Tag Archives: Mystery

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.

John 13:1-17, 31-35b and Exodus 12:1-14 “Confusion and Mystery” [Or A Sermon for Maundy Thursday]

John 13:1-17, 31-35b and Exodus 12:1-14 “Confusion and Mystery” [Or A Sermon for Maundy Thursday]

Caitlin Trussell on April 17, 2014 for Augustana Lutheran Church

 

John 13:1-17, 31-35b Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

[Read Exodus text at end of sermon]

 

Here we are beginning what’s been come to be called the Three Days.  Lent is drawing to close and inasmuch as Lent is a deepening, the Three Days begins with this evening of Maundy Thursday and takes us deeper yet.  There are many people who don’t take the Lenten elevator down to these levels. They become darker and more confusing.

We start with the Exodus story of Passover.  The Hebrews are gearing up to leave Egypt, their home and their enslavement going back hundreds of years.  They have to pack fast and be ready to move fast.  Pharaoh will not be happy.  It’s probably safe to say that he and many other Egyptians will grieve deeply well beyond the Hebrews departure.  After all, the slaves will be gone and their first born boys will be dead.  The Hebrew people take the unleavened bread, the fast-food of their time, and get out of Egypt with nothing but turmoil behind them; turmoil that will close in fast on their heels as they head out into exile.

This time of disorientation, this time of freedom, is then to be remembered for all time.  The last verse of the reading today says, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”  In the ensuing centuries, Jewish people all over the world remember God’s act of freeing their ancestors from slavery in the celebration of Passover.  The time of confusion organized into a ritual of remembrance.  Remembering what God has done, leaving the door open for what God will do next.

From the Exodus we fast-forward to the first century.  Jesus is in a room with some friends…and an enemy.  And Jesus does something startling.  He takes off his robe and puts a towel around his waist.  These actions of disrobing and girding are the not-so-subtle movements of a warrior preparing for battle.[1]  But then Jesus takes a knee in a position of surrender.  He begins to wash feet in a way that no ordinary host, and certainly no warrior, ever would.  This is, after all, a dirty task ordinarily taken on by the slaves of the household.  Interesting, isn’t it?  That we just talked about freedom from slavery and here Jesus is willingly taking on the work of a slave.  Note that everyone gets their feet washed.  Everyone gets clean feet including Judas.  Judas who will end up betraying Jesus not too much later in the story and Peter who will deny that he ever knew Jesus.

The same Peter who does not want Jesus doing the work of a slave by washing his feet suddenly becomes the Peter who wants Jesus to wash his whole body.  Peter is insistent in two different directions.   Peter seems to be trying to figure out this latest twist in the action and how to respond.  His effort to keep up with Jesus’ meaning leaves his head spinning and, once again, has him saying things that make no sense.  Although we can’t blame him really – Jesus takes first prize for saying confusing things.

Just before the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, he makes a speech to his disciples that includes him saying, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”[2]  Jesus washing the feet of his disciples gives us a hint of what this light in the darkness looks like, what God in the world looks like.  Like a warrior, girded for battle, who takes a knee in surrender and empties himself for those around him.

From there, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[3]  And with this, the disciples’ confusion hits a new level.  Jesus’ command, his mandatum from which we get the term Maundy Thursday, precedes his death on the cross but includes his death on the cross.[4]  The mystery of what Jesus is doing during the foot-washing and what Jesus will do on the cross is utterly confusing to everyone involved.  This may partly explain why many people don’t take the Lenten elevator down to these levels.  After all, how are we to engage in the mystery of these Three Days that begin with a foot-washing and end in a tomb?

The short answer is that we don’t.  We don’t engage the mystery.  The mystery engages us.

At Christ’s command, he organizes our confusion into a ritual of remembrance.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says.  But it is not only ritual and it is not only memory.

Christ is untamed by the tidiness of the table and the reverence with which we approach him.  This is Jesus after all – in bread and wine given and shed for you.  In this meal, the self-sacrificing love of God is poured out and through us with the fierceness of a warrior poured out in surrender – drawing us deeper into the mystery of the cross and claiming us in God’s name.

 

Exodus 12:1-14  The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 

 

 



[1] Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, lecture content from the course: Gospel and Epistles of John in Fall Semester 2010.

[2] John 12:44-46

[3] John 13:34

[4] Living Lutheran (online), “The Three Days: Traditions of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”  http://www.elca.org/en/Living-Lutheran/Ask-a-Pastor/2013/10/~/link.aspx?_id=8A91118FE3E341839E13E7444A33CBF6&_z=z