Saturday, February 23, 2013

Black and White...

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Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Well, that’s odd, isn’t it? Pharisees actually trying to help Jesus, warn him to get out because Herod has it in for him.

I mean, the Pharisees are the bad guys, right? Them, the Sadducees, the scribes, those are the Gospel’s team of black hats, facing off against Clint Eastwood Jesus, they are the Lex Luthors of the Bible, doomed to defeat by Superman Jesus, but defiant to the end. Oh! Oh! And of course they are all in league with Herod Darth Vader against Luke Skywalker Jesus, too.

Life isn’t a spaghetti western though, is it? It isn’t a comic book or a science fiction movie. Things are rarely so black and white, and people, even groups of people, even groups of people in the Scriptures, are complicated.

Nicodemus, who visited Jesus in the dark of night in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, was a Pharisee. Joseph of Arimathea, who, following the crucifixion, got Jesus’ body from Pilate and gave it a decent, if temporary, burial, was a Sadducee. There are many occasions in Scripture where Jesus eats dinner with one Pharisee or another, and not every encounter with a scribe is a bad one.

To set the scene a bit, Jesus has been traveling around Galilee preaching and teaching. Now, he is headed out, on the road to Jerusalem both literally – I mean, that’s where the road goes, after all – and figuratively, because he is determined to fulfill his Father’s will, to meet and defeat death on the cross.

Galilee is Herod Antipas’ home turf, his tetrarchy. Now, I think it is safe to describe Herod as a weirdo, and a dangerous one. This is the guy who divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife, and when John the Baptist spoke out against that act, Herod killed him. What’s more, when Herod hears about Jesus, and the miracles he performs, Herod makes the wild logical leap that Jesus is John come back from the dead.

Add to that the things that Jesus has been saying, even in the verses right before today’s reading: those who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first, many of those who think they are going to get in to the eternal Kingdom of Heaven won’t, and the very people they hate and exclude and oppress will. It isn’t much of a stretch to believe that Herod, who is mad as a hatter and not above killing even his own family anyway, might hear what Jesus is saying, interpret it as a call to overthrow him, and be scared enough of Jesus to want him dead.

So that being said, why would the Pharisees want to protect Jesus form Herod’s wrath? Well, in many ways, these things that Jesus is saying are right up the Pharisees’ alley.

Here’s what I mean: the Pharisees are, in point of fact, not exactly what we have come to think of them as: tight-laced keepers of tradition, bent upon keeping everyone in lockstep to the rules and traditions of Judaism. We tend to group the Pharisees and Sadducees all together in our minds, yes, but they were in fact two religious factions who were vehemently opposed to one another.

The Sadducees were the upper echelon of Jewish society, according to the historian Josephus. They were in charge of the Temple, and had control over all of the religious and political affairs of the province. The priests who served in the Temple were Sadducees, the members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, the Sadducees collected the taxes, represented the interests of Judea internationally and were responsible for normalizing relations with the Roman occupiers. They considered only the first five books of the Bible to be God-inspired and authoritative, did not believe that the soul was immortal or that there was any reward or punishment following death, and did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. For them, the center of worship, the path to relationship with God, was through the systems and rituals of Temple sacrifice.

We get a hint about the Pharisees from their very name, which translates “set apart ones.” Separatists, a group intent on changing the way people understood their faith. They believed that the worship of God extended beyond the Temple, into the affairs of everyday life, that God was interested and invested in the normal and the mundane. What we do and why we do it was important to the Pharisee because they very much believed that the soul is immortal, and that reward or punishment followed death, and they believed in a resurrection of the dead and a Messianic age. To this end they held Scripture and oral tradition to be equally authoritative, ands were intent on, as closely as possible, adhering to each of the Mosaic laws.

The Pharisees were at different times in history a political movement, a religious sect, and a school of thought. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the groundwork laid by the Pharisees became the foundation of modern, or rabbinical, Judaism.

So you can see that in the grand, overarching themes, the Pharisees and Jesus would have been in general agreement. They both sought to make God accessible to all people, not just those in the elite or who had access to the Temple and the resources for all the offerings and sacrifices. They both understood the reality of eternity, and the hope of the resurrection. Where they differed was in the matter of keeping the traditions and the Law of Moses. The Pharisees emphasized them, and Jesus dismissed them. Maybe these dinners and discussions were, up to a point, an attempt by the Pharisees to correct the minor flaws in Jesus’ theology, I don’t know, but we all know that in the end it didn’t work and the Pharisees wanted Jesus just as dead as the Sadducees did. But it is possible that perhaps, just perhaps, in this case, this small group of Pharisees were concerned for his safety and saw themselves as doing Jesus a favor.

That, or they just wanted him out of town and out of their hair as soon as possible.

But of course Jesus isn’t fazed. He in effect says, “Herod, Schmerod. When you happen to see that fox, you let him know that I’m doin’ my work, and if he wants me, he can find me in Jerusalem, because he can’t do anything to me anywhere else. After all, prophets don’t get killed anywhere else than Jerusalem.”

And it would be a really good story if it stopped right there, but instead, something interesting happens. It is at this point that the text changes dramatically, doesn’t it? Jesus goes from dismissive defiance to lament in the space of the period at the end of a sentence. It is as if Jesus’ very heart breaks at the mention of Jerusalem.

After all, Jerusalem is the center of a nation which was supposed to have been a beacon to all nations, an example to all people, the shining light on a hill which drew them to the knowledge and worship of the one true living God. It is no mistake, no mere poetic mechanism, that causes Jesus to liken himself to a mother hen bent on protecting her chicks against the fox in the henhouse, and no mere clever twist of phrase when Jesus identifies Herod as that fox.

Herod represents the forces which would sell out to Rome, which for the sake of personal power and security and financial boon, would forsake all that is good and holy, would reject the God that loves them, would enslave themselves and everyone else to a bloodthirsty, insatiable, pagan entity bent on global dominion.

And the Jerusalem that Jesus laments, that Jesus weeps for, isn’t the dot on the map. It isn’t the geography, the buildings and the streets; it is the people, all of them: the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the scribes, the moneychangers and merchants and the men and the women and the children. Yes, he weeps for those who lay out the palm branches and cloaks when he rides in to the city… but he also longs to gather in, to protect, to save the very ones who welcome the fox, and all that the fox represents – the ones who literally or figuratively bow their knee to Herod and to Rome, who, for the sake of their own little bit of power and influence and security and money, put politics in place of God. Jesus longs to gather in, to protect, to save all who love him, who follow him, and all who reject him, who speak out against him, who even now are plotting his demise, who soon will scream “Crucify him!” in Pilate’s courtyard…

And on that day that Jesus hangs naked and bleeding and suffering and suffocating on the cross, and he cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he is pleading not simply for the Romans who drove the nails, who roll the dice for who wins his clothing, but for the ones who plotted for his death, and for the ones who remained silent when a word would have set him free.

And Jesus dies, and rises, and lives and loves all of them. The Pharisees who cared enough to warn him that day on the road out of Galilee, and the ones who plotted to have him killed. The Sadducees like Joseph who followed him, but only secretly, and the ones who populated the Sanhedrin in an illegal mock trial to facilitate his torture and execution. The men and women who openly followed him, like James and John and Mary Magdalene, and the ones who couldn’t give up what they had in this life to gain eternal life. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, oppressor and oppressed, Jesus lived and died and rose and ascended and lives and loves all of them, and yes, all of us.

I started out by saying that life, and that people, aren’t a spaghetti western or a comic book or a science fiction movie. Things are rarely so black and white as that. People are complex beings, and life is nothing if not complicated.

I will tell you this, and I believe it with all of my heart: there is an absolute, there is something that is black and white, that there are no shades of grey to, no ifs, ands, or buts.

God loves you. God loves us. All of us. Whether we would most realistically identify with the fox in the henhouse, selling ourselves to the highest bidder regardless of the consequences, whether we are the ones screaming “Crucify!” in the courtyard, or whether we are the ones weeping at the foot of the Cross, Jesus longs to gather us in, to save us, to nurture us in the Holy Spirit, to bring us into fellowship with the one true and living God and into citizenship in the now and coming Kingdom of God. Yes, the best of us and the worst of us, the ugliest and the most beautiful, yes, emphatically, all of us.

And in this season of Lent, God calls us, all of us, to lay down the things we have chosen as more dear, to tear down the altars to that which entertains us and which we think give us security and assurance, to hear Jesus stand at the door and knock, and not just open that door but tear it off its hinges, to at long last look to Him and say “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Alleluia, amen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Since You Are...

Thanks this week to the writings of Scott Shauf, D. Mark Davis, and the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton.

You know, I think it's fine if you want to use Lent as a way to cut back on sweets, or to try and stop drinking so much caffeine or eliminate nicotine or tobacco from your life. Just remember: God doesn't want your chocolate or your Marlboros. God wants you, all of you, without reservation.

And ain't that good news?

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan. After decades of preparation – which looked strikingly similar to quietly living his life in Nazareth, working as a carpenter – Jesus is plunged into his calling, brought fully into his true purpose and mission on earth. And he begins it not by turning back down the road toward civilization, but by crossing the Jordan and walking off into the wilderness.

You may have heard of John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” which is a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve. Less well-known is his sequel, “Paradise Regained.” Not surprisingly, the subject of this poem is Jesus Christ; however, the work doesn’t focus on his birth, his death, or his resurrection… but on the subject of our Gospel reading today. John Milton sees, in the temptation in the wilderness, the rebirth of hope. By giving in to temptation, Adam and Eve lost, for all of humankind, the possibility of life lived in God’s presence. By resisting temptation, Jesus Christ restored that possibility.

The first of the three temptations is interesting, not in the least because there is nothing at all wrong with what Jesus appears to be tempted with. Food is vital to life, and after forty days with none, Jesus is at a point where he must eat if he wants to keep on living. However, it isn’t the “what” that is the temptation here. It’s the “why.”

Look at the phrase from our reading: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” One noted Bible translator, Paul Achtemeier, points out that the word for “if” here, “ei,” means “to be, to exist, to happen, to be present,” and should this be translated “Since you are the Son of God…”

This is significant because it means that Jesus doesn’t have to prove to himself that he is God’s son, He knows he is. In fact, even the devil is willing to concede the point! The question, the temptation, is “how should God’s son act?”

Jesus’ response to the devil is an echo of Deuteronomy 8, verse three: “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Jesus is asserting that, from the outset, he exists not to do his own will, but the will of his Father in Heaven. This is true in this most basic of ways, getting some food, as it is on the night he is betrayed, when he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It is true this day in the lonely wilderness, and on the day he hangs on the cross in front of passersby who both mock him and plead with him to assert his authority and save himself from death.

The next temptation deals with the basic human desire for power, or, perhaps more specifically, the question, “if Christ is King, what does the Kingdom look like?” Does it look and act and feel like a political and military empire, overpowering and eliminating all lesser kingdoms, consolidating the planet and all within it under the banner of the one true and living God? No problem, the devil says, I can make that happen in an instant, just say the word.

On its surface, this temptation, to worship the devil, seems ridiculous! How could he even begin to imagine that the son of God would bow to the devil? How could this be a temptation?

I don’t know, but here’s what I think: Certainly, any kingdom Christ establishes will be eternal. And yes, eliminating the cruelty of the Romans, the hedonism of the Herods, and the rampaging lunacy of the tinier outlying kingdoms dotting the globe in those days would be a very good thing for the people suffering under the oppression of despots and emperors and kings. And sure, the sooner the better.

After all, Jesus had seen the suffering, had felt the terror of a Roman legion marching in to town, had seen people struggle between feeding their family or paying taxes. Given who he was, why wouldn’t he want that to end forever, why wouldn’t he want to bring peace and security and comfort to as many people as he could, as quickly as he could?

But the price is, of course, too high. In any case, Jesus’ Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is a different kind of kingdom. If God is God, then power, especially earthly political and military power, is irrelevant. God has all power, and as such, doesn’t need to prove that power, doesn’t even need to have that power acknowledged, it just is, and it is absolute. Because of this – the complete assurance of power and authority without qualification, the Kingdom of God turns our expectations of empire on its head. The Kingdom of God is thus not predicated upon power, but upon service. Jesus will tell his disciples, and all who follow him, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

This third temptation seems another call for Jesus to prove himself. And again, if we make the devil’s challenge begin. “Since you are the Son of God…” as I mentioned in the first temptation, then Jesus isn’t proving anything to himself or to the devil. They both know full well who he is.

And no, I don’t know how he got to the top of the Temple, whether he was physically there or there in a vision or in his mind’s eye – though I suspect that any presence less than immediate and physical would change this event from a temptation into an academic discussion. I think he is somehow right there, standing at the highest point of the Temple, the hot Judean winds whipping at his robes, the noise of the priests and people and animals and merchant’s stalls faint and far below.

You and I both know who you are, the devil says. Prove it to all of them, now, and get on with it. Skip all this slow, plodding, teaching and preaching and healing stuff, jump right past the resurrection and in to people knowing who you are and worshipping you. Show ‘em the sizzle, get their attention.

By this time, someone, perhaps a youngster, has happened to look up and spot Jesus, way up at the very top of the Temple, and soon Jesus sees everyone below looking up at him, their faces like a field of flowers turned toward the sun. Imagine just leaning forward a bit, his feet slipping from the stone of the Temple, the wind rushing past as he falls, and at the last moment, a band of heavenly angels appearing out of nowhere, boom!, and catching him!

Ha! Let them try and doubt him then!

If Jesus does something this spectacular, this obvious, there will be no question in anyone’s mind who he is, and the path to making him king will be short and sweet. Faith will be a moot point, because the proof, right before their eyes, will be inarguable.

Not believing in Christ will be as impossible as not believing in gravity. Jesus would make an end run around the cross and establish his Kingdom based on the fame and fortune of a very entertaining stunt.

But Jesus understands not only who he is, but what that means for himself and for the world he came to save. The signs he does are done not simply as an indication of who he is, but in order bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Jesus knows that his purpose is not to serve himself. Those people, those faces staring up at him from far below, it is about them. These lost sheep need a shepherd, not a stuntman. So he steps back from the edge and begins the longer, more painful, more terrifying and lonely journey – the one that leads, inexorably, to Golgatha.

Throughout these forty days of Lent we are called to contemplate the life of Jesus, his path of service and obedience to God, his living out his identity as the Son of God. Since as Christians we are called to continue the Spirit-led proclamation and enactment of God’s kingdom, we must ask ourselves some identity questions, personally and congregationally.

Who am I? Who am I, really, and what is God calling me to do? Who are we? Who are we, the church in all its expressions, really, and what is God calling us to do? As Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, we are also tempted to make shortcuts, to abandon the task God has given us in favor of the easy ways, the ways of self-fulfillment, power, and spectacle.

But if all we are is a gathering of like-minded people, who share a preference for a certain form of theology and worship, then the things we do should be designed to provide for our survival, to take care of ourselves. Shortcuts, power grabs and self-aggrandizement not only make sense, they are vital.

But if we a people whom God has called together to be the Body of Christ: Called to be Christians, gathered around Word and Sacrament, Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Sent into the world to spread the Love of God, then the things we do must be designed to care for the world, for others. No shortcuts.

Now, unlike Jesus, we will fail at times. We will give in to the temptation to take the easy way, to grab power, to take care of Number One at the expense of someone else. Lent is the time for confessing our failures and redirecting our steps to the way of Jesus. And through the power of the Spirit, we, too, can resist the temptations of the devil.

Since we are the children of God, let us step away from the edge, and walk the narrow path that leads to the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Transfiguration, Transformation, Hope...

Thanks this week to the writing of Wayne Brouwer, Scott Shauf, and Kathryn Matthews Huey. Next time, I really want to explore the reaction of the crowd to the healing of the boy, and its similarity to the reaction of the disciples when the cloud enveloped them.

Visible miracles, palpable encounters with the living God, all of these bring fear and amazement, all of these are examples of life on the mountaintop, in the thin places betwixt Creator and created. I'd love to experience a fraction of that kind of wonder when I see one of those mundane, run-of-the-mill, daily miracles, the little hints God gives us that we are not alone, that there is hope - a tree, a smile, a really good cup of coffee...

Luke 9:28-43
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the strange by-products of taking our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is that, sometimes, the text seems to be starting off in mid-thought, or leaving something important out of the story. “Now about eight days after these sayings…” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Eight days after what sayings?”

Today’s reading takes place immediately following the familiar account of Jesus asking the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the the Christ of God ,” which signals a turning point in their understanding of Jesus. No longer merely “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Man from God,” “Maybe/possibly ‘The One Who Is To Come,’” but the Messiah, Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus warns them to silence, then says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life... If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So eight days after these challenging, these explosive words, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop.

So it’s no wonder that some people wonder if this passage is factual, or if it’s some kind of holy myth that developed later and was inserted into the Gospel, or a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow got misplaced and re-located, back in the middle of Jesus’ ministry instead of right at the end. Neither of these, of course, is my opinion. I think, rather, that the event takes place at the perfect point in the narrative. Jesus has said some very hard things to the disciples. Though they would repeatedly misunderstand and somehow ignore what he was telling them, Jesus has told them how he would die – and challenged them to join them in that death sentence.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of The Theological Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions, wrote this elsewhere: “When Christ calls a man to come and follow, he bids him come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death which is crucifixion.

So when Jesus goes to the mountaintop, perhaps it is a point in time where the disciples need to see who Jesus really is, why he’s really here, and what really lies beyond the cross.

Wayne Brouwer calls the Transfiguration “one of the most impressive Christological moments, when the fullness of deity becomes obviously human and the fullness of humanity becomes unquestionably divine.” This moment on the mountaintop is the confirmation of who Peter confessed Jesus to be: not just another itinerant Rabbi, not a man with really compelling ideas and a knack for helping hurting people get back on their feet again, but the Christ.

Or maybe Jesus took Peter, James and John up there to pray, because that’s what Jesus did, he prayed. Most of the time, it seems, when Jesus goes off to pray what he gets is interrupted: “hey, people are looking for you…” so it wouldn’t, in my mind, be much of a stretch to think that the events of the Transfiguration were as big a surprise to Jesus as it was to the rest of them. Maybe Jesus needed to be reminded of who he really is, why he was really here, and what really lay beyond the cross.

The three disciples were, it seems, eavesdropping on a private conversation, where Moses and Elijah were speaking very pointedly to Jesus about “his departure.” N.T. Wright points out that the word for “departure” is exodus. Moses was the leader of an exodus which freed God’s people from slavery to the Egyptians, and into the Promised Land. “In the new Exodus,” he writes, “Jesus will lead all God's people out of the slavery of sin and death, and home to their promised inheritance – the new creation in which the whole world will be redeemed.”

I imagine the scene kind of like this: Jesus is praying, and the disciples are trying to pray, too, but it’s late, and it’s dark, and sleep is fighting to take its rightful place within them… then something happens. Maybe suddenly, or perhaps they notice that the moonlight isn’t casting its gentle shadow anymore… it’s being overtaken by a brighter light, from a different direction, a light that gets brighter until it is painful to look directly at, a light unlike the moon’s, which is merely a reflection of the Sun’s rays, but light from a Source – and that source is Jesus! It hurts to look, but look they must, frozen, gape-mouthed, forgetting to breathe.

Maybe the radiance diminishes as Moses and Elijah get ready to go, I don’t know, but something signals that this glorious event is nearing an end… and of course, who would want it to end? So Peter does what Peter does, which is to be the extrovert, trying to be helpful, but just jumping out in front of everything, making himself the focus of attention even though he really isn’t wanting to do that, talking before he thinks, or, as our reading puts it, “not knowing what he said.”

I don’t want to think that God was shushing Peter when the cloud came down, but there is no mistaking what God is saying: “Guys, focus. This is important. This is my Son. This is the Chosen One. Listen to him.”

The Revised Common Lectionary, which is the source our denomination uses for our weekly Scripture readings, puts the section following the Transfiguration in brackets, meaning that it is optional. I don’t think so; rather, I see the mountaintop experience and what follows as two halves of a whole, for a couple of different reasons.

There, on the mountaintop, Jesus is the Christ of the journey’s end. In the Transfiguration we see not only Christ’s origin, but his destination. Peter and James and John are party to one of those times when the division between heaven and earth grows thin, and the Divine pokes through. It is natural to react as Peter did, to want to build houses there, to stay in that place, because this place, in the very presence of God, this is our home!

Christ came to transform us. He came to transfigure us with the light of God’s grace. What Peter, James and John are witnessing here is not just Christ’s destination, but their own destination too, and ours, yours and mine. We too will shine like the sun.

But we always come down the mountain, of course, we must. And there, in that crowd, and in that desperate father whose young boy is tormented by convulsions, we see a different image of our humanity - not the transfigured humanity that is our destination, but our disfigured humanity. Here in this fearful scene we are closer to the hill of Golgotha than we are to the mountain of transfiguration. This world is the one we are all too familiar with.

It’s a world where lives are preyed on by evil forces. It’s a world where humanity is denied. It’s a world where people’s destiny is a cruel parody of what awaits us when, with Jesus, we are risen.

And when we look around us we see life lived at the foot of the mountain rather than at the top. We see lives that, in the light of Transfiguration, were clearly never meant for us.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets: we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease: we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television: we were not meant for this. Every job lost, every home foreclosed: we were not meant for this. Every flood and earthquake and shooting and scandal: we were not meant for this.

Yes, Jesus performed healings as a sign of who he was, but I wonder if an additional motivation for all of the healings – the healing of the epileptic youngster, and every other poor person he came in contact with, whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice, was a sign for us, of what we are meant to be? Are not healings, in a manner of speaking, transfigurations? Changing what is into what it should be, what it will be?

We are transfigured by the blood of Jesus Christ, from people enslaved to sin and death to a new creation, each of us temples of the Holy Spirit, each of us embarked upon this new Exodus to our promised land, the now-and-coming Kingdom of God. We have been transformed by a God who, in the words of Max Lucado, loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way. This transformation, the transfiguration, is an ongoing process in our spiritual journey.

Jesus came down from the mountaintop because as wonderful as the experience was, as necessary as it was, the journey had to continue.

We are being transformed by Christ for a purpose, and a part of that purpose is to be a source of transformation, a guide to transfiguration, for the world around us.

We see this transformation in the lives of the Apostles. Following Pentecost, Peter and James and John, along with the rest of The Eleven, dedicated their lives to spreading the Gospel, to healing the sick, and ministering to the poor and the forgotten, to telling the world this great Good News! These eleven, who had been cowering, aimless, and silent, were transfigured into bold evangelists, powerful speakers, gifted leaders, fearless martyrs. They spoke truth to power, and cared for the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

They brought something new and wonderful into the lives of people, something unfamiliar to far too many of them: hope.

For most of its early existence, Christianity was considered the religion of slaves. People who had been excluded from fellowship with the Living God, whether because of the place they were born or because of some disease or defect, were being welcomed into relationship, were being transformed and transfigured by the love of God in Jesus Christ. For those who had no hope, who had been told they were not good enough for God, hope was more than restored in Jesus Christ! The doors to the Kingdom of Heaven, to relationship with the Living God, had been, not simply flung open wide, but torn off the hinges and thrown away.

And just imagine: these men and women, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles and slaves and criminals and forgotten human beings, were being brought to the place of response to the Good News by people like Peter and James and John… who had denied Christ, who had hidden in fear in the dark days following the Crucifixion, who even though they had spent years living with and listening to Jesus didn't understand what it was all about, but who had themselves been transformed, changed, renewed and given hope in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

And it still goes on today. Men and women from every walk of life – rich and poor, in boardrooms and prison cells, in high-rise apartments and mud huts, in living rooms and in homeless shelters, in cathedrals and nightclubs – are transformed by the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are brought to that transformation by men and women just like you and me. Not well-known evangelists or powerful speakers, and not by the person in the pulpit, but “regular folks” who have experienced the transfiguring work of the Holy Spirit and are sharing it, in word and in deed, with the world around them.

Where streets of gold replace unpaved streets and reeking alleys, this is what we were meant for. Where death and sickness and poverty are replaced by glory shining like the sun, this is what we were meant for.

This Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the reality of God hanging broken, bleeding, naked, humiliated, and dead on a Roman instrument of torture… that moment is where our journey truly begins. Scripture tells us that the Resurrection is God’s seal of approval over Christ’s finished work on the cross. Moreover, when Christ defeated death, utterly and completely humiliating it, our hope was secured.

There is hope in the daily transformation, there is hope in the work we do to transfigure the world, there is hope in the resurrection, where we will see God face to face.

There is hope.