Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still the Storm

Sermon from Sunday, Aug. 13
Matthew 14:22-33

That’s quite a story we just heard, Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in the storm.  For Jesus’ followers after his resurrection, hearing this story back in the day, it would have reminded them of ancient Jewish tradition about God reining in the uncontrollable forces of the natural world.  The psalms frequently tell of God subduing the primordial chaos, defeating sea monsters and setting the oceans’ boundaries.  When the great flood came, the people saw it as God’s fearsome judgment, using the power of nature against them.  And when the people were delivered from oppression in Egypt, God used the Red Sea as a path of liberation for them but a path of destruction for the Egyptian army.  As we’ve come to remember more vividly than we’d like in the past month or so at St. Andrew's, water is certainly life-giving, but it’s also a serious threat – a force we’re still trying to manage and tame.  So when Jesus comes to us walking over the water, it’s not simply an amazing feat but a sign of his divine mastery over the destructive power of chaos.
To get a sense of the disciples’ mindset entering into this story, it’s always good to go back and see what happened just before it.  Today’s story follows another astonishing miracle, the feeding of the 5,000 – a miracle not just of divine provision but of overwhelming abundance, showing that what God gives us, through Jesus Christ, is astonishingly more than we can ask or imagine.  Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us not just the bounty of our daily bread but the promise of eternal life, which we experience at this altar each week as bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given.  I think it’s also significant that this feeding miracle isn’t Jesus’ work alone.  He carries it out with the participation of his friends.  When the crowds are hungry and his friends come to him looking for help, Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16).  And thousands are fed through the partnership of God’s abundance and human hands. 
But then, as we’re still reveling in the wonder of that miracle, the scene shifts and the mood darkens.  Jesus sends his followers out on the Sea of Galilee, telling them to cross over to the other side while he goes off to pray.  And suddenly, they’re face to face with the chaos that’s always lurking in creation, as the storm batters their small boat, a storm serious enough to frighten professional fisherman.  As if that’s not enough, the disciples then see something even scarier – what they think is a ghost coming toward them, a symbol of the power of death itself heading their way.  Jesus sees and hears their fear, and he assures them that he’s no ghost.  “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  If you hear it in Greek, what he says is even more assuring:  The same phrase given here as “It is I” can also be translated as “I am” – as in, the great I AM, echoing the voice of God to Moses from the burning bush.  This is no ghost.  This is the same One who subdues the sea monsters and sets the boundaries of the wild waters.  This is the One who tramples down the power of the storm.
 So then the scene shifts to Peter.  He’s just as scared as any of the other disciples, but what counts is how Peter responds – with totally unselfconscious faith.  Maybe he’s still in awe from Jesus feeding thousands of people from five loaves and two fish.  But for whatever reason, Peter’s response to Jesus reveals deeper faith than he probably even realizes:  “Lord, if it is you,” he says, “command me to come to you on the water” (14:28).  The question for Peter isn’t whether a person might actually be able to walk on the water; the question for Peter is simply whether he’s seeing whom he thinks he’s seeing.  Because for Peter, if that’s really Jesus out there, there’s no question whether he can walk on the water and overcome the storm.  Why not, having just fed thousands of hungry people from five loaves and two fish?  Why not, having cast out demons, and cleansed lepers, and healed withered limbs, and restored sight to the blind, and brought the dead to life?  
Peter sees no reason why he couldn’t be a partner in God’s work to overcome chaos and still the storm – right up until he thinks about it too much.  He notices the wind and the water, and he gets scared again both by the strength of the storm and by the weakness of his own capacity.  So he begins to sink.  But that very human moment shouldn’t diminish the power of the example of Peter’s faith.  As long as he taps into the depth of his trust, Peter is able to join Jesus in defeating the powers of chaos simply by naming a power that’s greater than they are.
We’ve seen something of the power of chaos this weekend, in the news from Charlottesville, Virginia.  A crowd of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered there, ostensibly to protest the removal of statue honoring Robert E. Lee but really there to advocate for taking “their country” back.  The protest was met with counter-protest, and the two sides fought each other with clubs and sticks, bottles and chemicals.  All of that would have been horrifying enough, but then a man drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 more.  In all, three people are dead and 35 injured from this weekend’s chaos.
I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say that Jesus stands against white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Klan – despite the appalling fact that probably most of those protesters would claim to honor and serve Jesus as their Lord and Savior, too.  But if Jesus isn’t standing with the Klan, where is he in this storm?  And how does he call us to follow him?
I see Jesus out there on the waters of the chaos, standing tall in the storm and inviting us to step out on the water to join him in stilling it.  Our Lord seems to have this odd preference for finding partners in working miracles, just as he did when he fed the crowds, just as he did in inviting Peter to join him on the water.  So what does it look like for us to take our place next to our risen Lord and Savior and work with him to counter violence, racism, and hate?
For us, in our particular context, maybe it’s a matter of naming truths that we might well have thought were self-evident – the truth that God loves all people, no exceptions; the truth that following Jesus allows no place for discrimination; and the truth that we are called to help bring God’s kingdom to life in the world God shares with us.  Now, that may seem like advocating for the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow or that we should brush our teeth before we go to bed.  And we might be tempted – especially those of us of a certain age – to look back a few decades and argue that we once enjoyed a social consensus that rejected hate and consigned neo-Nazis and the Klan to the lunatic fringe; and we might lament what’s become of our world today.  But you know, not so many years ago, we had Klansmen and white supremacists in the halls of power, calling on Jesus just as we do.  So, sometimes it is a holy act simply to proclaim God’s truth, because God’s truth is probably not as self-evident as we nice Episcopalians would like to think.  Sometimes, it is a holy act simply to say that Jesus calls us to practice love, not hate; to practice reconciliation, not conflict; to practice engagement, not vilification of “the Jews” or “the blacks” or “the Muslims.”  Sometimes it is a holy act simply to say that we stand with Jesus Christ, whose power brings people together and unites us as one, just as he and the Father are one.  Sometimes it is a holy act to say out loud that we stand with Jesus on the water despite the storm, confident of his power to make the demons flee.  It’s a holy act because words change things when influential people speak them with courage.  Words change hearts, and changed hearts change the world.
That may be a stretch for us nice Episcopalians.  It may put us uncomfortably close to linking faith with politics, though I would argue vigorously that if racism and supremacy are part of your politics, faith should stand against it.  But it’s our call as followers of Jesus not to let even obviously holy truths lie silent when they’re under assault.  When we’re at the grocery store, or the coffee shop, or the club, it’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against hate.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against racism.  It’s right to say out loud that Jesus stands against anyone’s efforts to consign others to second-class status.  It’s even right to say out loud that Jesus judges such things as contrary to God’s purposes and therefore as sinful. 
We may think all that’s self-evident.  But we are in a time when such truths need our voices.  For when we proclaim them, we take our place next to Jesus out there on the water, proving his power and stilling the storm.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sacrifice for Glory

Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Aug. 6, 2017
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

Today we mark the Feast of the Transfiguration, as told in Luke’s Gospel.  You’ve heard me say before that, at the end of the day, God’s work to create us, redeem us, and sustain us for eternal life – it comes down to mystery, that God’s truth is simply more than we can wrap our minds around.  The Transfiguration brings that into high relief.  If you think I’m going to stand here and try to explain what happened on that mountain, think again.  It’s sort of like preaching about the doctrine of the Trinity: Some things are better experienced than explained.
That truth about experiencing God’s mystery makes me think about music.  Before I got into this priest gig, I had the joy of singing in church choirs from second grade on.  As a kid, teen, and college student at Christ Episcopal in Springfield; and at Trinity Episcopal in Iowa City, Iowa; at the Episcopal church in Blue Springs; and at my seminary in Austin, I was blessed to get to sing in a choir every week.  It was one of the ways I first experienced the presence of God.  Especially at the church in Iowa City – part of a choir that was nearly as good as ours here and that eventually got to sing at the National Cathedral – I knew moments of transcendence I really can’t capture in words.  But it wasn’t just an experience of beauty; it was beauty that revealed God’s majesty.  Trying to explain it sort of cheapens it, but you need to know it was there.  As part of that choir, because of the music we were making and words we were singing, I first knew, for a moment at least, what resurrection and new creation actually feel like.
There are moments on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings now when that majestic glory reveals itself again for me.  Officiating at Evensong and Choral Compline on Sunday nights, I’ve had times when I’ve had to force myself to remember that I’m actually officiating, rather than just getting lost listening to God’s voice.  We have a treasure here, and I urge you to come and hear it for yourself.  These are moments when we are blessed to hear the voice of God, and live.
That’s what’s happening in our readings this morning, too.  Moses has come back from being on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God a second time and renewing the covenant after the people broke it by worshiping gods of their own making.  Moses climbs the mountain and stands in awe as God descends in a cloud, speaks the divine name, writes the Law on tablets of stone, and lets Moses experience the divine presence up close and personal for 40 days.  When Moses returns to the people, his face is radiant, literally glowing, which scares the living daylights out of the people.  In the tent of meeting, Moses continues to stand in God’s presence and speak with the Almighty, and he would cover his face with a veil when he came back among the people because regular folks like us can only handle so much glory at once.
That story sets the stage for the Gospel reading, as Jesus takes three of his followers into the presence of God.  They go up on the mountain to pray – just as Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Law, just as Elijah went up on the mountain to experience God’s empowering presence.  There, as the disciples snooze, Jesus’ face becomes radiant, literally glowing, and his clothes become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus, time and space collapsing into one heavenly moment.
But why?  Why is this happening here in the middle of the Gospel story, 14 chapters before crucifixion and resurrection?  Here, for no apparent reason, Peter and James and John get a preview of the end of the story, seeing the Messiah in the fullness of his glory, with Moses and Elijah representing the Law and the Prophets of Jewish tradition as they point to him as the one who completes their story.  The three disciples are roused from sleep just in time to see this time-bending encounter, with Moses and Elijah and Jesus talking about his coming departure, which in Greek is exodus – completing God’s work to deliver the people from the waters of death at the Red Sea and to bring them into a heavenly country instead.  And then, as Peter struggles to interpret the wonder he’s experiencing, suddenly the cloud of the divine presence comes upon all of them, like Moses and Elijah experienced on the mountain in their own days.  The disciples are terrified in the presence of majesty they can’t begin to describe, and the very voice of God speaks to them, in person, and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
Wait.  What had Jesus said?  What are we supposed to listen to?  He was talking with Moses and Elijah, but we don’t get to overhear that conversation.  In fact, Jesus doesn’t have anything at all to say in this reading.
So, it might make sense to go back a few verses and see what Jesus says just before this Transfiguration story.  As it turns out, he’s just had something pretty important to say.  He’s asked his followers, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:18-20).  Peter nails it for once, proclaiming Jesus to be nothing less than the messiah, God’s anointed ruler, the one who will reveal God’s presence, and rule with God’s justice for the poor and forgotten, and bring about the kingdom of heaven, uniting all of creation, heaven and earth, into the completeness and peace that God intended in the beginning.  And in response to that revelation, Jesus says the very last thing any of them, or any of us, would expect to hear: that this king will “undergo great suffering, … and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22).  But that’s not all.  He goes on to say that this way of the cross is the path to glory not just for the king but for his followers, too: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (9:23-24)  These are the words of God’s Son, the Chosen.  Listen to him.
We often hear that call to sacrifice and think, “I couldn’t give my life for God.”  We hear stories of the martyrs, or see examples like Mother Teresa, and we think they’re out of our league.  And when we open our hands and our hearts to the mystery of what happens at this altar each week, we remember that Jesus gave his body and blood for us and continues to give us his body and blood for us, opening eternal life to us through his sacrifice.  And the voice of God, booming from the cloud, tells us to follow that same sacrificial path?  Really?
In a few minutes, we’ll baptize four new members of this family, four new followers of Jesus, four new inheritors of eternal life.  They’ll receive a little water on their heads, but what they’re really doing is participating in the journey through the Red Sea, going down into the water and back up again, following Jesus’ path of dying and rising, putting the world on notice that sin and death do not get the last word.  And as they rise from that water, they will receive God’s own Spirit, “send[ing] them into the world in witness to [God’s] love” (BCP 306).  Empowered by that Holy Spirit, they will have what it takes to die and rise daily, taking up the cross and following Jesus.
That life doesn’t have to look like the sacrifice of the martyrs or the service of Mother Teresa.  We’re called to walk our own paths, not theirs.  Jesus calls us to take up our own crosses and follow him in hundreds of ways, in actions great and small.  They may look very different for this person or that person, from one season of our lives to the next.  But what unites them all is sacrifice, the daily act of taking up the cross and following the path that, unbelievably, leads to glory.  It might be in feeding the hungry, or helping poor kids learn, or mentoring a mom at the Grooming Project.  Or it might be scraping out wax from the votive candles, or leading a Finance meeting, or restoring floors and ceilings after the storm.  Or, it might be singing and playing God’s praise here, week after week, offering the sacrifice of untold hours of preparation and rehearsal for the moment of glory in worship, the moment when heaven opens and the glory of God lifts us where we simply cannot go on our own.  Because whether our gift is the time to serve others, or the talent that puts flesh on the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the treasure that makes the work of ministry possible, the mystery we live is this:  God uses even such as us to reveal divine glory through sacrifice, and every step of the way of the Cross takes us one step higher up the mountain of life that never fades away.