Transfiguration and Exodus: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2022

The images on our screen are horrifying and mesmerizing. The stories, tragic and sinspiring. We are watching war unfold in real time, tanks rolling across the terrain of Ukraine. They are images and events few of us could have imagined in Europe, in 2022. And this morning we learned that Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert. All of it seems so unbelievable, so shocking.

Why are we shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Is it the audacity of it, the insanity, the outright rejection of democratic ideals and national self-expression? Is it, on the other hand, the fact that it is taking place in Europe when we thought Europe had seen its last conflict in World War II, with a Cold War eventually giving way to democracy and capitalism? That view, of course, conveniently forgets the violence in the states of the former Yugoslavia in the 90s. Would we be equally shocked if it were war in the Middle East, or Afghanistan? Conveniently forgetting that there has been war there, perpetrated in the first case by the US, since 2001?

But then again, a look closer home to the rise of Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, the attacks on democracy here; and now, the attacks on history, truth, science—and most recently the anti LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, the attacks on trans people coming out of some state houses and governors remind us that whatever is happening in Ukraine is also happening here. And some on the right are still supporting Russia and its dictator in the midst of the horror.

Our hearts are heavy; we may be overwhelmed with fear. Certainly the burdens of the last years, not just COVID but the whole tenor of our nation, our world, weigh heavily on us. Other images, now fainter with the passing of time, remind us of moments of hope and exhilaration—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the election of the first African-American president; the legalization of same-sex marriage. Backlash reminds us that such moments were hard-fought and that the victories we acclaimed were tentative, not secure.

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and always, on this Sunday we hear this story from the gospels, the otherworldly, eerie story of the Transfiguration. Because Ash Wednesday is fairly late this year, we have lingered longer than usual in stories about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Week by week, the great stories of Christmas and Epiphany have faded in our memories and we feel we are precisely where liturgically we are—Ordinary Time.

But now, suddenly this story breaks in upon us like the light from heaven that illumines Jesus and us, and we are surprised and being prepared for what next is to come. As it breaks in upon us, like this morning’s spectacular sunrise, it’s a reminder of God’s glory in our world, 

Breaking in upon our sense of time and reality. It’s a story that in its details invites us to look forward to the resurrection, and back to the Hebrew Bible, to Sinai and to the prophets. Present in all three synoptic gospels, it appears in the very same narrative sequence, occurring just after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, just after Jesus has predicted for the first time that he will be crucified and explains to his followers that to be his disciples, they must also take up their crosses and follow him. So this is a story told under the looming presence of the cross and Jesus’ death.

In Luke’s version, he takes his three closest followers up the mountain to pray. I’ve mentioned it before, it bears repeating, that Jesus’ praying is a significant theme of Luke’s gospel. He mentions it at key moments in the story—at Jesus’ baptism for example, in the lead up to his preaching of the Beatitudes. What takes place here takes place in the context of prayer. 

Several details stand out to help us begin to understand this strange story. First, Luke uses the exact same language when describing Jesus’ appearance as he will use to describe the angels who appear at Jesus’ tomb at his resurrection: The clothes are “dazzling white.” Second, the presence of Moses and Elijah is another powerful reminder of the deep connection and continuity between Jesus’ ministry and mission and the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For Luke, that connection is made concrete in various ways, but it’s important that we understand there is no sharp break between Old and New Testament, between the way God revealed Godself in the past and the way God reveals Godself in the present. Moses and Elijah’s presence are evidence of that continuity.

All of this is meant to be confirmation of Jesus’ identity—the change in appearance of his face, his dazzling clothes, the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter has just confessed him to be the Messiah. Now this is divine confirmation of that fact. But there’s more. God, too is present here, to confirm Jesus’ identity. The voice that came from heaven in Jesus’ baptism comes again. At the baptism, the voice said, “You are my son, my beloved.” Now the voice is directed not to Jesus but to the disciples. It says, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” This time, the voice comes not from heaven, not from a far distance, but from close at hand, from the cloud that envelops them, suggesting God’s near presence in this place. And the message directed to the disciples is not about abstract theology, it has to do with Jesus’ message: Listen to him. And suddenly, the event was over. The glory, the dazzling clothes, the cloud, Moses and Elijah, all of it was gone. Left there were Jesus and his three disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they went back down the mountain and didn’t tell anything to anyone.

There is much here for us to ponder. This strange story eludes our grasp, just as God eludes our grasp and comprehension. We can discern traces of other things in it—the connection with Hebrew Scripture, the pointing back toward the past and the pointing forward to the cross and resurrection. We can hear and see in Luke’s vivid description all that takes place, but still, none of it really is comprehensible to our twenty-first century skeptical minds. We want to make sense of it, process it, analyze it, understand it in our terms, on our territory. But this story, like the story of Moses’ shining and veiled face, remain beyond our comprehension, beyond our human understanding. 

There’s one other detail worth pondering. Only in Luke do we get a sense of what Jesus and the two biblical prophets discussed: “they were speaking of his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It’s curious wording although the intent is clear—that they were talking about Jesus’ crucifixion. The word translated as departure is the Greek word “exodus”—another echo of scripture. But more than that, it connects cross and resurrection with the great saving act of God, delivering God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into a promised land. 

Exodus, journey, deliverance. The experience of Exodus for the Hebrew people was fraught with peril, full of conflict and struggle. Along their exodus they encountered God at Mt. Sinai and received the torah, the Law, and eventually, they entered the promised land.

Jesus and his disciples were also on a journey. A little later in the chapter, after they had come down from the mountain, Luke says that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

The Transfiguration came at a very particular moment in Jesus’ ministry, after his disciples had confessed him to be the Messiah, after he had begun to tell them about his imminent suffering and death, after he had begun to teach them about the cost of discipleship—take up your cross and follow me. Even in the midst of the Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah speak about what is to come, Jesus’ suffering and death.

Our relationships with God, our life with Jesus Christ is not just about those moments of perfect bliss and happiness, moments when our faith is sure, our lives are happy, and we rest comfortably in God’s love. Our life in Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship, a call to follow him. It is a call that may come to us in a flash of lightning or a still, small voice. It may make us thirst for more, to build booths where we might rest content with Jesus Christ, without a care in the world.

But discipleship means walking along, following Christ on the journey he leads, And so we, too come down the mountain, with God’s glory at our backs, the cross ahead of us, and Jesus beckoning us forward, teaching us what it means to follow him. Listen to him!

Exodus and Transfiguration: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019

How are you all doing? Hanging in there? At least February is over even if winter is still around. We Wisconsinites are hardy folk, We pride ourselves in not being thwarted by a few inches of snow or sub-zero temperatures. But let’s be honest: a forecast of -10 tonight? I’m sure we’re all waiting for spring, or wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny. Last night, we drank Sicilian wine, ate Sicilian food, watched a TV show set in Sicily. It only made things worse.

As this winter continues, I feel myself dreading the Season of Lent. I feel like I’ve been in the middle of a spiritual discipline which is simply surviving winter. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on something else.  But here we are on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany with Ash Wednesday only a few days away.

Because Ash Wednesday is so late this year, we seem far removed from the joyous celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, the manifestation of God in Christ seems more a faint memory than lived experience. So it may be appropriate that on this Sunday each year, we experience another jolt of glory as we read the story of the Transfiguration.

Each gospel writer tells the story somewhat differently, reflecting their different emphases and their different understandings of Jesus. So for Luke, the first thing that we notice is the reason Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain—to pray. Matthew and Mark only observe that Jesus took the three of them to be off by themselves.

We have seen this emphasis on prayer before. Just a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Jesus began his sermon on the level place after going up to the mountain to pray with his disciples.

Thcere’s a similar moment a few verses before today’s gospel reading. Luke reports that one time, Jesus was praying, with only his disciples near him, and he asked them the famous question, “Who do people say that I am?” We might think what ties these three instances together. In the first, prayer precedes Jesus revealing himself to the disciples and the crowd by teaching them. In the second, he asks the disciples about his identity; in the third, God reveals Jesus’ identity, “This is my son, the Chosen, listen to him.”

These three different episodes in which Jesus reveals himself or in which his identity is revealed, have much to say to us. We might ask how we expect to encounter Jesus Christ, how we understand and experience him, what assumptions we bring with us. Do we expect preaching and teaching, a confession of faith, a miraculous experience? What satisfies us, what convinces us, what changes us?

There’s another important theme here. The story is full of imagery that looks back to the Hebrew Bible and forward to the resurrection. For example, the words that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ appearance are the exact same words he will use when describing the appearance of the angels at the empty tomb—the dazzling clothes appears in both places. But the ways in which this story points backwards in the biblical tradition are even more striking.

It’s not just the presence of Moses and Elijah, which 21stcentury readers might assume is only the gospel writers’ attempts to add to the drama and spectacle. Moses and Elijah were important figures in Jewish speculation. Both had mysterious deaths—Deuteronomy tells us that when Moses died, God buried him, and no one knows the location of his tomb. In the case of Elijah, he didn’t die at all but was carried off to heaven by chariots of fire. Because of this mystery, Jewish apocalyptic thinking focused attention on the return of both figures.

But their presence may be accounted for in less dramatic fashion. Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet were two key figures in the development of scripture and Jewish identity—Luke repeatedly tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, so their presence here are a reminder of Jesus’ continuity with the tradition that came before him.

There’s another theme that connects back with earlier tradition and with Moses. Luke tells us that the Moses, Elijah, and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” It’s an odd turn of phrase in English that takes on surprising significance in the Greek, for the Greek word used is “exodus.” With this, Luke is reaching back to the story of God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, a journey they were on in today’s reading from Exodus. In doing so, he is laying the foundation for his interpretation of the events of the cross and resurrection—like the Exodus Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection liberates us from our bondage to sin and death.

But there’s another departure, or exodus here. The voice from heaven says to Jesus’ disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him.” Jesus and his disciples will go down the mountain. In Luke’s gospel this is the introduction to a lengthy section, from 9:37 to 19:28, which takes place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having spent most of the preceding section of the gospel teaching in his home region of Galilee, Jesus now sets out on that final journey, towards his exodus.

Equally important, these 10 chapters are made up of material that is almost entirely unique to Luke, that is to say, it is material that doesn’t have parallels in Matthew or Mark. It includes some of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables: The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, for example. When the voice commanded, “Listen to him” it speaks to us as well as to Jesus’ disciples, commanding us to pay attention to what Jesus is teaching us.

We are about to enter the season of Lent and our focus as Christians turns toward Jerusalem, the events of Holy Week, the joy of Easter. It’s easy for us in this season of repentance to focus on our sins and shortcomings, to view the 40 days of Lent as a season of struggle, fasting, time in the wilderness. While Exodus in the biblical tradition did include such themes, much of it took place in wilderness, it was much more than that. It was a celebration of freedom and God’s mighty act of delivering God’s chosen people from oppression in Egypt, and it looked ahead to a promised land, a future of freedom and plenty.

In Luke, the cross and resurrection are God’s mighty acts of deliverance of us from our bondage to sin and death. Our repentance in Lent opens us up to the joy of God’s forgiveness and the overwhelming power of God’s grace. May this coming season be for all of us a time to experience God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s love.

Remembering Faithfully: A Sermon for Proper 18, Year A, 2017

Christians are a people of memory. We are a community called together by memory; called to remember. Our central act of worship is a memorial and a re-enactment; but more than that we enter into the story itself as we remember God’s saving acts and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But as we all know, memory is a fickle thing. In our own lives, there are stories we’ve told ourselves, stories about us others have told us that might not bear up to close scrutiny and as we age, some of those stories fade into mist or even oblivion.

As a nation, we are struggling right now with the story we tell about ourselves—as people of color challenge many of the core beliefs and stories of American history. And as we struggle, we enter into conflict because the stories we tell ourselves are often shaped by narrow perspectives. We see how that struggle is played out in the battle over confederate monuments, and in our own Episcopal Church, the battle over stained glass windows and other monuments to the confederacy.

This week, we have seen another crisis in the story we tell ourselves—Are we a nation of immigrants, welcoming all, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free; or will we turn our backs on young people who grew up here—who consider themselves American and often know no other home.

Tomorrow, many of us will remember the events of 9-11-2001, now sixteen years ago. We remember the shock, the devastation, the sudden silence in our skies and on our highways as for a few days, we reckoned with horrific tragedy. But we are less likely, or unwilling to remember the sixteen years of war that have followed from that event, the violence and suffering that has been experienced across the Middle East and into Central Asia; the extrajudicial killings and drone warfare; the torture.

We see that same dynamic played out in scripture, as the authors and editors tell the story they want preserved. At the same time, they often reveal alternative or counter-stories that raise questions about their perspective. Nowhere is this more true than in the story from Hebrew Scripture we just heard; God’s instructions to Moses and the Hebrews on how to prepare for Passover. This event may be the key story in all of Hebrew Scripture—It describes God’s nature as the Hebrews and then Jews experienced God. It also defines the Hebrews and then the Jews as God’s people.

The story of Passover describes God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage. It’s the story that Jews continue to tell and re-enact each year both because it celebrates God’s salvation of God’s chosen people and because it identifies contemporaries Jews as part of that larger story, part of God’s salvation history.

Passover is a celebration of Israel’s liberation by Yahweh; but it is set in the context of a larger story. We’ve heard parts of that story over the last few weeks—of Moses’ birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, the burning bush and God’s call to him. Between that event and today’s readings unfold the familiar story of the plagues. The instructions for the Passover come in the midst of the tenth plague—Yahweh’s killing of the first-born of Egypt, horrendous suffering.

One might expect that the mood of Passover is joyous, but in the verses that were read, there is a stress on Yahweh’s judgment as well as on liberation. The joy of liberation is tempered by the reality that liberation came at a horrific price. We haven’t heard these weeks the stories of all the other plagues. But this last one, the killing of the firstborn of all Egyptian families, and their livestock, was the culmination of unimaginable violence and suffering. That violence would continue throughout the story—the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and later during the conquest of Canaan, as God demanded that the Hebrews kill everyone whom they encountered. But that will come later.

Back to the story of the Passover. There’s another important element, here. Liberation too is not self-evident. The command to eat while dressed for a journey and to eat hurriedly gives yet another note of urgency. The Hebrews may be free, but their enemies were pursuing them.

The raw emotion and violence of the Passover narrative might tempt us to try to smooth its rough edges, to re-interpret it so as to better fit our world view. That would be a mistake. The Passover is the central ritual event in Judaism; its message and its re-enactment have played the leading role in how Jews understand themselves. The instructions to eat hurriedly, dressed as for a journey, put contemporary Jews back into the story of the flight from Egypt. Today’s Jews become Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh as they eat their lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.

Indeed, Passover is so important in the life of Judaism that early Christians had to reinterpret Passover as they developed their own rituals and theology. Thus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is crucified as the Passover lamb; in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples was the Passover meal, and thus our own Eucharist and our Christology borrow heavily from Passover imagery.

But there is a deep problem here. One the one hand, we have the image of a God, who hears the suffering of God’s people, and intervenes on their behalf. God frees them from their slavery in Egypt and promises that they will possess a fertile land. On the other hand, in the course of gaining their freedom, God wreaks vengeance on the Egyptians. The story of the plagues, read carefully raises profound questions about the nature of God and God’s willingness to destroy human and animal life. Indeed, it is not at clear in the story that either Pharaoh or the Egyptians have any power to avoid the horrible fates that awaited them. They certainly were not given a choice to avoid the final plague. At one point, God told Moses that he was bringing this last plague, the killing of the first-born on Egypt so that “my wonders may be multiplied.”

There’s even today’s psalm which praises God’s vengeance against Israel’s enemies and concludes that all of it is “glory for God’s chosen people.”

It is an image of God with which we should be uncomfortable—hearing this lesson with its promise of the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt, not just humans mind you, but even cattle, that language should make us squirm in our pews. We might be tempted, many of us have been, to put that language and imagery down to the Angry God of the Old Testament, and contrast it with the loving God of the new. That is one of the oldest heresies on the books, and it’s flat out misinterpreting both the Old Testament and the New. There’s plenty of wrath and judgment in the New Testament’s depiction of God, and plenty of love and mercy in the Old Testament’s—we see that in today’s reading from Romans, in which Paul says twice that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”

We are gathering on this beautiful Sunday in Madison as Hurricane Irma has struck the Florida Keys and is moving up the Gulf Coast. We have already seen its destruction in the Caribbean Islands, while residents of Texas deal with the aftermath of Harvey. There was an earthquake in Mexico, and wildfires are raging in the west. The extent and number of these events are apocalyptic; they may remind us of the plagues of Egypt

We look at such events and seek explanations. The size of the hurricanes and fires may in part be attributed to climate change, but the reality of natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires cause great damage and cost lives. We want to know why. And sometimes, we want to attribute such events to divine agency; that they are God’s judgment on us, or on the inhabitants of those places where they are occurring. But such attempts are misguided—as Jesus says in Matthew, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

Instead, we should remember another important lesson from our reading of Exodus—God hears and responds to the cries of those who suffer. In the Christian tradition, we see God in Jesus Christ, walking with us, suffering, and dying on the cross. It’s a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of all of the evil and suffering in the world. We should look for signs of God’s presence, God’s love and grace, wherever people suffer, in floods and hurricanes, in the rubble of bombed cities.

As God’s people, we are also called to hear the cries of those who suffer—from hurricanes and earthquakes, yes, but also the cries of the hungry and homeless, the fearful and the hurting. More than that, we are called to respond to those cries, to work to end their pain, to bring justice and liberation to the oppressed, the enslaved, the incarcerated.

And to bring us full circle, we are called by God, as a people and community of memory, to tell honest stories, about ourselves and about God. Yes, we should celebrate the liberation we have experienced; we should remember and give thanks for the blessings God has given us, but we should also remember and mourn the price that was paid for that liberation and those blessings—the people who suffered because of them, the people who still suffer, and we should, when necessary, repent.