Holy Cross Day: Hold Onto Hope!

Holy Cross Day: Hold Onto Hope!

John 3:13-17

By: Chris Clow

If you’ve ever been to a ballgame, or if you’ve ever heard stereotypes about people who go to ballgames, then you know this is the most famous passage of the entire gospel. It doesn’t seem as common anymore, but sometimes I can usually find someone holding up a sign in the stadium that reads “John 3:16.” Truly a beautiful, stirring witness. I’m not sure what it has to do with Martinez striking out the side, but, ya know, good for them for reminding us all that the gospel of John exists.

But make no mistake: today’s passage is an important reading in the gospel of John. What Jesus gives us today sure seems like his condensed mission statement. Obviously, Holy Cross Day tends to focus on the “lifted up” part, the “how” part of salvation history. Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry, seems to realize just what his life and his work will cost.  But even more, he seems to have a sense of what his work is for – salvation for all who believe. This continuing, ever expanding and overflowing of God’s great love for others will reach its climax in Jesus. On the surface, that’s what this day seems to get at: the miraculous “how” of our salvation history.

But, for this passage, it’s not the “how” that fascinates me. It’s the “why.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.”

The idea that God loves the world should not be a tough one for us to wrap our minds around. After all, from the very beginning of Scripture we hear that all was created good.  We see time and time again a God who is concerned for us, looks out for us, and wants to be in relationship with us. Yet we still need to be reminded, more often than we should probably need, that God loves us and loves this crazy, broken world.

I know I can find it difficult to hold onto. Some days there’s a part of me that kind of wants some condemning of this world. As I write this, some of our best and brightest senators, many of them Christian, are debating how many millions of people will lose their health insurance in the next decade so the richest among us can receive another tax break. As I write this, I see more reports of horrific crimes against Christians in other countries, not to mention atrocities against our brothers and sisters of all faiths, beliefs, and lands. I’m sure that whenever you are reading this, there will be yet another attack, yet another act of terrorism, yet another horrible event taking place in our busted up world that makes you question how the Almighty can allow it. It is draining to look around and see just how far from the Kingdom we are, and to wonder whether we will ever truly get there. It is frustrating to feel so powerless in the face of selfishness, destruction, and despair. It can be easy, when we’re tired, when we are sick of fighting, or when we feel we can’t go on, to simply give in to that despair, and to wonder how things will ever get better.

But that despair cannot be what controls our vision. We as Christians are called to see the world for what it is, but to not allow our perspective to be dominated by it. There were naysayers and doomsday prophets in Jesus’ time, too; yet, he does not allow their negativity and despair to cloud his sight. Remember, we’re just one chapter away from Jesus’ miracle at a wedding. We believe in a God who rejoices with us. We believe in a God who, in spite of our problems and failings, still goes to bat for us. Yes, Christians are called to an eschatological hope – our hope of eternal salvation – but our hope in Christ is not just limited to the afterlife. Constantly throughout Scripture we hear references that remind us, as Paul writes, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). Our hope cannot simply be located in a far-off future; our hope is found right here and now.

That’s why God finds this world worth saving. That’s why God finds this world worth something. Yes, of course there is evil and sin and brokenness. But there is good, too. There is so much good, that even the death of Christ on the cross cannot stop the love of God for us. The love of God is so strong that not even death could keep God away from us. What chance will all other evils in this world have? Yes, our hope is not just that God will one day draw all things to himself – God is doing that right now, in our midst today. God has loved us, is loving us now, and will continue to love us.

It can be hard to hold onto that hope; it sometimes may look like foolishness. Maybe that’s what makes it so important. I remember being on a high school retreat at this abbey in the middle of nowhere Indiana. (Side note: as many of my students come from very small towns, and that is not my upbringing at all, I like to say they’re from the middle of nowhere Iowa, or middle of nowhere Illinois. They laugh about as often as you’d expect.) While there were many grains of wisdom gathered during my week there, I remember this one, very simple prayer, from a sarcastic, flat affect-ed Benedictine monk. He didn’t exactly seem to inspire the joy of the gospel, but I suspect there was far more to him than at first glance. He gave me a prayer I turn to when I have little else to rely on:

“Lord, you haven’t failed me yet.”

This is where I hang my hope. This is what the cross says to me, that there is nothing stronger than the love of God, ever working in my life, in all of our lives. Our hope is grounded in trusting that God is still working, right now; that God loves this world, right now. God hasn’t failed me yet. I hope God never will.

 

 

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a campus minister and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. When he isn’t composing music or begging college students to sing in the choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, enjoy a good beer (or 2 or 3, depending on how the Cards fare that day), and spend time with his wife Emily and the ever growing number of pets in their house.

 

Proper 18A: What Sin Reveals

Proper 18A: What Sin Reveals

Matthew 18:15-20

By: Mashaun D. Simon

The word sin carries with it a lot of stigma. But sin is more than just a word.

Sin, if we are being real, has become a concept. Sin, we have been taught, is (or can be) more than just action. It can also be a way of being. Sin—the word and the concept—is laced with baggage.

For as far back as I can remember, the idea or concept of sin has always carried a lot of negativity. Or maybe negativity is not the word—what about judgment? Sin, almost automatically, conjures up feelings of negativity and shame. For some, sin causes us to brace ourselves in preparation for hurt, harm, or danger.

We have been taught to understand sin through very narrow lenses. A lot of times, sin is used or has been used to create false differences between groups of people and entire communities. Sin has been used to manipulate. Sin has been used to control. Sin has been used to isolate. Sin has been used to separate.

The Greek word for sin is hamartanō, a verb, which means to err or make a mistake or miss the mark. In reality, sin is part of the natural order of things. What I mean by that is, if we are truly looking at sin in the manner to which this pericope of text is engaging sin, then we all have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s just reality.

But because we have sinned, that doesn’t make us all bad people or without hope. Sin, I believe, if perceived correctly has the ability to do what I think this text is attempting to reveal. Sin, and our awareness of it, can be the very motivation for achieving true and genuine relationship with one another.

And I think that’s the takeaway for the text before us.

In the text, the author provides instructions for what one should do if and when they feel they have been sinned against. The text states that first the individual ought point out the sin. If the sin committer listens, then trust is regained. But, if they do not, then the next step is to take a witness to confirm the transgression. If there is no remedy in the situation, then the church is to become involved.

If one is not careful, one could get caught up on the presence of sin within this text. If one is not careful, one could get caught up on the fact that a wrong has been committed. And yes, the fact that there is or has been a wrong committed is important. But, more than that, the emphasis is not completely placed on a sin being committed. The emphasis in the text for me at least, is that there are solutions being presented for dealing with sins. The emphasis is on how to correct the wrong and rebuild or repair what was broken as a result of the sin.

And the text is about what happens when one sins within the church.

In seminary we were taught that the first church was communal. The church was the space where the people came together as a community to support one another, encourage one another, and care for one another. This idea, or concept, reminds me of the role Black churches have played historically—especially during their formative years, during segregation, and during the Civil Rights Movement.

It was in black churches where people, who were normally treated as the help in their everyday lives, received some respect. It was in black churches where men and women who were normally called boy or gal, were referred to as mister and misses. It was in black churches where people gained respect, responsibility, purpose, and recognition.

When I imagine what the early church was like for the followers of Jesus, I imagine in some ways the early black church. The church community was designed to be the bedrock of the entire community. And it was in the church community where relationships were developed, where grievances were aired, where relationships were repaired.

When one was mistreated within the community, it was the responsibility of the two to fix the incident—and if they could not, then the community helped the two. If only we were mature enough today.

We are living in a time that many would consider a moment of great despair. Some would suggest that as a country we are more divided today than we have ever been before. I wonder where we would be if we truly took into consideration the tenets present in this text. If we were actually capable of taking a cue from the author, airing our grievances and coming together as a community, what then would we say we stand for as a community?

We have wasted so much time focusing on what makes us different. We have wasted so much time focused on how others have wronged us. We have lost so much time and joy and peace and happiness refusing to listen to one another.

And I say we because in a lot of ways I am guilty myself. We all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. However, so many of us refuse to hear that we have been wrong; admitted to our wrongs, our mistakes, our shortcomings, what is God saying about us?

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,” Jesus is quoted as saying in the text.

How is God judging us? How are we failing God and ourselves? How are we failing the church universal, the kingdom of God?

Maybe what this text is instructing us to do is to get beyond ourselves and focus more on what’s best for the community of God.

 

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The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher, a teacher, a writer and a scholar in his native, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology with a triple focus in preaching, faith and formation, and race and religion, and double certificates in Black Church Studies and religious education. He contributes his thoughts and perspectives to online and print mediums, and serves at House of Mercy Everlasting (HOME) church in College Park, Georgia. Much of his research focuses on race, sexuality, identity and faith.

Proper 17A: Well That Escalated Quickly!

Proper 17A: Well That Escalated Quickly!

Matthew 16:21-28

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

For theological nerd types, Jesus’s admonition of Peter—Get behind me Satan! —has become its own sort of cultural slang parlance. Many times I’d hear this said in jest during seminary after a party invitation when a paper was due or the offer of free donuts during a diet or Lent. “Get behind me Satan!” is a dramatic plea, and when we say it glibly, it is easy to forget what it must have been like to have Jesus himself say that to one of us.

I imagine Peter was quite surprised too. Just last week in the lectionary text, Peter was declared to be the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Whether or not these events really happened that quickly together, as readers we see the story shift quickly. While Peter aced the test by declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Peter really flubbed up soon after by questioning Jesus’s prediction of his own death. Talk about whiplash.

As easy as it is at first glance to read Jesus as being a bit harsh to one of his closest friends, when I open myself up to the text, I see Jesus as humanly vulnerable in this story. Jesus is reporting on what he thinks will happen to him, particularly in light of the conversation about who the world thinks that he is. Peter, ever the fiercely loyal friend, protests the conclusion Jesus has reached. It might not be that Jesus is truly aligning Peter with Satan, but instead, he’s recognizing his own vulnerability in the face of Peter saying that maybe Jesus won’t have to die after all. We see glimpses in Jesus’s story that his full humanity meant that he did not want to die in the simplistic way we often talk about in churches. It’s easy to say that Jesus chose to die and did so joyfully. But if we pay attention, we see a vulnerable thirty-some-year-old man that dealt with anxiety even in the face of standing strongly in his convictions.

But if Jesus knew how his life would unfold if he continued living, preaching, and teaching as the Messiah, what might we learn as those who seek to follow in his path? It is here that we have one of the most chilling demands of discipleship: we must take up our cross and accept losing our lives in order to save them. I am most often reminded of this passage in conversations that put our convictions in tension with a vested interest in comfort and security. I often feel as if I stumble across that relationship—I want to be comfortable, I want to be safe, and I don’t want to stray too much from my normal routine. And yet, the discipleship of Jesus demands that I pick up my cross and follow him, even to the very end. It’s not just that he fails to promise safety or security, he actually promises the opposite. He knows that discipleship will cost everything.

And at the same time, I actually do find a sliver of comfort in this passage: Jesus. Is. Human. Jesus himself reacts so strongly against Peter’s confusion because Jesus is tempted by safety and security. We get whiplash seeing Peter called the Rock, and then quickly referred to as Satan because Peter too is human, and he doesn’t totally get what discipleship is going to cost yet. What I am most drawn to in this story is how human both men are, even while Jesus is making mystical predictions about the future. At first read, all I could see were the supernatural prophecies Jesus was making, and I did not see his humanness in the acute way I experience my own. If we look deeper though, maybe we see Jesus of Nazareth, the shy man that often stirred up trouble because of his commitment to the marginalized. We see a man that was anxious about where this all was heading, and we see the writer of Matthew trying to make sense of what Jesus knew and when.

I’ll close my reflection with a hip Millennial reference. In Game of Thrones a few weeks ago, we see the return of a character who is now omniscient, and the instant reaction online was one of ridicule for how unrelatable this character now is and how obnoxious his newfound know-it-all-ness is. The character spoke in a monotone pitch, simply reporting what was, what is, and what is to come. It’s easy to read mystical Jesus in this same tone, apathetically reporting on his pending death with no concern for those around him because of the way pop culture examples like Game of Thrones highlight the eeriness of prescience. This week, with this text, I’m going to refrain from seeing Jesus like Bran Stark and instead see him as something different—as someone human, for better or worse.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner Kyle just recently moved back to the state of their youth after eight years away collecting experiences and degrees.

Proper 16(A): A Study in Leadership

Proper 16(A): A Study in Leadership

Matthew 16:13-20

By: The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” Matthew 16:18

Jesus asks a critical question at the beginning of this pericope: “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13) This question is not necessarily meant confirm, affirm, nor deny Jesus’ identity. Rather, it is intended to elicit from the disciples their reasons for following Jesus. While the disciples blurted out answers like “some say you are John the Baptist, others Elijah,” Peter answers with the most basic yet theologically poignant answer of all of them: “You are the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:15-17) The handing of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” to Peter is symbolic not because of debates about ecclesiastical primacy, but because Peter is an archetype of the church leader.

Jesus assures Peter that this statement is not solely an intellectual affirmation but one inspired by the Spirit. Such an affirmation runs parallel with Paul’s statement to the church in Rome. Paul writes, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is gracious to all who call on him.” (Romans 10:9-12) Peter’s confession in Matthew 16 is quite important as it is not only uttered with the mouth but intended by the heart!

Certainly, Peter’s intent and proclamation are well intentioned. Yet, both his stated intention and feeling in his heart gave way to fear and trepidation amidst threatening situations. Peter is someone who usually wears his heart on his sleeve. Whether it be taking out his sword to cut off Malchus’s ear (John 18:1) or denying his association with Jesus, Peter’s brashness is a trait that runs too common in church leadership. In one way, Peter represents those of us who get too emotionally invested without praying and thinking through situations. In another way, like Peter, some of us tend to be reactive and move towards a default of defensiveness, aggression, or even denial.

Yet, the story of Peter does not end there. He is redeemed by following Jesus, and is entrusted with leadership in the early church. He “feeds the sheep” that Jesus gave him, presided over a potentially divisive meeting in the elevation of Matthias as an apostle, and was the first of the disciples to share the gospel with the gentiles in being a channel of Cornelius’ baptism. In fact, Peter was transformed by his interaction with the other (Cornelius.) The maturity of these actions, especially his receptivity to being transformed by his interaction with “the other” led by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, is a testimony for the potential of Christian leadership.

Imagine if we as leaders of the body of Christ were not only feeding but being receptive to being fed through our interaction with those who are different from us culturally, economically, and even religiously? In a day and age when the Christian pastorate faces various dilemmas, we can choose to give into fear or move forward with the assurance of God’s presence through the resurrected Christ. Which model of Peter’s leadership will you follow?

 

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The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

The Rev. Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia is Sub-Dean at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. Canon Zacharia serves as the Ecumenical Officer of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He is preparing for his oral defense of his dissertation on Pluralistic Inclusivism (Ph.D, University of Toronto) in the area of Philosophical Theology.

 

Proper 15(A): Living Faithfully

Proper 15(A): Living Faithfully

Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

By: Colin Cushman

This week’s reading presents us with two quite different stories. While in reality they probably shouldn’t actually go together, when we read them side by side, interesting dynamics and character development emerge. Both stories address a big question: How do we faithfully live as people of God?

Our first story narrows down our question: What does it mean to be a Jew? The scene opens on Jesus incensing his foil, the Pharisees, about keeping ritually observant behaviors. Regarding the proper Jewish diet, Jesus claims that what goes in the mouth just winds up in the sewer, whereas what comes out of the mouth is what is truly unclean. The Pharisees clearly take the opposite position. Their whole project is to expand the domain of the ritual purity laws. They don’t want to just apply them when they go into the Temple, but to incorporate them into one’s entire life. They refuse to instrumentalize these ways of being, instead wanting to actually live out one’s religious convictions full-time.

Jesus and the Pharisees were not the only Jewish groups bickering. In the Second Temple Period, Judaism had splintered into many sects, each claiming to have “the right way” to be Jewish. The whole debate really argues about what it means to live faithfully as one who is following God. Matthew, of course being sympathetic to Jesus’ perspective, shows Jesus winning this debate. In Matthew’s portrait, as the teacher par excellence (the new Moses), Jesus regularly confounds his disciples with his profundity. Here, the disciples don’t understand his message, conveniently providing the explanation for the similarly confused reader.

Everything you eat, Jesus claims, is transitory and just passes straight through you. (Which is wrong by both ancient and modern somatic conceptions.) Thus, food can’t be unclean. Rather, he says, tapping into the prophetic tradition, the heart is the source of real impurity. Unlike our modern understanding, in this culture, the heart is not primarily about emotions. Rather, it’s the center of rationality. Thus, Jesus is really saying, “What goes out of the mouth comes from one’s innermost being.” From one’s core self. Impurity is not about the food or the emotions or the individual ritual observances. Rather, impurity comes from you yourself. Your behavior is a reflection of your essence, who you are in your character. And the sins Jesus lists off are all sins against someone else. (In that culture, wives were seen as property, so sexual sin is defiling the other man’s property, and is thus a relational offense.) For Jesus, purity is not a question of emotions nor of doing the right symbolic actions, but of self and character, especially in relationship with others.

Our second story takes us somewhere quite different—both thematically and geographically. This famous story is set in Tyre or Sidon—Israel’s neighboring coastal regions, populated by the widely-influential empire of the Phoenecian sea-peoples. There, Jesus runs into an unnamed indigenous woman who pleads with him to exorcize her daughter. After initially refusing, Jesus commends her faith and performs the exorcism remotely.

However, Jesus’ response is quite insulting! He compares non-Jews to dogs and thus excludes them from his work (even though he willingly performed healings for Roman officials elsewhere.) In this culture, dogs weren’t beloved like today. They were the vultures of the land: mangy scavengers. Jesus discounts the woman’s request, citing that he had only been sent to the Israelites, rather than the Canaanite “dogs.” (Which begs the question: Then why was he in Tyre/Sidon?)

Yet here we have a woman caring for her daughter in a patriarchal world. And rather than being meek or demure, she grabs on and won’t let go until she wrestled a blessing out of Jesus. It’s a story of both a mother’s love for her daughter and of a woman exerting her agency in the face of obstinate men. Initially, Jesus ignores her, which doesn’t placate his disciples. They want him to more actively shut her up. When he finally does talk to her, Jesus refuses to do what, elsewhere in the Gospels, he performed indiscriminately.

But the woman refuses to give up. In a move of rhetorical jujitsu, she subverts Jesus’ analogy. Temporarily allowing the denigrating comparison to stand, she promptly undermines it by pushing the analogy beyond the boundaries that Jesus established for it. Her linguistic maneuver exemplifies the way that marginalized people work in subversive ways to try to gain victories where they are actually possible.

Interpreters are often deeply invested in helping Jesus to save face here. They often claim that he was just testing her. In reality, we only see these readings as plausible because of our insistence that Jesus be the good guy. Any straightforward reading of the text shows that Jesus was being a jerk who got his mind changed. Jesus understood himself called to serve the Israelites. He had a one-track mind, tunnel vision, a singular focus. He didn’t want to be side-tracked. But in doing that, he missed the human suffering that was happening right beside him, especially on the margins.

If you do want to give Jesus credit, though, he does allow himself to be convinced. Not only is he big enough to change his mind, he does so against the pull of his honor/shame culture. Being challenged and bested by a woman like that inherently brought shame on Jesus—unless it was promptly countered, perhaps through anger or physical violence. However, as elsewhere, Jesus shucks this expectation, rejects the honor/shame system, and allows himself to learn and grow. Thus in the end, the Canaanite woman enters into a rich pedigree of Biblical characters who argued with God—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, Hezekiah, Mary—many of whom won. Not to mention that she (a non-Jew!) was commended on her faith, even more so than many other Jews in the story.

Whereas in the first story, we saw Jews fighting other Jews about how to best be Jewish, the second story presents a cautionary tale, showing what happens when you get too focused on best being a Jew. Of course, we modern readers can fruitfully expand the scope of these same themes. How do we negotiate what it means to be faithful to God? But as we do so, how do we make sure we’re not missing the very real human suffering happening outside of our tunnel vision? In today’s world, these types of question have become very important, and these Biblical stories help us to reflect on them.

 

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman is the pastor of Seabold United Methodist Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His area of focus in his own research is on the intersection of Biblical Studies and oppression. He is happily married to his wife Madi who is an excellent mental health counselor working with children and youth.

 

 

Proper 14(A): The Miracle that Fails to Comfort

Proper 14(A): The Miracle that Fails to Comfort

Matthew 14:22-33

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the “miracle” stories of the New Testament. They seem to quickly turn into arenas for debate about literal and figurative truth, or how one can, in this “age of reason,” actually believe in fairytales simply because Jesus was the main character in some of them. I don’t know what the good Christian response is to those questions. I can’t even answer them for myself.

Just before this miracle story is the tale of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the 5,000. And ah, what an easier story to deal with! I have always liked the interpretation that part (or the whole of) the miracle wasn’t Jesus’ role as a caterer who broke the time-space continuum, but that his inspiration brought these crowds to share what they had, however meager, and that all of those contributions together were more than sufficient. I like this interpretation as a consumerist American who needs assurance that “enough” truly exists and that it’s far less than what we think it is. I like this interpretation as a single member in a broken but holy Church that can sometimes turn the stuttering, weak efforts of myself and others into far more than they should logically be. I can skirt the question of miracle entirely in that story and still find richness in it. Of course, I only talk about it at length because I’m avoiding addressing how and why Jesus walked on water.

I’m struck in this story by how pointless this miracle is. Jesus isn’t undertaking the noble cause of feeding the hungry; he simply notices that the boat he wants to be on is far from shore and, apparently, decides to hoof it out there. It’s a strangely casual use of his God-ness. When Peter, terrified but emboldened, asks if he can do it too, Jesus lets him try and then helps him when he falls, gently reprimanding his faith. It evokes for me the image of a parent trying to help their child ride a bike without training wheels.

But…why? Why does Jesus show off for the disciples who he has been impressing day after day with other parables and miracles? Why does Peter feel the need to get involved in this uncanny occurrence? What point and purpose does all this serve? I imagine many Christians would say that it’s another demonstration of how Jesus was Divine, not only human, and it is remembered and told to us to help us believe more fully. I imagine many others would offer “magic trick” style explanations (he was walking on submerged rocks, or ice, or really buoyant stingrays) and classify this as another Bible story where the non-scientific worldview of the writer attributed a cool but explainable event to divinity, and that it’s a nice story that we in the modern world need not worry about too much. I don’t like either of these responses, but I don’t have a replacement for them either.

There are plenty of easier, more ancillary messages to take away, after all; the importance of faith as demonstrated by Peter, the calming of fear when we realize that God is in our midst, even the humanness of Jesus when he needs some time alone after dealing with crowds all day. But maybe there’s something to the pointlessness of this miracle, the fact that God sometimes enters our world abruptly and magnificently even when we’re not expecting it or thinking that we need it, and that those moments of encounter can be as intimidating or fearful as the moments when we feel quite alone. We can’t always anticipate the form that God will take in our world, and sometimes that’s upsetting in its own right. And yet, I’ve always liked the title “God of All Surprises,” and that might mean being open to surprises that are shocking more than joyous.

Perhaps we can embrace the “apparently pointless,” as we often do when we come to prayer or meditation that feels stale, or even our work for justice that so frequently feels like it’s going nowhere. We have faith that there’s importance in our practices and works even when we don’t know where our efforts will end up. In much the same way, I don’t know why Jesus walked on water, but I can trust that the meaning is there, and might show itself when I very least expect it.

 

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research involves sexuality education in Christian churches and young adulthood religiosity. She resides in Davenport, Iowa with her spouse, Chris, their dog Bosco, and their rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Luke 9:28-36

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

I’m the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother and I have always looked very similar. In fact, over ten years ago I met his wife’s sister and her kids and spent the day playing with them at the beach. The youngest was about 4 at the time and he kept calling me by my brother’s name. I would correct him, but he’d just look at me like I was dumb and repeat my brother’s name. His mom later apologized and just said, “Listen. Tomorrow he’ll talk about what a great day he had with your brother. Sorry, you guys look so much alike.” And it’s true. Despite being 5 years apart, we look very similar. It’s a little eerie.

All of that changed a few years ago when my brother had surgery to correct his jaw. We all have big jaws, but his was shaped in a way that when he bit down, his back teeth would hit and his front teeth would still be about 10 millimeters apart! Try eating pizza when your front teeth stay 10 millimeters apart!?!? So, they broke his jaw and rewired it and fixed his bite. Great for him. Except, now his smile is a little different and we don’t look as similar. I’m happy for my brother, because now he’s more whole than before, and he can function more as an adult. But I kind of miss his old look. I’ve grown used to the new smile by now, it’s just different.

So, Moses climbed the mountaintop and communed with God. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of the covenant. We tend to picture Charlton Heston stoically walking with Roman numeral clad, ten-commandment tablets. Instead, a more accurate picture is Moses walking to the people with physical evidence of God’s covenant with the people. In the Old Testament, one of the major themes is that God is revealed to one person and through one is revealed to the many. We see this with Noah, then Abraham, and eventually Moses becomes a central figure in this theme. Another theme before Moses is that the covenants God made with the people were one-sided. After the flood, God puts the rainbow in the sky as a covenant that God would never again destroy all humanity. This covenant depended on God’s action and did not depend on human action. Similarly, God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s chosen people. Abraham didn’t really have to do much to fulfill this covenant (perhaps a little procreation). All of this changes with Moses.

As Moses descends the mountain with the tablets, God has made a covenant with the people, but the people make a covenant with God to remember to be God’s people. Part of that includes re-reading the covenant every year and re-promising to be God’s people. Included in this covenant is a bit of an ‘or else’, whereby God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people as long as…” This is a significant moment in human history as God’s revelation is taken to a new level. God chooses an entire people and leads them from slavery and into the Promised Land. In this moment, this encounter with God to receive the covenant, this encounter changes Moses life and his appearance. After the encounter with God, Moses’ face is transformed and the people are afraid. Moses has experienced the Glory of God in a way no human had since Adam and Eve. If we think about it, a glowing face seems a fitting response after such a supernatural experience!

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus ascends another mountain. He brings along Peter and John and they pray. One reason for this mountaintop prayer time is to show that Jesus fulfills the covenant with Moses. Jesus is able to hear the reading of the covenant that Moses brought down the mountain and re-promise to keep the covenant, as generations had done before him. Yet, Jesus is capable of fulfilling that covenant. Jesus hears the reading of the covenant where God says, “I will be your God and you promise to be my people.” And Jesus says, “Yes!” and the covenant is forever fulfilled—not ignored (Marcionites!), but fulfilled! So it makes sense that Jesus’ appearance, like that of Moses, is transformed. Jesus shines like the face of Moses. They are speaking of Jesus’ departure. Perhaps Jesus is making the new covenant with humanity, represented by Moses and Elijah, as they discuss Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? This new covenant seems to have Jesus saying, “I will be your God and you will be my people. And you are loved. Go and Love one another.” So, what does an encounter look like for us today?

There’s an older woman in our church, Mary. She might be one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Mary’s also one of the best bakers I’ve ever experienced. In her mid-eighties, she still makes communion bread for us every Sunday. I love the symbolism of giving her communion each week. Here, she’s brought her gift to the church and offered it to God. The people bring her bread and the wine to the altar. Through the Eucharistic prayer, I the priest offer these gifts to God. In this great mystery, God transforms the gifts of the people. The bread that Mary has given to the congregation and the congregation has offered it to God, is now given back to the very same people, blessed and broken. This bread has encountered God on the mountaintop (well, the altar) and it will forever be different. And it’s given back to the people so they can go out into the world and love God and their neighbors, having encountered God. The people are changed.  

What do you experience when you encounter God in the Eucharist each week? What would it be like if that encounter changed our appearance and people saw us and were afraid? I’d like to think that I’d feel loved by God and empowered to love the neighbors around me. This sounds like a simple thing. It sounds so basic and Sunday School-y to say that God loves me. Yet, if I truly knew and could embody the fact that God loves me, oh what a change! For now, I keep coming back each week, encountering God in the bread that has been to the mountaintop and broken for me.

 

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.