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Sermon, Feb 25, 2017

(This is a shorter version of a longer extemporaneous sermon, given on Sunday, Feb 25, 2017.)


The last Sunday in the season of Epiphany (which lasts from end of Christmas to Lent) always recounts the “Transfiguration of the Lord”.  This event is when Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain, and he is transformed in front of them.  His clothes turn dazzling white, his face shines like the sun, and God’s voice from the clouds declares, “This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”  It’s a picture of the Glory of Christ, but before the end of time.  Another way of saying it is, Jesus as he is in the permanent glory of heaven.  It’s a text picture of who Jesus really is, and a premonition of what we all become in Him (glorified).

 

As a picture of God’s glory, we must ask how this confronts human ideas of glory.  Human glory always involves a vanquished foe.  It usually entails a lifting up, a release of some liquid, and a parade (not necessarily in that order).  Think of the victorious race car driver who jumps up on the roof of his car, pumps his fist in the air, shakes a big bottle of champaign all over everyone, and then drives a victory lap with the checkered flag in hand.  Or the victorious coach or star player, who is lifted up on the shoulders of his team, dowsed with Gatorade, and given a ticker-tape parade in the home city.  All at the cost of some vanquished foe.  Someone’s got to lose, to be sacrificed.  Human glory is what we seek, but God is not to be found in it, but under the form of its opposite.

 

God’s glory, even though it is previewed here in Jesus’ transfiguration, is the undermining of human glory.  Jesus, who is glorious in his essence, puts aside the “glorious” kind of glory—the light, the sun, the majestic voice— in order to go back into the human world, and then is lifted up in shame on an instrument of imperial execution.  Jesus, who is worthy of permanent viewing in heaven, is paraded around Jerusalem carrying his own cross, with a crown of thorns on his head.  He who is the source of life is mocked, derided, spit upon, and as he hangs on that cross, he is stabbed, and his body emits blood and water, a liquid ablution of ironic victory.  And the foe who has been vanquished is—surprise!—not the devil, but Jesus himself.  God becomes the victim, who submits himself to our human derision and rejection.  In Jesus’ crucifixion, God takes human glory and flips it on its head, "working under the form of the opposite", as Luther would say.  

 

Here’s the Gospel message in this puzzling switch.  God takes our desire for glory, our fascination with glory, our attachment to glory, and dismantles it on the cross.  God becomes our victim in order to save us from ourselves.  You and I want glory for ourselves, or to participate in glorious endeavors, or to see human glory embodied in other people or events.  We want glory in our institutions, our nation, our politics (and I mean that in a truly bi-partisan way).  Short of that, we’ll settle for it in our hometown sports team, and our kid’s little league team.  But to win us over, to convert us from our thirst for glory, we must be overcome by God. This cannot be done by God’s glory (which would overwhelm us as we are), but we must be humbled to accept the love of God revealed in Jesus’ shame.  Our hearts must break upon the rock of Jesus’ shame.  Jesus’ presence then becomes visible to us in the humbled and the shame-filled. In that experience, God is truly present.  Then, and only after this, and in the fullness of time, will all who have ever lived be in a position to embrace, let alone endure, the full, eternal, glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.  Amen.

Sermon, Nov 13, 2016

The following is an extended version of a sermon given on Sunday, Nov 13, 2016.  The original sermon was given extemporaneously, and was therefore a bit shorter and less formal, although the basic outline and message remains the same.  –Pastor M. Linderman

 

This is the first Sunday post-election.  We find ourselves in different places.  Some are pleased, or relieved, some are disappointed, angry, even scared.  And after such a contentious campaign, the contentiousness is not over.  There are post-election protests, and post-election acts of hate speech, vandalism, and verbal abuse.

 

Today’s lessons from scripture don’t seem to help the situation.  The first lesson from Malachi refers to the end-times.  Malachi declares that God’s judgment is coming.  Is that what’s happening?!  The Psalm for the day refers to the “victory of the Lord.”  Exactly which victory is that?  And in the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus warns his disciples about the calamities that accompany the end times. Jesus speaks of wars and insurrections; “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plagues.”  Jesus warns of upheaval for the world, and persecution for believers.  In a time of upheaval and uncertainty, these texts do not immediately make us feel hopeful.  More to the point, these texts could easily be misconstrued, or used to support whatever view one has--whatever perspective one wants to preserve.

 

To help these particular texts speak as clearly as possible to us this morning, we have to remember that their tone, style and imagery come from apocalyptic literature.  This is a unique kind of literature in the Bible, exemplified by the books of Daniel and Ezra in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.   This kind of literature is written by and for faithful, religious people who find themselves in dangerous, even perilous positions in relation to the social and political world around them.  Here is a definition of apocalyptic literature:   “Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging circumstances.”  (from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3059, accessed 11/10/16)

 

Apocalyptic literature is meant to push us to trust God for all things.   In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus reminds them what’s at stake, and then goes on to push the disciples to trust in God’s presence:  “Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:12-14) 

 

What an amazing command: do not prepare your defense in advance!  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been defending myself—my vote, my political opinion, my perspective—all week.  I’ve been defending myself to the mirror, to my family and friends, to the people on the television, everyday!  I haven’t been doing much trusting.  What am I to do when my own anxiety, my own views, my own frustration with other people, outcomes, and circumstances, get the best of me?  Where is my trust in God? 

 

This is why we need to take a step back, and focus on God’s presence.  We must strain our eyes and discipline our vision to see what God sees.  We need to look at the way Jesus sees through the grand ideas, projects, and monuments of human beings, and notice how Jesus looks for faith.  Jesus seeks out faith.  God’s harvest in the world is the harvest of faith.  All else that is accomplished in the world, for justice, for peace, for reconciliation, is accomplished by faith.

 

This is why we began our scripture reading this morning with the first 4 verses of chapter 21.  The appointed Gospel lesson today begins with verse 5, with Jesus’s disciples standing in the temple precincts and marveling at the grand architecture, the massive hewn stones, and the adorned porticoes and balustrades.  But Jesus and his disciples have been in the temple for a while, and in the first 4 verses of the chapter, Jesus is already teaching and redirecting our vision away from the building and directing it to the example of faith.  In that scene, Jesus has been watching wealthy people put money in the temple’s collection, and he sees a widow put in two copper coins.  It is, he says, all she had to live on.  Right after this, the disciples start talking about the stones and architecture.  While they see the grandeur of human projects, Jesus is looking in a different direction and sees faith.

 

Thus, not only are our ruminations, thoughts, and vision judged by Jesus’ view of the scene, but we are to see the widow’s act as our opportunity.  She has put in all she had—she is acting in faith!

 

Now we see what God is focused on, and this helps us in the midst of confounding situations and tumultuous times.  What Jesus seeks out is faith, and specifically, faith in the God of Israel.  This is the faith that God has planted in Abraham, that has led the covenant community through the ages, that has inspired the prophets, that has animated Jesus’ ministry, and that we have been asked to affirm in our Baptism.

 

It is faith in the God of Israel that Jesus comes looking for, and which he can see in the places we dismiss or overlook.  We are fooled, especially in times like these, by the seeming grandeur, the hyper-immediacy of our human projects, our national aspirations, our political processes, or our ideological positions.  I do not demean the American project, or the national experiment we call democracy when I point out that it is all relative to God’s in-breaking kingdom.  Indeed, we betray a lack of faith when we act only to preserve our monuments, and forget about the children of God at the heart of God’s righteous kingdom. 

 

We should not be surprised by this.  The vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus evokes throughout his ministry is announced at the very beginning of the story.  This is in Luke 4: 18-19.  Jesus walked into a synagogue and was invited to give his first public sermon after his Baptism, and he opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon, me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

 

This is what faith in the God of Israel envisions: the Spirit inspires our preaching of good news to the poor.  The Spirit proclaims release to the captive, vision to the blind, freedom for those living under oppression.  The church can debate who or which party in our context may be the best example or spokesperson for these positions, but faith in the God of Israel is the critical factor.  This is the measure by which our words and deeds are judged.  Do our words and deeds reflect faith, however imperfect, in the redeeming grace of the God of Israel?  Are we advocating, supporting or doing something that Jesus would see, and say, “There is faith!”?  Or are we doing something that betrays our faith in something else?  That would be idolatry.

 

Can this faith be seen in what we do?  Can this faith be heard in what we say?  Can this faith be reflected in our advocacy for the rights and wellbeing of others?  Can this faith be expressed through our political perspectives?  This is the measure the church holds up for itself and for the world.  If we are not living by faith, but choosing and acting according to other motivations, such as fear or selfishness, we stand judged.  When we act according to faith in the God of Israel, who protects the widow and orphan, who welcomes the stranger and looks out for the oppressed, indeed, who gives faith to fickle and unreliable people as a free gift, we are not being sanctimonious, but are affirming the grace of God that has set us free from our own flawed conceptions and prideful visions.  We are then in the presence of the living God.  And we can trust that presence, come what may.  Amen.

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