This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Missional Is Not Sustainable.



“I would have thought that after five years your congregation would be sustainable.”

            These words were spoken by a Church Revitalization Consultant to a pastor of a church seeking to follow a “Missional” model.  By the definition of missional, the pastor’s church was successful: it was witnessing in its community in different ways.  But it wasn’t successful by the definition of what is sustainable.  So, even though, five years before, the consultant used the language of missional when working with this church, what really matters to her, as to so many, is not the effectiveness of the church’s mission, but whether the church is gaining members and money.

            Let’s face it, Presbyterians.  For all our reorganization, and adopting a polity, ecclesiology, and language centered around the word, “missional,” we’re not missional.  We just pretend to be missional, and talk about how missional we are, because it sounds good and makes us feel all Christian and relevant.  But when it comes to the way we evaluate congregational health, the quality of their faithfulness to the mission of God in Jesus Christ is not a significant consideration. 
            As a denomination the only criteria we pay attention to are still the traditional quantitative 3-B’s of congregational metrics: bucks, butts, and bricks.  That is: we measure money, members, and buildings.  (And in the end, only one B really matters: bucks.)   This is true from the hierarchy in Louisville, to the people in the proverbial pews.
            The new euphemism for the 3-B’s is “sustainable.”  (Sounds very ecological, doesn’t it?)  What it really means is that it doesn’t matter to us whether a congregation is doing mission or not; the only churches we will support are the ones that are on a path to “sustainability.”  In other words, the ways Jesus chose to evaluate his ministry – healing, empowering, liberating, and enlivening – are not important to us.  We will decide that you are successful when you have enough “giving units” to pay for your building and staff.
            When I say that missional is not sustainable, I mean that some of the most faithful missional activities, such as ministry with the poor and underprivileged, outreach to non-Christians, and advocacy for creation, are not often likely to bring large numbers of new members or money into the church.  Yet these are the things Jesus calls us to do. 
            It is possible that such ministries may become “sustainable,” that is, they may somehow eventually generate enough income to be self-supporting, not requiring any infusions of money or energy from outside themselves.  But sustainability cannot be a motivation in a church’s mission.  To begin with a desire to be sustainable is the opposite of seeking to be missional.
            For a denomination to talk as if it wants missional congregations, but then only approve of and offer support to the ones that are sustainable, is self-contradictory hypocrisy.  What?  Is being missional only a value if it does not threaten what is really important to us: sustainability?
            Jesus Christ does not mention sustainability as a goal.  Nowhere does he lift up any of the 3-B’s as measurements of faithful discipleship.  Certainly, he sends his church into the world to share the good news with others, and he calls people to follow him.  But he doesn’t evaluate success by counting how many individuals join the movement.  Indeed, he occasionally seems to go out of his way to make himself unpopular.  And he never hints that a successful mission is measured by how much money is made or whether a building is constructed.  Far from it.
            And the bitter irony here is that seeking first sustainability is to drop all hope of being missional; therefore, even if sustainability works, what we would be sustaining is not the mission of Jesus Christ.
            If we want churches to be missional, then we need to stop demanding that they be on a path to sustainability as a condition of our encouragement and support.  An institution that gives a hoot about sustainability can’t be missional anyway.
            Maybe this is why Jesus does not apply for funding to the Pharisees or the officials in the Temple.  In the end a missional movement will always undermine the sustainability of a religious institution.  For a religious institution to commit resources to a missional movement is fiscally irresponsible.  It’s suicidal.  Don’t expect it.
            Anyway, Jesus Christ calls us to do mission and to support mission.  It’s probably not going to be “sustainable.”  Do it anyway.  Find those places where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22), and cherish and feed them.  Do it directly, though, not through an institution that is concerned about sustainability.  Because the sustainability with which it is most concerned is its own.    

Barmen 1.



We have elected some new elders in our congregation.  As part of their orientation, I offer an introduction to the Constitution of the PCUSA.  It is not systematic, but my idiosyncratic take on it.  I start with the first thesis of the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

It goes like this:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

1.  The only Jesus Christ we have is the one “attested for us in Holy Scripture.”  There is no other or new Jesus Christ that someone has identified through any other means: mystical, theological, scientific, or artistic.  Non-scriptural presentations of Jesus Christ are valid for disciples only in so far as they reflect, depict, and shed light on the Jesus Christ we know in Scripture.  It is the height of arrogance, hubris, presumption, and cynicism for anyone to imagine that they have a truer picture of Jesus than the one we receive in the gospels, based on accounts of people who knew him personally.  The gospel portrayals are diverse and even contradictory, which only verifies their authenticity.   

2.  There is no division between Jesus and Christ; that is, there is no “historical Jesus” who is somehow distinct from the “Christ of faith.”  They are identical and inseparable.  Jesus is always and only the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior and Redeemer promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Incarnate Son of God, who rose from the dead.  Christ is always and only the Human One, born of Mary, who was executed by the Romans “for blasphemy and sedition” (Brief Statement of Faith, 10.2).  Christ is not a layer of misinterpretation imposed by the later church; in the Scriptures Jesus clearly understands himself to be the Messiah.  To separate them is to do violence to the text and concoct two different and imaginary figures, a project that must serve some end other than witnessing to God’s love. 

3.  Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God.  So while the Scriptures attest to him, he attests to the Scriptures.  The Scriptures get their authority from him.  “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written” (Confession of 1967, 9.27).  The Scriptures are the word of God because and when they witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  They are never accurately understood when they are heard to say something in contradiction to Jesus Christ.

4.  Our response is to hear, trust, and obey Jesus Christ.  It is not to hear only, and then do as we please.  It is not even to “believe,” if by that we mean merely to have an intellectual opinion about him.  It is to demonstrate our whole-hearted trust in him by our obedience to his commandments, as individuals and as a community. 

5.  Our trust in Jesus Christ extends throughout this mortal life even unto our death.  Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. 

6.  What are some “other events and powers, figures and truths,” that some might  acknowledge as “a source of the church’s proclamation”?  In other words, what forces and influences do we find within the church today that somehow manage to be considered when we are making decisions?  These are the other “principalities and powers” that demand allegiance, loyalty, and obedience.  Among these are nation, race, class, culture, political ideology, tradition, personality, economic system, philosophy, and religion.  If we are acknowledging any of these, even in a subordinate or marginal way, as factors influencing the character of our trust in and obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are not loving God with our whole being or our neighbors as ourselves.        

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Does Our Net Say?


Luke 5:1-11.
I.
            Jesus is developing a powerful reputation in Galilee as a healer, exorcist, and preacher.  People know that what he speaks is the “word of God.”  He speaks with authority; what he says actually happens.  On this occasion he is preaching on the beach by Lake Gennesaret (also called the Sea of Galilee).  The crowd that wants to hear him gets so big that he is almost pushed into the lake. 
            Two boats are there, pulled up on the beach after a night of fishing.  The fishers themselves are farther down the beach, washing their nets, perhaps bemused by this mob gathering to hear Jesus.  Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, the man whose mother-in-law he healed of a fever.  Simon is there, and perhaps helpfully pushes the boat into the water and keeps it there in the shallows while Jesus sits down to preach and the people can come right up to the water’s edge.
            We don’t know what he says, but we can assume he has the same basic message as his sermon in Nazareth.  He is opening the Hebrew Scriptures to them and announcing that he has come to fulfill what is written in them.  Maybe he still uses the hope-filled passages from the last third of the book of the Prophet Isaiah as his starting-off point.
            When he is done speaking, he wants to illustrate his sermon by some appropriate action.  It is somewhat like the way the sermon in churches is followed by the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; first we talk about the good news, then we do something, we eat together, to demonstrate and seal the good news in our hearts.  Jesus turns to Simon and instructs him to put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch. 
            Now, fishing on Lake Gennesaret was usually a nocturnal activity.  Maybe during the day the fish went deeper down to cooler water, but daylight fishing was not usually fruitful.  And Peter is also probably very tired.
            “Master,” he says, perhaps under his breath and privately to Jesus so as not to show him up in front of this crowd.  “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  He insinuates the point that he doesn’t expect this to work.  He knows Jesus is not a fisher, and may not know the best procedures and techniques.
            But he has also seen Jesus at work; he already knows that Jesus can do remarkable things, and that when he says something it tends to happen.  Maybe Jesus gives him a look.  So he says, “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 
            Simon echoes what we have already heard Mary say, back in chapter one.  When the angel announces she will give birth to the Messiah, she says, “Let it be with me according to your word.”  And so, Simon as well, responds to Jesus’ “word.”  He trusts enough in what Jesus has said to bring the boat out into deeper water and let the nets down.  He does what Jesus says.  That’s how he demonstrates his trust.

II.
            We don’t know what he feels in his heart.  He may thoroughly doubt whether this is going to work; he may just be going through the motions.  But, against everything he knows about fishing on this lake, he does what Jesus says.
            There is something to be said for simply doing what Jesus says.  Sometimes I realize it takes a bit of discernment, for which we need the support and advice of the gathering, for us to know what Jesus is asking of us… of me.  But often Jesus’ command hits us in the face directly, and our prevarications and avoidances are just that.  We know what Jesus wants us to do and we simply don’t want to do it.
            We say, “Well, the context was very different then, Jesus doesn’t mean the same thing today, for me.”  Or: “That was what Jesus said to that guy, but he doesn’t say that to everyone, and he certainly isn’t saying it to me.”  And that’s true.  Context is important.  And Jesus doesn’t always require the same specific actions from everybody.  It does take discernment.  But don’t use that to avoid the issue.  Sometimes you just know in your heart that: “Yeah, I don’t like it, but that word is for me.”
            When Jesus instructs Simon to sail out into deeper water and lower the nets into the water, I wonder if he isn’t saying this to his church at all times.  I wonder if he isn’t telling the church to get out there into the world and preach the good news.  Do the things Isaiah said the Messiah would do: preaching and healing and liberating and forgiving.  It is not enough just to listen to Jesus… and then nod your head and go home to mull over what he said.  After listening comes the acting.  After the sermon Jesus says now do this.  “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Jesus’ words are not just something to think about; they are something to do.
            Too often our boats stay on the beach, even after our nets are perfectly washed and mended, even after we have a PhD in alieology, the science of fishing, and our boats are in perfect, up-to-date condition.  We sit here on the beach and expect the fish to come to us.  We assume that people know where we are and what time our services are, and that they should be inspired to show up.  Maybe if we advertized…. 
            Presumably Jesus could have summoned the fish out of the lake and into the beached boats, but he doesn’t.  He instructs Simon to sail out into the deeper water and let down the nets.  Just as he is sent into the world by God, so he sends us into the world as well. 

III.
            Simon doesn’t understand what is going on.  But he does as Jesus tells him.  When they get far enough out into the lake he does let the nets out.  And immediately the nets are full of fish!  They catch so many fish that the nets are beginning to strain and bulge and stretch, and might even break.  The fish are so heavy they have to call another boat out to help haul in the load.
            Now, this story is not really about fishing techniques.  It is about evangelism.  Just as Simon and his associates had to sail to deep water and let down the nets, so also Jesus’ gathering of disciples has to go into the world and preach the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.  The good news is about the Kingdom of God, which is described by Isaiah as God’s new order of justice, peace, love, forgiveness, healing, and freedom.  Jesus is telling us to go into the world, go where the people are, and give them an opportunity to participate in a new kind of community.
            Our problem, I suspect, is that the fish are not attracted to our nets, as it were.  Maybe we’re not always acting in obedience to Jesus, but for other reasons and motivations.  If you let out nets that say, “We really need new members because we need more money to keep this institution going….”  I don’t know.  Is that going to work?  If our nets communicate the message that we need new people to come and take over doing what we have been doing… and they’d better do it right and exactly the way we always did it,” I doubt that will be particularly effective either.  If the net says judgment or condemnation or if it delivers dire threats, if it says you’re not the right kind of person, or if it has a long list of prerequisites and high “standards”….  Then it’s not a net that is lowered in Jesus’ name.
            But if the net says forgiveness, release, healing, acceptance, welcome, and cancellation of debts… in other words, if the net communicates the values of Jesus Christ, then we may expect it to be more effective in catching what we seek to catch.
            Our “nets” are our message.  And it is preached not just in words, but also deeds.  It needs to be very clear that this is a place where you will find love, support, friendship, togetherness, peace, acceptance, and hope.  You know, this church is not just named after the road.  We are named after an important theological virtue, one that is lacking in many people’s lives.  I think if we can convey that hope is not just our address but it is what we are all about, we will do fine.

IV.
            In the story, both boats are so overloaded that they are starting to take on water.  But they finally make it to land, with the crowd still standing there watching the whole thing.
            And when he gets to the beach Simon runs to Jesus and falls down at Jesus’ knees.  He says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  When we’re in the presence of this kind of holiness and power, here is the default response.  We bow down in penitence and worship.  We are made immediately aware of how far short we fall by comparison, and we are driven to our knees.  We are justly afraid that simple contact with holiness and goodness of this magnitude will consume us.
            But Jesus is not just about freedom and healing, he has also come to banish our fear.  Jesus knows what Yoda states in the Star Wars movies: “Fear the path to the dark side is.”   One of the people present at that event by the lake that day later wrote that: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out all fear.”  Fear is what keeps our boats on the beach.  Fear is what keeps the nets in the boat.  Nothing kills evangelism and mission as effectively as fear: fear of failure, fear of credulity, fear of looking ridiculous, fear of disappointment, fear of having your life transformed and overturned, fear of death.
            There is no place for fear in this project.  Fear is the opposite of trust; it undermines obedience.  Fear anticipates disaster.  And fear is warranted.  Association with Jesus will eventually get Simon, his name is soon changed to Peter, killed.  Even becoming a disciple at all means taking up one’s cross, it means dying to your old life.  Remember that the fish caught in the net do die.  Not only does realizing the good news in our life require a renunciation of our old ways, and our old life, but being a part of Jesus’ new community was considered subversive and liable to bring the wrath of fearful authorities.
            But once people encounter the Lord Jesus they realize that the new challenges and trials they are willingly taking on are better than the bondage and deterioration and disease they had been enduring before.
            Jesus commands Simon not to be afraid, and then points out that this whole episode is not really about fish.  It is about people.  Jesus is telling him that what he just saw with the great catch of fish will now be fulfilled in ministry to people.  He will be drawing people up out of their lives of despair, grief, and bondage, and into the light of God’s love, into the new community Jesus establishes, into joy and hope.

IV.
            But Jesus has seen that Simon has what it takes.  Simon has already demonstrated that he will obey Jesus, even when it is against his better – and professional – judgment.  When Simon and his associates reach the shore, they leave everything and follow Jesus.  Luke mentions Simon’s partners, James and John, and we know that Peter’s brother Andrew eventually joins them as well.  Whatever connections they have, they leave.  Maybe the proceeds from the fish would console whomever they left behind, but, having witnessed Jesus’ authority and power, they decide to follow him as disciples.
            I don’t think it is just because they see a miracle that they are so willing to drop everything and follow Jesus.  But Jesus is preaching the emergence of a new order for Israel and the world.  He is giving people hope.  And unlike other preachers who might have come around with even similar messages, Jesus delivers.  For the first time they have a taste of what hope looks like when it is fulfilled.
            This is not a circus that they’re signing on for; this is not about barking for Jesus the miracle worker, the entertainer, the novelty act.  They want to get in on this “fishing for people” thing.  Because if Jesus can do with people what he does with fish, then they’re looking at some real changes in the life of their people, and the world.
            Let us therefore consider where in our own lives we might be hearing Jesus say to us: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Realizing that the “deep water” represents the wider world and its dangers and promises, the place of commerce and interaction, where is that place for us?  Where are the people?
            What is the character of our “net”?  As far as our message, our presentation, the face we show the world, our actions are concerned, are we casting the message of Jesus?  Are we communicating a message of release, forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and blessing?  Or are we still throttled by other kinds of baggage, so that people hear judgment, criticism, condemnation, and rejection from us?  Are we ready to give people welcome and hospitality, or rules?  The good news or our own opinions?
            Finally, let’s not let our fear paralyze us.  Putting ourselves into Jesus’ hands by trusting in him and obeying his word banishes all fear.  Because to follow him is to follow the power of love at work in the world.

V.
            Our story today begins with people hungry for the Word of God.  I think people are always hungry for God’s Word, even if they don’t know and can’t say what they are hungry for.  God’s message is one of liberation, healing, forgiveness, peace, and love.  And Jesus Christ has shown that he can deliver on this promise, if we follow him.  We may not be called to leave everything literally, but we are called to leave behind our old, fearful selves, and everything that would drag us down.
            May we see how Jesus banishes our fear, and sends us out as well, to catch people.
+++++++   


New and Old.


Luke 5.33-39
Ash Wednesday
I.
            Jesus tells these two tiny parables about the new in relation to the old.  In context, he is talking about the collision between his new teaching and the old traditions of his people.  But I think Jesus’ teachings are in some sense new in every generation.  They challenge every entrenched system in every era.
            And with these two parables he admits the incompatibility of his message with the old institutions of his people’s religion.  When he talks about the patch torn from a new garment in order to repair an old one, he means we can’t just take bits and pieces of his message and use them to fix the weak places in the current system.  To do that wrecks the new garment, that is, it undermines and destroys what Jesus is trying to get across.  And it really doesn’t fit onto the old garment.  The old system really cannot absorb or integrate isolated pieces of the new teaching.
            The same point comes through in the second little image, that of new wine and old wineskins.  New wine was still fermenting and expanding; were it put into old skins, they would burst.  A new wineskin, I guess, would be stronger and more able to expand to accommodate the new wine.
            He is saying that the new replaces the old, and that we have to choose between them.  We can’t have both at the same time with any integrity.  The old does not have the capacity to hold, contain, include, or express the new.  A new message requires new ways to communicate and organize it. 
            Then he adds that this is a difficult project because people are inherently biased towards the old to begin with.  Old wine is better, in the minds of most.  People prefer the tried and true, the tested, the venerable, and the traditional.  It is risky to choose the new, untried, experimental, innovative alternative.  If you put new wine in an old wineskin, even if the skin doesn’t burst, people will taste it and reject it because they will not get what they expect, what they were used to.
            This makes me wonder about what Jesus would say today.  What is he saying to us now?  What about our old “garments” and old “wineskins”?  That is to say, what of the containers in which we have put the good news: our traditional liturgies, doctrines, polity, practices, our accepted ways of thinking and acting, of doing mission and evangelism?  Are they suited to Jesus’ new wine just because they are Christian?  Or do they get old over time?  Do they, with age, become hard, inflexible, and congested?  Do they fail to contain or express the undomesticated, wild, uncontrolled Holy Spirit?

II.
            My suspicion is that Jesus uses the terms “new” and “old” for a reason.  Something may be new today, but tomorrow, of course, it becomes old.  Because we are inevitably bound to time, our institutions and systems, our liturgies and theologies, do become old in the sense of no longer relating to a changed situation.  Everything is conditioned by the historical context in which it was produced.  Our activities are geared to address problems and promises of specific people in specific times and places.  We all know that often when we try to apply the same approach to a new situation it can have an effect wildly different to what it originally had. 
            Now, some things are relatively timeless.  Some practices and systems seem to work well in every generation.  Other approaches become obsolete and fall into disuse or worse become counter-productive.  What is important is whether the container, expression, or medium restricts, distorts, obstructs, or contradicts the message.  Are we doing things because we’ve always done them that way?  Or because they effectively communicate the good news in our time and place?
            I am not saying that we always have to get rid of stuff just because of its age.  I find great power and meaning in many traditional and ancient practices.  I am suggesting that we have to be doing constant evaluation of our systems, doctrines, and practices, to ensure that they are communicating the good news well today.  Do our wineskins hold the new wine of the good news?  Are our garments appropriate for the marriage feast of the bridegroom?
            We make this assessment by continual comparison of our practices with what Jesus himself does and teaches.  We heed always to be able to articulate how what we do expresses and reflects the good news of God’s love for the world we see in Jesus.  If we can’t, if were doing things that Jesus never commanded and even warned against or condemned, then we need to cease doing them.  Even if it’s something we’ve always done and our grandmother taught us how to do it and it’s in the Book of Order. 
            If something does not bring us closer to God, if it does not help us follow Jesus, if it does not open us to the working of the Holy Spirit, then we need to stop doing it.  No matter how “nice” it is or whom it is honoring, no matter how sentimental, satisfying, patriotic, traditional, or Presbyterian it may be, no matter whom it offends to change it.  Our only calling is to honor Jesus Christ.

III.
            The original question Jesus is asked has to do with fasting.  Even this early in his ministry, Jesus is seen to be very different from other spiritual teachers, even from John the Baptizer.  It came down to eating.  Not only does Jesus share meals with disreputable people, folks everyone dismisses as hopeless sinners, those bad influences respectable people stayed away from, but his entourage seemed to be eating all the time.  It was one big party!  They never fasted or abstained from or renounced food, except perhaps for the required fast of Yom Kippur.  Jesus’ relationship to food and drink was a problem for many of his contemporaries.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.
            His response is that, while the Bridegroom is with them, his disciples should not fast.  Fasting was, among other things, an expression of mourning, bereavement, and grief.  He says that someday the Bridegroom will be gone, and their will be plenty of time for fasting then.
            So: on the one hand, Jesus says: do the things that celebrate the presence of the Bridegroom.  Jesus is the Bridegroom, of course.  Do the things that express the joy of the Lord’s release, healing, liberation, and blessing. 
            But when is the Bridegroom not with us?  Traditionally, the church has designated a formal fast in Lent, the season that leads up to Holy Week, when we remember the time when the Bridegroom was taken from us.  And that has its benefits, certainly.
            Jesus is always with us, of course.  But there are times when we are not with him.  Maybe we need to fast when the presence of the Bridegroom is lost or hard to see for us.  Maybe we need to realize when our actions and our loyalties and our possessions are keeping us separate from him.  Maybe those are the things we would benefit from giving up.  Maybe it’s when we reject and replace God in our hearts, when the Bridegroom therefore seems and feels so distant and remote from us, that we do need to fast.  We have to give up those things that serve only to demonstrate our godlessness, those things and ways in which we dishonor and disobey Jesus Christ.
            Maybe the whole point of fasting is bringing into our consciousness the attitudes, practices, and ways of thinking that force Christ out of our lives and make him invisible to us.  Because anything that we can’t give up, or that we find particularly difficult to give up, is probably getting in the way of our experience of the Presence of the Bridegroom.  It’s probably an idol that is killing us.

IV.
            This Lent, let’s look into our own hearts for whatever is blocking our full experience of God’s saving, forgiving, healing Presence.  It may be something we’re doing.  It may be something we are not doing.  It may be an attitude or a prejudice.  It may be a habit.  It may be some hard knot of bitterness or pain, a bad memory perhaps, that we let make us cold, hard, judgmental, condemning, unwelcoming, and dismissive. 
            Let’s realize that the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, has freed us from all that.  We are released and liberated.  We are healed and saved from all that would harm us.  We can let all that go.  We have the courage and the blessing inside us, we just have to plug into it.  We just have to let go of whatever is punishing us, whatever is separating us from God’s Light, and so let that Light flow through us freely, into all the world.
+++++++  
     

Listen to him.


Luke 9:28-36.
Transfiguration

I.
            Many centuries ago, the church established a 40+ day period of fasting and spiritual preparation leading up to Holy Week.  More recently, churches have been preceding this with a commemoration of Jesus’ transfiguration.
            The transfiguration happens at a pivotal point in the gospel immediately after Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus’ promise that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and be raised from death, and that his disciples are required to lose their lives for his sake.  In other words, the disciples now know that Jesus’ plan is to go to Jerusalem for a final confrontation with the authorities, which he will lose… but then somehow win.
            Just before they start making their way south towards Jerusalem where all this is to happen, Jesus goes up a mountain, Mt. Tabor is the traditional site, to pray.  Usually he prays by himself but this time he invites his three closest disciples to come with him.  They climb the steep mountain; it would have taken at least a couple of hours.
            Mt. Tabor stands-out in the middle of an otherwise relatively flat plain in southern Galilee; it can be seen for miles and the view from the top is spectacular, or so they tell me.
            When they get to the top Jesus begins to pray.  Jews usually prayed standing and that’s probably what Jesus does here.  He faces Jerusalem, pulls his prayer shawl up over his head, and begins to pray in a very soft voice.  Peter, James, and John know the drill and they follow their master’s example. 
            Jesus must have prayed for a long time, because the other three men get drowsy.  But they don’t fall asleep, which is a good thing because during his prayer Luke reports that the appearance of Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white.  He starts to shine with this wild, unearthly light.
            The book of Exodus reports a similar thing happening to Moses, which we just read about in Exodus 34.  Moses was also up on a mountain, Mt. Sinai, where God was giving him the second copy of the Ten Commandments.  When he came down we are told that his face shone with a strange glow, as if some afterglow of God’s holy Light continued to be reflected in his face.  This shining stayed with him so that he even had to wear a veil whenever he was with people, to prevent freaking them out.
            This light of God was too strong, weird, and holy for the people.  They couldn’t handle it.  It was too direct and true.  The Light of God cuts through our illusions and reveals the truth about us.  These are the same people who had only recently debased themselves in the Golden Calf incident.  For their own good, they had to be shielded from Light of God’s Presence.  They could only experience it indirectly, if at all.

II.
            Moses’ veil has ever after represented the separation between God and the people.  It has roughly the same function as the veil in the Temple dividing the more ordinary space from the Holy of Holies.  God is with them; but God also keeps some distance.  There remains a barrier between God and the people.
            The people could handle the word of God coming to them verbally, in words spoken, or inscribed on stone or written on a page.  But they were not strong enough to absorb a direct and visual experience of God, even indirectly in Moses’ face.  And any more immediate encounter with God would have had them annihilated by God’s holiness, goodness, and love.
            The divine light that shines through and from Jesus is the same light that Moses saw.  “God is light,” John would later write.  “And in him is no darkness at all.”  It is like in this experience the veil is pulled aside and the true nature of things, the true nature of Jesus, is revealed.
            In the midst of this dazzling display, the disciples somehow see two men standing there with Jesus, whom they are able to identify as Moses along with the great prophet Elijah. 
            Moses and Elijah are two of the most important figures of the Bible.  Moses delivered the Torah to the people on Mt. Sinai, and led them through the desert for 40 years until they arrived at the edge of the Promised Land.  Elijah was the first of the great prophets whom God set as holy critics of the Kings of Israel and Judah, and who also foretold the coming of the Messiah.  He had his own experiences of God on mountains.  On Mt. Carmel he defeated the prophets of Baal in a contest, and then later the Lord came to him on Mt. Sinai, in that “still, small voice,” to assure him that, however diminished God’s people were, new things were about to happen.   All of these meanings and allusions echo through Luke’s story here.   
            And the disciples overhear these two men talking with Jesus about his departure, which he would accomplish in Jerusalem.  The word Luke uses which is translated “departure” is actually “exodus,” making an explicit connection between what Jesus will do and God’s bringing of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
              It is clear, then, that Jesus’ destiny is to fulfill the central event in Israel’s life, the event in which their faith was born, the great deliverance of the Israelite slaves from bondage.  And so it will be: when they do get to Jerusalem, Jesus’ final meal, his arrest, execution, and resurrection all happen in the context of the celebration of the Passover holiday.

III.
            Peter, James, and John witness all this, and they are dumbfounded.  The correct response here would basically be for them to fall on their faces in awe, wonder, and worship. 
            Unfortunately, Peter chooses instead to open his mouth.  First, as the vision gradually fades, he blurts out: “Master, it is good for us to be here.”  So, while Jesus and Moses and Elijah have been talking about how Jesus will now be going to Jerusalem, Peter is infatuated with this mountain and the experience they have just had.  Jesus is turning his attention to Jerusalem; Peter is still focused on the mountain.  “It is good for us to be here,” he says, as if to say, “and it is not a good idea to go anywhere else, like Jerusalem, for instance.” Jesus has already predicted that they will face death and shame there.  “I know!” says Peter, “Let’s just stay here!”
            We all want to stay in our comfort zone, in the glow of our greatest experiences and achievements.  We all want to remain in our glory days, whenever they were.  We don’t want to go back down into the valley, where there is pain and need.  After this spectacular event on the mountain, they will go back down and the first thing they encounter is a man whose only son is possessed by an evil demon. 
            Who needs that?  Wouldn’t it be better to stay on the mountain and let needy, possessed, and sick people come up to them?  Wouldn’t it be better to build a shrine… no, three shrines! up here?  Then they could tell people all about their experience and they could go down and spread the word.  Wouldn’t that be better?
            The irony here is that, several centuries later, Christians went back to Mt. Tabor.  And what did they do?  They built a commemorative shrine, a big church, which is still there.  We’re so pathetic.  We did this to St. Francis too.  Before he dies he says, “Whatever you do don’t build a big church in my memory; use your money to help the poor.”  His body wasn’t even cold before the building fund got started. 
            Jesus must have just shaken his head when Peter starts going on about this.  He isn’t even done speaking when this mysterious cloud comes over them, terrifying them.  This cloud “overshadows” them, and envelops them like a fog so thick it even blocks out sunlight. 
            The last time we heard this word, “overshadows,” was back in chapter 1, when Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would come to her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and she would emerge full of the very life of God; she would be pregnant with God.
            So the disciples are overshadowed by God’s Presence, where they too receive God’s Word, though in a rather different way.  It will not be until much later, but, just as Mary was charged with giving birth to the body of the Messiah, they will bear the message and the Spirit, working through them, to all the world.
           
IV.
            And from this cloud, that is, from all around them they hear a voice that says, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him!”  In other words: Stop listening to the other voices: your egos and your fear and your craving for personal glory.  Stop listening to whatever wants to avoid this very necessary trip to Jerusalem, which is to say, avoid taking up your cross.  Stop listening to whatever wants you to stay on the mountain and build a shrine.  Stop listening to anything or anyone else.  Listen only to the Son, the Chosen of God, Jesus Christ.
            “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”  Those words from the Barmen Declaration in our Book of Confessions constitute the beginning and the ongoing task of those who follow Jesus.  This is why we have to be in constant, daily, regular interaction with Jesus Christ in the gospels and the rest of the Bible.  We can’t listen if we don’t hear or read it.  “Listen to him” means get at least some piece of the gospels into your consciousness every day. 
            And we all know that listen means obey.  It means follow.
Listening to and following only Jesus is what the Christian life is about.  So the contrast here couldn’t be more stark.  Peter wants to stay in one place and build three booths or shrines.  He wants buildings that commemorate a past event and stay in one place. 
            Jesus, however, is about movement.  He never instructs his disciples to build any physical monument, or any building at all.  Buildings don’t move.  Following him, listening to him, means moving.  It means transformation, we can’t stay in the same place, figuratively or often literally.  There is a reason that the faith was referred to as “the Way” by the earliest adherents.  It was about going somewhere.  It was about going from one kind of life to another, from one way of thinking to another.  It was about being sent, which also implies movement.
            The exodus was also about moving from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh to Torah, from death to life.  When Jesus fulfills it he will do it by having himself lifted up on a cross, being raised from the dead, and finally ascending into heaven.  This is not a static faith, or even a stable one.  Stability is what empires impose.  But God’s Spirit is in motion and wild, unpredictable and undomesticated, and so is God’s Son and the community he calls and sends into the world.
           
V.
    After they hear this voice, the cloud dissipates, normal daylight returns.  Peter, James, and John look up and see only Jesus.  Moses and Elijah are gone.  Jesus is back in his ordinary form.  What was that?  Was it a dream?
            No.  It was a glimpse into the heart of reality where all is light and charged with God’s Presence.  It was God temporarily lifting the veil that is over all our senses, a veil that limits our perception to a narrow bandwidth.  It was God, revealing what things are really like.  And what things are really like, is light, and beauty, and love.
            It is important that the disciples get this message at this time in their journey with the Lord Jesus.  This is why he invites them to pray with him this time, when usually he prayed alone.  They had to see the true nature of the world, and of him.  They had to have this vision to sustain them as they made their way down to Jerusalem where they would meet all they would meet, where Jesus himself would be arrested and killed.  They had to know in advance that what Jesus really is, is something that cannot be snuffed out by anything, let alone the petty machinations of politicians and priests.
            Jesus gives them a foretaste of resurrection life, revealing the goodness and blessing, the divine Light, which he embodies, at the heart of creation.  And we read this story on this day as well, so we have the same foretaste to sustain us moving forward.  Assuming we will use this time wisely in self-examination, which traditionally has included some kind of self-denial or fasting, spiritual disciplines that have the effect of clearing the mind and purifying the vision, so that when we get to the events of Holy Week, when we get to the seder, and the Maundy Thursday Communion, and the tenebrae, and when we get to the Resurrection Vigil, and the glorious morning of life, we will have a better understanding and a fuller participation in what we are remembering together.
            Because it’s all about this Light, this divine glory, this shining luminescence at the heart of all things.  On this mountaintop, Jesus is showing the disciples and us our true nature and essence, revealing that nothing can ever ultimately hurt or harm us.  We may choose to cherish the darkness and the lies and the pain.  We may choose the familiar and easy Egypt over the challenging wilderness that leads to the Promised Land.  We may choose our usual default responses of fear, anger, and shame.
            But deep within us there is something else to which we always have access: the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus, from which we can never be separated.      
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