Transfiguration

“Atop Mount Tabor, the place identified since the fourth century as the (unnamed) “high mountain” of the Transfiguration, sits a wonderfully ironic piece of architecture. Mark says Peter suggested it from within confusion (“Rabbi, … let us make three tents; one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”), and Italian Franciscans, in 1924, actually did, in stone. It is a gorgeous basilica with two side-chapels, one for St. Moses and one for St. Elijah. Though it is, with respect to the New Testament account, ironic (implementing what the text implies was a mistaken notion), the construction is nonetheless inevitable. What else would an architect do to memorialize this event?”1

People, especially religious people, are very good at memorializing things, at setting heroes and events in stone, lest we forget. The Bible is full of people doing such things, perhaps most famous the story of Jacob’s Ladder (it’s not just a movie). Jacob is on a journey and gets tired, so he uses a hefty stone as a pillow of sorts, and that night he has his dream of the ladder to heaven, with the angels ascending and descending. It’s there that the Lord spoke to Jacob, promising him many descendants and that He will watch his back wherever he goes. Jacob understandable thought this was awesome, so he set his stone pillow up as a pillar, anointed it with oil, and renamed the place Bethel, which literally means House of God. (As an aside, all the Superman characters from Krypton has names like this; Kal-El, Jor-El. Any time you see an -el suffix on a name, if means of God, hence the names of the angels – Micha-el, Rapha-el, Uri-el, and so on.)

Anyway, humans are good at memorializing things, even if it’s a thing that’s almost impossible to memorialize, like the Transfiguration. The fact that the Transfiguration is memorialized at all also seems strange, because in some ways it is one of the scariest stories in the Bible. Noah and the Flood is the scariest story, but we use that theme in baby’s rooms, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised when it comes to the Transfiguration.

The Transfiguration is scary in three ways. They are:

  • One: the glory of Jesus was revealed to humans, and who’s ready for that?
  • Two: Moses and Elijah were there, and that had to be scary.
  • And Three: being transfigured would be a terrible thing to happen to regular people.

The first two are self-explanatory. But the third is my personal nightmare. Remember that being transfigured is not the act of being transformed, but the occasion of being revealed for who you really are, to the essence of your being. Now, I know that all of you are pure as the driven snow, but I wouldn’t want my inmost essence revealed for the world to see. I don’t want to look upon my own sins, or the ugliness and the pettiness and every evil thing that remains in me, and I certainly don’t want to climb a mountain and let my friends see me like that.

Thankfully, transfiguration is not a likely occasion for me or for anyone else. Our scary T-word is transformation. Rather an occasionally being revealed for who we are, our task as Christians is to be transformed, to change, to not memorialize ourselves into unchanging stone while we are still alive. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, we who “contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into (the image of Jesus) with ever-increasing glory…”

Transformation like that sounds hard, like the before and after pictures in a bodybuilding supplement ad. But then Paul goes on to say that such transformation “comes from the Lord.” The work, then, is not so much in the transformation itself as much as it’s in the work of allowing God’s Spirit to work on us, to let Him chip away at the sin and the ugliness and the pettiness and every evil that weighs us down, that turns our hearts to stone. How do we do this? Prayer and fasting never hurt. Talking to others about God opens our hearts to what God is saying to us and through us. Acts of charity, giving what came from God back to God; acts of kindness, showing Jesus to others in our actions; and finally the act of being together as we are now, as Christians gathered in a holy place, our mountaintop, let’s us see Jesus in His glory, that we may know into what we are being transformed.

Who knows, if we keep all that up, perhaps one day being transfigured wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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Pentecost 7

Adam West died in early July, leaving a giant bat-shaped hole in our cultural fabric. His portrayal of Batman on that hit ’60s show is iconic enough that everyone knows the reference, and that’s not easy to pull off. In interviews, West said that he tried to portray Batman as having no concept of the affect he had on other people. His example was the time Batman went looking for an archenemy at a cabaret-type club, and the maitre d’ wished to seat him at a table close to the stage. “No thank you,” Batman said, in cowl and cape, “I don’t want to be conspicuous.”

West’s Batman had the unfortunate habit of not anticipating the machinations of his enemies, much to the peril of himself and Gotham City. You have to be really, really not paying attention to not see a guy in a question-mark suit coming. But I bet the farmer in today’s Gospel can relate.

“An enemy has sowed weeds among (his) wheat. The fact is mentioned without comment. Jesus’ audience understood this perfectly. Birth into a family means not only inheriting that family’s honor status and its friends but also inheriting its enemies.

“There are many reasons why families become enemies in the ancient world, but the consequences are always the same. A state of feuding develops and persists over a long period of time. One never knows but must always suspect that a feuding enemy is seeking to shame one’s family.

“In this story, the shame is planted soon after the wheat seeds are sown, but it does not become full-blown shame until the weeds have matured to the point where they are clearly distinguishable from the wheat. Now the entire village discovers the shame along with the landowner, and they begin to laugh.

“The laughter grows even louder when the landowner instructs his servants to allow the weeds to grow alongside the wheat until harvest. The peasants expect retaliation and revenge. Instead, the landowner appears helpless and bested by his enemies. Before the invention of electricity and television, such feuds provided entertainment for the village.

“But appearances are deceiving. The landowner is shrewd as well as being a savvy farmer. He knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!”1

Don’t you wish it always worked that way? It doesn’t, of course, and one of the great pains of human existence is that most people, people of every station, have enemies. The greater pain is that so often those enemies come from those who should be our trusted friends, neighbors, and, unfortunately, family. Winston Churchill famously said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Conflict does come from standing up for what is right, but too often it comes from that one perceived slight, the joke or comment that landed wrong, and all of sudden we find ourselves pitted against others for no good reason.

That’s where our farmer comes in. Today’s Gospel is obviously not a lesson in agriculture, but rather a lesson in trust and godliness. In refusing to get even with his enemies, our farmer shows us that there is a better way; the unspoken words of the farmer are “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

Perhaps even more powerful is the farmer’s trust that God will provide blessings even in the midst of apparent calamity; that kind of trust is a powerful weapon against fear and suspicion, freeing the faithful from the cycle of pettiness and revenge.

Can we live like the farmer? Easier said than done, right? Thankfully we have a God who makes the wheat to flourish even amongst the weeds.

 

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Pentecost 4

When Doan and I were on our way to getting married, one thing I quickly learned was that we had two very different concepts of family. I grew up with a very American concept of family, which revolves around the idea of a nuclear family with branches going out to cousins and the such and up to grandma and grandpa. I didn’t see my extended family very often, and though they are all lovely people, outside of a couple of aunts and uncles and cousins, I just didn’t know them very well. Doan’s family is very different, reflective of their heritage. From my perspective, at least, everyone who is even mildly related is family family, worthy of an invite or a visit and to be honored. Somehow her family is both huge and tight.

“Family is the central social institution in the ancient Mediterranean world, just as economics are in our world. Jesus’ requirement that his followers should love him more than they love mother, father, son, or daughter shock(ed) his first-century listeners.

“The ancient Middle Eastern family was very large and quite extended. It consisted of a father and all his children, including his married sons with their entire families, living in one place. The ideal marriage partner was a first cousin (one’s father’s brother’s daughter), which bound this close-knit family together with even tighter bonds. The resultant mentality was “our family” against “everyone else.”

“To marry anyone other than a family member was unthinkable. To sever all family ties as did the “prodigal son” was not only stupid but equivalent to suicide. Outside the family, no one can be trusted, no one will help you, as that renegade son quickly learned when his funds ran out.

“The real consequences of leaving one’s family are dire indeed. One not only gives up the basic claim to honor and status but also loses all of the family’s economic, religious, educational, and social connections as well. Perhaps most disastrous of all consequences is loss of a connection to the land. These are all serious and life-threatening losses. They are (perhaps a good portion of) what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of “taking up one’s cross” and “losing one’s life for my sake.””1

St. Paul tells us today of another life-threatening condition, that is living life outside of the family of Christ. But even life in Christ is somehow wrapped up in death. “Paul says flat out that as baptized followers of Jesus, we have died, we have been buried, our former nature was crucified, we have been freed from sin. These are all past tense expressions.

“Typically when we talk this way about our own lives, we are expressing things that are over and done with and whose effect, therefore, is ongoing. If I tell you that I was fired from a certain job, then the implication is that I am still fired today and I will be in a state of having been fired tomorrow, too. My knowing this will keep me from driving to the office again for work tomorrow morning. You wouldn’t have to remind me not to go back into work. I would know I have been fired and so would know not to report for work.

That’s the way Paul talks about our identification with Jesus’ death and all that this implies for our relationship to sin. It’s past tense. It is who we are by baptism. We are dead to sin. And yet before this same passage is finished, you find Paul saying things like, “Therefore, count yourselves dead to sin. Remember that this is true. Don’t keep on sinning. Don’t use your body for immoral purposes. Instead, choose to do better things that glorify God.””2

Today, through the baptism of little Jaxon, we will have a new family member, one who has died to sin and has been raised to new life in Jesus. It is now our duty to remind him and each other that just because we are baptized, that doesn’t mean that sin and the slavery that comes with it can’t take hold. It’s our job, with God’s help, to live as if Christ lives in us, because He does. That’s our job, because that’s what families do.

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Pentecost 3

This past Wednesday we had our first event for the Bordentown Laundry Project, which we set up with the Bordentown Rotary and Paul Ciarrocca, the owner of the Rivertown Laundromat.  As much as we wanted to do something like this, having an evening to invite those, who because of their financial situation, were having trouble keeping up with their laundry, we were apprehensive.  Questions seemed to beget not answers but other questions; fear begat more fear.  Who will come, if anyone?  What if more people come than we can accommodate?  How will they get there and home?  Snacks?  Games?  What if it rains?  What if no one else thinks this is a good idea and we can’t afford the whole thing?

 

We still have questions after our first evening, but we got lots of answers as well.  Between the parish and the wider community, more than $600 worth of quarters were collected.  Three dozen bottles of detergent, countless sheets of fabric softener, pounds of cookies, coolers full of water, enough coloring books and crayons to keep 30 kids occupied.  We ended up serving around 30 members of our community, and the love of Christ was proclaimed on our streets.

 

That doesn’t mean we had nothing to fear.  If you remember, on Wednesday afternoon, right as we were loading my truck to bring the supplies over, the skies opened up, pouring rain, lighting, and thunder.  The storm threatened to squash the event – who would carry their laundry out in a thunderstorm?

 

The Church Father’s teach us that when something good is happening or about to happen, Satan attacks, tries to get in the way of the Gospel being preached in word or deed.  As volunteers from the church, the Rotary, Hope Hose, and the Kiwanis carried various things into the laundromat, braving the storm, it was clear we were under attack.  But it was also clear something good was about to happen.

 

But again, that doesn’t mean we had nothing to fear.  Today’s Gospel reading is a lesson in fear, a subject appropriate to our times.  Fear God, Jesus tells us, and I think many of still wrestle with that language.  Why would we fear a loving God, a God who died for us?  It’s confusing, certainly.

 

First, Jesus tells His disciples that He is sending them out into the world as ‘sheep amongst wolves’, now a classic reference.  The twelve disciples, like so many that would come after them, will be persecuted, attacked, betrayed, put to death by even the people they trusted.

 

“Jesus says not to be afraid of such people.  They can only kill the body but cannot touch the soul.  On the other hand, Jesus says, “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”  In other words, fear God.  But rather than leave us with that bald statement, Jesus hastens to add a thought “on the third hand”: God whose eye is on the sparrow, cares even more for you.  Indeed, he even counts the hairs on your head.  So do not be afraid.  You are worth much more than a whole flock of sparrows.

 

 

“Did the third hand take away what the second hand gave?  Jesus is saying that the One who holds the ultimate power over you is the One who loves you the most.  How, then, does exhortation to fear God apply?  Jesus is here simply recalling a theme deep in the Hebrew tradition, the intimate connection between fear and love of God.  What is meant by fear in these contexts is a complete awe and reverence for the Creator, such that one always acts out of profound respect for (the Lord).

 

“If “fear” of God has such a positive meaning, why, then, does Scripture insist on negative words that are best translated “fear” in this case?  Analogy may help.  Every parent wants to instill in a toddler a healthy fear of fire, deep water, and automobile traffic…  (Healthy fear, not craven fear.)

 

“Perhaps a more helpful analogy is the fear we have of offending those we love the most.  Are we not deeply pained when we discover that a word or act of ours has hurt a parent, a child, or a good friend? And do we not fear offending them?  That’s the fear Jesus would have us feel toward the Father.  When our love life is governed by this fear of God, we discover that we really have nothing to be afraid of.”[1]

 

The fear, awe, and reverence of God drives out the fears of this mortal life and replaces them with love, the kind of love that causes us to reach out to each other and our neighbors in the Name of Jesus.

 

[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ  http://liturgy.slu.edu/12OrdA062517/theword_hamm.html

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Pentecost 2

The Most Reverend Robert Runcie, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in his book, Seasons of the Spirit, that he once got on a train in England and discovered that all the other passengers in the car were patients at a mental institution being taken on an excursion.

A mental hospital attendant was counting the patients to be sure that they were all there: “One, two, three, four, five…” When she came to Runcie, he said “And who are you, then?” “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Runcie replied. The attendant smiled, and pointing at Runcie continued counting, “six, seven, eight…”1

Archbishop Runcie right then knew what it must have been like for the 12 disciples after Jesus sent them out to tell people that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”

How many times did people in the towns and villages visited by the apostles just assume they were in need of a little help? Even Jesus was a bit suspect in the eyes of many of His fellow Jews: John writes in his Gospel that after hearing Jesus’ teaching, “Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and insane. Why would you listen to Him?”…”

But then we get the reply of those who witnessed Jesus being Jesus. John records, “But others replied, “These are not the words of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?””

There’s the rub. If the disciples just went around claiming to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons, then yeah, people might have dismissed them out of hand or had them swept out by the town constable. Something, or someone, must have been moving through them.

Now, that brings up the issue at hand today. What I saw as most interesting is “that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission. It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers…”2

The disciples are often depicted as just not getting the whole story, even when God the Son is literally spelling it out for them. As we talked about on Pentecost, this rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling continued until that long-awaited gift of the Holy Spirit, and so in today’s story, we’re still dealing with twelve guys who could really screw this whole “Mission of God” thing up.

And so there must have been some sort of urgency to the matter. We find throughout the Gospels that Jesus knew that His time on earth was not long, that He wouldn’t grow old and grow a long beard and sit under a tree, teaching like an old sage.

When Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, He meant it! Nearness brings urgency, even danger. The Kingdom of God is Christ’s, and Christ is coming to a city near you, and so gear up and get ready! Tell them the Kingdom is near and then show them what the Kingdom looks like, Jesus tells the disciples: show them that it looks like healing, cleansing, holiness, and life.

Sometimes it seems that the Church has lost this sense of urgency, the sense that people are in danger because they have not heard that the Kingdom of God is near. Perhaps we think that because none of us can miraculously heal people or cast out a leper or Lazarus our neighbors, that we have been left out the mission, that we didn’t get the marching orders straight from Jesus.

But that’s just not true, and you know it. I know you know it because every time Jesus gives us a mission, whether it be cooking a HomeFront meal or washing the clothes of our deserving neighbors or seeking out the under-served and under-recognized in our community, you guys are all over it. I asked for some detergent and quarters for three hours of laundry and you all responded with enough for about fifty hours of laundry. Ministry to our neighbor in Jesus’ Name is healing, cleansing, sanctifying, and life-giving. Will we sometimes look a little crazy doing it? Sure. Will we sometimes go off on a mission not really knowing the full story? Absolutely. But so did the twelve disciples. Jesus is urgent in His pursuit of the lost, and so are we.

1From the Transfiguration 1999 issue of TAD, as seen on the Facebook page of Catherine Salmon.

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I Went to Church Every Day for a Month and Here’s What Happened.

If you’re like me and hit Facebook a few times a day, you’ve seen the “I Did 100 Lunges a Day for a Week and Here’s What Happened” types of posts. They’re everywhere; they usually contain something aspirational for the desk-worker set, and I find it interesting to see which of my friends shares which of the posts.

Now, I’ll admit my headline is misleading. I didn’t go to church every day for the last month.  But as the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish, I’m at church almost daily, and saying the Offices and Mass is a huge part of my vocation. My parish schedules anywhere from one to four services, six days a week, excluding the summer months, when that scales back to three days week. So it’s safe to say that I go to church a lot.

Here’s what has happened:

Jesus has changed my life. I am, as a priest and as a man, profoundly changed. In both receiving and being the presence of the Blessed Sacrament almost daily, I am a different person than I was nine years ago.

As a seminarian, contempt was once named as my spiritual gift, and my friend was only half-joking. I have become much more patient and more tolerant of differing practices and local customs (though my bishop and colleagues might be surprised to hear that). My prayer life is better. My pastoral care is more consistent and more, for lack of a better term, caring. I’ve read more Scripture and more of Scripture than I would have on my own. I am more grateful for my vocation and for my parish. My people know that I am praying for them, that I’m available to them, and that our parish is open and available to our community.

The parish has changed as well. After re-instituting the weekday Masses, attendance at them was spotty and sometimes non-existent, outside of a server or the random seminarian. But in the last, say, seven years, only a handful of the weekday Masses have gone unattended. There’s usually only a few of us at weekday worship, but those few are faithful and joyful. There’s a community built in those Masses that couldn’t exist without them. And the fact remains that if the priest and his people join together as often as possible in worship and prayer, the parish can’t help but be healthier for it.

Let me clear that this is something that has happened to me, through the grace of God and the good people of Christ Church Bordentown. In just showing up, God has moved me to a better place. Do I still need a lot of work? Most certainly. Am I the disciple I could be? Of course not. But I know from whence change comes and how sanctification works, and that begins and proceeds in being with Christ and His people at every opportunity.

That’s what has happened. I want to thank my wife, Doan, who puts up with me. And my deepest thanks to the Rev’s J. Connor Haynes, Alan Salmon, and Tinh Huynh; without them and their work, influence, and prayer, the ministry of Christ Church would suffer.

–MT+

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Trinity

“The fine preacher George Buttrick was once on an airplane scribbling out sermon notes on a legal pad. The man next to him asked what he was doing and so Buttrick said, “I’m working on next Sunday’s sermon–I’m a preacher.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied, “religion! I like to keep my religion simple–I don’t like complicated doctrines. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule–that’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what is it that you do.” “Well, I teach in the science department at the university. I’m an astronomer.” “Ah yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get very technical about such things. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy–why would anyone ever need more than that!?””1

I sympathize with both parties in that little story, and by my third year in seminary, reading 900 page books on whatever complicated theological we were learning that week, my heart was with the astronomer. But the fact remains that theology, the study of God, is a big part of the fundamental work of the Church. Bad theology begets bad worship, bad pastoral care, and broken people. Good theology begets just the opposite.

Why am I talking about this? Because it is once again Trinity Sunday, perhaps the most theologically challenging Sunday of the year. The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult to grasp, and always was, because an infinite and all-powerful God is just difficult to grasp with our finite and less-powerful minds. Faith and belief can be hard, even when you stare God in the face. St. Matthew just told us that the eleven disciples were on a hill, Jesus Himself shows up, and most of them worshiped Him, but hey, some doubted.

“We are not told what exactly was doubted. What did the doubters doubt? Their own eyes? Possibly. Did they doubt the continuity between the Jesus they once knew and whoever this was before them now some days after the death of their former Master? Possibly. Or did they doubt even more fundamental things? Did they believe this was their old friend Jesus all right but then wondered if he had really died after all? Did they believe this was Jesus but thought they were seeing a ghost, a vision, an apparition of Jesus from the other side but not a newly alive, flesh-and-blood person?

It is difficult to say. But whatever the precise nature of the doubt, we cannot escape the striking fact that on the very day when the most famous commission of all time was given to the then-budding Church—and on a day when the Triune formula for the divine identity was given as unambiguous an expression as anywhere in the entire New Testament—right then and there on that very day, there was doubt. There was uncertainty and a hint of skepticism.”2

Thankfully, the act of having faith and the act of being absolutely sure all the time are not the same act. I think that’s what goads us into the work of theology, the need to take the relationship we have with the living God and make it better on our end, to know Him more fully, so that we can love Him for who He really is.

Fr. Haynes reminded us this week that our great statement of theological doctrine, the Nicene Creed, “makes three primary assertions: “I believe in one God:  the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; . . . I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord; . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and giver of life.”

“The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is at the heart of our faith: God, who is One, is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, the Son is God; but Father, Son and Spirit are all distinct. Not merely a theological abstraction, this is the reality that lies behind, beneath and above all things. Affirming this faith helps to keep us from believing only in an eternal creator, or only in a dying god-man, or only in a spiritual intelligence that pervades all things. God is all these things:…an eternal community of divine love.”3

Can Trinity Sunday seem a bit academic, the doctrine remote? Sure, if we let it be that way. But what it really is is the full revelation of God’s very nature to us, His beloved sons and daughters, so that we too can be caught up in that community of divine love. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

1Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/trinity-sunday-a/

2Ibid.

3Fr. J. Connor Haynes, from the St. Mary’s Newsletter, June 8, 2017

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