Archive for Transfiguration

Divine Human Touch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2017 by timtrue

hands_of_god

Matthew 17:1-9

What do you fear?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.

Does anyone remember my fist sermon here?  I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man.  As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man.  We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.

As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic.  Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”

More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”

What are your fears?

Is “Big Brother” watching you?  Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt?  Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?

What is it you fear?

Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.

Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?

Imagine.  You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured.  His face is shining like the sun.  His clothes become dazzlingly white.  Two ghost-like figures appear next to him.  And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!

These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us.  But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.

So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.

Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning.  Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass.  So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.

An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud.  Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist.  And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”

And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs.  And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!

And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”

And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath.  Surely, I must be hallucinating.  This is it!  I’m done for!  Call out the SAR bird!”

Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid?  At least a little?  For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?

The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.

Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.  Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.

*****

Jesus could have been like Moses.

Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus.  In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.

This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration.  Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.

There are numerous similarities:

  • Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Both have companions with them.
  • Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
  • Both hear God’s voice.
  • Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
  • And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.

But there is a key difference between the two accounts.

And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.

But he wasn’t.

And I’m glad he wasn’t.

And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.

So then, what is it?  What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).

Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Fine and well.

But he doesn’t stop there.  No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:

But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason!  God is testing you.  In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”

Now, Jesus could have been like Moses.  Jesus could have done this too.

But he isn’t.  And he doesn’t.

And I’m glad for that.

Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”

No lecture.  No admonition.  No teaching moment.  Just words of comfort and human touch.

What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’?  One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.

Which approach do you respond to better?

There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin.  Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?

In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.

*****

So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.

What is it we are doing here?

In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven.  They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.

Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai.  Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.

We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”

Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.

Today, here is our liminal space: church.  Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.

Now, take it a step further.  In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together.  Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer?  Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.

And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.

God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.

He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia.  Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”

Civil Engineering, Silicon Valley, and the Transfiguration

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2016 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 9:28-43

The shortest distance between Points A and B is a straight line.  Or so I’ve heard.

This holds true if you’re a civil engineer and Point A is a flooding problem and Point B is the installation of a culvert, you know, a kind of tunnel to carry the water away from the problem area the next time it rains heavily.

You may or may not know that I used to work for a civil engineering firm in San Antonio, once upon a time.  And this is in fact the kind of work I did with this firm: flood control work.

You can be sure that when a problem came our way we would plan as precisely as we could to go from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, taking the straightest line possible, with the fewest oversights and contingencies.

So, putting together a proposal required planning.  Lots of planning!

We’d look at drawings from previous projects in the problem area, trying to determine why something was flooding now and how future flooding could be averted.  We’d go out into the field, armed with various tools, surveying equipment, and a camera—always a camera—in order to obtain the present-day information we needed.  Then we’d return to the office where I’d sit at a computer, absorbed in AutoCAD, drafting information into a drawing; I’d develop and overlay a proposed design; I’d go over it all with the engineers; and we’d repeat whatever steps were necessary in order to go from Point A to Point B with the fewest surprises possible.

Next, when the city accepted our proposal, that’s when the often more difficult work began: the work of liaison between whatever contracting company was awarded the bid and city officials.

I’d have to step in on occasion and tell the gruff, tattooed contractor, I’m sorry to say, but, no, this culvert is not at the correct elevation; or, worse, you’ve installed it backwards.

The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line; and the civil engineering firm I worked for was that straight line.

But—to change the image now—what if Point B is an iPhone and Point A is Apple Inc. in 1984?

1984 is when Apple Inc. announced its revolutionary new computer, the Macintosh 128, via a commercial that first aired on Superbowl Sunday at a cost of something like $1.5 million.

Computer technology had come of age.  In fact, by 1984 some innovative types were already imagining the marriage of computers and touch-screen technology.

But how did Apple Inc. get from Point A to Point B?  Did it follow a straight line?  Back in 1984, did some forward-thinking people sit in an R&D lab somewhere and map this all out through drawings, meetings, and analysis, targeting a specific launch date of June 29, 2007?

No.

You know, as well as I, that Apple Inc. did not develop the iPhone through a thoroughly planned, Point-A-to-Point-B process; but rather through what’s called an iterative process.  It was a long journey, full of twists and turns, mistakes and failures, types and prototypes, trial and error.

Back in 1984, the future for Apple Inc. was unknown.  Or, to say it another way, its future was shrouded in a cloud.

So we have two images.

The first image, the one from civil engineering, let’s call establishment.  In the world of civil engineering there is an established way of doing things.  The City of San Antonio will call on several engineering companies to put forth a proposal on how best to fix a flooding problem.  The engineering companies make their respective proposals based on the established, time-tested ways of doing things.

The second image, the Apple Inc. image, let’s call innovation, for reasons that I hope are self-explanatory.

Now, a couple questions.

First, which of these two images aligns with Peter, James, and John on that day when they saw Jesus transfigured?  Isn’t it the second image?

Peter, James, and John are thoroughly confused here.  Not only are they overshadowed by a cloud physically, but so are they mentally.  The passage even says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake—”

Um, excuse me?  They’re weighed down with sleep but also awake?  Forget Peter, James, and John: I’m confused!

Then Peter, in his half-asleep-half-awake stupor, starts to move around excitedly and offers to make three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  Clearly he’s not getting it.

Next, just to make sure we the readers aren’t in the dark any longer, the text explains: Peter does not know what he was saying.

Finally, after this whole scenario comes to an end; after the cloud overshadows them all, they hear God’s voice, and suddenly find themselves alone with Jesus again, we read this: “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”

And they kept silent.  And they told no one.  And they were confused, befuddled, nonplussed, dumbstruck, flummoxed, mystified, bewildered—we get the point!

We call this the Transfiguration of Jesus.  But this is also just the beginning of the transfiguration of Peter, James, and John.  This is just the beginning of the process of groping through life and into the future for them, from a band of uncouth fisherman to the stalwart founders of the Christian Church.

You are Simon Peter, Jesus said, and on this rock I shall build my church.

You, Simon Peter, are Point A; and the Church is Point B.

Now, can you imagine Jesus saying, “And you’re going to get from Point A to Point B by sitting cloistered up in a room and getting out some parchment and planning, planning, planning until you’ve got a decent proposal, one that has analyzed and minimizes all possible glitches and contingencies . . .”?

No!  Peter, James, and John are going to have to grope their way through the cloud of the ancient Roman world.  And their way through it is innovation.

But I said I had two questions.  My first, which we’ve just answered, was, which of these two images—establishment or innovation—aligns with Peter, James, and John?  So my second question is, which of these two images aligns with the church today?

Isn’t it the image of establishment?

We want a new ministry, a new mission church, a new program, a new whatever.  Don’t we plan how to get from Point A—where we are—to Point B—the new ministry we desire—with as few contingencies as possible?

This is an establishment mindset.

But let me offer an even more specific example.  Now, this might hit a little close to home for some of you.  But I’m not trying to pick on anybody; I’m just trying to illustrate my point that the mainstream church today—including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma—possesses an establishment mindset.

So, here’s my example.  I’ve made a few changes around here in the last year or so.  Some have been accidental; some intentional.  But that doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that the single largest response I’ve heard to change is, “But we’ve always done it that way”; or some variation thereof.

Well, that response is the epitome of the establishment mindset.

And, by the way, that response is not a good reason not to make a change.

For instance, let’s say that every time I saw a $100 bill in the offering plate I stuck it in my pocket—not a $20 or a $10 or a $1 or any other denomination, just any and all Ben Franklins.  Eventually somebody would confront me.  (I hope!)  And I’d just smile and say, “But I’ve always done it this way, ever since I’ve been rector.  It’s my tradition.”

That’s not a good reason not to make a change!

Well, anyway, here’s where I’m going with all of this.

The mainstream church, including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, has had an establishment mindset for many a decade.  We’ve believed that if only we plan the right programs, preach the best sermons, build the right buildings, follow the tried and true examples of outreach, youth ministry, Sunday school, whatever—if only we follow the right recipe, we’ll cook up the most delicious church possible.

But the culture has largely changed over the last four decades.  We can no longer say that America is a Christian nation.  Practicing Christians are in the minority.  The church is no longer the establishment it once was.

St. Paul’s can’t simply be an established presence in our community and expect people from the neighborhood to come to us.  We need to take St. Paul’s to them.

What this means is that we need to rethink church.

But not like a civil engineering firm.

Rather, we must innovate, like Apple Inc.

We must be like Peter, James, and John, groping our way into a future that is shrouded in cloud.

We must experiment, troubleshoot, even fail—understanding that failure is simply part of the learning process—in order to move forward.  It’s an iterative process.

And it might even mean that we’ll end up changing some things from the way they’ve always been.

This Saturday the vestry and I will be on a retreat together.  It’s our annual meeting.  It’s also a time for us to get to know one another, to plan, and to strategize.

But not like a civil engineering firm!

So, there are some things I’m going to encourage the vestry to do in 2016, as we consider the future of St. Paul’s.  And today I’m encouraging you, as you are able, to do these things too.

First, I will encourage the vestry to value our traditions.

The Episcopal Church is big on tradition.  I’m big on tradition.  St. Paul’s is big on tradition—including many of its own, peculiar traditions.  As our church moves forward with a mindset of innovation, I will encourage the vestry not to eradicate any of our traditions without good reason.

In other words, I actually kind of sympathize with the statement, “But we’ve always done it this way”—even if I never want to hear it again!

Which brings me to my second encouragement: I will encourage the vestry to suspend judgment.

Here’s what I mean.  Innovation requires a safe place for discussion.  I will be asking the vestry this year to share ideas—about our worship space, about our mission, about what to do with that plot of land just beyond the playground.  A safe place for discussion means no idea is too small, no idea is too big, and no idea should be pushed aside just because we’ve always done it another way.  No one should ever feel ashamed for sharing an idea.

Help me and the vestry make St. Paul’s a safe place for sharing ideas—maybe even crazy ideas.

Third, we should build upon what we already know.

This goes back to valuing our traditions.  But, also, isn’t this the way true innovation works?

Apple Inc. didn’t arrive at the iPhone straight from the Macintosh 128; but after decades of trial and error building upon what they already knew.

Peter didn’t go straight from uncouth fisherman to church’s foundation.  He got there by building upon what he already knew.

I’m not advocating a blank slate here.  Rather, I’m encouraging the vestry and you to innovate with what we already have, from what we already know—from the uncouth fishers of men that we already are!

Fourth, and finally, I will encourage the vestry to fail.

(Gasp!)

That’s right.  I said fail.

But I mean this in the sense of Thomas Edison’s failures.  We’ve all heard how he failed more than a thousand times before he successfully invented the lightbulb.  This kind of failure is actually essential to learning and growth.  I want the vestry—I want this entire congregation—to learn and grow as we adopt a mindset of innovation.

We should anticipate failure along the way, as we grope our way into the church’s future together.  But we should also expect to learn and grow from these failures.  It is an iterative process.

Like Peter, James, and John, we are on a journey of transfiguration.  Therefore let’s not stifle the Holy Spirit, who wants to lead us on this journey!

God Touches Humanity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on March 2, 2014 by timtrue

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

The parallels between the stories of the Transfiguration—especially as it appears here in Matthew—and of Moses on Mount Sinai are too great to brush aside.  Think this through with me:

  • For starters, both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
  • Moses goes up on a mountain with three companions, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu; Jesus also goes up on a mountain with three companions, Peter, James, and John.
  • In Exodus, a cloud covers the mountain that Moses has climbed; in Matthew we read, “Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.”
  • Sinai’s cloud covered the mountain for six days before Moses heard the Lord’s voice; Matthew uses the same number, six days, to indicate the time that has passed since Jesus taught his disciples about the coming of his kingdom.
  • When Moses comes down from the mountain, he has to cover his face due to its radiance; Jesus’s face is said to shine like the sun, and his clothes become dazzlingly white.
  • In the account in Exodus the cloud looks like fire to the Israelites on the plain below; the cloud in Matthew is described as bright.
  • In Exodus the people hear God’s voice and are afraid (cf. 20:18-19); so too in Matthew, where we read that the disciples, overcome with fear after hearing God’s voice, fall to the ground.
  • Even the backstories are similar: Moses is born at a time when Pharaoh has issued a sentence of death upon baby Hebrew boys; in Matthew, Jesus is born under a similar sentence from Herod.

Matthew clearly wants us to recall Moses.

So let’s go back in time for a bit to wrap our heads around the significance of these parallels.

In the ancient near east, mountains were understood to be a kind of pillar, to hold the sky in place.  The earth, especially the valleys and plains—the lowlands—made up the realm of humans; whereas the sky made up the realm of the gods.  Mountains, then, formed the bridge between earth and heaven, between humanity and the gods.

If you’re at all familiar with Greek mythology, for instance, then you know that oracles occurred high up on mountainsides.  In fact, if you travel to Greece today, you can hike up Mount Parnassus and visit a preserved temple high up on the mountain where Delphic Oracles are supposed to have been received.

So, that Moses was high up on a mountain is significant.  For there he was in a kind of buffer zone, a region to which he could ascend and to which God could descend—a place for a divine encounter.

Here Moses was seen by the people of Israel as a mediator between them and God.

Jesus, too, almost certainly would have been seen by Matthew’s original audience as a mediator between God and humanity.  The Transfiguration taking place on a mountainside brings this idea of Mediator into the spotlight.

Matthew was intentional here, to be sure.  He wanted his audience to think along these lines; for he was about to point out a key distinction.

Returning, then, to our comparison of mountains, this key difference is seen in the fear parallels.

When the Israelites heard the voice of God they cowered in fear; and they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

So too when the disciples with Jesus heard the voice of the heavenly Father say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”—when the disciples heard this they were overcome with fear.

But listen to the words that follow each passage:

  • Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
  • But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

In Exodus, God’s voice is something of a test of mettle, or courage, in order that the Israelites would stop sinning.  But in Matthew, there’s none of this.  In Matthew, God actually touches humanity physically.

Do you see?  With so many similarities between the two passages and just this one key difference, this has to be what Matthew is drawing our attention to: Jesus is not just a mediator, but God himself; and in Jesus, God actually touches humanity!

No more mountains to climb!  No more mediators to come between us and God!  But actual, physical, directly divine touch!

Yet . . . this incredible truth that we learn from the Transfiguration in no way truncates the truth we learn from Moses.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is indeed a comforting god who touches each of us personally, perhaps even carrying us at times, like that popular poem suggests.

But God is at the same time infinitely awesome, so far beyond us that what we can know about him effectively amounts to zero.

Is this a paradox?  Perhaps.  But don’t let a puzzle interfere with mystery!

I like to think of it this way.  God is indeed much too big to be contained within the walls of my physical body, his temple.  For that matter, God is too large to be contained within the walls of this church, or within the walls of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, or within the Episcopal Church, or within the global Anglican Communion, or within all of Christendom, or even within all earth, heaven, and the universe.  Certainly a small piece of bread and a sip of wine cannot contain God!

But, on quite the other hand, God is so great, grand, awesome, majestic, and glorious that he comes to us in something just so simple as a small piece of bread and a sip of wine—in something just so simple that it is held in the palms of our hands—in something just so simple as physical touch.

In the Transfiguration of Jesus, God touches humanity.  In the Eucharist, God touches us.