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Transfiguration B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

On the mountain of his transfiguration, Peter, James, and John learn something you and I already know. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God.

The Greek word used is metamorphothe and is translated as transfigured, yet it comes closer to expressing something English can’t quite convey. It wants to say something like “changed shape and beingness and allness into some other form thereof,” or some other equally awkward and wordy translation. What happened, in other words and in the fullest sense, was a “metamorphosis,” which again is Greek and again has no good analog in English. (Phyllis Tickle, God’s Politics, Sojourner’s Magazine)

So, what happened on that mountain was like the barrier between heaven and earth, the visible and the invisible, being ripped in two. The heart and character of Christ was revealed to be the same heart and the same character as that of the living God. On this holiday weekend dedicated to loving devotion, you could say the transfiguration was Jesus’ Valentine. Jesus took the disciples aside, dropped all pretense and declared his eternal love for them and for us. “You are not alone. I see you,” God says. “I love you. I have always loved you and will never stop loving you.”
St. Paul quoted lyrics of an early Christian hymn, “though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). This is something like what Jesus revealed on the mountain.

One week before Lent, when, in a normal year we would be sitting down to eat pancakes on ‘Shrove Sunday,’ Mark clarifies the true identity and mission of the Messiah. What an incredible spectacle it was, dazzling to the eye! Yet, apparently, Mark’s gospel does not want us to focus on that. It’s not about what the disciples saw. A bright cloud overshadowed and blinded them. What has been called the cloud of unknowing accompanies the very presence of the living God. It is not penetrable by the human eye, but only by the ear. The disciples could not see but they could hear a voice. A voice speaking from the cloud echoed the command at Jesus’ baptism. It said, “This is my son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).
Listen to him. From that moment on, the course of history was set, and, in many ways, the church was born. Although they didn’t know it yet, the peaceful transition of power was set into motion that day, from Jesus to the disciples, and now, to us.

Jesus was transfigured but we are transformed. Our beingness and ‘allness’ is changed. We are born again into Christ. The calculus by which we measure wins and losses in our life has widened. Narrow self-interest is no longer enough. Instead, we cheer at the advance of the mission and purposes of God.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany before the beginning of Lent, we stand once again on the threshold. God invites us to cross over. Resurrection is ours on the other side. Let us bravely step into that unknown future illumined by grace and glimpsed only by the ear. Listen to Jesus.

This Lent our theme is listening. I’d like to highlight for you some of the ways we have prepared for you to do that. This Wednesday @ 7:00 pm, we will gather online for Ash Wednesday worship, and for the all the Wednesdays in Lent we will gather at that time for a six-week prayer project called Be Still, and Know, led by intern Justin Perkins. Each week, we will host a half-hour session that will include a short reflection on the roots of “Christian mindfulness” with the opportunity to learn from the example of different historic figures from the past. Sometime the week after next, I invite you to stop by the church grounds for walking meditation inspired by the stations of the cross as conceived by artist, Mary Button in her series entitled, Refugee Journeys. And finally, we will also let our feet be our prayerful response to hunger in our community through a neighborhood appeal for toiletries, personal care items, and cash donations for our local food pantry, Care for Real.

We must not be like the disciple Peter whose words got in the way of the message on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration. In this time of division and change we must listen. We must listen more than we speak to heal our country and repair the bond between neighbors. We must speak after listening to transform the dread of this pandemic and the fear of social upheaval into hope for a brighter future. We must listen. Listen and pray. Pray without speaking. Learn to pray without words because, sometimes, our words get in the way of what God may be showing us.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was especially devoted to the Transfigured Christ. Unlike the disciples, Romero understood Christ’s passion; he and the people of El Salvador lived it on a daily basis, caught between a civil war and the state-sponsored terrorism that accompanied it. For Romero, the Transfigured Christ gave him confidence that Jesus will triumph over death and despair. The plight of the poor in El Salvador did not allude God’s attention. In a homily three weeks before his assassination by government forces, Romero said, “The theology of transfiguration is saying that the road of redemption passes through the cross and through Calvary, but that the goal of Christians is beyond history. Not to alienate oneself from history, but rather to give more meaning to history, a definitive meaning.” (Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners)

Jesus moves from transfiguration to the cross and to resurrection. This is the path we walk by listening. We listen to the living Lord to follow Jesus from his rightful place in glory to an embrace the world God so loves. With eyes wide shut and our ears wide open we step into the unknown through faith. Martin Luther put it this way:

“This life, therefore, is not godliness
but the process of becoming godly,
not health but getting well,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not now what we shall be,
but are on the way.
The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on.
This is not the goal but it is the right road.
At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle,
but everything is being cleansed.”

Proper 27C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The leaves are mostly down now.  The trees along the parkway across the street, displayed a fiery red. The little Maple near the front walkway is still a glowing yellow. Some people, like trees, reveal their inner glory late in life. To appreciate fall is to savor transience and transition. Being is becoming that becomes being again—which is beautiful and terrifying of course.

Fall begs the question.  What happens when I die?  Unfortunately, the Sadducees, who actually asked Jesus, were not interested in the answer. Instead, they engaged in combat. The Sadducees sat at the top the religious hierarchy.  They controlled the Temple.  They were privileged, landed, elite, arrogant, and often in cahoots with the Roman Empire. In forty years, both they and the Temple would be gone.  But this was their final chance to put Jesus in his place before they committed themselves to dispatch him by violence.

Their contrived outlandish hypothetical question about a woman who marries and is widowed by seven brothers was a trap. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  They’re point was to prove that life after death is absurd.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t answer their question.  He came closer to answering ours. Jesus realized there is no right answer to a wrong question—especially one designed as a trap. Because the Sadducees’ only read the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, Jesus quoted Moses.  Moses had stood beside the burning bush in the wilderness and addressed “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37) Therefore, the Lord is not God of the dead, Jesus said, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)  The dead become like angels.  Jesus will also say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) He will say to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) And that’s it.  That is literally all Jesus had to say about what happens when we die.  Jesus didn’t offer many details.  As pastor, what I often say is, scripture offers assurance that this God whom we have come to know and trust with our life, will also be trustworthy in our death. The realms of heaven go beyond my imagining.

Martin Luther said something like this. He taught that we actually undergo two deaths—one big and one small.  We have already undergone a big death in baptism.  We are children of God forever. The smaller one is our physical death.  We are alive in Christ forever–beginning now, now, now, now, and persisting into eternity.  How does that knowledge change the way we live today?

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about when we die, but he never stopped talking about the kingdom that is coming.  A realm where no human being “belongs” to any other, because all belong equally to God. It is the very kin-dom we invite to take hold every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, God’s kingdom was not a distant future event but a powerful nearby reality. Our true citizenship has already been transferred into Christ’s kingdom. Christians waiting for the second coming have missed the bus.  The good news is there’s always another one coming.  Like the old song says, ‘You don’t need a ticket.  You just get on board.’

This season in the church, the seven Sundays between All Saints and Christmas, this set of readings, are a wake-up call to an ever-present reality. Each season of the church year offers a new window into the life of faith. What makes this stretch of Sundays important is this chance to incorporate an eschatological lens to our life in God. The Alpha is our Omega, our beginning is also our end. God has joined these together in an eternal now Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Dwelling in this kin-dom brings an end to business-as-usual. A new “Day” is upon us.  It puts an end to our fear. It protects us from the slings and arrows of this world. We are servants of the God of the living. So, we hold out for the impossible.  We may dare to live as Jesus longs for us to live. We set out to advance this kin-dom. We work right beside God confident that the love which propels us has also embraced us and will never let go.

For the next seven Sundays our bible talks a lot about the end times. It will often do so in a language and style popular among ancient people called apocalyptic literature. Earthquakes, plagues, wars, and famines are its dreadful portents, great signs from heaven that God’s judgement is loose upon the land.  This baffles modern Christians unfamiliar with this literary style.  We often become apocalyptic literalists, by trying to reconcile details from different stories as if these were secret divine messages to be decoded.  At best, this is an exercise in futility. At its worst, as in Christian Zionism, it becomes foreign policy, as when Christians send money to Israel hoping to provoke holy war and the second coming.

So, these seven Sundays are important not just for faith but also to prevent violence and suffering from the misuse of scripture. This gospel about God’s kingdom that is coming does indeed set fire to the world as we know it –but it does so from within our hearts and minds. The war being waged now is one of spirit and of faith.

We are a resurrection people.  Christ has opened the door to undying life.  Jesus affirms the dead are alive to God.  God gives life and preserves life.  The resurrected life has a different character than life lived only in the present.  Jesus taught us, the resurrection is not only a future hope, but an urgent and crucial aspect of our life today.  The true dignity and power of human life within us comes from beyond us as a gift from God.  Our fragile and finite lives are caught up and joined together in the one eternal life of God.

We do not know what the future or what heaven will be like.  We only know at its center will be the One we have always known, who has loved us, and calls us by name.

Proper 8C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

June 30, 2019

“He set his face to go up to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-62). And so, Jesus begins his faithful sojourn to the cross.  From now until November 10th our gospel each Sunday follows Jesus on this journey as recorded in ten chapters of Luke (9:51- 19:28).  

Every trek has a beginning.  Every odyssey includes a moment of decision, a call to commitment, a challenge to respond.  Jesus’ challenge was to pick up the cross.  It was journey which was to be less about the destination as it was about a way of life.  Jerusalem, Gethsemane, and Golgotha are not important as places, but for what Jesus’ showed us on the way there about how we are to live. The cross was not a transaction, or paying a debt demanded by God.  Rather, it is urgently important for what it reveals about how we walk in faithfulness to God’s grace, with every step, in every day, for the rest of our lives.  The path into life and the abundance of life goes through opening our self and becoming vulnerable. By exposing our weaknesses, we find our strength.  In serving each other, we obtain satisfaction. In losing our life we find it. 

It wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, many, if not most, would call it a foolish bet. Jesus set his face to go up to Jerusalem, not knowing how it would turn out –who would follow—how many would heed his message, our join him on this path.  In fact, the jury is still out even up to this day. Jesus bet his money and his life on caring how well we live with compassion and faith. The way of the cross transforms our ultimate goal from mere survival to entering upon God’s glory. ‘Going my way,” Jesus asks? Ready to know the way to freedom? Ready to discover simple abundance and what will save you? Follow me, Jesus says. 

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it.  The way to life and the cross requires sacrifice.  It requires we persist through resistance, sabotage, and even hatred. Yet we do so know that God walks with us and fights beside us.

There is real urgency in our readings today.  Every moment counts.  Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There’s no time even to say goodbye.  For every time there is a season.  The time has come for Jesus and the disciples to head toward Jerusalem.  In every Christian life, there is a time to enter into mission. 

Today’s gospel speaks to any of us who recognize our tendency to put off decisions that have big consequences.  It speaks to us who come to Jesus with ready excuses to defer our Christian walk until we are in a better place, or a better time, or when all the stars align. There comes a time to stop making excuses until “I get my stuff figured out.”  Are we waiting for others to stand up for those the world rejects? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?  There comes a time to stop waiting for God’s action, get up on our own two feet, and be the body of Christ.  

We heard St. Paul say, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In his famous Treatise on Christian Liberty, Martin Luther succinctly captured the gospel message regarding our freedom as people who have found new life in Christ.  He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [and] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.”  If you wish to love God then love your neighbor as yourself—just don’t expect all your neighbors to be happy about it.  

This past week, 30 adult and youth volunteers welcomed 43 children to Immanuel for Vacation Bible School.  We sang, danced, did crafts, projects, and plays to inquire together about a single question, “Who is my neighbor?”  In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan we learned neighbors are not just the people who happen to live next to us but anyone in need. We heard Jesus call to love and serve one another in radical, surprising ways, which is really another way of calling to follow him in the way of the cross.  We heard Jesus’ challenge to build a neighborhood (like the one represented behind me), where all are welcome and support one another in lives of dignity and meaning.  We march with pride today in solidarity with those who like Jesus set their face toward making life better for us all even at the expense of their own flesh and blood. We will carry on spreading this message of hope. 

With Jesus, we were so bold to teach this lesson to our children at Vacation Bible School even though as many as 4,500 people were arrested last year alone by our Federal government and charged with a crime for aiding and abetting immigrants by providing things like water, food, or clothing.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross he met immediate resistance.  Ironically, first from the Samaritans, who had been cheering him on, but who now turn away because they despised Jerusalem.  Then his own friends, James and John, offended by the Samaritan’s rejection are moved to react with violence.  Does insult entitle one to inflict injury? Does being right or having a holy cause justify the use of force? 

“Elijah had called down fire on the Samaritans; could not Jesus’ followers do the same? Misunderstanding the identity of the one they followed, the disciples mistakenly thought they could achieve his ends by violence. How often have those who claimed to be following Christ repeated the mistake of these early disciples? They had yet to learn that violence begets violence, and that Jesus had come to break the cycle of violence by dying and forgiving rather than by killing and exacting vengeance.” [Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Luke- John, p. 216]  

“The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentaries p. 144)

As the sun marks the turning of the seasons from Spring into Summer, so the cross of Christ declares the steadfast love of God that never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end; but arrive new each morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23)  

By way of the cross, Jesus transforms this world so often cold, lonely, and mean. There is so much suffering all around us.  Yet the good news of Jesus Christ is we may all find the life we so desperately need in become a living sanctuary of hope and grace to one another by walking the way of the cross.  That is why this mission is so urgent.  That is why the time for action must be now.  Will you come and follow me, Jesus says, so the blind may see, to let the prisoners go free, to kiss the lepers clean, and let God’s love be revealed in you? (ELW # 798)