Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Don’t Hold On

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 9, 2023, Easter Sunday A

John 20:1-18

Don’t Hold On

If the Revised Common Lectionary had its way, we would hear this version of the Resurrection story every year on Easter Sunday. As much as I am typically a lectionary preacher, this seems foolish to me. There are four different narratives that describe that first Easter Sunday, and each one brings us something different. Mark leaves us with the cliffhanger; do the disciples go to Galilee to find Jesus? Matthew throws in some conspiracy to cover up the Resurrection and finishes off with the Great Commission. Luke’s account, more expansive than either of those two, Includes that first appearance as well as the Emmaus Road story and Jesus’s appearance to the disciples gathered behind locked doors. 

This story, too, has its distinctive features. At first the only one we see is Mary Magdalene, alone at the tomb before sunrise. She sees the stone out of place, and runs to tell the disciples. (Why didn’t she go look in the tomb? If you’re a woman by yourself and you think there might be grave robbers about, would you go look in?) Two disciples get into a footrace to get to the tomb; one looks in but stops short of entering; Peter (no shock) rambles right in and looks around and then the other disciple enters as well. They take stock and they believe. What they believe is hard to know, since their only reaction is that “they returned to their homes.” They believed Mary Magdalene’s report that Jesus’s body was missing, I guess. At any rate, they left, and Mary was again alone at the tomb with her sorrow. 

When she finally looked into the tomb, she saw something that the disciples had evidently not seen – do you think they would have “returned to their homes” if there had been angels inside the tomb when they looked? Apparently they waited for Mary Magdalene to be alone to ask their question of him, the question “why are you weeping?” that would seem to have a blazingly obvious answer. Even here Mary’s answer makes clear that the whole idea of resurrection hasn’t entered her head any more than it had entered the heads of the disciples; she asks where Jesus’s body has been taken. 

Her distress is severe enough that when she turns and sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize that it’s Jesus; she thinks he’s a gardener. Honestly, he piles on a little bit by asking her why she’s weeping and adds the more practical question of who she’s seeking. By now, it seems that Mary is getting a little hysterical, and not without reason; she pleads to know where the body is and offers to take it off their hands.

If you see this scene in some movie or other, Jesus is most likely depicted as saying Mary’s name in the most tender and sweetest tone of voice possible for the actor playing Jesus to achieve. Personal opinion here: I don’t buy that. At this point Mary Magdalene’s distress is likely enough that Jesus has to speak her name just a little bit sharply – “Mary!” with an exclamation point – in order to break through her distress and get her to see him. At last she does see him for who he is and calls out “Teacher” at that recognition. 

Based on what comes next, we kind of have to guess that she grabbed hold of him in some way, probably some kind of embrace that would have been a sketchy thing to do in a culture that was quite rigid about keeping unmarried men and women separate from each other. But since nobody else is around, it’s not a big deal. What is striking, though, and what is perhaps the most discordant note in this passage is what Jesus says in response:

“Do not hold on to me.”

Jesus hasn’t been the type to be bound by strictly human mores and rules, so this seems an odd time for him to get all uncomfortable about this. No, what in fact he says is that she can’t hold on to him “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” To be blunt, this probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to Mary Magdalene at this point, having lurched from the fear and confusion at the disappearance of Jesus’s body to the amazement and shock of seeing and touching not only Jesus’s body but Jesus himself very much alive in that body. 

Sometimes a good way to help a distraught person get focused is to give them a task or a job to do – not always, but sometimes it does help. He gives her a message to take to the disciples and she does so, announcing that “I have seen the Lord” and repeating to the disciples what she has heard from Jesus. 

Were we to read on in this chapter we would see the account of the disciples gathered together in a locked house in fear for their safety, only to see Jesus appear in the midst of them without even needing a key. We would also learn that Thomas wasn’t there for some reason and that he refused to believe what his fellow disciples told him. He did, though, manage to show up a week later, and Jesus appeared to them again and even specifically told Thomas to touch his scars and quit being so skeptical. We aren’t actually told that Thomas did so, but he did at least profess Jesus as “my Lord and my God!“, so he does get credit to be the first to make that particular claim. But that’s next week’s lectionary reading. 

While Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’s scars to get over his unbelief, it’s hard not to flip back a few verses to Mary Magdalene’s being told not to hold on to Jesus. It might sound a little bit unfair at first blush. Why does that unbelieving Thomas get the special treatment when Mary Magdalene had been so faithful to be at the tomb when nobody else was? 

Well, for one thing, there’s a difference between touching and holding on

There are times when a great big embrace is really the best response to someone, perhaps seeing them after a long time apart, or in congratulations for good news or getting out of the hospital or any number of other things. 

Holding on, though, can be a way of limiting or constricting. Here Jesus says that he has “not yet ascended to the Father.” His task is not finished, and to the degree that holding on to Jesus constricts him from completing his work, it has to be forbidden. 

It isn’t just Mary Magdalene who has to be kept from “holding on to Jesus” in this restrictive or preventative sense. We may not be able to hold on to Jesus physically, but be honest; have you ever found yourself “holding on to Jesus” in the sense of resisting or pulling back from what Jesus is calling you to do or to be? 

Churches can certainly be guilty of “holding on to Jesus” too. Trying to cling to the way things have always been? That’s every bit as much “holding on to Jesus” as anything Mary Magdalene was guilty of, let’s face it. We aren’t called to “hold on” to Jesus; we are called to follow Jesus, even if the way Jesus is leading isn’t The Way Things Have Always Been. It’s hard to accept that The Way We’ve Always Done It isn’t going to work anymore, but that doesn’t give us permission to try to constrict Jesus from where Jesus must go and what Jesus must do.

A little confession time (that probably shouldn’t be part of a sermon, but oh well): I’ve had to learn this lesson in my own vocation. It would have been easy to stay put here and enjoy what is comfortable and familiar for however long it lasted. I had to learn that it wouldn’t be faithful to what God is calling me to do, to however what’s left of my vocation needed to go. And so, after today, I’m going (once we can get a whole house packed up in something like two weeks). I believe it’s what I’m called to do, but that doesn’t make it any less scary of a leap into something different and a little bit challenging, in a place unlike any place I’ve lived in a very long time. And yet, to try to deny this call would make me guilty of “holding on to Jesus,” of being every bit as restrictive and obstructive as Mary Magdalene threatened to be. 

Individuals, churches, just about any kind of human anything can fall into this trap. When Mary Magdalene let go and followed the command Jesus gave her, she became the first evangelist – the first one to proclaim the good news of the risen Christ (a bit of scripture that somehow gets ignored by a whole lot of so-called followers of Christ who insist that women can’t do that). The longer she clutched on to Jesus as she knew him, the longer she kept not only Jesus but also herself from fulfilling what God had called them to be and do. 

Way to put a bummer on Easter Sunday, right? But it has to be said: Jesus doesn’t call us to cling; Jesus calls us to obey, Jesus calls us to follow. And you know what? When we do that, Jesus will be there as well.

For teaching us not to hold on, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #245, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!; #251, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia; #244, This Joyful Eastertide; #232, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

Holy Saturday Meditation: The In-Between

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 8, 2023, Holy Saturday A

Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24; John 19:38-42

The In-Between

I almost want to ask Becca to read that reading from Lamentations again. 

It isn’t often we hear the kind of desperate, unadulterated, almost unhinged kind of lamentation we hear in this reading. And yet, with the gospels remaining resolutely silent about anything on this day between the awful Good Friday and the terrifying morning of Easter Sunday, this depths-plumbing wail of suffering isn’t the worst possibility for filling that gap. 

Friday ends with the unexpected disciple Joseph of Arimathea and the unexpected sympathizer Nicodemus showing up to perform a nearly-royal burial on Jesus’s body, in Joseph’s own tomb at that. The narrative then goes silent until the morning of the first day of the week, when (in John’s gospel at least) Mary Magdalene shows up by herself, waiting for who knows what.

What Mary Magdalene, along with Peter and the other disciples and fellow travelers might have noticed on that day in between was that the world did not stop for their grief. Just as the world is not stopping for this small observance today, just as traffic on 13th Street never stops, the world keeps doing what it normally does. Faithful Jews are not necessarily out and about, but it’s the Sabbath, so they wouldn’t be out and about anyway. The Romans? They’re probably doing what they usually do most days: whatever they want. Aside from being Sabbath, it’s just another day out there.

Imagine Peter, three times verbally and quite loudly having denied Jesus, alone somewhere in his grief. Not to let the other disciples off the hook; at least Matthew’s account makes sure we know they “deserted” Jesus, just as he said they would. For Mary Magdalene and the other women, who followed Jesus and might well have provided for the whole party out of their own resources, the one man they knew who treated them as fully human was now dead. Where could they possibly turn to now?

And yet, in even this bleakest abyss of despair, our lamenter can’t avoid hope; “but this I call to mind…the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end…“. You have to wonder if any of the disciples or followers of Jesus managed to have even a tiny bit of such a moment on that bleakest of Sabbaths. 

For this day, Jesus was dead. We of course know what happens tomorrow morning, but for this day, Jesus was dead.

This is our day, you know, the in-between day in which we live our lives. We have seen Good Friday happen; we know Easter Sunday is coming, but it doesn’t take much of a look-around to know we don’t live in an Easter world. And our headlines remind us that some of the worst anti-Easter-ness out there is practiced by religious authorities and those who seek cover from them, which would sound familiar to these followers too. 

And in this dark in-between, our Lamentations reading amazingly offers the word of hope for the day: “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end…“.Thanks be to God. Amen.

Maundy Thursday Meditation: Magic Words

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 29, 2018, Maundy Thursday B

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Magic Words

It is entirely possible that these words from Paul to the church at Corinth are among the most familiar of words of scripture to many Christians and at the same time not always recognized by those same Christians as scripture at all.

This text has become very common, known by some as the Words of Institution. In many Protestant churches of many different persuasions, these words are heard regularly as part of the prayer that leads into the observance of the Lord’s Supper, or communion. It’s a logical enough inclusion, as in these verses Paul is  reminding the Corinthians of what he had “received from the Lord” and had already passed on to them, the words and actions of Jesus at his last meal with his disciples, and in particular the command he gave to those disciples to take the bread and the cup, as often as they do, “in remembrance of me” and to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Paul passes on these instructions not because he was trying to mandate a fixed formula for the partaking of the meal, but because the Corinthians had strayed so far from even a remotely acceptable conduct of their meals together that they had to be reined in. The verses immediately prior to this one describe how those in the Corinthian church folk would arrive early and guzzle down their own food (and drink, to the point of drunkenness) while others in the church went without. Social meals were not uncommon in cities such as Corinth at that time, and while such behavior was quite possibly typical in other such social meals, that wasn’t going to cut it for the remembrance of Christ’s meal with his disciples.

The behavior of the Corinthians undercut one of the most basic truths of the meal Christ left his followers; that the bread and cup being shared among the body of Christ was no less than a sign of their unity as the body of Christ. By allowing their privilege to rule their conduct at the meal, the well-off members of the Corinthian group were utterly undermining the very witness of the meal, even if (or maybe precisely because) their conduct looked so much like any other Corinthian social meal. This meal was different. This was the meal that remembered their crucified and risen Lord. It has to be different, Paul says, because it is the Lord who presides and the Lord who provides.

Again, Paul didn’t intend to give the Corinthians “magic words” to “fix” the meal. We humans, of course, are prone to get such things wrong, and spectacularly so. The ways we modern Christians have gotten the meal wrong are rather different than those of the Corinthians, but we do get it wrong nonetheless. For example, we have had a bad habit over the centuries of turning Paul’s verses into exactly those “magic words” Paul did not mean them to be. Instead of turning our attention to the Christ who gives the meal, we’ve had self-appointed watchdogs calculating whether or not the presider got the words right, and moving to correct or remove that presider when he (and it was pretty much “he” back then) got it wrong.

Or we interpret “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” by turning the event into a funeral. I remember those images vividly: the ones passing the elements looking more like pallbearers than anything, the table shrouded in the equivalent of a funeral cloth. This is missing the point of “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes”, just a bit, or actually by a rather wide margin.

The thing about the Lord’s death is that Jesus didn’t stay dead. This is not some Jesus tucked safely away in a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem, even if for all the world you couldn’t have convinced the disciples of that twenty-four hours from now. This is a Jesus who wouldn’t stay dead no matter how many nails the Romans drove into him. This is a Jesus who won’t stay dead no matter how many times we crucify him with our short-sightedness, our aloofness, our lack of care for justice, our willingness to tolerate the worst of our fellow beings (too often our fellow Christians) just to keep the peace.

This meal says “NO” to all that. This is the meal to which Christ drew his whole motley collection of disciples and gave them one bread and one cup to share, for then, for now, and for all time. This is the meal to which Christ calls the whole motley collection of humanity, no matter what race, no matter what class, no matter what sexual orientation or gender identity or any of the lines we draw to divide and exclude, and then Jesus calls us one. One bread, one cup; one body, one church. Let us pray that our meal together never displays anything less to a hurting world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Songs (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #—, Be present at our table, Lord; #525, Let us break bread together; #507, Come to the table of grace; #527, Eat this bread; #227, Jesus, remember me

Sermon: The Saddest and Holiest Joke

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 2, 2023, Palm Sunday A 

Matthew 21:1-11

The Saddest and Holiest Joke

It is common to hear the event described in today’s gospel reading as Jesus “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Your Bible itself, if it’s the type that includes section headings amidst the text, may give this passage exactly that heading. 

What isn’t exactly clear, however, is whether a disinterested observer of the event would have seen it quite that way.

The novelist, spiritual writer, and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner made, in his collection Telling the Truth, a rather challenging observation about Jesus’s parables. Instead of the grave Repositories of Inviolable Sacred Truth we tend to make of them, Buechner wonders if they might have been something else, something much more bracing and vivid:

I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath. I don’t mean jokes for the joke’s sake, of course. I don’t mean the kind of godly jest the preacher starts his sermon with to warm people up and show them that despite his Geneva tabs or cassock he can laugh with the rest of them and is as human as everybody else. I mean the kind of joke Jesus told when he said it is harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door, harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank. And then added that though for man it is impossible, for God all things are possible because God is the master of the impossible, and [God] is a master of the impossible because in terms of what man thinks possible [God] is in the end a wild and impossible god. It seems to me that more often than not the parables can be read as high and holy jokes about God and about man and about the Gospel itself as the highest and holiest joke of them all. 

I hope that the late Rev. Buechner, who passed away just last year, will forgive me for borrowing and extending his metaphor beyond its original context. Actually, I hope he might agree that given such a setup, perhaps the saddest and holiest joke of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the one with the most outlandish setup and the most tragic punchline, is the event being commemorated today on the church’s calendar, the one known as Palm Sunday, and yes, the one often described as Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.

That’s hard for us to grasp; most years our churches have turned it into something quite different, after all, with our waving palms and big processionals and putting the children all out front. But when you get right down to it, this was a pretty meager affair, especially considered against the spectacles promoted and perfected by the occupiers of Judea at this time, the Romans.

Now, the Romans knew from spectacle and were quite proficient at putting on a “triumphal entry.” Rank upon rank of Roman horsemen, riding the finest steeds that could be procured from wherever Rome ruled; banners flying, making absolutely clear you knew who was in power here (them) and who was not (you); a great place of honor for the chief figure of the procession, whether the commander of this unit or the political figure being honored, as might be the case when they were entering Jerusalem from Caesarea Philippi, the principal seat of Roman governance for the region. As Caesarea Philippi was nearer to the coast, such processions would have entered Jerusalem from its western-facing gate, where this impromptu processional likely came from its eastern-facing gate. 

Had any Roman been sent out to investigate this suspicious activity, it is hard to imagine he’d have been all that impressed. The assembled crowd very likely did not consist of any “important” people; some of whom apparently didn’t have cloaks to spread out and were therefore committing vandalism to cut branches from the trees to spread on the road; the apparent guest of honor was some anonymous-looking rustic riding not on a fine horse, but a donkey (and apparently a borrowed donkey at that), with a donkey’s colt also somehow involved. The shouting of the crowd, about some “son of David” person, probably didn’t make much sense to our random Roman investigator (though a Jewish observer would have been much more intrigued by the claim of this man as “son of David”), and it’s not likely he actually knew what the word “hosanna” meant (literally, it means “save us”). Likely this hypothetical Roman would have reported back to his superiors that it was a pretty pathetic display, and not any kind of threat, but perhaps one to keep an eye on just in case.

The city of Jerusalem did have a bit more reaction, though, as Matthew describes Jerusalem as being “in turmoil.” Again, though, it’s not clear just how impressive the little parade was to them; a bunch of unsavory characters shouting about this prophet what’s-his-name from the backwater province of Galilee, as they might have described it. Who the heck is this? is probably the best way to describe the reaction in Jerusalem proper.

If this is a sad and holy joke, to return to Frederick Buechner’s image, we’re still waiting for the punchline at the end of this reading, and that might be the saddest and holiest part. By the end of the week, several sometimes-provocative events happened centered around this Jesus fellow as spelled out in the various gospels. There was an incident in the Temple, in which some moneychangers got their tables flipped and some potential sacrificial animals got set free – that’s what happens in the verses of Matthew that follow directly after this reading. Matthew also records some strange business with a fig tree that ends up withering. There’s a lot of questioning directed at this supposed prophet, and several teachings and parables come out as well, including a major, major one about sheep and goats and how we ought to live with others. Some gospels also record an incident in which a woman enters a house where Jesus is a guest and anoints Jesus (either his head or his feet, depending on which gospel you’re reading; Matthew goes with the head). Eventually, this backwater prophet (betrayed by one of his own followers), would be nailed to a cross, and quite likely at least some of this same crowd shouting “hosanna” at his entry to the city would be part of the party shouting “crucify!” at his ultimate (or so they thought) end. 

By our time, of course, this Palm Sunday procession has acquired a very different sheen, mostly because we know who this seemingly unimpressive backwater prophet is after all, and we can’t help but read ahead and view this parade not from the point of view of the sad and holy punchline to the sad and holy joke, but to the surprise plot twist that follows what was supposed to be the end of the story. That plot twist is what makes us what we are, after all, why we take the name of that prophet as our name, why we in our fumbling and sometimes inept ways try to live as if we really do follow that prophet who rode into Jerusalem on that humble donkey from the side of town opposite the power structure that really ran everything. That plot twist is why this saddest and holiest joke of a sort even gets retold. 

For today, though, maybe it is enough to see this parade as it is, a little bit shabby-looking and kind of strange, amusing to the political power structure and maybe a bit agitating to the religious structure. Maybe it is enough to see this odd little parade and yet to hold in mind those words of the prophets that Matthew so loves to quote – in this case the prophet Zechariah who proclaims (9:9):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! 

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you; 

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It is in this humility that the joke turns out to be on that hypothetical Roman observer, so bound to and caught up in his world’s way of seeing power that the greatest power of all slipped by him completely unnoticed. We’d do well not to fall into his trap, and yet so often we are; we get swayed by those selling most unholy things in the name of this very Jesus at that. It is one of the great challenges of our time to stand faithful and not to be deluded by the displays of power and authority being paraded before us daily, and instead to remember where, and with whom, ultimate authority lies.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #196, All Glory, Laud, and Honor; #198, Filled With Excitement; #199, Ride On! Ride On in Majesty

Sermon: Can These Bones Live?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 26,2023, Lent 5A 

Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

Can These Bones Live?

You might be caught off guard by the tone of that psalm we read earlier. 

It’s a psalm, at least until those last two verses, that is about as frankly bleak and despair-laden as anything you might see in scripture. That opening phrase – “Out of the depths” – has proven awfully alluring for many kinds of artists seeking to portray a state of despair or darkness. It shows up on four different Sundays in the Revised Common Lectionary, has been set to music many times (sometimes under its Latin heading “De profundis”), and has inspired poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, Oscar Wilde, Federico Garcia Lorca, and C.S. Lewis.

It’s probably not an accident that this psalm is paired with these two scriptures offered up for the church on this fifth Sunday of Lent, readings that come a little bit like a slap in the face (or maybe a slap in the faith) at this time of the liturgical year. Both of them have the temerity to offer up, two solid weeks before the observance of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, stories of new life being brought to that which was dead. “Out of the depths,” indeed.

The obvious move, the one most pastors I know are likely making, would probably be to go to John’s account of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus. After all, that’s a whopper of a reading, both in terms of its sheer length (forty-five verses!) and the impact it has on the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Honestly, one of these years I might be tempted to take this story and break it up over the first five weeks of Lent; I honestly think there might be about five sermons in there.

You get Jesus dawdling about going to see Lazarus, and he gets a bit of what-for over that – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You get what was in the KJV the shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept” (every kid I knew was quick to claim that as one of their “memory verses” in Sunday school). You get the warning that if Jesus really goes through with having the tomb opened after four days, it would, well, smell, as un-embalmed bodies do after a while, even today. You get, above all, Lazarus coming out of the tomb. If you push later into John’s gospel, you find that his raising of Lazarus is part of why the religious authorities are so intent on getting rid of Jesus. There’s so much possibility in this account, and I have no doubt that a lot of those sermons getting preached today are going to be about the best sermons that those preacher friends of mine are going to preach this season.

But I still can’t look away from Ezekiel’s story, the one that prompted James Weldon Johnson to create the song “Dry Bones” and get his brother to set it to music. (More about that later.)

Ezekiel is, to put it in modern vernacular, one messed-up dude. He was a priest in Jerusalem who got carried away in the first wave of exile to Babylon, when the occupying forces chose only to “cut off the head” of Jerusalem – that is, take away its leaders, including its religious leaders. The puppet king installed after this turned out not to be quite such a puppet after all, and when he stopped paying tribute the Babylonians returned and destroyed the city. 

This experience seems to have taken a particular toll on Ezekiel. Some biblical scholars have concluded that Ezekiel was most likely, in modern terms, a victim of psychological trauma, most likely resulting in what we would call clinical depression. The outlandish nature of some of his visions (including this one), some of his prophetic behaviors that make even Jeremiah look tame by comparison, and his sometimes-extreme tone in calling out his people and their kings for their sinfulness and rebellion suggest a man who would at minimum be deep into therapy in modern times, if not something more intense. 

And it is to this broken, traumatized old priest that God brings this deeply creepy, and yet deeply hopeful, vision of death being raised up into new life. Actually, that’s not totally right. This isn’t Lazarus still more or less in one piece just waiting for the call. This is not mere death; this is destroyed, desiccated, disassembled, dehydrated kind of death, way beyond any kind of haunted house or Hollywood horror movie. And before this scene of absolute lifelessness, God asks old messed-up Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

There’s a lot of wisdom in Ezekiel’s answer: “O Lord God, you know.” God was clearly up to something, and Ezekiel (perhaps all the more because of his trauma) had the wit not to get in the way. God gives Ezekiel the command to “prophesy to these bones,” and maybe only someone who had seen too much, someone as broken and hurting as Ezekiel could take such a command seriously enough to carry it out. He does, and behold, the bones find their way back to each other, they take on all the tissue and flesh that had long ago dried up and rotted away, and there are…bodies.

Not people, not yet: just bodies, bodies that were reconstructed and whole, but “there was no breath in them” – no wind, no spirit. It’s not quite like in the account from John, in which after Jesus called to Lazarus he was indeed alive, but still all bound up in the burial cloths in which he had been wrapped. Lazarus needed release; he still needed to be cut loose from the old trappings of death that still clung to him. These bodies in front of Ezekiel still needed breath, spirit, life itself. They aren’t just dried-out old bones anymore, but there is still no life in them.

So, of course, God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel obeyed (what else was he going to do at this point?), and from “the four winds” came the breath that breathed life into these lifeless bodies. As Ezekiel recounts it, they stood up, a “vast multitude,” waiting. 

Waiting. Is that where we are?

Verses 11-14 bring Ezekiel’s bizarre experience home. In this vision, for that is what all this has been, those dried-up bones are nothing less than God’s people, the ones conquered and exiled and occupied and crushed and living without any kind of hope whatsoever. All that Ezekiel has been commanded to do before the valley of the dry bones, God will do for God’s people, says God to Ezekiel. It’s not just about the bones taking on flesh; it’s about the breath, the spirit, being placed within them. It’s about being brought back to life again.

That message of hope has come through across the centuries, not least as that famous song that connected to the still-developing civil rights movement in the United States in the early twentieth century. In the early 1920s the great poet and dramatist and author James Weldon Johnson seized upon this story to evoke a movement that was itself still coming together, complete with lyrics about the foot bone connecting to the heel bone and the heel bone connecting to the ankle bone and you know how the rest of it goes. His brother Rosamond Johnson created the tune, and the rest is history.

So, where are we in this pair of stories?

Are we Lazarus, newly alive again but waiting to be freed from the bonds that keep us from moving and doing? Are we the ones complaining that Jesus didn’t come quickly enough? Are we the dried old bones, without hope? Are we the reassembled bodies made physically whole but without breath, without spirit? Are we the newly breathing and living, standing ready, waiting for whatever God calls us to do?

Or, maybe, are we Ezekiel? Seen too much, been broken too much in too many places by too many things? Are we too broken to hope even a little bit, and yet so broken that we have nothing left to do but hope? Are we so broken that the moment we see or hear any little thing, any sign or word from God, we’re going to cling to as if our lives depend on it, because maybe they do? Can we respond, along with the old prophet, with that kind of obedience to the most ridiculous or insane-sounding commands (I mean, really, “prophesy to these bones“?)? Are we desperate enough for that?

Or are we still too sure of ourselves, too much in control, too “sane” to think that any such outlandish (and kind of gruesome) command of God could be real? Are we too much “good church folk” to find a thing to hold on to in such horrific scenes, to hear God, to hear any word from God in such bizarre circumstances? 

Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #286, Breathe on Me, Breath of God; #—, Rise Up

Sermon: What Are You Looking At?

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 19, 2023, Lent 4A

Psalm 23; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

What Are You Looking At?

In some ways the hardest part of making this week’s sermon happen was choosing which of the scriptures to start from in that preparation. The gospel reading is a fascinating account of Jesus’s healing of a blind man from John 9, one of those Very Long Readings with all sorts of detail and conflict and struggle written into it. The psalm for the day is no less than Psalm 23, which has probably been the subject of more sermons than any other psalm, by far. Even the epistle reading, from Ephesians, is an interesting reflection on darkness and light which suggests that the best thing for us to do is to expose those wrongs done in secret, which would be pretty interesting to explore. Thinking of the church as a legion of investigative reporters out to expose the evils of the world could be quite fascinating.

For whatever reason, though, today’s reading from 1 Samuel wouldn’t let me off the hook. It’s a familiar enough story, one that introduces the one who would become perhaps the most eminent figure in the history of the biblical people of Israel. Indeed, it is the future king, David, who shows up at the climax of this account, the one whose story would occupy so much of this book and those to follow in the canon of Hebrew Scripture, and also the man whose name is connected to so many of the Psalms collected in the book of that name, including none other than Psalm 23. 

Part of the trick to getting this story right, though, is that this is not a story about David, no matter how much we want to jump ahead to his prominence in Israel and in the scriptures. The principal actor in this story is God, of course, as the One who provokes and moves the actions that take place. As for the humans here, the principal character here, the main mover and vessel of the action and the one who has the most to learn, is the old priest and prophet and judge Samuel. 

Samuel’s time is starting to end, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Things haven’t gone so well in his later years. His sons, meant to be judges and prophets after him, have turned out to be as corrupt and ill-suited to the task as the priests who had come before Samuel. He had been bitterly disappointed when the people demanded a kingto govern us, like other nations,” and maybe even a little disappointed when God acquiesced so easily (though not at all joyfully) to that demand. Nevertheless, Samuel had done his best to guide the new king, Saul, in this unprecedented role. Whatever his intentions, Saul had been too ready to give in to the temptations of so much power and had ultimately been ready to violate direct commands from God in the conduct of his office. Ultimately God declared to Samuel that Saul was no longer in God’s favor as king, a fate which hung upon Samuel with particular bitterness. Despite his own alienation from Saul and his convictions that Israel should never have demanded a king, Samuel grieved for Saul. 

We enter the story in today’s reading with God essentially saying to Samuel, “enough is enough.” God had a job for Samuel to do, and Samuel needed to get off his pity party and get to work anointing a new king. 

Samuel’s not wrong to be concerned about this. Whatever God had said about Saul, Saul was still king. Going out to anoint a new king without Saul’s knowledge or approval, in a strictly political sense, was treason, and Samuel knew darn well how Saul would take to such an act of betrayal. God basically tells Samuel to engage in a bit of subterfuge to hide the action, and the old priest gathers up a heifer and heads to Bethlehem, to anoint one of the sons of a man named Jesse as essentially king-in-waiting. Once the elders of the town of Bethlehem are calmed (for they are as aware as Samuel of the risks inherent in his visit), he makes his way to Jesse’s place. 

In truth, the pivotal moment of this story happens here. Not when David is fetched from his shepherding duties, but now, when Jesse’s first son Eliab comes into Samuel’s view. In modern jargon, Eliab “looks the part.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the oldest son, as that was The Way Things Are Done in this time – oldest son gets pretty much everything. It’s also easy to recall the first time Saul appeared in the narrative, literally standing head and shoulders above all the rest. Whatever it was, to Samuel, Eliab “looked the part,” and he was ready to perform this anointing and get on his way.

Not so fast, says God. Just because he stands out in the crowd and looks the part, don’t assume this is the one. I know his heart. This is not my future king. Move on.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we don’t always get that unpacking right. The point is not, for example, that physical handsomeness and height of stature are disqualifying for God’s call. After all, once David appears, the narrator has an awful lot to say about David’s own handsomeness, particularly about those “beautiful eyes” David apparently had. All those Hollywood tropes about the handsome hero and the creepy-looking bad guy? Wrong. No, it’s closer to say that a person’s external features – their appearance – tell us nothing about what’s going on in the heart. 

Actually, that word “heart” is worth a little unpacking as well. In our modern usage the “heart,” besides being that bodily organ that keeps the blood flowing throughout our bodies, has the metaphorical role of the center of our capacity to love. Not so in this culture in which Samuel is living; rather, the “heart” as spoken of here encompasses such human functions as understanding and reasoning, as well as empathy and feeling; it sits somewhere between what we metaphorize as the “mind” or the “soul.” At any rate God has seen what’s in Eliab’s “heart,” and has concluded that this is not the one.

Interestingly, we might just get a little confirmation of this judgment of Eliab in the very next chapter, when he and two of his brothers are part of the Israelite army arrayed to do battle against the Philistine forces and their un-humanly large warrior Goliath. Yes, this is the famous story where David, still a youth, shows up and takes down Goliath with his slingshot, but before that happens, we get another view of Eliab, and it’s not pretty. He gets angry. It’s not entirely clear if it’s mostly older-brother jealousy at the cheeky younger brother showing up in a place he isn’t supposed to be (even though Jesse has sent David to take supplies to his brothers and to the army), or if he knows that he got passed over in favor of David and is jealous about that. One doesn’t read too much into one moment, but Eliab might just be showing something of why God “rejected” Eliab as king. 

As for David, well, there are many, many chapters to come about his coming to the role and his service as king (he doesn’t even get anointed as king of any part of the region until 2 Samuel 2). Let’s be clear; David was not perfect. He was also susceptible to the temptations of power and turned out to be a pretty horrible father in the bargain. His heart, however, never fully abandoned God, and for all his foibles and failings, David remained a servant of God. 

These are things that Samuel could not see. His seeming willingness to act quickly based on external appearance is, as we are painfully aware, all too common in our own time. Whether it’s however many hundreds of channels of television or streaming available to us (news orentertainment, or entertainment pretending to be news), or numerous corners of social media or advertising or print media, we can see way too many examples of people out there, famous people, influential people (even some social media figures who identify blatantly as “influencers”), sometimes even powerful people who, upon closer inspection, have nothing to offer besides their pretty or handsome external appearance. It’s enough to drive one to despair if you let it.

Fortunately, the One whose vision matters knows better. God sees beyond the pretty trappings or enhanced appearance. God also hears beyond the pretty words or inflammatory rhetoric or even the most eloquent voice in song. God sees us, in all our imperfection, no matter how much we try to put up a pretty exterior to fool the world. 

This does bring up the question of what we are really looking at. In our daily lives, in our political leanings, in our fumbling following of God, what are we looking at? What are we not seeing? It’s not a bad question to keep in the back of our minds, or as this scripture puts it, our hearts.

In the end, the miracle of it all, really, is that God sees beyond that outward appearance, and sees the heart, … and loves us anyway.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #30, God Moves in a Mysterious Way; #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Sermon: The Way of Water

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 12, 2023, Lent 3A

John 4:4-42

The Way of Water

When you think about it, water is actually awfully prominent in scripture. The second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The last chapter of scripture, Revelation 22, starts with John being shown by an angelthe river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (that is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem that had just been introduced in the previous chapter. And there’s a lot of water in between. The Hebrew people cross through a sea to escape Egypt and then through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Jonah flees across the waters to avoid God’s call to prophesy to Nineveh; the Assyrian general Naaman is told to dunk himself in the Jordan to cleanse himself of leprosy. Today’s Old Testament reading also has an interesting interaction with water. Even the psalmists have a thing for water on occasion, such as the famous Psalm 23 and its description of the Shepherd who “leads me beside still waters.” 

Things don’t change that much once we turn to the New Testament. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, calls fishermen as some of his first disciples, and crosses the sea of Galilee a time or two in his travels. The Ethiopian persuades Philip to baptize him after hearing the good news. The Apostle Paul spends much of his vocation traveling across the sea we know as the Mediterranean in his missionary journeys. 

Even wells, such as the scene of today’s reading, have some history in scripture. Both Rebekah and Rachel, eventually wives to Isaac and Jacob in Hebrew story, were first met at wells, and Moses also met his future wife Zipporah while waiting by a well. One might wonder if those readers of John’s gospel might have wondered at such a setting here, but if they had any thought of such a trope repeating itself those thoughts were dispelled quickly here. Something much better was in store.

It’s hard not to notice some similarities and differences between this reading and the gospel reading appointed for last week’s lectionary, from the previous chapter of John’s gospel. You probably remember that reading for The Most Famous Verse of Scripture in the Universe, but one of the key features of that passage was the befuddlement of the important religious figure Nicodemus when Jesus crosses him up by talking about being “born again” or being “born of water and spirit.” Nicodemus was down for the count quicker than Mike Tyson used to knock out some of his earliest boxing opponents. 

In the case of this week’s dialogue, Jesus crosses up his dialogue partner by starting up a dialogue at all. There are multiple reasons this is non-typical; for one, men typically disdained to speak to women in public, except perhaps their wives, and probably not even them. For another, this was a Samaritan woman. I had to type that word in italics – Samaritan – to make sure and emphasize just how wrong and misguided and, well, icky it would be to a typical Judean even to be in Samaria, much less to speak to a Samaritan (and a Samaritan woman at that!). The most likely reaction to a Judean reader of this passage, particularly what we have as verse 4, would have likely been along the lines of “no, he didn’t. He didn’t have to go through Samaria. In fact that is the one thing he absolutely did not have to do, or had not to do, or to not do or something. Why is he going through Samaria???” 

A third factor has to do with the time of day. Much like it was, well, odd for Nicodemus to come to Jesus by night in chapter 3, it was odd for this woman to be at the well at midday. Most water-drawing took place early in the morning, before the day got so unbearably hot. 

A caution needs to be vocalized here. Much of the lore that has accrued around this story assumes that this woman has to come at midday because she was somehow outcast or “shamed” in the town. This of course leads to more assumptions; that this woman has somehow divorced the five husbands she has had (as will come out in the dialogue later) and is probably, as one might say today, “living in sin” with the man with whom she now lives who is not her husband. This is not supportable by anything in the reading. Given how little agency women had in being “married off” at this time, it’s not necessarily likely that a woman divorced once would have much of a chance to marry again. An alternate possibility, not necessarily any more unlikely, is that she had been passed down from one brother to another, according to the supposed law about levirate marriage, whereby a woman whose husband dies without a son then marries the next brother to provide an heir for her original husband. It’s a thing the Sadducees try to trip Jesus up about in Matthew 22. As to the man who was not her husband, it could have been a father of one (or all) of the husbands, or even her own father. The shameful behavior shouldn’t be assumed, even if the locals might have done so – how many times have folks been completely wrong in their assumptions about a person’s behavior or morals? Don’t be those people, right? 

As this dialogue goes on (it turns out to be the longest Jesus has with anyone in any of the gospels), the Samaritan woman might be caught off guard, but she never dissolves into a puddle the way Nicodemus did. Her response to Jesus’s naming of her current marital status is to press him right back: OK, you’re a prophet. So explain this… and “this” is nothing less than the very thing that divides Judeans and Samaritans. Her reward for this questioning, for not backing down, is nothing less than being the first person in this gospel to whom Jesus directly names himself as the Messiah, the Christ. 

She goes back to the city and tells everyone what she has seen. It’s not as if she’s giving some kind of lead-pipe cinch “testimony” – she’s still asking “he cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and this witness persuades the whole city to come and listen, and ultimately to be persuaded of Jesus. First she, and then the people of the city, found living water.

Yes, let’s go back to that early part of the exchange. It all starts off with Jesus asking her for a drink of water. One might suspect that, in Jesus’s mind, the fact of the Samaritan-Jew conflict and the male-female division and the time of day potential scandal, there was something more important at play: he was tired and thirsty. If we truly believe that Jesus lived a fully human life, we have to believe he could get thirsty, right? And if you get thirsty enough, you’ll break whatever taboo you have to break to get something to drink. 

So he asks for a drink, she quite logically wonders why a Jewish man would speak at all to a Samaritan woman, and then comes the curveball. If you knew who was asking for water, you would ask himand he would have given you living water.

The woman doesn’t really get it, not unlike Nicodemus, but she keeps pressing. OK, how do you draw this water with no bucket and no rope. You know whose well this was, right? (referring to the ancient patriarch Jacob). Perhaps impressed by her composure, Jesus actually explains himself a little more than he did to Nicodemus, and she’s ready; so give me this water, so I don’t have to keep coming back here for water in the middle of the day. From there Jesus diverts the conversation to the husbands, and we see how it goes from there. 

The image of “living water,” though, is worth unpacking. What happens to water that stands still too long? Particularly out in nature, still water isn’t necessarily the most appealing thing. Who knows that is growing in it or infesting it? Even today water that has been sitting in the refrigerator too long can seem unappealing, even if we can’t say why. 

I think our cat Mickey gets this better than we humans do. Every now and then he might resort to drinking from the water that is in one of the bowls we keep for the cats in the kitchen. More often he’ll drink from the cat fountain we also have in the kitchen. Most of all, though, he clambers up onto the counter in the bathroom, positions himself by one of the basins, and yowls piteously until one of us comes running to turn the faucet on and provide him running water. Even Mickey knows that running water, moving water, is better. 

Jesus even plays on that image a little bit in verse 14, when he speaks of this living water that he gives, saying that it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” From a wind from God blowing across the waters of the primordial deep to the River of Life flowing from the throne, living water moves. It’s not static. It moves, it flows, it springs up, it gushes. It moves.

I wonder if sometimes that frightens us about this living water. It moves too much. It’s not stable, it’s not predictable. It’s changing. Better to stick with that nice safe water in the big jug in the fridge or on the counter in the big dispenser, stuff that doesn’t move unless we pour it or open the spigot. 

No, living water moves, and if we’re doing it right we move with it, as unpredictably as it may flow. And we don’t thirst anymore. Like the unpredictable wind in John 3, the living water fills us and refreshes us in ways we can’t predict or explain. 

This is the water that Jesus offers. We won’t be the same after we drink of it. It might just move us to places we don’t expect. But this is what Jesus offers us, living water.

Drink up.

For living water, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken; #53, O Lord, Who Gives Us Life; #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Sermon: Trespass and the ‘Free Gift’

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 26, 2023, Lent 1A

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Trespass and the ‘Free Gift’

The scriptures for this first Sunday of Lent, in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, offer up three separate yet interrelated passages for our understanding: the Genesis account of the “original sin,” Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, and from Romans, Paul’s attempt to make the connections between the two. 

The Genesis account is painfully familiar. Adam is given the garden in which to live (as of 2:15-17 Eve had not been created yet), with only one thing forbidden; goaded by the serpent’s twisting the words of God’s command, that one forbiddance is quickly violated. Our lectionary reading leaves off as after eating the fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (3:7, Revised English Version). 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza one]

In his addressing of this event in Romans 5, Paul uses some interesting words to describe just what Adam has done. (To clarify: Paul does not mention Eve at all in this discourse, mostly because he is working to create a rhetorical parallel between Adam, the first created one, and Christ, the harbinger of new creation. This isn’t the first or last time a woman has been treated as inconvenient for a man’s narrative, to be sure.) The word “sin” appears, to be sure, but Paul also uses the word “trespass” several times here.

For us modern types, that word might appear in one of two contexts. If you were to attend, say, a Methodist church that uses what they would regard as a traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, you would hear the word “trespasses” just about the time your reflex leads you to say “debts.” There were a number of Methodists attending the seminary I attended, and this contrast was the subject of a running joke. Regarding the Lord’s Prayer, one of the Methodists would accuse us Presbyterians (based on that word “debts“) of being obsessed with money. In turn, the Presbyterian at hand would retort (based on that word “trespasses”), that Methodists were obsessed with property. (To be fair to us Presbyterians, at least Matthew’s version does use the word “debts;” Luke actually uses the word “sins.”)

The other context in which we know the word “trespass” is most likely on a sign reading “NO TRESPASSING,” found on the edge of some property or other. Doesn’t immediately set off biblical expectations, does it?

But back to Paul, who seems to be the main one to describe sins as “trespass.” It might not be typical, but it’s not necessarily a bad choice. To speak of “trespass” (as in that stereotypical “no trespassing” sign) is an indication entering into a place one doesn’t belong. In making the choice to eat that fruit, Adam (and Eve) put themselves in a position or place that was not theirs to claim; the authority to eat that fruit from that tree was not theirs. God put the two in the garden as caretakers – “to till it and keep it,” as Genesis 2:15 says, not to “run” it. Eating the fruit was a repudiation of God’s authority over the garden, a violation or indeed “trespass” onto a property – that one tree – that was not theirs. 

Now in our world, when we speak of “trespass” we expect the response to be some kind of citation, perhaps a fine, maybe even an arrest if some major location is the one that has been trespassed upon. Paul will spend a good bit of ink demonstrating how that isn’t so, but first let’s remind ourselves of what happens in the gospel reading, where temptation is in fact not victorious.

Jesus has been out in the desert those forty days and nights, presumably very hungry by now, and as if on cue the Tempter shows up. Since there aren’t any shiny fruit on hand, the Tempter turns to another food temptation, something quite within Jesus’s powers. Then the Tempter tries luring Jesus with a spectacular display of his heavenly connection, and finally with the lure of ultimate power – which, strangely enough, already belongs to Jesus, and which the Tempter did not have to offer at all. Suffice to say that Jesus rebuffs all three temptation attempts, each with an appropriate verse from the book of Deuteronomy. 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza two]

Of course, this resisting of temptation was really just a starting point for Jesus’s earthly ministry. In all that is to come in that earthly work, Jesus shows God’s reign in a word that does not submit to it. In his execution on a cross, and in refusing to stay dead, but instead being raised up by God, Jesus became (among many other things) the One who fulfilled the Law, that Mosaic record that (even though it was given after sin entered the world) made sin all the worse by making it known and inescapable. As that One who fulfilled the Law (and, you know, Son of God), Jesus was in a position to execute authority over humanity.

Instead, what Jesus did was the “free gift.”

Paul will, many times, declare that “the free gift is not like the trespass.” That’s how he describes it in verse 15, and he’ll go on to say many times how the “free gift” isn’t like what happened through Adam. In short, the one “free gift” is the negation not of the one trespass, but of many, many, many trespasses, indeed a whole human history of trespasses. 

By the end of this passage Paul is now ready to acknowledge how the trespass and the free gift are alike, in verses 18-19. One man’s disobedience set sin loose among all humanity, and one man’s obedience set righteousness loose among all humanity. 

[“A serpent so wily,” stanza three]

For the “free gift” that blots out all the trespass, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #275, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; #440, Jesus, Lover of My Soul; #166, Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days

Sermon: What Is Revealed, What Is Concealed

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 19, 2023, Transfiguration A

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-18; Matthew 17:1-9

What Is Revealed, What Is Concealed

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to drive around town or perhaps across the state on a cloudy day? Not a rainy day, but a cloudy one, when the sun isn’t constantly beating down and creating a glare that obscures everything? I know this is a little bit heretical to say in this state, but sometimes cloudiness can be a good thing. 

In the Old Testament a cloud can in fact be a very good thing: it can, on occasion, be a manifestation of the presence of God. 

It happens in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses is making ready to go up the mountain called Sinai to receive instruction from God. Even from the moment the Israelites had first come to that mountain after their deliverance from Egypt (back in 19:9), God had made his presence to Moses there known by the appearance of a thick and dense cloud, from which God’s voice might be heard by the people. Even before that, during the Exodus from Egypt, a pillar of cloud had been the manifestation of God’s protection of the people as they traveled by day, with a pillar of fire taking its place by night. That cloud, in a sense, revealed God.

There are other accounts in Hebrew Scripture of cloud as manifestation of God, but my personal favorite is a little-known account from the little-read book of 2 Chronicles. In this account in chapter 5 the great Temple was being dedicated under King Solomon. At the climax of the dedication the Temple was filled with a cloud, “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” I mean, let’s face it, that’s pretty cool. And again, the cloud reveals the presence of God. (There is a parallel account in 1 Kings 8, but I prefer the Chronicles version because in that story, the cloud fills up the Temple only after the trumpeters have played and the choir has sung. Music, after all.)

So when we get to the account from Matthew’s gospel today, along with the account of going up a mountain, and the actual glowing transfiguration of Jesus, the bright, welling cloud as a manifestation of the glory of God would not have been unfamiliar to those to whom Matthew was writing. It is a scene in a gospel, but like so much of Matthew’s gospel it contains a host of echoes and resonances with Hebrew Scripture.

Still, though, there is something interesting about a cloud as a manifestation of the presence and glory of God. Clouds, after all, aren’t exactly known for their revealing properties most of the time. Clouds aren’t translucent; they obscure. The whole reason that the cloudiness makes that drive so bearable is that it obscures the sometimes-oppressive February summer sun (that’s a phrase that only applies in Florida). 

And in the account from Exodus, that’s exactly what happens. The voice of God could be heard by the people, but God could not be seen, and when Moses went up the mountain to receive the commandments of God he also disappeared. Not that the people minded; already they were quite content to keep their distance; as early as Exodus 20 they were afraid that if God spoke to them directly – face to face, so to speak – they would die. In their minds, the cloud was protection.

(As for that lovely story from 2 Chronicles 5, the glory of the Lord filling the Temple with a cloud was indeed enough to bring the dedication of the Temple to a halt; “the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud” as verse 14 describes. Not sure if it means the priests were physically unable to stand or simply couldn’t stand it.)

In Matthew, the cloud seems a little different. This event is taking place six days after Simon had made the great breakthrough confession of faith recorded in 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus had followed up this confession by giving him a new name – Peter – and by launching into an extended piece of instruction on his forthcoming death. The newly-christened Peter had taken Jesus aside to rebuke Jesus for such talk, only to get the rebuke back ten times over – “Get behind me, Satan!” 

Despite that rebuke, Jesus took Peter up the mountain, along with James and John, where this Transfiguration took place. Jesus himself is transfigured and glowing and shining and dazzling, and then as Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets, so to speak – appear with him. You get a brief reminiscence of this in the reading from 2 Peter, likely written by a follower of that apostle recording his teacher’s recollection. 

After this transfiguration, Peter steps into a role many of us might recognize, maybe, from times of great excitement or stress or fear in our own lives: the person whose mouth immediately starts running despite the fact that his brain is supplying absolutely nothing useful for his mouth to say. (Somehow, 2 Peter doesn’t include this part.) And then, when Peter is fumbling around about building booths for Moses and Elijah and Jesus as if this were the ancient Hebrew festival known as the Feast of Booths? That’s when the cloud takes over.

The cloud “overshadowed” them. And, as it was back in the days of Exodus, a voice (the voice of God?) spoke from the cloud, to the effect that the disciples fell to their knees in fear (not unlike their Hebrew ancestors at the prospect of the voice of God). What the voice said sounds familiar – “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” is an exact echo of what the voice from Heaven – from the clouds, so to speak – says at Jesus’s baptism, back in chapter 3. But there is added a command: “Listen to him!” (And don’t miss that exclamation point.) Only at the touch of Jesus (“Get up and do not be afraid”) do they look up to see the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah gone, and Jesus – “Jesus himself alone” in Matthews’ emphatic construction – is there. The cloud, the glory of God, has removed the distractions of Moses and Elijah, the safe and comfortable heroes of the faith Peter and James and John knew, and left them with “Jesus himself alone,” whom they have just seen as they had never seen or heard or understood him before. 

In concealing Moses and Elijah from the overly enthusiastic disciples, the cloud also reveals; Jesus is revealed not merely as an equal to those two, but something completely other, something so far beyond what either of those figures could represent or offer. The Son of God, the Eternal, is revealed by what the clouds conceal. 

As the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth describes in his The Faith of the Church:

Eternal does not mean “that which has no end” but “that which belongs to the world to come”. Eternity is not defined by its unlimited characteristic but by its relation to the world to come, to the glorious kingdom of God.

That which belongs to the world to come” – a world without end. 

At a challenging time for the disciples, when Jesus insisted on his own death and severely rebuked those who could not accept it, these disciples are given a glimpse, however fleeting, of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. At a time and season nearly impossible time for us to bear, we receive this glimpse of Jesus the Eternal, Jesus of The World to Come. Death does not, cannot, have the last word, no matter how dark our despair might seem, how much madness might seem to hold sway in the entire world, no matter how bleak the night. The clouds pull back and conceal what is not eternal, revealing the One who is eternal. And that, strange and puzzling as the story might be, is why the Transfiguration is a day of great hope. 

This is God’s Son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Listen to him!

(Stanza 4, “Upon a holy mountain”)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #191, We Have Come at Christ’s Own Bidding; #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!


Sermon: God Everywhere

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 12, 2023

Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 19:21-41; Matthew 28:19-20

God Everywhere

Perhaps it’s appropriate that in order to support this final portion of A Brief Statement of Faith, one gets some unusual and maybe odd scripture accounts, like the readings from Numbers and Acts we juat heard. 

It’s a curious story, this reading from Numbers. A little context: the people have (again) complained against God and against Moses for the awful horror that the people haven’t had any meat to eat for a long time. Never mind the miraculously provided manna that has been keeping them alive for s long, they haven’t had meat, and so they’re frankly whining. (Sounds like a bunch of Texans to me.) God has, one might imagine, muttered “oh, you’re gonna have meat, all right” (in verse 20 God promises they will have meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you“) and instructed Moses to gather seventy of the elders of the people and take them to the meeting tent for, well, something special. Those men were gathered and visited with just a little of the spirit that God had put on Moses, just enough to engage in a little bit of prophesying. 

Two of the elders of the people, however, somehow missed the memo and didn’t go with the others to the meeting place, staying behind in the camp. That spirit, however, didn’t care that they weren’t with the others; they got the same prophesying impulse that those elders in the meeting place, much to the surprise of those around them in the camp. A youngster runs out to the meeting tent to tell Moses about Eldad and Medad. Moses’s right-hand man Joshua wants to stop them (side note: whyyyy??? what’s the point of that petty idea?), but Moses shuts him down vigorously – “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Then they go back to the camp. 

Strange story, yes, but there is something to learn from it: the Spirit of God is not limited by us in any way. That opening sentence of this section – “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life” is more than boilerplate talk; it is the vital and characteristic trait of this member of the Trinity. We don’t get to decide where and upon whom the Spirit will move; we don’t get to decide who is and who is not worthy; we don’t dictate. 

The organization of this section is thoroughly effective at laying out the work of the Spirit, which draws us in (54-57), prepares and equips us (58-64), and gives us courage to go and do (6571). And as with all of this statement, there are so many pieces of scripture and references to other statements in the Book of Confessions that one could draw upon (even if the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds don’t give us that much to work with; the latter goes no further than “I believe in the Holy Ghost…“) that one could spend weeks upon weeks on the subject.. 

Still, I can’t escape one particularly compelling line in this section, perhaps the most striking statement in any document in the Book of Confessions. There in line 69, among those many things we are promised, is that “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage … to unmask idolatries in church and culture.” That’s a heck of a challenge. 

There was some difficulty in agreeing on the final form of the line. Originally a version was proposed that started off “to smash idols” or something similar. The harshly violent image of “smashing” idols didn’t necessarily last song, but the challenge is to understand the change from “idols” to “idolatries.” What’s the point of that? Why make that change?

The odd little reading from Acts helps us understand that distinction. So far as we can see Paul is mostly working on travel plans. He directs a couple of his aides to go to Macedonia while he waits a little longer in Asia, maybe to rest, maybe to pray, maybe to plan. The disturbances that break out seem quite disconnected from anything that is happening on the ground. But one silversmith decides that these strangers are a threat to his business, uses the city of Ephesus’s point of pride to stir up his fellow tradesmen with the fear of the loss of their main tourist attraction and economic draw, and suddenly there are riots in the streets.

Note that Paul and his co-workers haven’t done anything to provoke such a reaction. As far as we know they’ve said or done nothing about the temple of Artemis (or Diana); they’ve just been proclaiming their good news, and apparently people have been listening. From this one man has stoked up fear and riled up potential violence. (If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, you’re not alone.) 

So what is the problem here? Is it the idol, or is it the idolatry?

As far as we can see those little silver shrines of Artemis haven’t actually done anything. They are nothing but pieces of silver. What can they do? If you remember your story about Elijah’s contest with the Baal prophets at Mt. Carmel, you know that those idols didn’t really do anything because they can’t do anything. Same for these silver shrines. They just sit there.

Those who have wrapped themselves up in the cult of Artemis, however, that’s a different matter. By the time this story concludes we can’t be entirely sure whether the idolatry is centered. Is it being riled up by worshipers of Artemis, or is it being riled up by those who make their living off the worship of Artemis? It looks like the latter, to be honest. Either way, the “idolatry” is fully exposed here, even though all Paul and his colleagues were doing was sharing the good news. But the Spirit uses that witness to reach listeners who heard and responded to the word, and the Spirit also unmasked the real idolatry of the craftsmen of Ephesus. The town clerk has to call them out for their false charges and rebuke them and send them home. 

This business of unmasking idolatries isn’t about some kind of crusade against whatever we have decided is the enemy. Like Paul and his colleagues, all we are called to do is bear witness, both in word and deed, and the Spirit moves from there. Do you job and let the Spirit work.

The final lines of this section take us back to the bigger picture. Echoing the Trinitarian formula of the Great Commission and reinforces that last point – serve Christ in our daily work – it continues by charging us to “live holy and joyful lives” and watch for God’s new work. That really is it. It’s not about being a superhero or super-Christian; serve daily, live joyfully, watch faithfully. 

It seems appropriate to wrap all this up, this reminder of what our denomination wanted to say when it was first founded, with the next three lines of the Statement:

With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #292, As the Wind Song; #—, We trust in God, the loving Holy Spirit; #688, Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart