Sunday, February 22, 2009

Transfiguration: An Intermission

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 22, 2009

Year B: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
(2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration: An Intermission

Today’s the last Sunday of Epiphany – a season of alleluias that began with the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. Now Epiphany draws to a spectacular close with the mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus. The disciples Peter, James and John look on with wonder as the power and identity of Jesus is made manifest with the appearance of Moses and Elijah.

And, if you’ve been around these past few weeks, you know that throughout the Epiphany season we’ve recalled all sorts of manifestations of Jesus’ power and identity.

Each Sunday we’ve been making our way through the right-to-the-point Gospel of Mark, hearing about epiphany after epiphany. For Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism by John in the River Jordan. And it’s at his baptism that Jesus has his own private epiphany when he realizes who he is and what he is called to do. Remember as Jesus came up out of the water Mark tells us that Jesus alone hears the voice of God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

It would be fair to describe the Gospel of Mark as a two-act drama and Jesus’ baptism, when the voice of God telling Jesus who he is, signals the beginning of Act One.

Mark then quickly moves through epiphany after epiphany, manifestation after manifestation, of Jesus’ power and identity.

Jesus teaches at the synagogue in Capernaum like no one has ever taught before. Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, including Peter’s mother-in-law. Last week we heard about the manifestation of Jesus’ power and mercy in the healing of the man with leprosy.

There’s more to Act One of Mark’s gospel that we haven’t heard in church, but the bottom line is that Mark presents epiphany after epiphany, manifestation after manifestation of Jesus’ identity and power.

But in a lot of ways, although news about Jesus gets around, Act One of Mark’s Gospel is about the private – even secret - ministry of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel Jesus goes to great lengths to keep a low profile – warning both his disciples as well as unclean spirits not to say a word about what they have seen him do and what they have heard him say.

Well, today, with the story of the Transfiguration, we come to the end of Act One of Mark’s Gospel. We come to the end of the quieter, more private, secretive stage of Jesus’ ministry.

Act Two of Mark’s gospel will bring Jesus down from the mountain of Transfiguration and on to Jerusalem and ultimately to the Cross.

In Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration is… the intermission.

At this intermission Epiphany comes to an end, we reach the conclusion of Act One, our alleluias are silenced and the road to the Cross – Lent – is about to begin.

But before we get to Lent, during this intermission in Mark’s gospel and this intermission in the church year, we are offered the remarkable, mysterious, supernatural story of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is an intermission for Jesus and for the three disciples who witness this amazing event.

Try to imagine the scene. Peter, James and John – who seem to have been Jesus’ inner circle - are there on the mountain with Jesus.

We often give Peter a hard time – and the gospels often do set him up as the one who most often doesn’t seem to quite get it. But I’m amazed that Peter was actually able to speak after seeing Jesus transfigured, transformed, before his eyes. And on top of that Peter is able to speak after seeing Moses and Elijah!
And it’s no accident that it’s Moses and Elijah who appear beside Jesus. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the prophets – and Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets.

On top of that, as we heard in the reading from Second Kings, Elijah had a powerful, mysterious assumption into heaven. And in the case of Moses, by the First Century there was a widespread belief that the sort of the same thing had happened to Moses – that he had also been assumed into heaven.

Anyway, Peter witnesses all of this and yet still manages to put together a few words: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter recognizes the Transfiguration as an intermission from ordinary life. Peter recognizes the Transfiguration as literally and figuratively a mountaintop experience. And, naturally, he wants to hold on to this amazing intermission, this wonderful mountaintop experience for as long as he can.

I hope that over the course of our lives all of us from time to time have had intermissions from ordinary life – that occasionally we enjoy mountaintop experiences. They are probably not quite as dramatic as the Transfiguration, but nevertheless we can probably sympathize with Peter’s desire to hold on to the experience for as long as he can.

Our intermissions from the ordinary, our mountaintop experiences, might be the birth of a child or a grandchild. They might be falling in love or receiving a wonderful compliment. Our intermissions might be the pleasure of doing a job well or acing a test or hearing a beautiful piece of music. Our mountaintop experiences might be the joy of helping a person in need or reconnecting with an old friend.

These intermissions from the ordinary, our mountaintop experiences, are great gifts from God – giving us the strength and inspiration to carry on through the difficult and painful and sometimes just boring parts of life.
Reflecting on this idea of intermissions from the ordinary, I remembered several of my own mountaintop experiences.

I remembered the first Sunday Sue and I went to St. Paul’s Church in Jersey City – thanks to the recommendation of a colleague of mine. I remember being impressed by the beauty of the church, the good music, the diverse congregation, the intelligent preaching and the warm welcome from the congregation. Sue and I had never experienced an exchange of the peace where people came out into the aisles and seemed genuinely happy to see one another. And I can still see the rector come down the aisle to us in his blue Advent chasuble, stretch out his hand and say, “I’m Dave Hamilton. Welcome to St. Paul’s.” And we wondered what’s this coffee hour everyone’s talking about? People at this church actually want to spend time together?

For me that first Sunday at St. Paul’s was an intermission from the ordinary, a mountaintop experience right there in Jersey City! I remember walking back from church that day thinking, this is it – this is what I’ve been looking for all along.
And the memory of that intermission, that mountaintop experience, continues to sustain me through the difficult days.

Another intermission, this one actually on a mountain – or, at least a cliff: last summer at the start of the J2A pilgrimage to California, after we left the airport we picked up lunch and drove to a park overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. It was a bright sunny day and it all looked so beautiful. And I remember thinking, here I am with these great kids and Chris and Ruth - this is amazing – this is my job - how did I luck out and get to spend my life like this?
And the memory of that intermission, that mountaintop experience, continues to sustain me.

One more story of intermission, of a mountaintop experience. A few years ago I regularly visited a woman in the hospital who was quite ill with cancer. When I first stopped by one of her adult daughters was also in the room. I introduced myself and we began to talk. As is so often the case in situations like that, it was if she had been waiting her whole life for someone to ask her to tell her story.

Her story was not particularly unusual. It was a story of lots of hard work and raising children and grand-children. It was a story of utter selflessness.
And then finally she reached the point in her story when all of her children and grandchildren were out of the house and she didn’t have to take care of anyone else but herself. She told me how every day she would go to the park, walk around the pond and sit and read.

She called that time her “freedom days.”

But, maybe not surprisingly, all too soon a grandchild moved back in with her. She looked right at me and said, “And then my freedom days were over.”
What struck me was how she told her story. She was so eloquent and so vivid in her descriptions. Her story was so well-crafted. After I let it all sink in, I said that it almost sounded like I had just listened to something that had been written down – it sounded like a great short story or a memoir.

She and her daughter both gave each other a strange look. And then this seemingly ordinary woman told me that for years she had been keeping journals, day after day describing her life. There were boxes and boxes of journals piled in closets in her house. During her “freedom days” in the park she would spend hours writing in her journals.

That day in the hospital she described to me an amazing intermission in her life, the amazing mountaintop experience of her “freedom days.” It was clear that this intermission had sustained her ever since, even as she faced grave illness.
And for me also it was an intermission, a mountaintop experience – and continues to sustain me even now. That experience reminds me that people are capable of great beauty, richness and depth – and that you never know what’s just beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary people.

Today our alleluias ring out one last time as we celebrate the intermission, the mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration.

Just as at Jesus’ baptism, once again God declares Jesus “my Son, my Beloved.” But this time, it’s not just Jesus who hears the voice. Act Two of Mark’s gospel, the more public ministry of Jesus that leads to the Cross is about to begin.

But, let’s not go there just yet. Lent doesn’t start until Wednesday.

For now, let’s stay with Peter during this intermission, this mountaintop experience. Let’s remember and give thanks for the intermissions of our lives, for our mountaintop experiences.

And with Peter, let us say, “…it is good for us to be here.”


Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Bad News is Not the Only News

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 1, 2009

Year B: The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
(1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
Mark 1:21-28

The Bad News is Not the Only News

I’m sure many of you know that the writer John Updike died this week. Over his long career Updike produced a tremendous amount of all kinds of writing, and although it might not have always been obvious, religious faith, or the loss of faith, was one of his main themes.

This week I was rereading some of his work and I was struck by something he once said in a speech. He noted that unlike people without faith we Christians can face the hard truths of life head on. We can face the sadness, fear and disappointments of life. We don’t have to sugarcoat the painful parts of life. Updike said that for us Christians, “The bad news can be told full out, for it is not the only news.”

“The bad news can be told full out, for it is not the only news.”

Now, the Gospel of Mark is all about the good news - the Good News of Jesus Christ, and in today’s lesson Mark presents us with quite a scene, doesn’t he? I’m guessing what we just heard was not a typical Sabbath service at the synagogue in Capernaum! In this account Mark the Evangelist, typically, gets right to the point. On the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples show up at the synagogue in the seaside town of Capernaum and the people are “astounded by his teaching, for he taught them as one with authority.”

Mark doesn’t actually tell us the content of Jesus’ teaching – just that the assembly was very impressed.

Then Jesus is challenged by the man with the “unclean spirit” and the people are amazed when the “unclean spirit” obeys and departs this poor, unnamed man.

The people cry out, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”

If you come back next week you’ll hear that in fact Jesus is just getting started on this Sabbath day. Later in the day Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and as the word spreads about his power Mark tells us that the whole town of Capernaum will gather around him.

So here’s Jesus is displaying all this power - and we’re still in only the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

You may remember just a couple of weeks ago we heard the very beginning of Mark’s gospel – the baptism of Jesus. Next Jesus faced forty days of temptation in the wilderness. And finally, last week, Jesus began to gather his disciples – calling Simon and Andrew and James and John. In Mark’s telling, Jesus simply says to these fishermen, “Follow me,” and they drop everything, changing the course of their lives forever.
In these quick, economical verses Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ background or the content of Jesus’ teaching.

In these quick, economical verses Mark is making one big point: Jesus is powerful.

Mark doesn’t present a meek and mild Jesus. Mark presents Jesus receiving his power at his baptism in the River Jordan. Mark presents Jesus as a powerful person who withstood forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Mark presents Jesus as a powerful person who calls on others to change their lives – and they really do change their lives. Mark presents Jesus as a powerful person who teaches like no one else has ever taught before and who is able to defeat the evil forces of this world.

Mark is clear: Jesus is powerful.

In our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy, we heard Moses predict that God would raise up a prophet like him and the people should listen to him.

Mark understands that, in Jesus, God has done that and much more. Jesus is more than a prophet. Jesus is what Mark here calls the “Holy One of God” – a special title, used only three times in the whole New Testament.

Jesus is powerful.

Jesus is powerful because his will, his whole life, is perfectly aligned with God the Father. Jesus does the will of God the Father and so he resists forty days of temptation. Jesus does the will of God the Father and so people stop what they are doing and change the course of their lives. Jesus does the will of God the Father and so he teaches with an authority unlike any known before and is able to drive away the unclean spirits.
Jesus is powerful because his life is perfectly aligned with God the Father.

And since we are the Body of Christ in the world, then if our lives are aligned with God’s will, then we are powerful, too.

But, I wonder how many of us actually believe that? How many of us believe that if our lives are aligned with God’s will then we will have great power?

Last week, Lauren and I were at the institution of the new rector at Christ Church in Short Hills. The bishop preached an excellent sermon in which he reminded us of the term “functional atheism.” Anyone heard of this before?

“Functional atheism” was coined by the Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer. A “functional atheist” is someone who says they believe in God but lives like God doesn’t exist.
Sometimes “functional atheism” can play itself out as thinking that we can do everything on our own – that we don’t need or want God’s help.

“Functional atheism” can also play itself out as coming to church, saying all the “right” words, but living as if God has no power at all, as if God does not exist. “Functional atheism” can mean that we live as if we – the Body of Christ in the world – have no power at all. “Functional atheism” can mean that in our hearts we believe there is no good news at all.

In his sermon, the bishop said he was preaching as much to himself as he was to us – and, to be honest, the same is true for me.

Many of us – including me - are concerned about the economy. But in my particular case, “functional atheism” plays out in my anxiety about the Church. I’m not anxious at all about Grace Church – which in a lot of ways is an oasis – but I do worry about our diocese and the larger church, as attendance declines and finances are depleted.

And this “functional atheist” wonders, what’s my future in the church? How many churches will be able to afford a full-time priest? How will I earn a living?

I bet although the details of your functional atheism are different, the essence remains the same – the denial that God has any real power – the belief that it’s either all up to us or the belief that we’re helpless in the face of far greater powers.

But, as Christians we should know better. Just as Jesus faced the man possessed by the unclean spirit you and I can face the unclean spirits of our time and place, the unclean spirits of fear, anxiety, greed and selfishness.

Jesus, whose will was aligned with the Father’s will, was able to cast out unclean spirits. And if our wills are aligned with God’s will then we too can cast out the “unclean spirits” of our own time and place.

And we don’t have to look very far to see the casting out of unclean spirits all around us – when our wills are aligned with God’s will.

We saw it a few weeks ago when over a thousand people came out for the bone marrow donor drive for Kelli Wynne. Wasn’t that a powerful example of casting out the unclean spirits of fear and anxiety?

I saw it last week when a parishioner called and said he sits on the board of a foundation that will match our “Souper Bowl” donation if we reach $1000. And, by the way, I have every confidence that we will exceed $1000. Aren’t these powerful examples of casting out the unclean spirits of greed and selfishness?

As Christians we can face the unclean spirits of our time and place and not give in to despair. As Updike says of us Christians, “The bad news can be told full out, for it is not the only news.”

The bad news is not the only news - the good news is the power of Jesus and the good news is the power that we have together when our wills are aligned with God’s will.

Long ago Jesus had quite a day in the synagogue in Capernaum. Because his will was perfectly aligned with the will of God the Father, Jesus was capable of teaching with great authority and casting out unclean spirits.

If our will is aligned with God’s will, then we – the Body of Christ – on earth are also capable of great power. We too can cast aside our functional atheism and cast out the unclean spirits of our time and place.

All of this is possible because we know the bad news is not the only news.


Being Together

The Messenger
February 2009
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ

Being Together

I am sure that many of us agree that one of the real highlights for Grace Church during 2008 was the extremely successful 10,000 Villages event in December. It was amazing to see Nieman Hall transformed by a band of hardworking, determined parishioners into a dazzling marketplace. I invited my parents and some friends to the Friday night preview party and they were certainly impressed by what had been achieved – and also gave into temptation and purchased a couple of items. Later, many parishioners mentioned to me that they really enjoyed the party because it gave us a chance to enjoy one another’s company, meet new parishioners, and catch up with old friends.

In these challenging times it’s especially important for us to be together. Yet, for a variety of reasons many of us don’t get to spend enough time with friends. Some of us are incredibly busy, juggling all the responsibilities and tasks of work and family. Others of us have become isolated, perhaps because a spouse has died or we are no longer able to get out the way we once did. And even if we are fortunate enough to spend time with friends, often there are many parishioners we don’t know at all.

In an effort to meet this need, Grace Church is offering a new opportunity for being together called “First Friday.” Beginning on February 6, on each first Friday of the month beginning at 7:00pm, all the adults of Grace Church are invited to “First Friday” - a potluck supper in the parish hall. Bring a dish and a beverage and let’s spend some time just being together. There is no cost for this event – it’s not a fundraiser. Child care will be available in the nursery. Rides are available for those of us who are unable to drive, or can’t drive at night.

To make things even more interesting, each month at “First Friday” a different Grace Church parishioner will be invited to share something with the group about their work, or a hobby or an interest. We have a wonderfully talented and interesting congregation, but most of us do not really know much about each other. For our first “First Friday” I have invited Eric Stroud (one of the most talented and interesting among us!) to share a bit about his work in the world of sharks. I know it will be a fascinating and fun evening. I hope many of you will be there. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

“First Friday” is something new, but Grace Church already offers many opportunities for us to be together. Both the Men’s Group and the Women of Grace have been increasingly active. At the end of January the Friday morning Men’s Breakfast at the Bagel Chateau shattered all previous records when 10 of us pushed tables together and had a lively conversation. The Tuesday evening Craft Guild continues to gather, enjoying one another’s company in the library on Tuesday evenings. I’m told at least one person’s “craft” is folding laundry! On Friday afternoons the choir moms and dads enjoy fine coffee and snacks and even better conversation while the children are in choir rehearsal.

And then of course there are our services during the week. If you have never come to a weekday service – or if you haven’t been to one in a while – I really encourage you to take advantage of this great blessing we have at Grace Church. Each service has its own little community, providing not only an opportunity for prayer and worship, but also wonderful, caring fellowship. And sometimes there’s food involved! After the Thursday morning Eucharist most of us have breakfast together, lately at the Bagel Chateau, but soon back in our own kitchen. The breakfasts after Morning Prayer on Saturday are fantastic, and easily one of Grace Church’s best-kept secrets.

Finally, the most important opportunity to be together is on Sunday when we are all called to gather in church, to hear God’s Word and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. After the morning services, as always, coffee hour is a time to catch up with one another and to just be together. If you haven’t been around in a while, come this Sunday and catch up with old friends. And, don’t forget to mark your calendars for “First Friday” on the 6th!