The story of the Transfiguration has puzzled generations of New Testament scholars. The origins of the text are obscure, and they have little consensus about what it is doing in the narrative. Theologians also have scratched their heads, offering a number of different guesses about what this event might mean.
While scholars remain unsure of this story’s meaning, it appears in our lectionary all three years. For the Church, therefore, it is a central story. As a preacher, I always feel pushed to give theological explanation of the Transfiguration. To explain how or why…but when has the idea of a glowing holy figure hovering over a mountaintop never made logical sense anyway. Perhaps, the transfiguration is not something that is supposed to be figured out, reasoned with or explained. It is something to be appreciated and wondered at. Maybe this is one moment where we are not called to deduced or analyze but instead marvel and be in awe.
Artists throughout the history of Christianity have given insight into the experience of transfiguration. 10 years ago, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens put out his Seven Swans album, which included a musical rendering of the transfiguration story. An almost haunting banjo chord progression undergirds his airy, almost ethereal voice. His lyrics focus on the voice of God coming out of the clouds, and the listener is brought evermore upward, higher and higher until it feels like the listener is floating.
Renaissance artists also were inspired to paint the images of the transfiguration. One of the most famous depictions, Raphael’s transfiguration expresses the raw power of the moment. Rather than sharing the airy or wispy quality of Stevens’ song, one is struck by the dominant figure of Christ in the center. Jesus is surrounded by bright white clouds, floating off the ground, flanked by Moses and Elijah who also float just below Jesus. A massive group of people gather around, bodies contorted, looking shocked, terrified by the scene. The viewer is overcome with the glory of the moment—the painting itself is commanding 13 feet by nine feet.
Yet other artists pull us down out of the clouds. Giovanni Bellini, of the Venetian School, painted the image of the transfiguration twice. His first image has Jesus not on a cloud, but rather on a high pedestal like a statue. Bellini’s second composition was even simpler. Jesus is depicted plainly in a pastoral landscape. No bright lights, no flashy clouds. The three apostles have been knocked over and look at the ground. There is no large crowd of people witnessing the event, as in Rapael’s painting. On the contrary, people in the background seem to be going about their everyday lives. Off to the side of Moses, there is man caring for his cow. I love the everyday nature of this. The viewer wants to yell out to the man… “hey the transfiguration is going on!” “ Hey you… come over here… heaven and earth have just met?” Bellini is successful in capturing the ordinary quality of the scene. Jesus is on a walk with his friends—nothing strange there. And then, suddenly without warning, Jesus is transfigured. The sublime breaks through the monotony of daily life.
In our postmodern age, where people are talking more and more in terms of being spiritual and not religious, maybe what we all long for is the transfiguration. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the luminous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder. We all long for transformation and treasure those moments in our lives. . More than just a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, Transfiguration matters.
In his book, Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing”
(Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
Buechner captures the heart of the gospel. The glory of God’s presence revealed to us in the midst of our ordinary lives. Our experience of transcendence can come where and when we least expect it.
Elizabeth Barret Browning captures this brilliantly in stanza from her poem Aurora Leigh, she writes.
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
And daub their natural faces unaware.
If we are not careful, like the folks in the poem or the man with the cow, we miss the presence of God so often because we don’t look past our everyday lives. How often are we so absorbed in the trapping of our own reality that we miss God among us? There is a story told about St. Francis of Assisi. He, much like Jesus, was out one day on a walk with his friends. When suddenly, they heard the approaching of a clanging hand bell. “Leper approaching,” the voice cried out. In the middle ages, it was made the law that lepers had to ring bells and announce their arrival so people could clear the way. The voice and bell approached closer, and Francis’ friends dashed off into a ditch where they thought they would be safe from the disease. Yet to all of their surprise, Francis ran toward the bell and voice. Finding the man, unwashed, in tattered clothing, with skin decaying, Francis embraced the leper and kissed him. The leper was then transfigured, engulfed in a bright fire, and he vanished. Francis was thrown to the ground his lips and hands burnt. His friends came out of the ditch to help him. “Where is the leper?” They ask. But Francis smiles and replies “ There was no leper here, only our Lord Christ, hidden in ordinary flesh, waiting for us to help him.”
I think most of us would love the courage to be like Francis to reach out past ourselves and be open to the possibility of being transfigured. But when we are honest with ourselves, we find that we are much more likely to be his friends hiding in the ditch. The transfiguration asks us to find God breaking into the all earth’s spaces— to see God in the most unlikely places and most unlikely people. What in your life needs to be transformed? How can we get out of our own way and let God in? There is a reason that this is the reading for the Last Sunday of Epiphany. That is the invitation as we move forward from Epiphany into Lent. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of God that is all around us if we are brave enough to see it.
What are you giving up? For centuries now, each time Lent rolls around, Christians ask each other this question. Traditionally, Western Christians gave up eating meat for the entire season. In remembrance of the crucifixion, faithful Catholics still avoid meat on Fridays. In some Orthodox Churches, the Lenten fast is even stricter. The faithful are encouraged not only to abstain from meat but fish, dairy, eggs, wine and oil as well. In the past, these practices served a double function. Not only were they a spiritual discipline, reminding us that we do not live on bread alone, but also a way of conserving limited resources. As winter continued on, dwindling food supplies made Lenten fasts necessary.
Lent has changed over the years. Fortunately, we live in the age of supermarket and refrigeration and to us fasting is not done with the same sense of urgency. However the desire to drawer closer to God during this holy season remains. People have shifting ideas about what to give up, when, and for how long. So, what does it look like to observe a Holy Lent in 2015? What are people giving up these days?
Well, this has become a topic of great debate on social media. That’s right… as it turns out in 2015, Facebook and Twitter have a lot to say about Lent. At least my Facebook and Twitter accounts do, I suppose it should not surprise me that my friend group is a rather religious one. So all forms of social media have been a buzz with Lent prep. As far as I see it, my friends and clergy colleagues really like to talk about two topics in particular; giving up and taking on.
People post about giving up things for Lent. All sort of things: Chocolate, alcohol, coffee, meat, television, swearing, gossiping, Netflix, driving a car… even Facebook and twitter. Yes, my Facebook is currently littered with people saying goodbye to Facebook for 40 days of technological silence. And it is all done in the name of Lent. These are all forms of fasting.
The idea of giving up something for Lent has taken on a certain cultural cache. It is a strange phenomenon in our culture of overindulgence. On the surface, I see it as a good thing. Self-denial is a much overlooked virtue. So I applaud all of those that, in the name of God or their faith, are trying to give up something for Lent.
I just want to add a tiny word of caution. Don’t let your giving something up for Lent replace an actual relationship with God. We give things up to make room to take things up. That brings me to my second group of friend. More and more, I see people adding to their lives as a spiritual discipline for Lent.
One of my favorite examples of taking on is Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz Webber 40 Ideas for keeping a Holy Lent from her site A House for all Sinners and Saints.
On her website, Bolz Weber outlines 40 days worth of spiritual practices which include:Praying for enemies, donating to nonprofit, looking for beauty in nature, checking out daily office prayers online, giving clothing away to Goodwill, baking a cake, introducing yourself to a neighbor, Praying the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news) and lighting real and virtual candles.
The invitation of Lenten disciple is clear. We are asked to give up things that are getting in the way of your relationship with God and take on things that draws us closer in relationship with God and each other. At no other day in the church calendar is this more poignant. Yet Ash Wednesday is more challenging than giving up chocolate or taking on new prayer practices. Ash Wednesday is not an easy day. It asks us to remember an uncomfortable truth. Ash Wednesday reminds us of core truth of Christianity: we must give up in order to take on.
The solemn ashes to ashes, dust to dust, points to the paradoxical, deep truth of the Christian faith: those who lose their life will gain it. What we must give up is not a food, habit or even a particular sin, but the practice of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust…
This is not something we can fix or escape. It is true for all of us. All human attempts at controlling our own destiny are stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. Power, money, self-control, even efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death.
Our return to dust is inevitable. The penitential rite is recognition of our inability to love and do perfectly. It points to our need for God’s grace.
On Ash Wednesday, our confession of sin really is saying, “we give up.”
Ash Wednesday is a day for honesty. While that honesty can be challenging, It is also hopeful. Even while we fall short, even while our efforts are in vain, we are still held in the hands of a loving God.
As St. Paul wrote, “Neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. “
So let’s give up… give up on the delusion that we don’t need God and can fix everything ourselves. Give up on the delusion that we will live forever in this mortal form. When we give up on our own abilities and efforts, then the reality of God’s grace truly is felt.
So what do we take up? Love and acceptance… If we give up the delusion and the myth of self-sufficiency, we can take up a loving acceptance of ourselves in all of flawed imperfection take on grace and the redemption of Christ.
Tonight I would like to begin with a quotation from C.S. Lewis. It gets to the heart of what Ash Wednesday is for. C.S. Lewis writes:
“The Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay… and it is no use at all trying to go on to the comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in …everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” [From Mere Christianity: C.S. Lewis].
Another way of describing the “dismay” C.S. Lewis speaks of is the brokenness of the world and our part in it. Closer to home, it is our resistance to the love of God making all things new.
Sometimes, as we confess our sins, we may think that we are not so bad on the whole. At least, we may think, I haven’t done anything bad to anyone else. Not really. Even when I have felt angry or resentful, I have kept that to myself. I haven’t acted on my less good impulses. OK... So let us ask ourselves: have there been ways in which I have resisted the love of God?
There are so many ways in which we can keep God at arm’s length. We don’t want to be forgiven so we don’t ask, we would rather stay angry, we don’t want reconciliation with that person or those people. So our struggle with the love of God might not be something bad we do but something good we resist. We might be pretty good at identifying the moral crusades, the causes for justice, the marginalized needing our advocacy at home and abroad. We are perhaps not so great at building a human community based on acceptance and vulnerability. Grace grows and people blossom when we co-create with God a community where it is safe for people to come out from hiding, to be vulnerable and to give and receive love and acceptance based on who they really are without fear of being shamed or excluded or gossiped about. This is the hard work of love that we can so easily resist because it asks of us daily change of habits of exclusion; habits of mind, habits of the heart.
In his sermon on the ordination of the Rev. Allen Shin as Bishop, the 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold spoke of the essential poverty of any Christian. Bishop Griswold said that we can put all kinds of fancy clothes on bishops, but spiritually they – like all of us - remain in spiritual poverty. I think that this is true for every one of us – for all Christians, and I think for all human beings. This essential poverty may or may not be connected to material poverty. It is spiritual in nature and although it is not depression it certainly can include emotional discouragement, even despair. It is the place of honesty in us when we say to ourselves: I can’t figure this out. I can’t do this. Why is this happening? I don’t know where God is in this. And unlike material poverty, spiritual poverty is something we all experience. We may not talk about it much, even with God, but it is there. It is the moment when the knowledge of our utter dependence on God and of our own mortality moves from our intellect to our heart to our gut.
There is another sense in which awareness of our poverty is at the heart of things tonight. Essential poverty. Our spiritual poverty is the little door that opens to the infinite treasure house of grace. Our spiritual poverty is directly connected to the grace of God. This is how Lent is Holy. This is why Lent is a gift. Ash Wednesday tells us that our poverty, our sinfulness, our brokenness of spirit is not useless. Our spiritual poverty is not meaningless -- just the opposite. It is the path to grace and the real comfort on the other side of dismay. Our sins are not the stopping points but the starting points of grace.
Our own spiritual poverty – admitting it – honoring it – loving our own need of God as much as God loves us in our need of him -- here is where the hope comes. This is what C.S. Lewis is talking about. This is the comfort on the other side of our despair when our illusions of self-sufficiency are unmasked. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to be less defended against our own spiritual poverty. This is a day to remember that grace is not only for other people, it is for you and for me.
Repentance and forgiveness are difficult for us, so Jesus hardwires it into the basic prayer he teaches his disciples: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again, we practice admitting our need to forgive and be forgiven by God and by others. Forgiveness is difficult for us but apparently not so hard for God. It seems that God is less defended, less afraid to be vulnerable, than we usually are. There is no limit or condition attached to God’s grace. We call it unconditional, and we mean it. There is nothing that cannot be confessed tonight and nothing that cannot be forgiven.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. AMEN
Lent 1, Year B | February 22, 2015 : “Into the Desert” The Rev. Caroline Stacey (Readings, RCL: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)
In his book Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes:
“People only come to a deeper consciousness by intentional struggles with contradictions, conflicts, inconsistencies, inner confusions and what the biblical tradition calls sin or moral failure… In other words, the goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of all sin, which is not possible anyway (1 Jn 1:8-9; Rom 5:12), but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it.”
This is surely what the desert experience is all about. Today’s gospel is about a specific long retreat that Jesus takes in the wilderness, alone except for the Divine companionship. And yet the desert is also a place inside us. This is an essential journey that we can go on too, like Jesus and with Jesus. Part of the discipline of a real retreat is intentional stillness. We close out the usual distractions like the web, the email, the social media. We call them “distractions” but they can also be our lifelines, our ways of escaping ourselves that we deploy every day to avoid undiluted, exposed relationship with God and ourselves. The desert is having nowhere to hide.
And what is left in the interior desert is: the sound of silence. Except it is not silent. The noise in our heads can be deafening. Jesus has the experience of what the desert fathers and mothers called the noonday demons, and their urges towards power, control and gratification. Jesus has that experience in a way that fits who he is. We become aware of similar struggles in ways that fit with who we are.
When I was 23, I was in my first semester as a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. It was the day before Thanksgiving and most of my classmates had gone to their families. I was going for Thanksgiving Dinner the next day to an older seminarian’s home, who lived nearby. I was grateful for her invitation because I had minus amounts of money and didn’t have enough to fly anywhere. The day before Thanksgiving, I remember waking up and having breakfast in the usual way but then, as I started to go about my day I felt this increasing isolation and loneliness. There were still a few other people around but my existential anxiety grew and I could not shake it. I sat on the floor in my Divinity School dorm and thought: I have no family in the USA. I only know a handful of people in this whole country. Who should I list as my emergency contact? I am in truth completely alone even though this school is full of others. And I found I could not concentrate on my studies or focus in my prayers. I went for a long walk and came back with the realization that my internal disarray was only partly to do with being fresh off the plane in the USA and starting seminary and a new life. It was deeper than that. I remember thinking as I sat on the floor in my dorm room: if I cannot learn to be still and quiet in myself I will never be grounded or content in life. I must settle into my disquiet and learn to be with myself. A teacher had earlier recommended a book with the first sentence “Life is difficult”. I thought – that sounds like a book that starts where I am. And so I read that book by Scott Peck called The Road Less Travelled and absorbed it over the break. I stayed in my interior “cell”, the “monastery of the heart” as Joan Chittister calls it, and it was the beginning of a wonderful journey to the inner sanctuary where God lives in each of us.
I didn’t know it at the time, but now I know that I was undergoing one of the most significant experiences of young adulthood. I call it the “integration breakthrough”, though I am sure it has a proper psychological name. What I mean by integration breakthrough is learning to tolerate our own company. The desert father Abba Moses of Scetis told a young seeker: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” This is exactly it. Learning to sit with oneself quietly and experience all of the range of feelings and fears and hopes and anxieties that we have in ourselves without self-medicating with social media, or entertainment, or obsessive working or compulsive socializing or more obviously, drugs or alcohol. Until we can do that we are not able to live as a whole person. There is no still center from which to move out into the world. I am not a psychologist so I don’t know for sure, but my sense and experience tell me that this integration breakthrough can happen at any age and in fact needs to happen for mature adulthood and mature spirituality to unfold.
“Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” This ancient wisdom is ever new. Lent is the time when we make more space for ourselves and God to be together in quietness. Thomas Keating says: “God’s primary language is silence”. We need to sit in stillness with God precisely when we feel like running away or distracting ourselves or when we think nothing is happening in our spiritual life. That is when everything is happening.
We are all called on that interior journey through the desert. It is the other half of our earthly pilgrimage – the journey outwards towards others in relationship and service is balanced by the journey inwards. Go deeper on that journey this Lent. If you would like a list of spiritual companions in the form of books to read, my clergy colleagues and I will gladly recommend some. Go on retreat if you can – maybe you can go on the parish Lenten retreat next month? If you cannot get away physically, set aside extra time for reading, prayer and reflection. My Lenten encouragement is simply: Don’t be afraid of the desert wilderness inside you – it is the place of clarity, wisdom, peace and Divine friendship. You may be in solitude but you don’t journey alone and whether or not it is obvious to you, you will be transformed.
In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise
[-- from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”]
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany | January 24, 2015 “Jonah: A Whale of a Tale” The Reverend Emily LloydFebruary 5, 2015
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be always acceptable to you, oh God my rock and my redeemer.
In our readings for this Sunday, we have a brief passage from one of my absolute favorite stories in all of scripture, the timeless story of Jonah. Complex, beautiful and funny, it is sad that we only get two tiny snippets of the story during our three year lectionary cycle. Even the smallest Sunday School child knows the basics of the story. With its great drama, high sea adventure and special guest appearance of the whale, there is just something about this scripture passage that demands artistic representation. It is not surprising that so many artist have chosen to depict this tale. So this Sunday morning, let’s spend a couple minutes with our old pal Jonah, arguably the most poorly behaved prophet in history.
Picture our main character, Jonah, living a quiet life as a peaceful man of God. He is going about his daily work when suddenly he finds himself in the presence of God… the great I Am. The voice of the God calls down to Jonah, terrifying him of course, and tells him to go at once to Ninevah, the great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness know no boundaries.
Jonah thinks this sounds like the worst idea ever and instead of leaving his nice cozy home at once to go do the Lord’s work in Nineveh, he hightails it the closest port, Joppa and hops a ship heading for Tarshish ( the opposite side of the know world… as far away as he can get). The text tells us that Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord.” I don’t know about you but there have been many times in my life where to escape an unpleasant task at hand I have wanted to hop on the proverbial ship to Tarshish. And we all know how this part of the story goes. Jonah’s plan does not work. God calls up a great wind on the sea and the ship is tossed about violent. There is a great scene where all of the crew is assembled on deck each praying to their own gods. Jonah is nowhere to be found and the captain goes off in search of him. He finds Jonah down below in the hold sound asleep. The Captain is enraged and orders Jonah on deck and commands him to pray to his own God. The sailors cast lots to determine the cause of the calamity and the lots fall to Jonah. Jonah confesses that he is the cause and commands the sailors to throw him into the sea. The sailors and understandably horrified by this idea of sacrificing Jonah to the ocean but after hours of struggle they relent and over Jonah goes into the water.
This part is priceless. The text reads “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” This is the part that I missed when I was a little girl in Sunday School. I always thought that Jonah was swallowed by the whale as a punished when actually the whale or large fish, in this translation, saves Jonah’s life. Who knew that being swallowed by a giant marine creature could actually be a act of God’s continued love and commitment to you. This is the part of the story that we all love. We are endlessly fascinated by the logistics of being inside a whale. At my last parish, our nursery school children where particularly concerned about the levels of smell and stickiness in the belly of the beast. Four and five year olds are so earnest and they get right to the heart of the story. They always want to know exactly what Jonah did in the whale. Well Jonah prayed. For three days and three nights without stopping, Jonah prayed to God. On the third day, the Lord spoke to the whale and it spewed Jonah out on the dry land in Nineveh. This is a great image. I love the idea of the prophet crawling ashore covered in, what I can only imagine is best described as whale goo. John the Baptist has nothing on this guy.
This is where we meet Jonah in our reading today. Whale slimed covered Jonah is wandering the streets of Nineveh preaching doom and repentance. And this is where we have perhaps the most surprising part of this tale… even more surprising that the whale incident. The people of Nineveh listen and repent. The great and the small don sack cloth and ashes. The king in his palace makes a decree that all people and animals must fast. No food and no water. And then something equally extraordinary happens, God sees the people and how they turned from their evil ways and does not bring destruction upon the people. God forgives the people of Nineveh. By all accounts, this should be the happy end of the story. The people are saved. God is happy.
But our story does not end here, there is one person who is less than happy of the turn of event, that’s right our man, Jonah. Jonah is angry and basically throws a temper tantrum of biblical proportions. He yells at God. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Basically, Jonah knew all along that God was just going to forgive the people anyway so was all that whale nonsense really necessary. Jonah is quoting the LORD’s own self-description (from Exodus 34:6) a description taken up by prophets and psalmists throughout Israel’s history to remind us all of God’s nature. But in Jonah’s mouth, it is an accusation: You, God, are gracious and merciful. I KNEW this would happen! I declared your judgment on this sinful city, and you changed your mind! Then Jonah goes out of the city to sit and pout. The scripture say he constructs a little hut like booth and sits in it.
I love Jonah. I love how human he is, prone to fits of sulking and melodrama. Sure he, Jonah deserves a second chance, but do the people of Ninevah? God answers with a resounding “yes”. This is a lesson in forgiveness. This is a story full of people who are hard to love. The brilliance of this story is in its humor. We are all called to love our neighbors as ourselves but sometimes that is almost comically impossible. This week we are asked, who is it hardest to love. Now I am not talking about terrible abusive relationships, but your average run of the mill jerks that get on your nerves, go ahead picture them now. Well God loves them, and loves you too. Like Jonah, we are grateful the God’s mercy and compassion extend to us and our shortcoming but it is a little harder to imagine them extending to everyone else too. My prayer for all of us this week is that we might learn from Jonah and rejoice in the goodness of God. We don’t have to sit outside the city and pout but instead we can celebrate God’s gift of forgiveness and peace given to all.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany | February 1, 2015 “The ‘Impossible’ Happens”: Eve of the Presentation, The Rev. Caroline StaceyFebruary 5, 2015
Happy are the people who strength is in you O Lord, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. (Ps.84:5)
So here we are. Another Sunday, another annual meeting celebrating another year of mission and ministry at St. Luke's. And yet this day is more. This day is the last day the parking lot is the parking lot. It will remain St. Luke’s land and today we will bless the grounds. Beginning this month, construction materials and equipment will start to move in. Foundations will be laid and over the next two years an elegant residential building will go up. A diverse group of people will move in, including some middle income folks. Families will be raised here. People will live their lives on this block who wouldn't have lived here before. The annuitized income from this development will strengthen mission and ministry immeasurably for the next 99 years of this ground lease. What will our successors - rector, vestry, church leaders decide to do in 99 years when the ground lease is up and the building comes back to us? We have no way of knowing. That will be their choice to make. All we can do is make the wisest decision we can now and for the future as well as we can see it. For those who are newer to this parish, this day is the culmination of years and years of work, and a growing urgency. To flourish, we had to convert property assets into liquid assets for capital repairs, to rebuild our endowment, and for mission and ministry. Churches need sustainable budgets to do their ministry…very basic economics.
And yet faith is primarily an affair of the heart. It is a love affair. “The Faith” is the story of God's love for us, which we humans have never ceased to wonder about. And the story of the church is the story of our loving God back. Sometimes gloriously and magnificently and sometimes brokenly and hurtfully and often somewhere in between. What we do in our economics, what we do with what we are given to work with, is about what and Who we love. So today is about our love for God. God is connected to our parking lot.
The church lives between heaven and earth. At its best, the church is a bridge between the two. It is a very human institution like any other and yet it is also Christ living and walking and talking and breathing through us. Church is human and divine. Grubbing around in the dirt and soaring high. Ordinary and mystical. The beauty of the church is in the mix. It is a sacramental mix. Bread and wine are the Body and Blood of God. You and I become the Body of Christ. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, like many biblical stories, is a mix of the sublime and the, frankly, ridiculous. The endless waiting of Anna and Simeon. Onlookers in the Temple must have thought - crazy old man, crazy old woman - waiting for decades for what? God?! Do you think Simeon and Anna woke up that morning and thought: Today is the day? Probably not. But it was. Because here’s the thing about this ordinary/extraordinary mix that we call the life of faith. Sometimes the seemingly impossible happens. This is what Simeon and Anna come to know. This is the lesson of their lives for us. Sometimes by the grace of God the seemingly impossible happens. This is not to say that it doesn’t take a lot of time. This is not to say it is easy. This is not to say it doesn’t take blood, sweat, tears, prayers, patience and perseverance and human effort. It does. But by the grace of God, the longed-for reality comes to pass and sometimes we are the ones who are alive to see it.
One thing I do know. This day is not for us alone. It is not all about St. Luke’s. The journey we are on is for those we will be called to serve.
In the Episcopal Church, the basic unit of the church is the Diocese, not the parish. Bishop Dietsche, our Diocesan Bishop, and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about St. Luke’s projects. Bishop Dietsche said some wonderful things and at announcements I am going to read you a letter from him, since he cannot be with us in person today. The Bishop also told me a true story of how when Synod Hall was built on the Cathedral close, two wealthy New York families competed over who would have the honor of paying for the construction. We have lost that, reflected the Bishop. A sense of the honor and privilege of giving; of being able to give generously beyond ourselves, to go above and beyond for ideals we believe in.
I hope we never lose that at St. Luke’s. The privilege of being able to serve and to give is why we are not going to be keeping all of our newfound resources for ourselves alone. That is why the third strategic initiative – the Community Center which will eventually follow the residential building and the school expansion – is the apex of our vision. It will be the capstone and the cornerstone, because that is what we are here for – to serve beyond ourselves. Through the community center, hands-on good work will flow to people of all faiths and none. The community center will be the outward and visible sign of our commitment to the privilege of serving. I know it is unfashionable to be idealistic and tenacious in pursuit of the highest possible good. It is easy to be scornful or cynical of such dreams and hopes. I am very grateful to have a Bishop who shares my high hopes and expectations for St. Luke’s and for the Diocese. And I do trust that at St. Luke’s we will always hold fast to that idealism and vision and passion for the highest and best good. Part of what is so awesome about this day is precisely that it aligns with being a community that is a blessing to others. Let us reaffirm in our prayers today that St. Luke’s is not afraid to dream and to work for the highest and best outcomes, and that we will not rest until those hopes and dreams become reality. We will create a legacy of blessing for the generations that will come after us.
Ready or not, a time of change is upon us. Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in our love affair with Christ and his Church. Happy are the people who strength is in you O Lord, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. AMEN
The Second Sunday After the Epiphany | January 18, 2015 “The Thread of Prophecy” The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresJanuary 22, 2015
The story of the calling of the prophet Samuel is a favorite of children’s Bible story books. I can remember reading it for the first time while I was waiting to get childhood vaccinations in books of illustrated bible stories that the Jehovah’s witnesses used to leave in doctor’s offices. And it was always this portion of the story that was told, the portion we’ve heard today, along with its take-away mantra, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I remember being taken by the idea of this disembodied voice speaking in the middle of the night but being mistaken for a known voice.
How do we know when God might be speaking to us? It turns out that the story of Samuel’s early life, and of his mother Hannah and father Elkanah, and the priest Eli and his sons is long and tragic and strange to us. If you want to delve a little deeper, I commend to you the first part of the first book of Samuel before the anointing of David as king. There are battles with the Philistines and plagues and retribution and offerings of gold in the shape of tumors and rats. (The Bible is wondrously strange the deeper you go!)
This was in the time before the first kings of Israel, in the time that judges governed Israel and priests offered sacrifice before there was a Temple in Jerusalem. It turns out that the high priest Eli had unscrupulous sons who were skimming off the sacrifices of the faithful, taking the best meats for themselves.
It is in this context of graft and corruption, where the powers that rule seem to do nothing, that word of God is given to prophets, who speak on God’s behalf. When priests and judges and warriors are silent before injustice, the word of the Lord will not be lost. Instead, it will be given to those on the margins of power to witness to the truth, to the betrayal of God’s dream by the power that be.
That prophetic tradition continued throughout the history of the kingdoms of the people of Israel, and as it is transcribed and canonized the books of the Prophets, continued to critique and cry out in the Diaspora and as an essential thread in the Christian witness, particularly as the prophecies long for the coming of God’s kingdom of peace and and a Messiah to bring all things to their fulfillment.
The New Testament echoes the themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Magnificat echoes the Song of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, in saying that “God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
Through the span of thirty centuries, this thread of prophecy runs unbroken wherever the words and stories of the Scriptures come to life. God continues to speak, continues to cast the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
This weekend, as a country, we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and one of our greatest modern heirs of the prophetic tradition. His passion for justice for African-Americans in this country, beaten down by centuries of oppression and degradation, brought God’s dream to life in his speeches and actions. Dr. King’s dream echoed God’s dream.
But God’s word is not only for the leaders, those out in front. In the last analysis, as we have seen in the civil rights movement, change comes about through the courageous actions of many people, not just one or two. I am certain that there are many whose names we don’t know and may never know who heard God’s call and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Because God’s desire for us remains the same. God’s dream for us is undying. And that dream is a vision of a world in which a beloved community extends in all directions, where the dignity of every human being is lifted up, where everyone can live in peace and unafraid.
Recent news has been disheartening and even heart-breaking, showing us how far we still are from those dreams, from Dr. King’s dream and from God’s dream. We still have a long way to go for all God’s children to find a place in a beloved community that lifts us up and brings us home.
For today, the thing to remember is the God may very well be speaking to us in ways we do not recognize. Like Samuel, we may think it is people in our lives, the words of people we admire or fear, the cries of those marginalized and abused. To the voices that call us out of ourselves into a larger dream, it is worth saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Not just to a few special people, but to anyone who will hear the word and do it.And that requires a certain change in posture, a commitment to developing the ability to listen deeply, being open to receiving a message. You would think that God’s call would be unmistakable--you could not miss it! But, as we learn from Samuel, until someone clues us in, we might miss that in the midst of all the torrent of words in the world, there is One speaking whose voice has the power to recreate the world if we could just listen.Download Sermon
Christ’s baptism can easily be sentimentalized. But the classic portrayal of Christ’s baptism in Orthodox iconography is not sentimental. In classic iconography, the river Jordan runs from top to bottom of the icon; Christ is in the water, being baptized by John on the left of the picture. But on the viewer’s right – on the other side of the river – are three angels. The angels are waiting to receive Jesus – to clothe him. However, most commentaries don’t note that the angels are also waiting to accompany Jesus into the wilderness, where they will minister to him after the temptations. And in some icons, the angels look worried. And so does Jesus, who gazes out at something behind the viewer’s shoulder – at something that we cannot see.
We know what that something is. We know what is coming after Jesus’ baptism: the temptation in the wilderness, Jerusalem, death by crucifixion. Jesus’ baptism is a focal point of his life. Excuse the pun, but it is a watershed moment. Jesus’ baptism is the moment when he crosses over. It is the moment when he says Yes to his identity and his future, whatever it may hold. Jesus’ baptism marks the great divide between the time of protection, shelter and preparation and his adult identity.
In chronological time, Scripture tells us (Lk.3:23) that baptism is not the half way point of Jesus’ life. Jesus has had 30 years of life as a private citizen, a regular life, a manageable life. The baptism marks the start of three years of public life and ministry, unmanageable and chaotic, subject to the demands and needs of others, followed by trial and death. 30 years before; baptism; 3 years after.
All of us experience watershed moments, a time when the road forks and we choose. These moments can happen at any age. And they can happen more than once. Sometimes people enter retirement and begin an amazing new chapter in their lives and sense of identity. Sometimes people know very young who they are and they choose to say Yes to their identity and that Yes unfolds in successive chapters.
I don’t believe that Jesus knows the specifics of what lies ahead for him after his baptism, any more than we do. I do believe that this is the moment of resolve when he accepts his own identity as a child of God and says Yes to the path -- wherever it may lead him. Of course, Jesus baptism differs significantly from our own in some aspects. Chiefly, Jesus’ baptism is a continuation and enfolding of the Hebrew tradition into his own messianic ministry. Our baptism is a baptism into Jesus’ own death and Resurrection. But it is just as important that we notice the overlap of our life in God with Jesus’ own path. The dynamics of Jesus’ saying Yes to God’s work, and you and me saying Yes to God’s work are the same.
We are at a watershed moment in our culture. Obviously we see it in race relations. I would say that even this growing awareness can be placed in a larger context. The tsunami question is what will be the relationship between the privileged and the underprivileged and the responsibility of each to the other. We see this question in multiple arenas: education, justice, housing, income inequality.
We are also at a watershed moment, a changing point, at St. Luke’s. We are immersed in the Jordan River. We are saying Yes to what lies on the other side. The vestry and staff have the most exposure to the challenges that this baptismal moment poses on a day-to-day basis. But everyone who considers St. Luke’s their spiritual home needs to share in the awareness that this is a changing moment in our history. Next month is the expected start of construction for the new residential building on the parking lot. This week, as another outward sign of maturing, we started to employ 24 hour security on the block following a series of burglaries of our properties. We are growing up and moving forward. This summer, the school’s expansion will be continuing its forward movement. And the third strategic initiative – the community center – will also be starting to be more fully explored, even as our existing outreach programs are starting to be examined, renewed and revisioned.
Change always looks and feels like chaos at first. And it is OK to be apprehensive at watershed moments. By definition, we are embarking on a future that is new. New questions, new problems to solve for. When it feels more bad than good, I think it is helpful to remember – this is a baptismal moment. We have been laboring for six years – and our predecessors have agonized for even longer – about strategic planning and resources to strengthen our future and expand our mission. Suddenly on May 6, 2014 the residential and school projects popped out the other end of the Landmarks process and we were cleared for take off. I think if the next generation looks back at this decade they might say: All the moving parts of life on the block started moving at once. All the cylinders started firing at once. True enough. But it is the culmination of decades of work -- just as Jesus saying Yes in his baptismal moment was 30 years in the making in his own life.
We might have a wrinkled brow like the iconic angels and an anxious gaze into the future like Jesus. It is OK to be a little apprehensive. What is not OK is to allow fear to make decisions for us about our identity and our future. Which is exactly why we are saying Yes to this baptismal moment, and which is exactly why we are immersed in the Jordan River. We are doing this so that the forces of scarcity and decaying real estate and the latest squeakiest wheel won’t determine our future – God’s call to mission and ministry will be what determines our future. And in this baptismal moment we are saying Yes. We are giving our successors the resources they need so that they can act freely in response to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Because of course, baptism isn’t only about getting in the water. That’s just the beginning. The crowning moment of baptism is the descent of the dove. The high point is when God answers our Yes with a Yes of God’s own. And, as for Jesus so for us – God’s Yes is a word of love and affirmation, a word that gives us the courage to step boldly into the future: You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.
The Second Sunday after Christmas | Jan. 4th 2015, “A New Nativity Scene” - The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresJanuary 5, 2015
Happy New Year and a happy ten-lords-a-leaping day to you all!
The Christmas season is the last opportunity many of us have to play with dolls. The Nativity Scene is such a ubiquitous custom of the season it’s hard to imagine going through the festive period without seeing at least one. My family had one when I was growing up, made of ceramic. We also had one made of soapstone that we bought at an outdoor market in the volcanic provinces in the west of Panama. There are dozens, if not thousands of variations. The custom originated (as you might learn from the helpful brochures about our own Nativity Scene) with a live Nativity scene, more like our Christmas pageant, organized by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, to turn the attention of the faithful away from gifts and glitter and towards the humble birth of the Savior in rustic surroundings. Soon, every church in Italy, and then churches all over Europe, then all over the world had their own Nativity Scenes at Christmas.
So, each year, we get to play with dolls and set up the scene. In the middle, we always place Mary, right next to the manger, and Joseph, on the other side of the manger. The Christ child goes in the manger, of course, though when the child appears is a topic of passionate convictions. Those are the pieces without which the scene is not fully constituted. Often, there is an angel with or without a star. Often, there are shepherds (as in Luke’s Gospel). Often, there are wise men on camels (as in Matthew’s Gospel). In many places, we like to move the Wise Men into place little by little as we approach Epiphany.
Then there are the farm animals. And then it starts getting creative. Have you ever noticed other figures appearing in home Nativity Scenes? When I was little, sometimes Luke Skywalker would appear at the edge of the scene or G.I. Joe or Barbie.
Why not? This simple tableau, like sand play therapy, is depicting much more than a historical scene or a teaching tool or invitation to devotion. It’s depicting where salvation happens. We’re recreating where God touches the earth, pitches a tent, and lives among us. The manger with the Divine Child is the center of the world, in a way, the figures gathered around playing their part like planets orbiting around a newborn Sun.
But, as we know from Matthew, all was not sweetness and light. I have often thought that there is a crucial figure missing from the scene. Granted, he wasn’t in Bethlehem, but he is just as much a part of the whole pictures as those gathered. That figure is the King. I propose we keep it indefinite which King the figure is, since Jesus will have trouble with more than one. In keeping with some of the more creative scenes, it could even be a repurposed Darth Vader, standing at the edge of the scene, watching malevolently, prepared to destroy any threat to his own power.
Maybe that sounds a little morbid and disturbing. But where else in this eternal tableau do we come to understand that this wondrous scene filled with so much hope and wonder will cause so much trouble to those in it, and soon! Our Gospel text this morning describes how Joseph was sent dreams of guidance by God in order to save the newborn Messiah from massacre on the orders of King Herod. Within days, Jesus and his parents are on the run, crossing borders, going into exile in a foreign land, the quasi-mythical land of bondage, Egypt.
Without the Evil King to remind us, how are we to remember that this child is in trouble, that his message threatens the powers that be, that the cross on which he will die is not so very far off? This miraculous birth, full of hope and promise, provokes a response from the powers that want to keep things exactly the way they are, through violence and cruelty if necessary.
It is a bit of a different scene, then, isn’t it? In addition to evoking wonder and devotion, I am also moved to admiration, especially of Mary and Joseph, who went through so much fear and foreboding so that the Word could become flesh and dwell among us. And for the wise men, who had to be wise enough to listen to God’s guidance to go home by another way. The scene also evokes sorrow and a fierce desire to protect, as long as we are able.
It almost makes me want to take the Christ child from the manger and put him somewhere I can keep him safe. What if I were to put him inside? Isn’t that what we do when we receive the Eucharist, when we consume the bread and wine become beloved Body and Blood, so that he becomes part of us and we become part of him? Don’t we admit him into the inner room of our souls and enthrone him in our hearts?
And he may very well get us into trouble with the powers that be, with Caesar and Herod and the like. But the rulers of this world shall not prevail against him. Not even death will prevail against him. In him, we realize that God is doing a new thing, recreating the heavens and the earth, lifting up the lowly and filling them with good things. God is giving dreamers dreams and guiding anyone who will listen into a new way of living.
May the Nativity Scenes we see with our eyes be laid out in our hearts where neither moth nor rust can destroy. And may the light of that Divine Child shine through us into every corner of this dark world.
The scene is embedded deep in our culture, a version of it accessible to nearly everyone. A girl, dressed in blue robes, her eyes averted, her face suffused with light. Conversing with an angel, his wings strong and glittering, his voice the sound of many waters. The angel holds a lily in his hand. Maybe a small dove hovers at the edge of the circle. Otherwise, they are alone.
It’s so familiar, it’s hard to see afresh. What does the picture mean?
It reminds me of an ad campaign launched by HSBC Financial Services that had ads in airports, magazines, and the Web. Maybe you’ve seen it: there’s usually a single picture repeated several times. One particularly memorable one has three images of a shaved head from behind. A word appears on each picture. The first says “style.” The second says “soldier.” And the third says “survivor.” Now, what that has to do with banking, I’ll never know. But it’s a clever way of representing the many ways we see things and how our vision is colored or sharpened by what we know or think we know. Which description is right? We’ll never know without more information. And appearances can be deceiving.
So I’d invite us to approach this image of the girl and the angel the same way. Imagine the same image, whichever version pops into your head, repeated three times, side by side.
Without a doubt, the word under the first image is: IMPOSSIBLE. To a world-view that places its trust on what we can perceive with our senses, there are just too many things that are outside of the realm of belief. The angel, the very idea of a virgin conceiving a child, the promise of Davidic kingship that not only never materialized, but instead became a cruel joke as Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Temple destroyed for the last time. Don’t Jesus’ life and teachings speak for themselves? Why does he need this very special conception and birth? It is a pious story, lovely at best, but not to be pressed on too hard lest it shatter.
The word under the second image is: SUBMISSION. The translation in the New Revised Standard Version is soft and euphemistic in saying ‘servant.’ The most honest translation of the word doule is slave. “Look: I am the Lord’s slave, God’s property. Let it happen to me just as you say.” In the scene, Mary prefigures her son’s prayer in saying, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” She exemplifies the self-emptying love that characterizes God’s blessed ones. Mary’s entire being is ‘Yes.’ She makes room in herself for the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the quickening of the child. She places her body, her soul, her whole life in the service of the promise of redemption, of freedom for her subjugated people. She is the soul of Advent.
As laudable and true as this interpretation is, thinkers and writers who care deeply for women’s lives and freedom as human beings urge us to caution. There is something of this submission that has been used by sexism to justify women’s powerlessness, women’s secondary roles, woman as vessel rather than agent. So we would do well to apply this interpretation to everyone who has thrown their weight behind the Reign of God, no matter what gender. For all of us who are inspired by her openness, God’s service is perfect freedom.
Here is the third word: COURAGE. Mary is afraid: of the angel, of the future, of the shame of being pregnant outside of marriage, of the destiny of this miracle child and what it will mean for her. Like someone told she’s won the lottery or that she’s been diagnosed with cancer or that her spouse has died (yes, the terrible angel comes in many forms, even today), I’m sure Mary asked herself, “Why me? Isn’t there someone more mature, richer, more worthy, more holy, more...well, MARRIED, at least?” And let’s be clear, in conventional terms, Mary does not win the lotto. She has a child in a manger, raises him as he’s teased for being a mamzer (a bastard), only to have him become an itinerant preacher with no children, wandering the countryside with a band of strangers, disavowing his family, provoking the wrath of the authorities, and getting himself executed for treason. “Why me?” Of course, Mary doesn’t know any of that in that eternal moment with the angel. All she can see is danger and social disapproval and immense promise.
But God has chosen well. She does not shrink. She does not step back. She does not cower or hide away. She does not shrug her shoulders and say ‘whatever.’ She does not beg to be released from this fate. She does not ask for special favors. Instead, she brings all her fierce courage to bear and speaks. She asks a question. And she consents. Not as the daughter of her father. Not as her future husband’s property. She consents as a free woman, standing unadorned as a daughter of Israel before God’s ambassador. She and the Holy Spirit become co-conspirators. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
In the celebrations of the coming season, as in her life, she will step back from center stage, dim next to the brightness of the Divine Child. And that is as it should be. But, just for today, let us pray for her courage, for her faith, for her availability to God’s grace, for the ‘yes’ that makes all things possible.Download Sermon