Where did you see God today?

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


Cassie and I moved to south Alabama in 2007, almost two full years after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Mobile Bay.  Two years might seem like a long time after a storm, but estimates were that it would take as much as a decade to rebuild after such a catastrophic event.  For three summers, I joined the Saint Paul’s youth group on a trip to work at Mission on the Bay in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.  To give you an idea of the extent of the work, we were still demolishing houses in 2010; five years after the storm.  Mission on the Bay was a joint venture between the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and the local Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  It welcomed teams of youth, college students, and adults year-round to help people rebuild their homes and their lives.  They offered a place to stay, three square meals a day, and the case work, tools, and expertise required to do the job safely and effectively.   Because of the wide variety of groups, they chose not to offer any sort of chapel service or structured devotional time.  Each group leader was welcome to create their own.

Our first summer there, I did all kinds of prep work.  I created a devotional journal, complete with Scripture readings, reflection questions, and discussion topics.  It only took a day to realize the error of my ways.  After “sleeping” in a Quonset hut that barely got below 80 degrees, working all day in the south Mississippi July sun, and showering in a trailer with one-thousand percent humidity, none of us could think straight.  The devotion time was mostly just staring at each other followed by the airing of teenage grievances over who took the most breaks or drank the last Gatorade.  I quickly decided to change things up for year two.  This time, under the shade of a live oak tree that had seen more than its fair share of storms, I asked the kids the same question every night of our week together, “Where did you see God today?”  Their answers ranged from the sublime to the mundane.  We saw God in the neighborhood children who brought us popsicles at lunch time and in the elderly woman who had taken in as many neighbors as she could after the storm, many of whom were still there.  We saw God in a refreshing dip in Mississippi Sound and the ability to use power tools.  As the week went on, it became clear that God can be seen everywhere, if we are willing to allow the Spirit to open our eyes.

Peter, James, and John would have had no problem answering the “where did you see God today” question after this morning’s Gospel lesson.  I doubt they expected to experience such an awe-inspiring event as they joined Jesus on one of his usual hikes up the mountain to pray, but this day, something special happened.  This day, they got to see God fully present in the person of Jesus.  Not that God wasn’t always fully present in the person of Jesus, just that normally, their eyes couldn’t see it in its full glory.  Today was special.  Eight days after Peter had first declared Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had, in turn, first predicted his death for the sins of the world, Peter, James, and John saw, first-hand, that Jesus really was the chosen one of God.  With his face transformed and his clothing as bright as lightening, they saw the glory of God in him.  They overheard him talking with Moses and Elijah about the death that he had predicted, the final exodus the disciples so desperately hoped he could avoid.  They heard, with a mixture of fear and awe, the voice of God confirming what they had come to understand, Jesus truly was the Son of God.

Even in that profoundly miraculous moment, I suspect they could have missed it.  Had their eyes not been tuned to the Spirit’s frequency, all of this may have happened while they dozed off on the sidelines.  It happened on the night Jesus was arrested, why couldn’t it have happened here?  Yet, they were blessed in seeing.  They were tuned in with the help of the Spirit, and there, atop that holy mountain, they saw God.

It is so easy, as we go about the ongoing rhythms of life, to miss opportunities to see God.  The hamster wheel of work, school, vacation, sports practices, doctors’ appointments, or however we define our days and weeks can get spinning so fast that it becomes impossible to pause for even a moment to see God.  Which is why, I think it is important, from time to time, to break the routine, to be caught short, and to be forced to see things in a different way.  Take today, for example.  The Sunday before the start of school could be like every other Sunday on the calendar.  We could come, say our prayers, sing a few hymns (if we are so inclined), receive communion, and then get about our day; ignoring completely that God will be joining us on school buses and in classrooms for the next nine months.  Rather than just going about the routine of life, today we pause, and look for God.  We will, in a few minutes, take time to pray God’s special blessing upon students, teachers, support staff, school board members, parents, and volunteers as a new school year begins.  After that, we will gather our prayers around an altar made of paper boxes and ask God to open our eyes to see his hand at work in the world about us to be empowered for ministry through the bread and wine, the body and blood of his Son.

God is already present in these one-hundred-twenty-thousand sheets of paper.  They were purchased from my Discretionary Fund, thanks to your generosity, and will be donated to Parker Bennett Curry and Dishman McGinnis Elementary Schools where they will take a small portion of the burden off hard working faculty who serve some of the most vulnerable in our community.  You may recall from my third sermon at Christ Church, that for years I have volunteered at Foley Elementary School.  I told you the statistics of fifteen hundred students, 80% of whom are in poverty and 50% who come from single parent homes.  This week, I had the chance to meet Angie Slocum, the school counselor at Dishman McGinnis, an elementary school seven blocks that way (points to reredos).  Angie told me the story of a school that has grown by nearly 50% over four years ago and now serves almost 500 students, 99% of whom are on free and reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  That is a 99% poverty rate in our own backyard.  I saw God there.  I saw God in the 80 volunteers who mentored children last year.  I saw God calling us to help mentor the nearly 80 others who were still on the waiting list.  I saw God in teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, and janitors who were working, with immense pride, to ready their school to meet the needs of their students.  I left the school and immediately filled out my volunteer application.  I have plenty of extra copies, so let me know if you’d like to join me at Dishman McGinnis to see God and be God’s hand at work helping some of the least in our community experience God’s love while receiving an opportunity to find their way onto the first rung on the ladder to success.

If the Feast of the Transfiguration teaches us anything, it is that God longs to be seen.  If we invite the Spirit to open our eyes, we will see God, but beware: seeing God will change your life.  You’ll never see the world the same way again.  Volunteering at an elementary school might not be for you, but I promise you, God is ready to be seen by you somewhere. Whether it is at a Wednesday lunch, Living Waters for the World, HOTEL, INC., or some other servant ministry, God is waiting to be seen, to crack your heart open, and invite you to serve.  Open your eyes, pay attention, and learn to see by routinely asking yourself this simple question, “where did I see God today?”

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Why so negative?

The more I read Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, the more I’m wondering about the reactions to this text, both within my own being as well as from what I read and hear in sermons and sermon resources.  This came to light especially this morning as I read a reflection on Matthew’s version of this passage that was posted on the Christian Century website back when it came up in late February of this year.  Jason Micheli’s piece, entitled “What preachers get wrong and Peter gets right about the Transfiguration” noted that no where does Jesus or God rebuke Peter for his desire to build some booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  As I read the article, and as I’ve re-read the passage this morning, I’ve noticed that Peter’s question isn’t the only part of this story that stirs up negative reactions in me, and has me wondering why?

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Now, to be fair, some of these negative feelings come from the conflation of all these stories into one meta-narrative in my mind.  Luke’s version of the larger narrative arc doesn’t include Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first passion prediction eight (or six, depending, it doesn’t really matter) days earlier.  In fact, the way the story gets broken out, at least on the Lectionary Page, doesn’t even include the eight day reference.  Still, it is there, and so when I see that Jesus chose to take Peter along with James and John, my initial thought is, “what does Jesus have up his sleeve here?”

Then, there is the usual visceral reaction to good old quick-to-speak-slow-to-think Peter who blurts out in his mix of fear, bewilderment, and exhaustion, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings…”  Here too, the text gives us some reason to think that Peter’s words are silly.  Luke notes, as other do as well, that Peter didn’t know what he was saying.  Yet, why do we just assume that this reaction is dumb?  Couldn’t it be possible, as Micheli suggests, that staying on the mountain to worship the glory of God present fully in Jesus the Son, is a perfectly reasonable reaction to the Transfiguration?  Isn’t all of life a call to worship?  To see the beauty of God’s handiwork in creation?  To give thanks for the grace of God made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son?  To make room for the Spirit at work within us on an ongoing basis?  Why do we assume Peter’s reaction to be stupid?

It happened to me a third time today, as I read the words of God from the cloud to be a rebuke rather than a loving affirmation.  Is the command to listen to the Chosen Son born out of frustration on God’s part that disciples hadn’t been listening, or a loving word that says, “If you listen, this world could be a much better place.  If you take heed, the Kingdom of God is actually quite near”?  Sure, the disciples often misunderstand what Jesus is trying to say and do, but don’t we all?  Are we, or maybe better, am I so quick to judge the disciples for the slowness in understanding because I think I know better?  My negative reaction to various characters in the text betray that I do not.  Instead, perhaps I would do well to slow down and listen.

A Key Missing Detail

The story of the Transfiguration occurs four times in the New Testament.  Each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have their own version, though it is likely that Matthew and Luke based their stories off of Mark’s original.  It also shows up in the Second Letter of Peter, one of only a handful of references to the ministry of Jesus in the letters.  On Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account, and there is plenty to be gleaned from what occurs in which version of the story, but what has really struck me today is that there seems to be a key detail missing in three out of the four versions of the Transfiguration.

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One of the surest signs in Scripture that one is having a true theophanic experience are the words “Do not be afraid” or “have no fear.”  We hear it again and again from the lips of angels, from the resurrected Jesus, and even the Lord God Almighty.  It is the first word of comfort to those who are, understandably, afraid of what they are seeing before their very eyes.  It seems only reasonable, then, that somewhere in a scene in which Jesus’ clothes are described as a flash of lightening, we might hear someone offer these words of comfort to the terrified Peter, James, and John.  Yet, Luke, Mark, and 2 Peter are all silent.

Matthew’s Gospel includes it, but only after the whole scene has ended.  Peter, James, and John, having all but fainted with fear, are met by Jesus, now all alone, who touches them and tells them to “be resurrected” and “have no fear.”  I can’t help but wonder, given that only eight days ago (in Luke), Jesus had told them about his death and called on them to lose their lives for his sake, why this particular phrase is missing.

Part of it, I supposed, is the reality that fear is an appropriate reaction to what they are seeing and experiencing.  In the thought of ancient Israel, to encounter God was to die, and not only were they seeing Jesus brought to glory right before their very eyes and Elijah and Moses standing alongside him, but the cloud of God’s presence was right there, looming right above them.  If they weren’t afraid, there was something wrong with them.  But to what end?  What purpose does their fear serve?  Is it, quaking in your boots fear and trembling?  Or, as is more likely, is it the holy awe that is often associate with the fear of the Lord?

Not a lot of answers today as my mind runs in 30 different directions, but I know this, there must be something to that fear.  Some reason that these words aren’t there.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Proverbs tell us, and maybe that’s the gift the disciples received on that holy mountain: the beginning of wisdom.

A Midsummer Night’s Stress Dream

Don’t worry.  I’m not going all high brow on you, dear reader.  I think I stumbled my way through Romeo and Juliet, but honestly, I never really cared for Shakespeare.   My theory that he was a hack is never a popular one, but it is my best guess as to why his plays are so hard to understand.  Iambic pentameter be danged.

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Now that I have sufficient raised your ire, let me get to the point of this post.  This week is one of those rare occasions when a Major Feast takes precedence over a Sunday.  Rather than hearing the lessons appointed for Proper 13 in Year A, Episcopalians will get to hear the story of the Transfiguration for the second time this year (we hear it read from one of the Synoptic Gospels every Last Sunday after the Epiphany).  This mid-summer jaunt from the comfort of Matthew to the mountaintop in Luke is a challenging one.  Our go-to preaching resources are all focused on feeding of the five thousand, we will have to navigate the mid-summer’s night stress dream that is an exhausted Peter, James, and John trying to wrap their brains around what they are seeing on the top of that mountain all by our lonesomes.

So, what are we to do?  Let me tell you where not to start.  Do not, I repeat, do not even consider eschewing the Transfiguration for Proper 13A.  It is bad form, to say the least, and will make you liable to Title IV charges.  If, then, we have to preach the Transfiguration, it seems that prayer would be a good place to start.  We who are weighed down with the pressures of a new program year, who might struggle with preaching an all too familiar text in a new way, who are back from vacation and can’t seem to guzzle enough coffee, who are blogging snark at almost 9pm, should probably turn to God for help.  Like it was for Peter, James, and John, we will be blessed by being present to God in the Transfiguration.  Who knows, we might even begin to see the work of our Savior with new eyes.

So tonight, as I burn the midnight oil as payment for two weeks of non-contiguous vacation, I’m turning to prayer and listening for what God has to say through Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and Peter, James, and John.

Jesus’ Exodus

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration has several details that aren’t included in Mark’s version.  This makes sense for a couple of reasons: first, Mark is in a hurry and details, unless absolutely necessary, are superfluous; second, Mark is the first gospel written, so the story is logically going to grow as time passes.  One of the details that Mark and Matthew both gloss over, but Luke decides to include is the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

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“They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

If it weren’t for the second half of that sentence, having this come on the heels of Jesus being rejected at Nazareth, one could think that Moses and Elijah were giving Jesus a hard time for his almost being thrown off a cliff in his hometown.  There, Jesus walked to safety “through the midst of them,” not unlike Moses and the people of Israel walking to safety from Pharaoh’s army between the Red Sea’s walls of water on their left and right. Alas, that isn’t the exodus they were talking about.

Instead, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were talking about the new Exodus, God’s saving work for the whole world, which Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.  This Exodus wouldn’t involve blood on the door posts of those who would be saved, but instead, the blood on the cross would serve as the saving mark for all of creation.  The people wouldn’t flee from the evils of one place for the promise of another, but instead, the promise of God’s kingdom would find a way to overcome the evils of this world.  The Exodus of Jesus will bring us to a promised land that doesn’t inhabit time and space, but rather is available not matter who we are, where we live, or when we accept God’s grace.

The conversation about the Exodus is good news, but the disciples are unable to hear it that way.  They’re weighed down with sleep: simultaneously confused and amazed by what they are seeing.  It’ll take Jesus dying on a cross, rising to life again, ascending into heaven, and ten days after that before the Spirit will come and begin to make sense of it all.  In the meantime, like the people of Israel in the desert, the disciples follow Jesus, unsure of where they are going.

Moses’ Transfiguration

Moses is a very special character in the Bible.  His unique birth story came during a period when all Hebrew boys were to be killed.  As a young adult, he went into a fit of rage, killing an Egyptian, and causing him to flee from his comfortable life in the palace family. He encountered God for the first time in a burning bush, and from then on had a unique, personal relationship with the LORD, unlike anyone who would follow him.  Moses is the arch-typical prophet, and it was thought that each generation would have a Moses-type character to lead it.

In many ways, the story of Jesus sets out to lift him up as a prophet in the line of Moses.  His also a unique birth narrative, complete with the slaughter of innocents.  He and his family had their own Exodus experience from Egypt.  Jesus has a special, personal relationship with God the Father, and is the bringer of a new sort of Law.  Even the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to be following in the pattern of Moses.

In Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we hear the story of Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai.  Moses saw the holiness of God, and was not destroyed by it, but he was most certainly changed.  The author of Exodus tells us that as Moses came down the mountain, his face shone bright, but he didn’t know it.  The translation is a bit murky as to what really happened to Moses face.  The Hebrew word translated as “shone” seems to be something even more vibrant than that.  The same word for “to grow horns,” it seems that Moses’ face was transfigured such that beams of light were bursting forth from it.  Like headlights on a dirty wind shied, the light was refracted with resplendent glory.

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I’m not sure why it looks like a profile shadow of Jesus’ crucifixion is on his robe.

If this is anything like how Moses’ face looked, it is no wonder that the people were afraid to come near him.  If this is the same sort of Transfiguration that Jesus underwent, the babbling nonsense of Peter seems perfectly normal.  The Transfiguration experience of these two are not the norm, but they aren’t the only people to be changed by an encounter with the living God.  Every disciple of Jesus will have moments of transfiguration in their lives.  Some might be cataclysmic moments of healing or restoration, but more often than not, these are moments of what seem like subtle changes, but are really mountains being moved.  By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are constantly being transfigured more and more into the image of God.  We are being made more and more loving, more and more compassionate, and more and more kingdom oriented.  We are, as the collect says, being changed from glory to glory, until one day, we will find the light of Christ radiating forth like Moses coming down the Mountain.

Jesus prayed

Lent it coming!  This is not a drill! Lent is coming!  This Sunday brings with it the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which can only mean one thing, Lent is coming!  Every year, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we hear a version of the Transfiguration story.  This being Year C, we get Luke’s brief account, which brings with it a detail that I have never noticed before.  Maybe it is because the Transfiguration is so full of pyrotechnics.  Maybe it is because I’m already thinking about Lent.  I’m not sure the reason, other than I’m probably reading quickly past the story’s setup to get to the meat, but I’ve never before picked up the particulars of Peter, James, and John joining Jesus on the mountain.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never known they were there: it is hard to read the story and not notice at least Peter.  What I’ve never seen before it the fact that they really have nothing to do while they are up there.  According to Luke, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him, but it seems that only Jesus was in seek of space to pray, and it was while Jesus was praying that his clothes became dazzling white and the appearance of his face was transfigured.

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I like Chillaxing Jesus

So, what were Peter, James, and John up to?  Luke says they were exhausted.  Maybe they just needed time to rest and recharge.  More likely, it seems, is that Jesus took them along because he knew what was fixin’ to happen.  In Luke’s Gospel, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism seems to be only heard by him, and so here, roughly half-way through his ministry, eight days after Peter pronounced him as the Messiah, Jesus brought witnesses along so that others might hear and know the Truth.  Like so many other events in the course of his life and ministry, the Transfiguration seems to be masterfully choreographed by Jesus, but this only happens because of the first part: Jesus prayed.

Jesus was in the habit of prayer.  For Jesus, prayer was a conversation: both talking and, more importantly, listening, and so he was well tuned to the voice of his Father.  Every major event in his ministry was perfectly put together because he was following the Way his Father had laid out.  Jesus prayed, and we, like Peter, James, and John are all beneficiaries of those prayers.