Vision of Glory… ​The Image​ of the Cross – A sermon for Transfiguration

https://soundcloud.com/user-688328025/transfiguration-sunday-pastor-steve-cauley-february-11-2018

Imagine you were Peter, James or John and Jesus pulls you aside and tells you he wants to show you something on a hike up a mountain. Not wanting to disappoint him, you’re like, “Sure, Jesus. I’ll meet you early tomorrow morning for this hike to see a different perspective, or whatever it is you want to share with me.”

The next morning rolls around, you awake and meet the other two and set out on a journey of not knowing what is in store, but that you are led with curiosity about Jesus is up to. So, you head out with the other two and spend the day climbing up the side of a mountain with your spiritual teacher. You reach the top, and it is a holy moment. The feeling that you’re close to the Creator. It’s a God moment as you look down on the rest of the world and see other people like ants. Then your focus is redirected to the leader who is not who you thought he was. Your sight of him is altered. Things are starting to get weirded out when you not only see Jesus as the Bible says “dazzling white” but also Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.

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So, Peter is the first speak up, and all he can think about is hanging out with the prophets. Let’s stay forever in this glorious moment. It’s perfect. Let’s dwell with you here.

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The Bible says that Peter was frightened and didn’t know what to say. We can relate to that feeling, right? Those moments we are terrified and the words we want to say to express what we are thinking? So, whatever we word we come up with are the best at the moment, only to remember to ourselves later, “What was I thinking? Asking Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to dwell with me here on the mountaintop.” At the moment, it seems like that the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t want to dwell in glory forever? We all want to be blessed by God and God’s beauty to shine forth.

Then reality hits. The voice of reason and logic settles into our thoughts. In the biblical text, it’s the voice of the Father speaking: “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!” Sisters and brothers – the last time we heard the Father speak these words was when Jesus was baptized. The voice of the Father came and uttered to Jesus “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  This time, though, God is speaking to the three companions – the Father is speaking to the humans. “Listen to him.” In other words, “follow him.” The word for “listen” Mark uses is also the same Greek word as “obey.”  Obey Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Don’t feel the need to speak, be quiet and just listen to Jesus. This is the promise we need to make it to the other mountaintop experience on the other side of Lent where the real glory of God was shown through the cross on which this Jesus was hung.

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We are reaching the pinnacle of Epiphany with the mountaintop transfiguration story, and the thing that hit me in this gospel is that the vision of glory that Peter, James, and John saw an image, but the real message God is sharing with the disciples is that of abiding with Jesus. Not working for Jesus, but resting, remaining. Heck, not even serving others with Jesus, nor practicing good works. Just being present and aware of who Jesus is right here, right now.

Then the vision disappears and what is left is the reality of the moment, and the words of the Father, sight and the subsequent image from view become irrelevant. Fact is returning. Now, what comes next? How are we to make sense of this moment? Then it is back to reality. All that remains is the hope of a God of glory. Of course, this vision of fame is what will be, and they sustain us in a future hope for what will be. But this idea is not and cannot be the reality. Sure, we all want a God of glory, but what we get is a fuller revelation of who God is a cross on which hung the savior of the world.

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And therein lies the rub. We all want the glory of God, but that is not the full reality. Even Moses and Elijah in our text bear witness that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, and it was revealed that Jesus is the Messiah, but the Gospel doesn’t end here. Moses came off the mountain with the Law for the people, but Jesus comes off the mountain with the grace of God.

Thinking theologically about the glory of God is not enough as it will always fall short. It diminishes the powerful effects of sin that grip our lives. This vision of fame is right to hold, but it falls short because it will never point out the gaps between our sin and self-centered living.

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If this is the case, then God’s glory and suffering cannot be separated. Of course, no wants to suffer. The avoidance of pain is one thing; the complete intolerance, or renunciation of it, is another. I want you to think back to a time when someone to you a compelling story of pain, loss, and suffering. Perhaps, you, yourself have a story to testify about grief and loss, or plight.  But I want you to think about how people talk about something that is painful. And by painful, I want you to think about where God is at in pain. It’s hard to see the glory of God isn’t it when we hear a story that pains us.

If someone has just undergone an ugly divorce, for example, he might be dismissive of the situation by belittling the other person- “I won’t miss her anyway  Then there is the kind of reasoning that justifies a painful situation by trying to minimize the impact of the loss. “Well, at least I learned a lesson from this horrible experience.”

This kind of reasoning tries to make something bad sound like it is good. It is a coping strategy to avoid looking pain and grief directly in the face, to avoid acknowledging that we wish life were different but are powerless to change it. So, we try to turn a bad situation into something that allows us to avoid the hard work of internal processing and dealing with any negative emotion of anger or sadness for the loss. It is merely a way to minimize the damage caused by sin.

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Martin Luther coined the term the theologian of glory as this approach to life. This kind of theology and practice of the Christian life tries to minimize or remove difficult and painful things or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them.

As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.[1] The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver’s seat, after all.

Despite the glory of the moment, the three disciples returned with Jesus from the mountain, apart from the rest of reality. It was time to move from the sacred toward the profane where the world is. The world that God loves and where we dwell. The world where we are invited to embrace our own vision of glory through the cross of Jesus.

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Catholic sister and author Joan Chittister shares a parable about our ability to block out Jesus when we return from the glory of the mountaintop to the valley below.  The fable Sister Chittister shares go as follows:

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.

 “Here,” the elder said. “It is happening right now?” the elder answered.

         “Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.

         “Because you do not look,” the elder said.

          “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.

            “Nothing. Just look.” The elder said.

                  “But, look at what?” the disciple asked again.

“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.

“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.

“No. The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.

“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.

“No, you don’t,” the elder said.

“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.

         “Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said. [2]

            We need this promise of glory to journey through Lent towards the cross. The hope of glory is what will sustain. Hope where “neither death nor life… nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Abide always in this hope of glory wherever Life finds you. Amen. 

[1] Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. William R. Russell, 3rd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012). P. 157.

[2] Joan Chittister and John August Swanson, There Is a Season, First Edition edition (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1995). P. 23.

THE WEARY WAY: Reflections on the Road to Emmaus Story – LUKE 24:13-35

The Road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever met anyone famous? Or maybe somewhat famous? Or perhaps just have been in the same airport or restaurant as someone well known?

In early April, I attended the opening day celebration for baseball by attending the home opener for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

 

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Waiting in line to enter Busch Stadium on Opening Day 2017.

 

This year’s home-opener featured a team *from Chicago* that won the World Series in 2016, and, is a team that most in St. Louis would consider the Cardinals greatest rival.

The energy on opening day was incredible. People filled with spirit and cheer because of the return of America’s “favorite past-time” following a long offseason.

Folks are everywhere around Busch Stadium for opening day. Many are across the street to gather in the BallPark Village waiting for the gates to open and the crowds to begin to file in on Opening Day, find their seats and wait for the greatest living Cardinals and the current team to be introduced. It’s quite the spectacle with all the Clydesdale Horses prancing along the warning track making their way to home plate.

 

 

Despite my lack of intimate knowledge of the appearance of former Cardinal greats, I convinced myself while standing in the BallPark Village that on the second-floor balcony, I spotted Bruce Sutter, a pitcher from the 1970-80’s who arguably developed and perfected the split-finger fastball pitch.  Bruce was standing near the VIP club waving down to the crowds with a scepter in his hand.

 

For many seasoned Cardinal fans, this would not be so remarkable a feat as Sutter is well known in the St. Louis Area.  And yet,  I had a sense of pride in my ability to recognize this well-known figure based on his appearance from a distance.

So, if I, a casual, yet passionate, fan could recognize a Cardinal great somewhat out of context, I’d like to think that I could have spotted the risen Jesus Christ if he had chosen to accompany me just a few days after his resurrection.

Moreover, you might say to me that I’m relying more on my own ability to recognize someone, and while that’s true, the Holy Spirit also assists us in “seeing” the personhood of others.

The Holy Spirit opened the eyes of two early disciples of Jesus shortly after his resurrection on a rural road as they walked.

As Luke, tells the story, we, the reader get to be in on the joke. Luke says of these two travelers, returning home, perhaps, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. As listeners of this story, we are stunned to find out that anyone could fail to recognize the risen Christ, especially two of his closest followers.

But that is just what happens. Cleopas and his companion, just happen to be joined by Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. And instead of instantly recognizing who he is, they take him for a stranger. And they fail to figure out who he is until the end of today’s lesson when Jesus breaks bread with them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

 

 

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“The Road to Emmaus”  artwork by He Qi. 1997. 

As easy as it is to kind of laugh at poor Cleopas and his companion, thinking of them as fools who don’t know their leader, I must say I just may be able to recognize myself—and maybe a few others in their plight.

Cleopas and this fellow traveler without a name, I sometimes imagine her as his wife, were among the faithful. They were friends with the 12 disciples, we learn later, which suggest they were among the inner circle.

Their statement of faith, which they somewhat humorously share with the stranger-Jesus, uses all the right language, hits all the highlights. Surely, they would have passed any confirmation test on their first try.

Cleopas and companion were dedicated and faithful followers. They had certainly been to church Easter Sunday. Well, not just to church—they probably helped cook the churches’ Easter brunch. Surely, they had attended all the Lenten services, probably helped with the Wednesday meals, most likely had washed more than their fair share of dishes.

They were the type of couple that we can imagine as dedicated and faithful. The sort of people to volunteer, to show up, to serve on the committee after committee, the kind to come to church not just on Easter but 2 Sundays into it. And I imagine that they had become weary.

In all their efforts to be faithful, their vision had become blurred. They missed seeing the most famous person. Perhaps their dedication had gotten in the way. Maybe the stress of leadership, their stubbornness, their investment in an outcome had slowly squeezed Jesus out of the picture. So that when he showed up, they had no idea who he was.

What sort of objects blur your vision? What is grabbing so much of your attention that you are unable to realize that Jesus is right next to you? What is keeping your life out of focus?

Perhaps Cleopas and his companion were caught off-guard by the trauma of Jesus’ death. Perhaps this experience was too much to handle, more than they had bargained for, their grief eating them alive.

I wonder what kind of stress losing not only a dear friend but a leader can cause. Isolation? Need for distance? An overwhelming desire just to forget everything and leave town?

This is the part of the lesson that begins to look familiar, at least to me. Cleopas and his companion remain the center of activity. Disheartened at what has happened. Stuck in the middle of the story, unable to see through to the end.

They look for an escape, a way out, one that doesn’t require believing in something so extraordinary. They look, to perhaps, shed themselves of idealist principles. They can’t take any more disappointment or disillusionment. Wanting to get away from a life of faith which brings on struggle, despair, and cynicism.
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And how familiar is this road—the one that makes us believe change is unlikely, one that drains our energy, one that makes us feel any real work done will not make a difference.

One thing the faithful know is that the life of the faithful can get weary. It can feel pointless. This weariness can erode our hope; it can blind our sense of purpose, can diminish our drive to keep at it.

And it is just then that Jesus shows up, re-enters our lives.

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I like this Jesus… this Jesus that Luke writes about. It’s not a neon-tee-shirt Jesus or an extra-large billboard on I-80 Jesus. This is a reserved Jesus.  

Jesus is a little cunning and a lot clever.

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A Jesus who bides his time, very willing to let Cleopas and company do the talking, a Jesus who is not just offering answers but is willing, encouraging really, of Cleopas and companion to come to their conclusions.

What kind of presence draws you within? What type of conversations keeps you up past your bedtime? What kind of stranger is so compelling that you can’t get enough? That, however, long or short your conversation is, you are left wanting more?

We don’t get to know Jesus’ motivation for not blurting out that he indeed is the risen one. But we do know that because of his actions, his ability to remain mysterious, Cleopas and his companion are left wanting more.

They practically beg Jesus to stay with them. Jesus has listened to them. He has taught them. They are compelled to stay with him, to be close to him. They invite Jesus to stay.

And that’s when it happens. As Jesus breaks bread, their hearts turn, re-turn to him, their eyes are re-opened and they re-congnize. They re-know Jesus once again.

If you are one of those people who can recognize Jesus in everything, in every moment, in every person, then you have a lot to offer the rest of us. But if you are like Cleopas and his companion, like me, like so many others, and you can’t always make out Jesus, even when you have your glasses on and he is right in front of you, this story brings good news.

Our vision may not be perfect, but Jesus’ is.

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He comes over and sits right beside us. He IS patient with us. He listens to us. Wants to hear what we say. He recognizes us from a distance.

Even more shocking, he recognizes us close-up. Despite, maybe because of our blemishes, our imperfections, our choices that look ugly, no matter the lighting. Jesus knows who we are, comes to us, recognizes us, and walks along on our journey with us.
He is companion, listener, teacher, and provider. He promises to show himself so that we may recognize him and be witness to what he has done and is doing in our lives.

Today we get to experience this promise. Today we welcome Cameron Hill into the fold. We promise on his behalf to tell him what we know, to show him what we have seen.

About Jesus in this world; about Jesus in our lives. About a hope so high we cannot avoid it. About a love that is always gathering us in, despite, and especially when we try to run away from it.

And then we do what we do every Sunday.

We come to the table for nourishment. Because when everything else has gone astray, when hope seems lost, when God feels distant, when disillusionment begins to steal our souls, Jesus opens our eyes and shows his love to us.

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Crumb by crumb, drop by drop, God gives us something to chew on, liquid love to restore our souls.

And with a restored vision, we may continue our journey, sharing this meal, hearts burning with love, to all that may receive it.

Amen.