The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
E. Bevan Stanley
February 23, 2020
From the Gospel: Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
When Jesus was baptized, there was a voice from heaven that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He had not yet done anything yet, and God was already pleased with Jesus. Now, three years later, Jesus takes his three closest disciples up a mountain. There the disciples are given a vision of Jesus in his divine glory. Then the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This will mark the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he will fulfill his earthly destiny. On both of these occasions, the declaration of God’s love empowers Jesus to carry out his mission. It is like a mother saying to her second grade child on a Tuesday morning, “I love you; go and make me proud.” It is love that empowers the performance.
Now let’s go back and look at the whole story. Six days earlier, Jesus had asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter blurted out that he was the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus commends Peter for having this insight, and declares it to be a revelation from God. Now Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain. On top he is transfigured. The Greek is “metamorphosed.” It means his form was changed. The text says, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” That is, in this new form he is revealed in his divine glory. This is another epiphany or manifestation of God in the human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Then Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus. They represent respectively the Law and the Prophets. It is important for us to remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is rooted in the religion of Israel. We cannot understand Jesus if we do not grasp that Jesus is a Jew. Then comes the heavenly voice. “This is my Son; listen to him.” Jesus is more that either the Moses the law giver or Elijah the prophet; he transcends the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets express God’s word; Jesus is God’s word. God tells us to listen to him. On hearing the voice of God, the disciples are terrified and fall prostrate to the ground. Then the text says, “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
What are we to make of this story? First there is the vision of Jesus in his
divinity and the voice of God. This paralyzes the disciples with terror and awe. They are incapacitated by the revelation. They cover their faces. Now Jesus comes to them, tender and comforting. He touches them. He tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” As they raise their heads and look around, they see him alone and restored to his normal mortal form. Moses and Elijah are gone. The radiance is gone. They have their friend back. Only now they know more clearly who he really is.
Finally, as the four are descending the mountain, Jesus tells them to tell no one until after he dies and is resurrected.
On this the last day before Lent begins, the Church invites us to an experience of awe. We see Jesus in his divine glory. This very building is built to remind us of the glory of God and invite us to worship. We come not get something we need, as if we were going to the Stop and Shop. We do not come to find some peace and quiet. No. We come to worship God Almighty. We come to praise God for being God. We come to be awed and overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty and love of God. Only then might we feel the touch on our shoulder or the whisper in our heart that says. It’s OK. It’s me, Jesus. Get up and do not be afraid.
This is what we will need for our journey toward Jerusalem and the terrible and wonderful events that we will experience there. We need to know we are children of God. We need to know that we are loved. We need to get up and not be afraid. We need to walk with Jesus on this path without fear, knowing we are loved, and that the most ordinary things and people in our lives are disguises for the glory of God.
In the words of Second Peter: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
This is our mountain top. Now we follow Jesus to Jerusalem. We will not speak of his glory until Easter, when he is risen from the dead. Now Jesus comes to us, tender and comforting. He touches us and tells us, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
March 17 St. Paul’s (Bantam) – Love Conquers All (John 17:24)
We hope to resume in two weeks time. 3.13.20
9:45am – 10:30am
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany E. Bevan Stanley
February 16, 2020
Moses said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life . . .” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Moses offers us a choice: life or death, blessing or curse. “Choose life!” he exhorts. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses giving his last lecture. He has come to the end of his life and wants to summarize all the lessons taught by God in the forty years since the Israelites left Egypt. Most of his audience was not present when God rescued the Israelites from Pharoah. They were not there when Moses came down from the fires and darkness of Sinai with the stone tablets of the Law. Moses is summarizing all of the lessons of forty years in the wilderness. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” All we have to do is observe God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. All you have to do is . . . It’s not so easy to do all those things in the Law. Most of us don’t even know what they are.
Then Jesus comes along and makes it simple. All you have to know is that there are two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. I don’t have to keep killing sheep and goats. I don’t have to go to the temple three times a year. This sounds like a much better deal. Then we get these sayings from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He is taking the law and making it much harder. Most of us manage to avoid murdering people, but now Jesus says we can’t even be angry at them. Most of us avoid adultery, but Jesus says we should not objectify another. The Law says we should keep the oaths we make. Jesus says that every word we utter should be trustworthy whether it is an oath or not. He is not modifying the Law to make it easier to live with. He is raising the bar so that the keeping it will bring us life. And as Jesus will demonstrate later, what brings life often feels like dying.
Last week we heard him say that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Last week’s reading ended with him saying that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now he tells what it takes for our righteousness to be greater. We not only have to do the right things, we have to think and feel the right things. We not only have to refrain from killing people, we have to not want to kill them.
If we see these sayings of Jesus as a new set of do’s and don’ts, this will not seem like good news. It’s just plain too hard. But maybe Jesus is not giving us a new law, but a new teaching. Maybe this is part of the blessings with which he started the sermon. Here is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor:
“What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. What if these are not virtues we should aspire to but what if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive– what if it’s performative? …meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself. Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”
Jesus’ re-interpretation of the commandments is not just an add-on, it is a whole new way of thinking about them. Let’s start with the last one about not swearing oaths. I went to a Quaker high school and a little of that wonderful tradition rubbed off on me. One thing that makes the Society of Friends different many other Christians is that they take this scripture literally. They will not take an oath. When called to testify in court, at least in Pennsylvania, they are allowed to “affirm” what they say rather than to take an oath on the Bible. What is all this fuss about oaths? Jesus says that a person’s word should be sufficient on its own. If you need to add an oath, it means that your word by itself is not trustworthy. If your word is trustworthy, then no oath is going to make it more so. “Anything more comes from evil,” he says. Only evil will create the need for oaths. Be true, transparent, and trustworthy and life is a lot simpler. Make your words and your thoughts match. Make your insides and your outsides match. Have integrity. The other examples he gives are the same, make your thoughts as peaceful as your actions. Think of people as persons not bodies.
If we live our lives in this simple way, we will be blessed, we will be a blessing to others, and we will live in a world of blessing.
Now a disclaimer. I shouldn’t be preaching this sermon. My life is not so integrated much of the time. I’m working on it. But I have had glimpses of what this life can be like. In the meantime, as I work on myself, I find I have growing compassion for everyone else. For we all are not as good as we should be in our choices and actions. And we are all made far better than we know by a God who loves us and never makes junk. If Pastor Bolz-Weber is right, and this Sermon on the Mount is not about more rules but about pronouncing a blessing, then our judgment of ourselves and others vanishes. Here is a story from the Desert Fathers of the fourth century Egypt.
A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abba Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abba a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.
This is the kind of world Jesus is pointing to. We will not be concerned about another’s sins while we are still working on our own. We are not going to be angry at someone while we are still working on our own frailties. We will not see another’s outside without understanding there is an inside that we cannot see. We will find our best selves and best blessings within the commitments to which God has called us. There will be little joy in fleeing from them. We will not artificially prop up our words with oaths. Our word will have to be as true or as untrustworthy as we are.
We will choose life and blessing for ourselves and for our world.
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
E. Bevan Stanley
February 9, 2020
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are light of the world.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Well, that’s a nice thing for Jesus to say about us. Then come the implications. We cannot lose our flavor. We have to shine for the world. He goes on to say that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets; he came to fulfill them. Fulfilling both the law and the prophets is a tricky thing, for there is a tension between the commandments and the prophets who bring the word of God to the people of God. The passage from Isaiah is a good case in point.
It starts with a word of judgment: Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. The judgment of God is not condemnation so much as it is telling the truth to our faces. If the truth is that we have not been living up to our call to be holy and loving, then God hopes that when we hear the truth, we will be moved to change our behavior. The prophet pictures the people as observing the religious traditions. They complain to God: Why do we fast and you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? God responds: Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. . . Such fasting as you do today will not make your voce heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sack cloth and ashes? Will you call his a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Do you think that going to church on Sunday or getting ashes on Ash Wednesday impresses God? That’s a rhetorical question.
Then God goes on: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Who in our society are afflicted with the bonds of injustice, burdened with a yoke they did not choose? There are many, of course, but this Black History Month, which might suggest one such group. Next Sunday we will show the movie “Traces of the Trade” that points to the complicity that northern traders had in the lucrative trade in slaves. Even today, any black person who is stopped by a policeman is facing a real possibility of being shot. And what about workers who are paid only one three hundredth as much as their bosses? Workers whose real pay adjusted for inflation has not increased in fifty years, while the executives’ pay has skyrocketed? Can you think of other cases in our country where people are oppressed?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? We do a little better in this regard. Our food pantry is a success. It only operates one day in thirty, but it is a help. Nevertheless, we have the technology and land to feed every person on earth, yet many die of starvation every day. That means that our politics and priorities are at fault. We do not have the will to do what it takes to keep people from dying when we throw away vast amounts of food in this country. But if we did, then our light would break forth like the dawn, and our healing would spring up quickly; our vindicator would go before us, the glory of the LORD would be our rear guard. Then we would call, and the LORD would answer; we would cry for help, and he would say, Here I am. Ah, life in the subjunctive!
In case we didn’t get the point, the Prophet continues: If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Then your light shall rise in the darkness. This is how we are to be lights of the world.
It is not enough for each of us to be a good person. The Prophet says we are to be engaged in public life. It is our job as a people, as the people of God working together, to be the light of the world and to confront oppression. We are to take on systemic evil; we are struggle against the principalities and powers of this world. Democrat and Republican don’t matter. What matters is are we going to work for freedom? Will we work to remove the yoke of oppression from those who are oppressed? Nor does it matter if we feel we ourselves are oppressed, or if we find ourselves among the privileged and see that others around us are oppressed (and most of us have a foot in both camps). It’s still our job to end it. And if we say, this is too much, these problems are too great, then we can consider how we find the power in cooperation, in organizing resources, in working together to take on these challenges. Then you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is fond of pointing out, Christianity is both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. While it is inappropriate for the preacher to advocate a particular candidate over another, we are called by our Lord to be active in public life. We are called to engage in politics with a small “p”. How we are to do this is another huge question. What is not in question is that our country and our world have way too much oppression in them. We Christians need to be working to lessen it.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot . You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”