Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reflections on Transfiguration Sunday (Last After Epiphany), Year A: Just Jesus

Just Jesus.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9
We are closing up the season after the Feast of the Epiphany, a time when we hear and bear witness to stories about the person of Jesus being revealed to us as the Messiah. As Peter confesses in Matthew just before the reading above, Jesus is God's son, the Messiah, the "one coming into the world."

In times like any time...when we talk about getting to know Jesus, we are usually trying to find ways to experience him as being more accessible. Jesus is that human manifestation of the divine, and thus perhaps a little closer to us. Truth is, most of the epiphanic moments we bear witness to in scripture to little to draw us close to Jesus' human vulnerabilities. In fact, most of them point to a person of superhuman nature. He is beyond remarkable. Even just standing there!

So, six days after Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus rebukes him for arguing about the kind of messiah Jesus will be, four men set out to climb a (the) nearby mountain. Apart from the crowd and up there, above it all, something happens.

Jesus is transfigured. His clothes and his face become like light, shining and cleaner than clean...perfect. Suddenly, they are not four, but six. Two other men are with them, one is Moses and the other is Elijah. 

Do the math....mountain top. Moses. Elijah. Jesus, well....perfect.

GOD moment!

This goes past epiphany, a sudden and bright/revelatory flash of knowledge or experience of reality. We are onto theophany...when God decides to show up during the epiphany!

Everything is confirmed, doubt is expelled. These young Jewish men, AND us, see confirmed about Jesus what we bore witness to in Israel's antiquity. Between Moses and Elijah is Jesus. The LAW and the PROPHETs are now enjoying the view together from the summit of this hill. It is both surreal and real.

Well and good, and I hope you have some goose bumps as you sit here reading and imagining this moment. I do, every time I close my eyes and let myself imagine being there like Peter, James and John. Honored to bear witness they, like we would be, are more then reluctant to move on or leave the moment behind. Let's stay here and dwell in this moment! Let's keep Jesus perfect and this heightened (literally and figuratively) perspective going!

But, it doesn't work that way. Why?

First, this is the middle part of the story, the very middle. It's time to turn our faces, following Jesus, toward Jerusalem and that suffering and dying he was talking about last week. It's also important to realize that while we do meet God on the mountain tops during theophanies, we get to know God more intimately in the daily epiphanies that we encounter in relationship to each other, to the poor and to all those we are called upon to serve and to love as God loves us.

So, as we fumble to hold on to that ephemeral confirmation of Jesus being, truly and revealed as ALL THAT AND MORE....what matters most here and now is not the perfect vision of HIM. Rather, what matters most is the intimate sight of us.

Just Jesus is the one who takes us back down the mountain. Just Jesus is the one who will continue to teach, and heal and lead us to the City of Peace. Just Jesus will struggle with his fate, and will bear his cross to the place where he will be put to death. Just Jesus will lie in a tomb for three days....

...and just Jesus will be the one we greet on the other side of resurrection. He will be perfect in our eyes....not so much because he is revealed to us on a mountaintop, but because in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of a touch he will prove to us that even death can be transfigured by the pure love of God for all.
A forensic anthropologists rendering of what Jesus probably looked like.
A man, about 5ft 1in and 130 pounds.
Just Jesus.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Reflections on Sunday's Readings, Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Retribution

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”Matthew 5:38-48

I grew up playing contact sports. First, it was soccer (football) for 12 years. Then, it was rugby for a year in Scotland in college. After I left seminary, I started training in aikido. so, for a large part of my younger years, I knew what it was like to be hit, and to hit another person in the name of sport. I also learned what it meant to train in a warrior's art, albeit one that is ultimately focused on peaceful resolution of conflict.

Learning about physical conflict in the context of sport was both a blessing and a curse. I was a curse because, like many youth, I had to learn how to struggle with and resolve the impulses that come with being "allowed" to vent physical tension onto another person. I also had to come to terms with someone venting those impulses on me...and I had to absorb the discipline of something that athletes must, if they wish to have a longer career: how NOT to retaliate when another person assaults you, fouls you or in any way hits you harder that is necessary, warranted or allowed in the rules of the game.

I learned that lesson materially: one game against a rival played by my high school team got out of hand. The Barr brothers, one the goalie and the other a defensive sweeper were playing the back field against a very aggressive striker. The striker did something "over the line" and fouled the goal keeper. The brother of said goalkeeper (by the way, they were both hockey players as well), "defended" his brother by tackling the striker, pulling his jersey over his head, proceeding to beat him with an over the head forearm. The referee moved in quickly with a red card (ejection) from the field for the one who retaliated for the egregious foul. The other players on both squads moved in quickly, and were held off by the ref and told to stand still. The coaches turned to their benches (which were off their feet and ready to join in the incipient melee) and told them to sit down. My sister, who was the scorer, yelled the same to our side. Everyone was in shock. The result? Ejection from the game for all three players...and a penalty kick for the opposing side. Even though the first foul was aweful, it was the retaliation that was the greater "sin" in that moment.

We ran sprints for days as a team to atone for that foul. Our coach wanted aggressive play, but was intolerant of that aspect. Retaliation, retribution...that was anathema to honorable play, to an honorable life.

Rugby was another sport in which I learned a lot about sportsmanship in the midst of violence. Some of the hardest hits I ever experienced in my life were ones I earned on the pitch. One stands out...I was a full back, the man at the end of the line who is tasked with either running like mad up field or kicking the ball downfield to reset the pitch. I had the ball tucked for a run as the line reset behind me...and then I felt a tug at the back of my head: I had long hair then, pulled back in a pony tail and tucked/taped under my collar (because everything below the collar was fair game). My hair had come loose, and a scrum half had grabbed it. My feet went up into the air as my scalp tore-just a little bit-and I went down. One of the hardest hits I have ever felt, and one that could have meant a bad tussle on the field, if I had gotten up with retaliation or retribution in mind.

But, that didn't happen. Instead of getting up on my own, the gentleman (actually, a real-live duke), picked me up, literally dusted me off, said "sorry, mate" and then pushed-pulled me back into the game. After the game, he helped tape me up and then took me out for a pint. You may laugh at that, but it was one of the best moments of restorative justice I have ever experienced.

I would love to say that moment was a watershed for me, and that I have been able to keep a mindful and non-retaliatory stance going in my life since I saw the sky through the space between my feet. That's not the case. I have sought an eye for an eye...and more, since then when feeling wounded I have retaliated and sought retribution. I have also been guilty of the sin of dismissal, and of contempt for the other-both enemy and friend....even beloved...when things don't go the way I want them to.

We all struggle with wanting someone to be more....more sorry, more "paid back" or more remonstrated than we feel was appropriate for the slight or injury offered. We come from that place that Jesus talks about when he says, "You have heard that it was said." Why, because we have said it, felt it and acted it out.

What remains is our willingness to accept Jesus' invitation to embrace mercy, to pick up our enemies from the dust and work to restore relationships with them, to love our enemies and our neighbors as we love our own selves, to be the people of reconciliation as much before the wounding as after it...and finally to know that we can only become the "perfect" that Jesus is talking about when we are actually willing to embrace our imperfection, and then forgive ourselves and each other for so spectacularly falling short of the mark while rising to repentance in the next moment.

Just like the duke who picked me up out of the mud that day in Scotland...and my teammates that day who didn't retaliate...real healing can happen on the gaming pitch and in real life. We just have to allow for it, to seek it and to embrace it when it is offered.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Reflections on the Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: I've Seen Fire and I've Seen Rain

If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.
Sirach 15:15-20
We struggle with dualism in the West. Either "x" or "y" precludes assumption of any other options. It is either up or down, near or far....good, or bad. That last one gets us. It's right up there with right or wrong. We like things to be revealed in stark contrasts, and limiting the options tends to lower our stress. Remember the anxiety over those multiple choice quizzes back in school? The logic problems? Trying to keep an eye on all those variables gave me nightmares. What did they do to you? Some folks can dwell in those fluid, changing realms...but for the most part our comfort rests in dualities. You see, if the odds are 50/50, and we can maximize the chance to choosing the "right" option; then we stand the chance of making the "right" choice and are thus able to avoid the "wrong" choice.

In the reading above, and in the other reading from Deuteronomy offered for Sunday, It is a seductive temptation to assume that God is offering a clear, value-apparent choice between life (obedience to God's Will/Law) and death (disobedience and thus, sin). God sets a choice before us, in Jesus ben Sirach's writings it is likened to fire and water being placed before us, this life or death choice. Simple, yes? Choose life. LIFE!

But, which choice represents life? Fire, which gives warmth and drives away danger, that illumines and cooks food? Water, which is the very essence of our being, necessary to keep our salts balanced in our bodies, to offer hydration and irrigation? Fire, which burns and destroys? Water, which erodes, washes away, drowns?

This dualism is not so dualistic anymore, is it?

The image above shows two hands, one fire and one water. In their proximity, the flame extinguishes while water vaporizes. With them is an observation from the old sage Aesop: "It is with our passions as it is with fire and water; they are good servants but poor masters." The wisdom writer might have been cribbing from Aesop's notes: Fire and water ARE good servants when we they are tools in our hands that are guided with mindful care. They are also destructive masters, threatening conflagration and flood when they are out of control.

God sets before us....choice. Simple enough. The Law, God's will for us made manifest in the Hebrew scriptures, gives us an effective tool, a lens through which to see the world and to qualify our relationships with each other and in obedience to God. The letter of the Law guides the human heart. Still, salvation history tells us that guidance was not enough when set against our latent inconstancy. In Christ's teachings, as He strives to fulfill the Law in our hearing, the tension between the letter of the Law and God's intent for us is made more apparent. We have been given the great gift of freedom: freedom to make choices. What we choose....and how we choose....really matters.

Fire and water are good servants, but poor masters.

Jesus teaches to heart of the wisdom noted above....know that you are free to choose. Learn and grow in wisdom enough to choose that which takes us deeper into God and into more godly relationships with each other. Once learned, put those teachings into practice. Then, be wise enough to recognize that choice is not just "one and done," but an ongoing, life-long journey. Fire and water dance around us constantly in their eternal reel. Life and death continually wrestle in our consciences, in our hearts.

Choose life; then choose it again....and then again. When you stumble...and you will...choose to rise repentant and start the choosing over again; and while that happens, remember that you are beloved of God. Remember that God is the one who loved us so much as to give us freedom, is the one who loves us enough to hold us accountable for those choices, and is the one who loves us enough to forgive us and receive us when we stumble, over and over again.