Some Dark Comedy?

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Almost forgot to give this to you!

There are some lessons, especially in the Old Testament, that if they are read well, can really be hilarious.  The back and forth between God and Moses about the golden calf is probably my favorite, but the 2 Kings story of Elijah’s departure into heaven is a very close second.  The context isn’t particularly conducive to humor, the great prophet Elijah is being taken away from earth, after all.  Yet, the way the author uses the characters and their conversations always makes me chuckle.

On three different occasions, Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.  Each time, Elisha persists with these words, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha knows that his master and friend is not long for this world, which makes his choice of words so darkly ironic.  Basically, Elisha says, “as long as you’re alive, I’m sticking with you.”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, the prophets there try to tell Elisha what’s up.  “You know the Lord is taking your master today, don’t you?”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, Elisha snaps back, “Yes, I know, now shut up.”  That part always makes me laugh.

Even in the story’s most poignant moment, as Elijah is finally being carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha’s response makes me smile.  It is similar to Peter’s nonsensical response to the Transfiguration, as Elisha just blurts out what he sees, “Master!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”  Funnier yet are the really terrible pieces of art that have been created in response to this story.  The one at the top of this post is pretty good.  So is this one.

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You should do your own Google search on it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

By now, you must be wondering what on earth this blog post is about.  I’ve been wondering that myself along the way.  What I think has hit me this morning is how often we take the personality out of the Bible.  We hear these stories or we read them silently, as if they are just words on a page – matter-of-fact accounts of things about God – as if God doesn’t have a sense of humor, or a personality, or engage with humanity on our own terms.  We tend to think the only emotion God can show is that of anger, but what if that isn’t true?  What if God can offer a wry smile?  What if God has a sarcastic streak?  What if God wants to use things like humor and joy to help tell the story of God’s love for all creation?  Is there some dark comedy in the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind?  I kind of think so.  If you don’t, that’s ok.  Maybe you find humor somewhere else in the great story of God’s steadfast love.

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Dazzling Jesus

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One of my favorite events each year is the annual tour given to the kindergarten and first grade Godly Play class.  There, I get to nerd out on stuff that they’ve been learning, but that most people don’t give a second thought to.  We talked about the word nave, and how it is built to look like the hull of a ship.  We got to touch the 1905 paten and chalice given in honor of Frederick and Sadie Price before the second Christ Church in Bowling Green was destroyed by fire.  They had the chance to see what the church looks like from the pulpit, lectern, and behind the altar.  Standing there, I asked the group why they thought we had candles in churches.  One, very practical child, guessed that it was so we could see better, which was, of course, true.  We went on to talk about how the candles in the church remind us of the light of Jesus, and how when we come to worship, that light comes alive in us, and we get to carry it out into the world.

What I didn’t think to tell them was that this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is all about the light of Christ.  The image above is from a painting of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch (c. 1865), and I think it captures visually what the English translations of Mark’s account fall short on.  That is, Bloch’s painting shows us what Mark means when he says that Jesus’ clothes became “dazzling white.”  The Greek word is something akin to glistening, sparkling, or shining.  It isn’t that Jesus’ once dusty tunic became Clorox white, but rather, it light up like the noonday sun.  There, atop that mountain, Peter, James, and John became privy to the fullness of the light of Christ.

As they made their way back down to meet the waiting crowd, Jesus commanded his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.  Stories about the light of Christ aren’t necessary when the light is standing right in front of you.  As time has passed, however, the need to tell the story and to share the light has grown.  As 21st century followers of Jesus, we are called to let the light of Christ shine through our lives, and the best way to keep that light shining brightly is by regularly returning to the source.  You could travel to the Mount of the Transfiguration, or, more practically, you can attend worship, commit to regularly praying and reading the Bible, and sharing the love of God with those inside your sphere of influence.

In the transfiguration, the fullness of the divinity of Jesus was made manifest by way of a voice from heaven, two prophetic witnesses, and the shining of a bright light.  Only one of those is available to us on an ongoing basis.  As I often say during the Offertory Sentences this time of, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your Good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Transfigured… Again?!?

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You don’t have to be a lectionary preacher for very long to realize that a few stories carry a bit more weight than all the rest.  John the Baptist gets a lot of love in the lectionary.  Toward the end of the year, things get pretty heavy with the mini-apocalypses.  This Sunday, we have another one of those lessons that gets a lot of air time, the story of the Transfiguration.  Because it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, the Transfiguration is an easy one to cycle in all three years.  In the Lectionary, we hear it read every Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and we hear both Matthew’s and Peter’s versions of it read on the actual Feast of the Transfiguration.

It can be difficult to find new things to say about these oft-repeated lessons.  The usual suspects seem to always appear.  Peter’s befuddled comments make it easy to say “we can’t stay on the mountain top.”  Moses and Elijah allow the preacher to talk a bit about the prophecy surrounding the Messiah.  The terrible darkness is a point of entry, as is the dazzling white of Jesus raiment.  But after ten years of Last Epiphanies, my initial reaction to the whole thing is

Transfigured… Again!?!

Writing this blog and my larger homiletical process have taught me that most of the time, I’m preaching to myself.  What I write here and what I say in the pulpit are usually indicators of how I’m feeling or what I’m struggling with at any given time.  Clearly, this whole post has been about me and my stuff, but I wonder if our people feel this too?  Do those who don’t spend hours each week immersed in the Lectionary notice when these things pop up again and again?  Do they hear something read on Sunday and say, “really, we’re doing this again?”  Do they wonder how the preacher comes up with something new to say, or, rather, do they wonder why the preacher always seems to say the same thing when these things cycle back around?

Thankfully, I’m not preaching this week.  In fact, given the content of the last three paragraphs, it is timely that I’m taking a vacation this weekend.  As I wonder what else I might say here about the Transfiguration, I’m thankful that I share the pulpit with two really good preachers who I know put in the word of study and prayer, and especially for my colleague Becca, who will preach a fine sermon on a difficult set of passages this week.  I’m praying for you, dear reader, and for the work you do.

The Power of Touch

Please God, let me stop talking about Diocesan Convention soon, I’m surely hemorrhaging readers.  Amen.  During the waning moments of Convention last weekend, there was a bit of a tense moment when a motion was made to table the meat of the We Dream Report (the Diocesan restructuring plan that I had a part in writing).  I knew something like this would eventually be coming, and I had prepared myself.  After five hours of reading Robert’s Rules of Order, I had found the loop hole I was looking for, and I got to raise the following Point of Order:

I make a point of order that “by adopting the motion to lay on the table [as it is properly called] a majority has the power to halt consideration of a question immediately without debate.  Such action violates the rights of the minority and individual members of this body.”  There is no more pressing business in this convention than the matter before us, and a motion to lay on the table at this point has the clear intent to kill this matter, which is declared out of order on page 210 of the 11th Edition of Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, the text of which our own Rules of Order, Number 20, refers to for governance.”

My point of order was hotly debated by the person who made the original motion to lay on the table, and to be fair, killing the We Dream Report was not his intent, albeit it would have been the unintended result since our convention meets only annually.  I’ll spare you the parliamentary details, but what you need to know is that typically I’m a very passive person.  I don’t like to sit shotgun because I don’t like to choose the radio station for the car, but when it comes to matters of consequence; the things that are important to me, for example, enabling the proclamation of the Gospel, I’ll bow up in heart beat.  And bow up I did.

The motion to lay on the table was ultimately ruled out of order, and as I took my seat, JKT, a lay delegate and friend from Saint Paul’s leaned over to me and said, “You’re shaking.  I’m going to touch you for a little bit.”  As he laid his hand on my shoulder, I could feel my blood pressure lower, the tension moving out of the pressure relief valve that he had opened.  I have no idea how long his hand lay on my shoulder, but it was just what I needed.

I’m reminded of this event from last weekend because, for maybe the first time, I’ve noticed what Jesus did for his disciples when he noticed that they were “overcome by fear” at the sound of God’s voice.  As Matthew relates the story, Jesus walked over to the group of three “and he touched them.”

Touch has great power, both for good and for ill.  As I wrap up this week and try to turn my attention to preparations for the Lenten season that begins on Wednesday, I’m cognizant of the power of touch.  The feeling of the grit of the ashes as their dragged across your forehead.  The weight of the bread being placed in the palm of your hand.  The coolness of the metal chalice as it touches your lips.  The pressure relief valve that opens when people hug in the midst of crisis.  Touch is often overlooked when the Church thinks of the senses: we focus most of our attention on sight and hearing, giving occasional thought to smells and tastes, and rarely, if ever, pondering touch, but touch is important, and in a culture that highlights the abuses of touch, maybe the Transfiguration is an opportunity for the Church to redeem touch for the good and holy thing that it is.

Why the Transfiguration?

A seminary colleague and friend of mine just posted a question on Facebook asking his friends what their understanding is of the Transfiguration.  It is, I think, I helpful question: ideally, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice a year (Last Epiphany and The Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast of precedence celebrated on August 6th).  As a preacher, I tend to skip over the details of the Transfiguration itself, choosing instead to focus on Peter’s response, the deep fear of the disciples, the presence of Moses and Elijah, or the voice of God.

With all the focus on the periphery, it is easy to ignore the main event happening at center stage.  Here’s Matthew’s account, “… [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  The Greek word translated as “transfigured” is metamorphoo, the same root that gives us metamorphosis.  Jesus is changed in a way that is not unlike Eric Carle’s famed Very Hungry Caterpillar.

From Robertson’s Word Pictures:
Mat 17:2 – He was transfigured before them (metemorphôthê emprosthen autôn). The word is the same as the metamorphoses (cf. Ovid) of pagan mythology. Luke does not use it. The idea is change (meta-) of form (morphê). It really presents the essence of a thing as separate from the schêma (fashion), the outward accident. So in Ro 12:2 Paul uses both verbs, sunschematizesthe (be not fashioned) and metamorphousthe (be ye transformed in your inner life). So in 1Co 7:31 schêma is used for the fashion of the world while in Mr 16:12 morphê is used of the form of Jesus after his resurrection. The false apostles are described by metaschêmatisomai in 2Co 11:13-15. In Php 2:6 we have en morphêi used of the Preincarnate state of Christ and morphên doulou of the Incarnate state (Php 2:7), while schêmati hôs anthrôpos emphasizes his being found “in fashion as a man.” But it will not do in Mt 17:2 to use the English transliteration metamorphôsis because of its pagan associations. So the Latin transfigured (Vulgate transfiguratus est) is better. “The deeper force of metamorphousthai is seen in 2Co 3:18 (with reference to the shining on Moses’ face), Ro 12:2” (McNeile). The word occurs in a second-century papyrus of the pagan gods who are invisible. Matthew guards against the pagan idea by adding and explaining about the face of Christ “as the sun” and his garments “as the light.”

Maybe I’m the only one guilty of this, but when I read the story of the Transfiguration, I assume that Jesus is back to normal by the time the cloud dissipates.  The story seems to lend itself to this reading, with Jesus’ admonition to “tell no one,” but if he really is transfigured, really changed, then how is it possible for him to go back?  I wonder if the disciples at the base of the mountain noticed?  Were they too concerned with their own inability to heal the epileptic child to notice?  Is Jesus’ transfigured form a part of your own holy imagination?

Something deeply profound happened on top of that mountain, something that didn’t need Peter, James, John, Elijah, Moses, or the cloud to happen.  Jesus was transfigured, changed, shown to be the Son of God.

The First Committee Meeting

As I’ve mentioned before, in the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve been studying the future of the Church.  We spent most of last fall coming to grips with how the Church has changed over the last 50 years, with a keen eye on the rising Nones.  This winter/spring, we’re turning our attention to the future, wondering what the Church will look like 10, 25, 50, or more years from now.  One common theme, both in our reading and our conversations has been the discomfort people have with “the politics of the Church.”  Committee meetings, bishops, mid-level judicatories, national church offices, and conventions seem to have as much negative impact on the regular church goer as “hypocrites” do on the de-/un-churched.

As one of those rare church-nerd-types who finds a lot of joy in the political process of the Church, I have a hard time with this.  I mean, I sort of get it, nobody likes their church leaders squabbling over parliamentary procedure.  Nobody wants their bishop/presbytery/conference coming lording power and control over them.  Nobody likes it when a vestry/session/council holds back the ministry of everyday members.  But each of those are examples of Church Politics gone bad, but they are thrown around every time somebody says, “the Church shouldn’t be political.”  But that, of course, is impossible.  As soon as a group of like minded people organize, they become a body politic.  They have to organize themselves in some way in order for decisions to be made and money to be collected and spent.  It is impossible to have a church without having politics.

Which leads me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday, the great story of the Transfiguration.  Jesus and three of his disciples head of a high mountain for the first ever church committee meeting.  As they ponder who will preside at the proceedings, Jesus is transfigured before them, obviously garnering the necessary votes needed to be elected Chair, but it is Peter who offers the first motion for their consideration.  “Jesus, WHERAS, it is good for us to be here, therefore,  BE IT RESOLVED that we build three dwellings here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  His resolution ultimately fails, but it reminds me that even at the beginning, even as Jesus was still walking the face of the earth, the Church was nothing more than a group of human beings trying their hardest to make it all work.  Two-thousand years later, the meetings might look different, they might cost a lot more, they might be run by the 11th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, but in the end, all that church politics is, is a bunch of human beings trying their hardest to do what’s best for the Church.

Waiting as Holy Time

Most Monday mornings, I find out what Old Testament lesson is assigned for Sunday by reading the daily God Pause email from WorkingPreacher.org. This morning’s reflection was based on Exodus 24 and the holiness of waiting. It is worth a read.

In seminary, we talked a lot about a seemingly made up word called “liminality.” Liminality is the space in between the old and the new. Seminary is a liminal space, especially for an MDiv student, between one’s old life as a lay leader and one’s new life of ordained ministry. There are myriad other examples of liminal time and space: the 40 weeks of pregnancy is a liminal time; second semester senior year is a liminal time; two-weeks notice is a liminal time. The author of today’s God Pause noted that no matter how long that time of waiting is, it a) feels like it will never end and b) ends too soon. Moses must have thought those six days of waiting would never end, but as he went further up the mountain on day seven, I guarantee, he wished he could wait just a little bit longer.

Today, I sit in waiting. The recommendations of the We Dream of a Diocese Committee were referred for further study – convention decided to kick the can down he road for a spell – until a special convention can be called prior to next year’s Annual Convention. The merits of our report seem to not be the issue (at least for most people who live outside of the City of Mobile), though a three hour parliamentary quagmire kept us from debating that much. Instead people worried about the timing as we prepare to elect the 4th Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast: a problem that won’t be fixed before the special convention. The other issue is clarity of language. We missed some obvious questions that needed to be addressed before final canonical language could be adopted.

As we wait and work, I’m reminding myself that waiting can be holy time, but only if I allow it to be. I can make waiting miserable time, if I want to, by being bitter and frustrated, but thanks be to God that the first lesson I get to read on the first day of waiting is a call to be patient and wait on The Lord.