Tag Archives: Christian

Spiritual and Religious – Acts 2:14a, 22-32 and John 20:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 23, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

In Genesis 1, the first account of creation, God’s spirit moved over the waters and created humankind in the image of God.  In Genesis 2, another account of creation, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into the first human.[1]  In the 18th book of the Hebrew Bible, Job writes, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”[2]  Eleven books later, in the book of Joel, “…the Lord said:  …I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [and] your old men shall dream dreams…”[3]  In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[4]  And in the Acts reading we just heard, Peter preaches on the breath of the Spirit just received on Pentecost.[5]  That’s so much Spirit in one sermon-opening it would be easy to think your pastor was ordained by Pentecostals![6]  Although I’m guessing some of you may still be back at “the first account of creation” and “another account of creation.”

These creation stories caught me in seminary.  First semester, first assignment in Hebrew Bible we had to read Genesis 1 and 2 and write a brief exegesis.  Not once in the prior 38 years had it occurred to me that these are two accounts.  Needless to say, my exegetical commentary didn’t go over very well with the professor.  It was a rude awakening for me on several levels, letter grade notwithstanding. The gift in it was a new experience of the Bible.  66 books written over many thousands of years by faithful people trying to understand God, their faith, and each other.  Recently I gave a Lutheran Study Bible to a new friend along with a brief introduction to what’s in it and an invitation to come back around with any questions that come up.  I also said, “It’s a weird book, sometimes the people writing it disagree amongst themselves.”  Internal disagreement is one of the things I love about the Bible as it echoes conversations about faith we have right up through today.  Although, discovering these biblical wrinkles can be one of the things that shakes up faith.  Faith can also be shaken by challenges of modernity, by confrontations with other religions, or by suffering we see and experience ourselves.[7]  Just ask Thomas.

Thomas experienced trauma through the suffering and death of Jesus. He missed the first sighting of Jesus with the other disciples so they’re in a different place of faith than Thomas is himself. Jesus arrives and starts showing off his resurrected wounds in a way that reminds me of the scar scene from the movie Jaws, mesmerizing yet gruesome.[8]  Some of us crave a similar moment of certainty with Jesus, an unequivocal, supernatural revelation that proves faith once and for all time.  Most of us experience Jesus differently, the power of the Spirit moving slowly and methodically like water on stone.  The gospel of John calls this movement of the Spirit, “Word,” – “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[9]  The Word proclaimed by John is continuous with the breath of God at creation,[10] continuous with the Word made flesh in the earthly ministry of Jesus ending in glory on a cross,[11] continuous with Peter’s sermon inspiring the early church, and continuous with the Word we hear and speak today.  Therein lies the question.  How does the Word find us today? As Genesis tells it, the whole world is enlivened by the breath of the spirit. The assertion makes all people spiritual by definition, if not by confession. This aligns with nursing science that describes well-being as physical, emotional, and spiritual.  It also aligns with people who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”  But what about those of us who are religious?  How is the religious understood in continuity with the spiritual?  Just ask Thomas, and maybe Peter too.

Thomas is caught.  His friends are talking about something he hasn’t experienced first-hand.  These people are his people but he’s on the outside even though he’s in the same room with them.  It makes me think of the conversation that I have with new and continuing visitors – that there are as many different reasons for being here together as there are people here.  Gathered by the Holy Spirit into this time and place, we receive faith through Word and sacrament and we practice faith through worship with other people.  Continuous with the faith of the early church enlivened by the Spirit and proclaimed by Peter.  Religious Christianity involves a people and a practice that proclaims something about Jesus, something lively, something universal for the world, and something particular for each person.  For all and for you.

Religious Christian practice necessarily involves people’s stories about faith and life like Thomas and Peter’s stories. How else do people come to faith otherwise? This struck me again recently during Lenten worship on Thursdays. Different people each week chose Bible verses and talked about why they chose them related to their life of faith. Hearing about their faith and experience was powerful. Along this line, I recently invited a few people to be interviewed for a video about this congregation.[12]  The questions were simple.  What drew them here and what keeps them here? Now, of course, as a pastor I believe the Holy Spirit ultimately draws us all together. But the Spirit draws us by how we hear God’s voice.  I’ve made the comment to visitors and members alike to listen for the ways they hear God’s voice during worship and time with a congregation.  I also tell them that I know good colleagues and good congregations elsewhere if they’re still working on figuring that out.

In the video interviews, we hear people who worship as part of this congregation reflect on how being a part of this religious people and practice enlivens their faith. Again, hearing from each one of them talk about their faith and experience is powerful.  At one point, Nick makes the comment that being part of this congregation allows he and his family to talk about faith and “the time that it’s challenged, and the time that it’s raised up, the time that it’s evident, and the time that it’s absent.”[13]  Thomas and Peter both could speak to this fluidity of faith.  Thomas, trying to figure out faith in the aftermath of trauma.  Peter, a denier of Jesus during his trial in one moment and a public preacher in the next.  On any given day, in any given minute, our faith can be challenged or raised up or evident or absent.  Jesus meets us by the power of the Spirit in any and all of those moments.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In large part, the faith we are called to share deals not in what we see but what we experience in our lives of faith.  Jesus encounters us through the practices of bread, wine, water, Word, and each other as God’s voice is heard through people’s flawed and faithful stories.  As God enlivens all things by the breath of the Spirit, may God enliven you by faith, joining in the prayer of the Apostle Paul:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”[14]

[1] Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 2:7

[2] Job 33:4

[3] Joel 2:28

[4] John 20:22

[5] Acts 2:1-13

[6] Pentecostal [def] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Pentecostal

[7] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[8] Jaws Movie CLIP HD – Scars (Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures, 1975).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLjNzwEULG8

[9] John 1:14

[10] John 1:1

[11] John 13:31-31 and John 17:4-5

[12] “Why Augustana?” published March 30, 2017 and produced by Ken Rinehart for Augustana Lutheran Church.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up03qnMqB-0

[13] Nick Massie, Ibid.  Video: “Why Augustana?”

[14] Ephesians 3:14-19

Into the Mystic [OR Christian Mystics On The Love of God] Matthew 17:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Exodus 24:12-18 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

[sermon begins]

Wow.  Mind-blowing is the right description.  There is a ton happening in this short Bible story about the transfiguration of Jesus.[1]  The layers of thought are astounding.  Connections between Moses, Mount Sinai, and the 10 Commandments made with Jesus and his disciples’ ascent up the high mountain.  Shining Jesus on the high mountain parallels shining Moses after his mountain encounter with God.[2]  Dazzling white clothes of the divine are found in both the Old and New Testaments.[3]  And then there’s Elijah, the beloved, long-awaited, and oh-so-wise prophet.  Elijah who also encountered God and who anointed kings and prophets many hundreds of years previously.[4]  There are more time-bending parallels in this short story.[5]  The parallel that I invite us to hone in on today are the dwellings.

Peter wants to build three dwellings – “one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[6]  What is it about these dwellings that are so important?  Parallels are again made to the Exodus where encounters between the Lord God and God’s people happened in dwellings called the tent of meeting and the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant.[7] Peter’s understanding is that dwellings are tents where we meet God.  Jesus’ transfiguration is how God meets and dwells with us through the beloved son.[8]

God dwelling with us through Jesus is what Christian mystics encounter throughout the centuries.  Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, the list seems endless.  To be clear, mystics are not playing a theological mystery card whenever something is hard to understand.  Rather, God dwelling with us, God’s claim on us, is part of what mystics understand by faith as a promise from God.

Peter understands God dwelling. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus builds the church.[9]  Peter, one of the first Christian mystics. Peter’s understanding of God’s dwelling starts him talking about building dwellings.  Peter’s understanding is simply limited.  His architectural plans are shut-down by the voice from the blinding cloud but he is not rebuked for wanting to build these dwellings.  Then look what happens.  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.”  From Jesus touch, the disciples are able to look up from their fear.  The dwelling does not happen through Peter’s hands.  Dwelling comes from Jesus’ touch.  Jesus touches the three of them.  One way Christians have talked about God dwelling with us is by talking about God’s love.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 1300s.  Her faith was informed by the Bible and the church’s teachings.[10]  Her book was entitled, Revelations of Divine Love.  She writes:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.  It is only with the help of [God’s] grace that we are able to persevere…with endless wonder at [God’s] high, surpassing, immeasurable love.”[11]

Julian’s faithful witness emphasizes that God’s action comes first, before our action of loving.  Her prayers include the desire “to live to love God better and longer.”[12]  Prior to Julian, Bernard de Clairvaux lived at the turn of the first Millennia.[13]  He too wrote down his witness as a Christian mystic and leader in the history of the church.  The title for his major work is On the Love of God.  Bernard wrote about four degrees of love.  In the fourth degree of love, he writes:

“This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves…it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom [God] wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.” [14]

Bernard’s witness informed the faith of Martin Luther.[15]  So did Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, also a Christian mystic.  Augustine thought that our core human problem, our sin, is that we use God and love things rather than loving God and using things.  Martin Luther was a 16th century Augustinian monk.  Parallels abound between Augustine and Luther.  Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism are one example. They each begin with the statement, “We are to fear and love God…”  I find myself wondering about loving God through this Augustinian lens as we hear Peter talk about dwellings and Jesus’ touch that redirects Peter’s understanding.

Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, the part of the Apostle’s Creed when we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, reads, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”  Luther is speaking from a really low theological anthropology here, meaning that we are drawn to faith by God not by our own intellectual striving – again, very Augustinian.  Just as we are brought to faith in Jesus by God’s power through the Holy Spirit, we also love God by God’s power through the same Spirit.

I often end my public prayers at the children’s sermon, in meetings, or pastoral care by saying, “We love you God, help us love you more, amen.” I picked it up several years ago from a faith-filled friend.  This prayer aligns with the witness of Christian mystics, including Luther’s explanation of the Third Article, because it is only with God’s help that we are able to love God. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  God already dwells with us through the beloved son.

Loving God and asking for God’s help to love acknowledges our need to move from using God to loving God – redirected only by God’s help.  May we all be so redirected by God’s self-sacrificing love in Jesus as we’re drawn into faith and dwell in the love of God.  We love you God, help us love you more.  Alleluia and amen.

 

 

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School.  Commentary: Matthew 17:1-9 for Working Preacher on February 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3172

[2] Exodus 34:29

[3] Daniel 9:1 and Mark 16:5

[4] 1 Kings 19:11-16

[5] Matthew 3:17 (at Jesus’ baptism)  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

[6] Matthew 17:4

[7] Exodus 33:7-10 and Exodus 40:2, 17-22

[8] Matthew 17:5

[9] Matthew 16:18 [Jesus said] “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

[10] Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics. (HarperCollins: New York, 1993), 68.

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 40

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 40.

 

Mystery, Merton and a Mountaintop – Luke 9:28-36

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 7, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 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. 33 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. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 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.

[sermon begins]

What is it you seek?  What is the thing you are sure would make you solidly more you in the world?  The situation or the feeling or the skill that would make your life complete.  For you it might look like finding a life partner.  Or dead-lifting your next PR. Or that ACT score.  Or that next job.  Or that next exotic destination.  Do you dress up the thing you seek in noble terms?  Do you pursue peace?  Wisdom?  Happiness?  Love?  Or maybe, just maybe, do you even seek faith?  Faith…noble seeking, indeed.

One such noble seeker was Thomas Merton. He lived as a Trappist Monk for almost thirty years in the middle decades of the 1900s.[1]  His raucous younger years ended in his 20s when he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani – a strict, ascetic monastic order.  Brother Merton traveled all of the world to speak.  He wrote over 60 books as well as poems and articles.  He’s known for seeking world peace and civil rights.  His biography is compared to Augustine’s Confessions.  He’s also known for seeking God.  One writer defines Brother Merton as a “spiritual seeker” rather than a spiritual “settler.”[2]

A few years ago, my third father, Larry, gave me Brother Merton’s book, A Dialogue with Silence, published almost three decades after he died.  The book is filled with Brother Merton’s personal prayers and drawings.  Each time I pray these prayers, I’m struck by the longing in his seeking.  The longing to find.  The longing to find God.  The longing to find faith.  The longing to find himself by finding God.  The first prayer in the book prays this way:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I’m following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does I hope in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [3]

Brother Merton’s prayers are a seeker’s prayers.  He is looking, longing for something.  Part of his looking and longing takes shape in following.  Following the rules of the monastic order.  Following Jesus through prayer.

Peter, John, and James also find themselves following Jesus through prayer.  The mountain-high praying expedition comes eight days after Jesus talks to them about his death and resurrection.[4]  Up the mountain they go, feeling more than a bit tired by the time Jesus’ starts praying.  “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”  Through the haze of heavy eyes comes the dazzling, beacon of Jesus. His ancestor friends Moses and Elijah join him appearing “in glory.”  A surreal, dazzling flashpoint that embodies the law, prophets, and grace in a single moment.  A Judean who’s-who that highlights the what’s-what for the Jesus.  His disciples are merely sleepy bystanders who witness it.

So much for witnesses. Bagging the peak, kneeling in prayer, and dazzling the disciples, ends in their silence about Jesus’ transfiguration.  We’re told the disciples keep silent in those days.  Their silence begs a question.  For whom does the light show take place?  It’s easy to make this about the disciples.  Their experience.  Their clarity about the Messiah.  Perhaps that is a happy side effect.  There may be more.

I know there are some of us in the congregation who can speak to having had or witnessed a mysterious experience.  Some of you tell me about them.  The conversation often begins hesitantly and very often happens at a bedside of someone who is dying.  The person who is within a few days of dying begins talking to people who have died before them.  Sometimes it’s a full conversation between the person dying and the one who has already died.  Sometimes people point.  Sometimes people will ask if you can see them too.

These conversations between the dead and dying have happened often enough in my hospice and pastoral work that I will give families a heads up so that they are prepared if it happens.  These conversations between the dead and the dying are inexplicable.  Those of us still living have no idea what it means although it’s tempting to try and explain the experience.

The 18th century Enlightenment of Western thought opened up the possibility of explanation for experience. 19th century Modernity promised that human ingenuity would result in inalienable truth and certainty.  Neurological and psychological explanations get trotted out to try and explain phenomena like the one experienced by people who are dying.  The 21st century shift towards Postmodernity is disillusioned with the modern promise, having experienced the limits and the threats of human understanding.  The timeline is not as tidy as this brief history of Western thought would make it seem.  Postmodern mystery is in tension with modern certainty as evidenced daily in the public square.

I, for one, am delighted to be a student of scripture in the postmodern context. You see, modernity trains all of us to be good scientists.  To make a hypothesis and see if enough evidence stacks up in support of it so that it can be true.  Postmodernism often leaves an open question with just a bit more room for the transcendent, for mystery.

One example of making room for mystery comes by way of Jesus’ transfiguration.  A modern might try to come up with an explanation of what happened or ask whether it did happen.  A postmodern revels in its transcendence – allowing for possibilities

A colleague of mine was in Augustana’s sanctuary and made the comment that its architecture communicates the transcendent even as is grounded by human experience.  From the long aisle that moves through the worshipers on a level floor to the stairs that go up to the first landing of the chancel to more stairs that go up to the communion table to the cross moving the eyes up to the high ceiling.  There is a sense of connection to the transcendent but also a sense of the limits of understanding it.

Peter, John, and James’ are connected to the transcendent with very little ability to understand it.  They witness the razzle, dazzle Jesus and his two long ago dead ancestors in the faith.  Jesus is a dead-man walking at this point in the story.  He’s just about to enter his last human days.  He starts talking to people who have died before him.  What if this dazzling moment is about Jesus and for Jesus in his few remaining human days?  What if it has nothing to do with his disciples or with us?

One of the charges of pastoral ordination from First Corinthians goes like this, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”  Another charge is to not give “false security or illusory hope.”  These may as well be charges to the priesthood of all believers.  All Christians.  There are times when what happens in Jesus is just simply not about us, our experience, or what we make of it.  It’s about Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  The disciples on the mountain with him are disoriented in a cloud of silence.  From the cloud comes God’s voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The disciples listen and remain silent.

In the words of preacher Gerhard Forde, “For who has heard of such a thing—that one is made right with God just by stopping all activity, being still and listening? What the words say to us, really, is that for once in your life you must just shut up and listen to God, listen to the announcement: You are just before God for Jesus sake!”[5]

Pastor Forde’s point, that we are justified for Jesus’ sake, raises more questions than answers.  One big question is, “Why?”  Scripture asserts that Jesus’s death on the cross is for you and for all.  Today, the mystery of the transfiguration seems to be about Jesus.

Christian mystics are a postmodern thread throughout history.  Perhaps these mystics are helpful conversation partners for us now.  The mystics, who have died before us, are in conversation with us through their writings today.  Brother Merton is one of them. He listened to God in silence. He prayed in silence. Here is one more of his prayers:

“…I feel as if everything has been unreal. It is as if the past has never existed. The things I thought were so important – because of the effort I put into them – have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what is was that mattered. That, perhaps is part of Your unanswerable question!”[6]

For today, let’s turn Jesus’ shiny moment over to him.  Let it be for his sake.  And, for today, let Jesus be for you…for his sake.  Alleluia and amen.

 

[1] Thomas Merton Biography. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx

[2] Anthony E. Clark. “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” Catholic Answers Magazine: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton

[3] Thomas Merton. Dialogues with Silence. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), vii.

[4] Luke 9:21-22

[5] Clint Schnekloth. “How I Learned to Be a (post)Lutheran.” October 28, 2015.  http://www.clintschnekloth.com/how-i-learned-to-be-a-postlutheran/

[6] Merton, 77.

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

February19, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Mark 9:2-9 – Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

 

 

I love the way the church marks time – around the life of Jesus and around the life of the Christian community.  I spent my early childhood in a Christian tradition that marked time in this churchy way but then grew up in one that didn’t and as a result now I’m very aware of being in time differently than many of my friends and family.  It took me awhile to get used to the liturgical year but I developed a love of this alternative way of moving through the world and moving through time.

The church year begins oh-so-softly with the flicker of candles in Advent, moves into the huge fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, of Emmanuel “God with Us”, followed by the festive 12 days of Christmas and then floods us these last seven weeks of Epiphany with all that Light, Light and more Light of Jesus’ life until we find ourselves here, at his Transfiguration, as Jesus’ very being dazzles on a mountaintop.

Jesus takes us with him and leads us up the mountain with Peter, James and John until we’re by ourselves and he is transfigured before our eyes, becoming dazzling white.  And, not only are we with Jesus, we’re with the heavy hitters of the past – Moses and Elijah who are, by their very being, challenging our ways of loving God and loving each other.  In the midst of all this, what has become of Peter, James and John?  Being there has terrified them because, well, who wouldn’t at least be on edge in this razzle-dazzle, time mash-up, supernatural Light show?

But Peter is reacting in this moment at a deeper level of terror too.  He is an observant Jew who celebrates the Feast of Booths, one of the three biblically mandated festivals in the Hebrew Scriptures that he himself celebrates year after year.[1]  He is also a good church historian one who is aware of the Jewish expectation laid out in Zechariah.  He remembers the temple talk about this “festival that was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom.”[2]

Put more bluntly, Peter is sure that Moses and Elijah being there is a sign of the end of the world as he knows it.  A world that God is now going to reclaim fully and completely in one massive, redeeming fell swoop.  On top of this mountain, Peter has caught the cosmic shift, and Peter is, quite respectfully, not going to let Moses and Elijah build their own booths for the big event – even if he is terrified!

Listen to what Peter says when he doesn’t know what to say because of his terror, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.”  I imagine Peter thinking that it’s good to be with Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the same time that it is good to be witnesses to this great cosmic moment in God’s time.  I can imagine him thinking that, “it is good to be me in this place with these people because I’ve been prepared to know what’s happening and I know what to do.”  I can imagine this because I have felt that clarity of being in the right place at the right time.  And I have also felt the longing of wanting to be there.  And then I began to wonder how much of Peter’s clarity about it being good to be there is born of Peter’s longing to be in the right place at the right time.  And then I began to wonder about how good it is for Peter to be up there on the mountain with the big three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  Peter, named by Jesus as the Rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, up there on that mountain in terror and this was good?  Peter, the Rock of the Church, terrified.

This Transfiguration story, especially Peter’s terrified role in it, has me wondering about the church in our time.  There’s a six-minute video making the rounds on Facebook this week of Diana Butler Bass’ perspective on the church in our uncertain age.[3]  She studied and taught American Religious History for many years and has been thinking a lot about being church in the 21st century.  The point that I carried away from her interview is that there are many outside of the church that still want to connect with God and still love the tradition of the church in some way but are not finding the connection.  She argues that faith is in the longing of everyone around us – us being the church.  While I think she and I would have a wonderful conversation about the origin of faith, more importantly in this moment, I want to suggest that we in the church long as well – perhaps similarly to Peter on that mountaintop.

We long for God to fulfill God’s promises – or at least our understanding of them – and we want the traditions of our ancestors to point us in the right direction.

We long for the task at hand to be straightforward and doable.  Like Peter, right? – Age of Shalom, Festival of Booths, let’s build some booths!

I hear this longing from pastors about the upcoming bishop election for this synod – that we need to elect someone who can imagine us into a new future for the church and tell us how to get there in a straightforward and doable way.

Let’s check back in on the mountaintop.  After Peter’s moment of brilliant clarity, while the terror is still a fresh, metallic taste on his tongue and his words about the good of “being here” hang in awkward silence, the cloud overshadows them – clouding out the vision, the light and Peter’s words – shrouding the small band on the mountain.  A cloud with supernatural sound effects no less, as the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  And the terror continues as they look around and see only Jesus.

So, like Peter, some in the church are made aware of God’s ultimate freedom to act in ways that dazzle the senses whether on a mountaintop or otherwise.  And, like Peter, some in the church are looking around and seeing only Jesus.  Jesus, who leads them down from the mountain to a very different hill – one loaded with crosses, and to a very different kind of terror – one loaded with death.   And, as church, we join Peter in this tension, caught between God’s dazzling power and God’s death on a cross, wondering what it is that we’re supposed to do now.

And it is right here, smack dab in the middle of that tension, that the Spirit gifts us in the scripture.  Jesus is the one who takes Peter, James and John and leads them up the mountain and back down again.  And Jesus is the one who tells them they can tell the story only after he has risen from the dead.  Jesus’ caution to the disciple teases us with resurrection of Easter but the trip down the mountain also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[4]  The way to new life is through the cross.  I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.”  And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”   The cross is the way through.  Peter is right.  It IS good for us to be here both tethered by tradition and set free…because Jesus is Lord and he unleashes freedom through the cross.  Jesus gifts freedom and the Spirit’s inspiration to imagine what might be next for you and for the church including the freedom to fail along the way.

Jesus, God with us full of life and light, stood on a holy precipice, a point of no return on his way to a death that reveals God who relinquished that life so that new life is possible.

Jesus, God with us, reassures us that we do not stand alone when staring downhill at the crosses that would claim us – whether they are ones upon which the church or we ourselves hang.

 

Jesus’ dazzles when he hangs with us in our terror,

shedding light in our darkest nights,

comforting us when we fall,

revealing the truth of our weakness, and

illuminating our need so that, when the cloud lifts,

we see only Jesus.

 

 

 



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot

[2] Sarah Heinrich on Working Preacher 2012 for Mark 9:2-9. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012

[3] Diana Butler Bass on Day1http://day1.org/3655-does_the_church_have_a_future__diana_butler_bass

[4] Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#