher; after, they know their lives are being woven into God’s plan for the transfiguration of the world.

What experiences in your life frame the way you see and understand the world? Much of the way we experience the world is fixed by circumstances beyond our control: who our parents are, where we are from, the language we speak. But sometimes we have moments of clarity which allow us to see the world in a new light, from a bird’s-eye view. These are moments when it seems we can see beyond ourselves and our limitations, into the heart of reality. When you have this kind of experience, you can be fairly certain it’s because you have been in the presence of God. Transfiguration is a natural consequence of being in God’s presence.

Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain hoping to find God there. They were on a quest, actively seeking God’s presence. Like Peter and John and James, God is calling all of us to climb the mountain with Jesus. Jesus leads his disciples up there because he knows that’s where God lives. The same is true for Moses in the reading from Exodus — God is found on the mountaintop, where your vision is clear and all the noise of everyday life subsides.

But even though it is easier to find God on the mountaintop, that is not the only place God can be found. All of us came to church this morning, hoping to find something of God here. And God feels especially close in the beauty of the natural world: stars shining in the sky, waves falling on the ocean shore. Poets and visionaries can attest that these are places you can find God. When you’re lost or lonely or wondering what’s next, find a church to pray in, or a mountain to climb, or a forest to walk in — remember those places you have felt God’s presence before and go seek God there again.

Of course, there’s always a temptation to stay put on top of the mountain — to use that sacred space as a place to hide from the problems of the world. Peter — bumbling Peter, as usual —gives into this temptation when he asks Jesus if they can build dwellings on top of the mountain and just bask in God’s glorious presence forever, content, but removed from all the trouble brewing down on the ground below. The answer is no. God needs us to go down from the mountain and out into the world, and take some of God’s transformative love with us to share.

Truthfully, it isn’t only in those beautiful and set-apart places that we can find God. The whole world is filled with the glory of God, if we only have eyes to see. John Neafsey, in his book A Sacred Voice is Calling, writes that the most important place we can hear God’s voice is in the cry of the poor. Neafsey means that eventually, we have to go where we know God is. And we know that God is always alive in the struggle for justice. We know that God lives among the marginalized, that God fights for the poor and upholds the weak. This is another place to seek God’s presence, and to hear God’s voice in the story they tell. And from listening, to learn how best we can share God’s love with one another, and see unity where we thought there was division.

There is no place on earth that God’s love does not go. If we open our hearts to God’s Spirit and go looking for God, we will begin to see God’s presence all around us. Our transfiguration comes as our eyes are opened and our hearts changed. And the people who seemed so different from us before — the poor and the marginalized — we will see them as they really are: made in God’s image, just as we are; we will see how Jesus’ life was spent for them, just as it was for us.

Open your eyes and see the world as it is— beloved by God. Let your heart be transfigured by God’s love. Take that love down from this mountain and use it to bring more love into the world.

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

 

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Training for the Kingdom of Heaven, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 30, 2017

[RCL:] Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

It’s rather good for those who preach and those who hear preachers to step back and remember how Jesus communicated with his disciples and the crowds that followed him. Today’s appointed Gospel text gives us a wonderful example. As we hear Jesus talking about planting seeds, baking bread, and fishing, we are on familiar ground. Very often, thousands of years seem to get in the way and obscure our ability to hear Jesus in the way those who actually heard his voice absorbed his message. Last week, we were confronted with yokes and oxen. Most Americans have seen neither. However, most of us have planted a seed, if only in a pot. Perhaps not all of us bake bread or fish, but we know people who do. For once, we can hear Jesus with much the same mind as his hearers.

These three illustrations are not quite the same. The first two refer to something tiny and insignificant that grows or expands enormously. One could be trite and merely remark that all good things have tiny beginnings, and this homily, to your relief, would be over.

Perhaps you have noticed that we’ve omitted two of Jesus’ illustrations; they may not be so familiar. They talk of a man who finds hidden treasure in a field and sells everything to buy the field, obviously without telling the owner about the treasure trove. Then there’s a jeweler who comes across a costly and rare pearl and sells his entire stock in order to buy it. In both these illustrations, there’s an element of renunciation, of divesting everything in order to gain something of enormous value.

Again, the fishing parable has a sting in its tail. It talks about judgment, some final reckoning based on our choice: “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  As if to finally confuse us, Jesus reveals his meaning in these words: “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

One can see the surprise on the faces of those listening to him. They thought they understood him and indicated that they did. Preachers rarely ask congregations whether they understand a sermon; perhaps that is just as well.

What was a scribe? In a day when most had only the most elementary education, the literate person who made that skill available was highly esteemed. They wrote letters for people and seem to have acted for clients in local courts. Jesus usually presented a rather low view of the scribes, lumping them together with Pharisees. In this parable, Jesus talks about good scribes, just as there were also good Pharisees like Nicodemus and Gamaliel.  What, then, is a scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven?

This person is someone who has decided to dedicate her or his life to being Kingdom Folk. One of the biggest temptations we confront is to regard our faith as an add-on, a pursuit for our spare time. There’s much talk nowadays about “America first.” The Gospel dispels such a notion; for Kingdom Folk, God’s reign is first. That doesn’t mean we are working for a theocracy. The necessary, messy business of politics requires the sort of compromise that, if practiced within the Jesus Movement, invites judgment. Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God.”

It is so easy for us to put our political and social opinions first and then somehow shape and mold our faith to accommodate these views. In so doing, we quite often enlist Jesus in our passion for that which passes away. Our form of justice becomes God’s justice and our form of mercy becomes God’s mercy.

We have been called to be those who work for God. We are to work and pray for God in our homes, streets, communities and our nation. We plant little seeds of goodness and mercy and they blossom into visible signs of God’s presence. We give up the things that clutter our lives or disguise the fact that we belong to Christ, in order to live into heralding the return of Christ. In the meantime, we fish for people, and in some manner, the way we do this fishing will determine how we will be judged. The Kingdom is yet to come. We can’t create it. But we can create communities dedicated to God’s mission, places where people selflessly serve each other in serving Christ, so that the watching world may catch a glimpse of what God intends. Is your parish such a community?

The Rt. Rev. Tony Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Granite City, in the Diocese of Springfield.

 

Download the sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (A).