taking the form of a slave

Homily for Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

This is a lot. What has happened this morning requires no sermon. Let’s just take a moment to take it in.

The crowd with the palms and the crowd shouting at the trial are the same crowd.

We are inclined to be just like Peter, who was, after all, the first and foremost leader of the church and our model. He thought he could be strong enough to be with Jesus through it all: “Even though all become deserters, I will not.”  But we cannot exceed his faithfulness, or even stay awake.

The crowds condemned Jesus, yet we are no different, subject to the same anger, hysteria and blame. God’s love is for us even when we are in this crowd. Ultimately Jesus’ firmness in his love is what provoked the crowd but still his love continued to the end.

…[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


You look for Truth deep within me

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

I love our psalm for today.  Psalm 51 is one of the most powerful and beautiful of the songs of Israel. Its text is the basis for some of the most beautiful Christian Music that I know. The reason for that, is that it speaks beautifully of God’s loving-kindness, the harmony of God’s compassion and life-giving spirit. It is classified among the Penitential Psalms and indeed that is what it is, a psalm of penitence par excellence.

But penitence and repentance are often not well understood. When it says, “wash me through and through from my wickedness,” we are tempted to think that it only refers to being particularly awful and that we somehow should find really bad things to think and say of ourselves. But that’s not it at all. Our text for today, from the middle of this psalm, describes it best: “For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” Deep within us, all of us, is the truth, and that truth is deep wisdom. But that is also our deepest secret, because inside is also where our hurts, and fears, and confusions dwell. We are vulnerable—if the wrong people found out those deep secrets we could be damaged, damaged terribly, even destroyed. And thus, many people avoid the truth within themselves entirely, and in closing themselves off from the truth of their sinfulness, transgressions and fears, they also close themselves off from the wisdom of God, from the source of life—sometimes even from life itself.

All of us are subject to this, to one degree or another, because all of us are fearful and everyone at some point wants to hide, at least to hide something or to hide from someone. I have seen when someone insists that they have nothing hidden, that they have never committed a sin, have never needed to ask God or anyone else for forgiveness. A psychologist would tell you that such a person is a psychopath. A person that fears that at the core of their being is nothing, or at least nothing that could be loved. Such people trust no one, and ultimately, others learn not to trust them.

But God searches for truth deep within us. God can be trusted to find the blessing of our spirit. God’s loving-kindness and mercy touches us where we are most vulnerable and tender. Even when no other human being could be trusted with our secrets—fears, sins, misdeeds, unrealistic aspirations, embarrassing quirks—God can be trusted. In amongst all our vulnerabilities the love of God searches out and finds that beautiful creature who God created.  God calls forth our bountiful spirit in the joy of his saving help.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And how does he say he is glorified? He says it is like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying—that in giving up being a single piece of grain that the bounty of a new harvest appears. We are called to penitence, precisely for the bounty of new life, to allow God to search us inwardly, to acknowledge and accept that we need mercy, that we need to trust God. We need to give up protecting all the things that are hiding that spirit which God seeks to reveal in us.

Not every person can be trusted with our inmost vulnerability. Sometimes people betray one another, sometimes people don’t understand, or they just gossip. Being free from those things that we have hidden doesn’t mean regarding all our sins as meaningless or trivial. Penitence is acknowledging the truth to God, of giving up the fearful things we cling to in order to avoid the real danger of being a free person in God, that is to say, a Christian as Jesus is calling us to be.

This is a journey we don’t take alone, however.  We are in a community that is travelling with Jesus along the road to Calvary, along the road to his Resurrection and ours. It doesn’t have to be abstract or strictly internal—most of us do discover others who we can trust to share at least some of the difficulties of our journey. Certainly, those who benefit from the many AA groups that meet here every week day would tell you how important it is to them. Some things need to be sorted out in an even more secure and safe way. That’s why the church provides the sacrament of Reconciliation. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can find it beginning on page 446 in the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church doesn’t treat this as a duty for everyone. But it is an opportunity to sort out and give over to the God of all mercy those things that might get in the way of our abundant and joyful life. Priests are trained that the confidentiality of this sacrament is beyond ordinary confidentiality. It is sealed in the trust of God’s transforming mercy.  I’m pleased to schedule the sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who contacts me, and there are plenty of other priests who are happy to do so as well. It is God that is merciful, all the time. If is a privilege to help someone recognize it and know it.

Let us pray:

For behold, you look for truth deep within me,

and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness,

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out my iniquities

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of your saving help again

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.


That the World might be Saved through Him

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

As we journey through Lent, we are recalling that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good-looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.

The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world—that the whole world is saved by him.

The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed, the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth.

The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare with Calvary Church’s St. Patrick’s Day potluck next Saturday—where we share with one another as in God’s heavenly banquet.

Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, “Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee-deep in snakes.

Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.

And that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.

We are invited to live in the light of Jesus—by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful and leaving self-pity behind. We are called to proclaim God’s love for the entire world, to live together as a body building one another up, not as individuals competing against others for a reward they can’t have.

He sent for his word and healed them; and saved them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy;

and the wonders he does for his children.

Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving;

And tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

Your Name shall be Abraham

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the call of Abraham. At least parts of it.  And the Epistle is St. Paul’s interpretation and application of that story in his letter to the church at Rome. Abraham lived at least as far before the time of St. Paul as our own time is after Paul’s. In fact there are no marker events, rulers or cultures that locate Abraham in history. If scholars estimate when he might have lived, it is usually some time around 2500 years before the birth of Jesus.

What was read today is only a small bit of the story of Abraham. In all it’s a very complex story that has within it the roots and indeed, most of the content of the identity and values of Israel: the Israel that came out of Egypt with Moses, the Israel of David the King, the Israel that went into exile in Babylon and returned.

The story of the covenant with Abraham is the story of God’s people. It’s more complex than our readings this morning. It would take a very long class indeed to explore the story and its implications fully. The reading from Romans makes it clear that Abraham’s story is our story as well. This is a story in which Abram and Sarai receive new names, Abraham and Sarah, and a new identity—they are God’s people destined to become a nation of God’s people. St. Paul interprets it this way:

[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.

Abraham recognized in God’s promise who he was and what he would become. And we can recognize in Jesus who we are, and what we can become.

A couple of weeks ago, when I preached on the Transfiguration, I mentioned today’s gospel lesson.  Mark’s Gospel is so concise and all its parts fit closely together. It is not just Mark’s Gospel where everything is connected, it’s our Christian faith. What we believe is not just a bunch of random stories telling us to be nice—Christian faith is a way of life which makes our world coherent, in which the values of compassion, sacrifice, generosity, welcome and justice grow out of what God has done in Jesus Christ. What we believe and what we do are one. Mystical prayer and caring for the least of God’s children are the same action. So in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to us:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.

At this point in the gospel, Jesus is about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem. The reference to the cross is clear: Jesus will give up his life for his followers, for us. Jesus is challenging us to live for the good of others and to be willing to incur real loss and face those things we fear in doing so.

It’s common for people to try to dodge the impact of what Jesus is saying either by over-dramatizing what it means—so that it only refers to heroic situations of being literally killed for a very narrow set of reasons—or by minimizing his demand and reducing it to an inner disposition or belief with no consequences in the real world. “Take up your cross” is an invitation to life. Abraham was invited by God to leave home and become something more than himself. He had to give up one name and take on a new identity—and not for himself but for a people created and guided by God. There were many consequences of that covenant with God, and developing into the people of God involved danger and discomfort and doing things that did not directly benefit Abraham. That faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness was life for others, life for God—the foundation of good and life that is beyond human calculation or self-interest.

As Christians, our identity is as Jesus’ followers, as the people of God who travel along with him. We live in his love, the caring and tender love of God. But Jesus makes clear that the only way that that can be done is by living truthfully—a life for others. To have our life—a life of vitality and abundance, a life where the present and the future are filled with value, and to build a loving community, a life of confident faithfulness that will hold us eternally in the presence of God—to have that life means being prepared to lose all those things we mistake for life and try to hold on to. First of all fear: fear of losing things, fear of being found out, fear of not being loved, or fear of other people who might be difficult for us to love. But also the image of ourselves that we hang onto, the image of the things it takes to make people respect or love us, the things we hold onto because we confuse them with life. Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to fear losing that life, because abundant life is from generosity and faithfulness, from living for others, not clinging to things we might lose.

Jesus continued to Jerusalem, living abundantly, healing and freeing people along the way. The consequence in this world was his death on that cross—the fears and selfishness of this world could not abide it. But the consequence also was that God raised him from the dead—the powers of fear, or sin, or selfishness, or death had no power over him. God is faithful, faithful to Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul and to each of us. Our journey with Jesus is a journey into life—life of welcome, of generous community, of living in the Resurrection.

Traditionally, Lent is a time to give up things. But what we give up is not what our hearts’ desire. What we give up is death. Living generously with the good of other people in this world as our aim brings the life that is our heart’s desire, our identity in God.

Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;

All you of Jacob’s line give glory.

For he does not despise the poor in their poverty;

Neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly;

I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied and those who seek the Lord shall praise him:

“May your heart live for ever!”

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,

And all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

The time is fulfilled…Repent

A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and in the other two years, the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the temptations of Jesus from Matthew or Luke. This year we have the Gospel of Mark and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness go past so quickly that you hardly notice them. Rather than going into the depth of the experience of the temptations and the values and message of Jesus within them, Mark shows how these things are connected together—Jesus coming from Galilee, his Baptism by John, the heavenly voice confirming Jesus as the son of God, the temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God. In seven verses Mark sweeps through all these things and shows how they are connected.

They are connected as the essential background of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was the context for Jesus’ appearance. It was John’s arrest by the soldiers of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, that was the occasion of the beginning of Jesus proclaiming of the Good News. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells the story of the why and how of John’s arrest and execution. This Herod was corrupt, cruel and selfish.  Though he was a Jewish ruler of a Jewish principality, he was the client of a foreign power. John had pointed out his sexual immoralities and, more importantly, how he was unfaithful to his people, acting against the best interest of the people of Galilee and Judea. This was entwined with John’s preaching to the crowds about their repentance. It was not just the leaders who had to be held accountable to God, but everyone. Repentance was necessary—not feeling bad, but changing their lives; choosing each day to live in God’s justice. That was the messenger, preparing the Lord’s way, crying in the wilderness. And Jesus was in the wilderness, being formed in truth and served by angels.

John was taken into custody by the soldiers of Herod Antipas. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the good news.” It is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin that journey with Jesus, the journey which ends with his arrest by the religious police and the Roman soldiers; his execution on Calvary. His message to the people in Galilee is the same as John’s was, down by the Jordan on the eastern edge of Judea: Repent, the Kingdom of God is here. What is that Kingdom? We know some of it: Jesus was a healer, he cast out demons, he taught people hope, character, and faithfulness. He embodied God’s mercy and that was his teaching. Entering the Kingdom of the most merciful God is easy—you just rejoice in God’s mercy, live as God’s merciful children.

Of course, to be God’s merciful children… To even think about being joined to God’s mercy… If you look around at what happened this week down in Florida, what happens every day in our country, even here… To claim to have anything to do with God’s mercy takes change, it takes repentance: a restructuring of ourselves and the way we operate…getting our priorities right. The safety and well-being of young people has to be a higher priority than things of this world: prosperity or success or making political points; or having the things we want. It takes courage to repent, because it means living in a new way. Repentance is the opposite of taking refuge in a world of fear and anger and blame. The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the self-indulgent world of Herod Antipas, but the generous world of Jesus, who brought life and hope to others and didn’t avoid the very real risk to his own person. All through this coming season of Lent, we will see that Jesus’ loving actions, his teaching and his prayers all lined up in perfect accord. For our prayers or our thoughts to have any meaning, they must align with our repentance, and amendment of life. That is to say prayers and action are one. If a person thinks that they can toss in some prayers to make others feel better while planning or doing actions that contradict those prayers, that is blasphemy.

So we look at all the gun violence in this country, punctuated by mass shootings of children and an epidemic of gun suicides. It can look hopeless, practically and politically. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was another epidemic that everybody thought was hopeless: automobile fatalities. It had reached the rate of five and a half fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Now it is just over 1 per 100 million miles. There are actually more than 15 thousand fewer traffic fatalities this year than 50 years ago while the country’s population is more than 50% larger. How did this happen? What caused the reduction of this epidemic? It wasn’t one simple solution, and it took years. A national commitment was made to reduce traffic fatalities. Different things were done: roadways and guard rails were improved, seatbelts and eventually airbags were required in cars. Cars were made structurally safer. Laws against drunk driving were toughened and enforced more stringently. Laws were changed, and some people didn’t like them.

When I was 14 in 1968, I got my driver’s license in Idaho. We were very proud of that and thought it was our God-given right.  Of course, I got in two accidents before I was 16. The age for driving was raised in states like Idaho, much to the consternation of teenagers, and some parents who found it convenient to have the kids drive themselves and do errands.  It took a lot of changes to reduce traffic fatalities. They are not entirely eliminated and still a tragedy when they occur, but they are no longer an increasing epidemic, we don’t assume that somebody we know will be killed in a car crash.

To address gun violence takes national repentance and a national priority for safety, for less gun violence. It requires good faith in looking for solutions from all parties, it takes some inconvenience and adjusting of expectations, and an orientation toward safety in all respects of gun ownership, handling and use. Guns can be made safer, and particularly dangerous weapons can be gradually eliminated. They aren’t needed any more than a .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket launcher. Guns are tools and our culture should develop in the direction of not having them be tools for killing people, least of all, high school students and teachers.

Immediately after his baptism the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He was tended by the angels of God. He came to his home country of Galilee calling for repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He went among them, casting out demons and healing them.

Wash your face…

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.

Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.

Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us.  What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.

But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.

Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature?  This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.

Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.

The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.  The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.

And after six days

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John and privately leads them up alone to a high mountain.

That’s the first verse of today’s Gospel in a new translation that I’ve been using in my study and sermon preparation.  David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament emphasizes the individual voices and oddities of the books of the Greek New Testament rather than conforming them to the smooth formal flow of the translations that we use in the liturgy.  And, of course, our lectionary sometimes smooths out the text even more. The reading leaves out the first phrase of the first verse: “And after six days.”

I always find the story of the Transfiguration difficult to get a handle on as a preacher. It doesn’t have the moral, theological or historical content that most of the passages that come up for sermons contain. Shiny Jesus, two prophets and a cloud just doesn’t ring a bell for me—what’s it connected to? What sense does it make?

For me that transition phrase, “And after six days,” provides a clue. The Gospel of Mark almost always marks transitions with the word that means “immediately,” so this is unusual. It was the amount of time that Moses and Joshua spent under the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai, waiting for the tablets of the law.

But why this pause? What does it mark? Flip the page of your New Testament back one and the event that happened immediately before this is the most serious conflict between Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered that he was the Messiah. But then Jesus began to explain what that meant: suffering, rejection, being killed and rising in three days. Peter kind of freaked out, took him aside and rebuked Jesus. Jesus’ response was: “Get behind me Satan!” Not exactly the response that Peter was hoping for. Jesus then said to the whole crowd, as well as his disciples,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Then, after waiting six days, he takes the inner circle of his disciples privately to the top of the mountain. Jesus, shining with the glory of God, accompanied by the two most significant of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. The conflict with the disciples had been about his suffering and death. They weren’t understanding. It’s not made explicit here, but there is something that Peter ignored when he decided to rebuke Jesus. What Jesus had said was that he would be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed … and after three days rise again.”

Violence and dying are familiar to us and easy to digest, but what about resurrection? Is that just wishful thinking? Is it just a placeholder, do we just ignore it? Jesus took these three disciples, the first ones he called, to show them something different, a new and different life, triumphant and in the presence of God—yet inextricably linked with those things that these disciples were afraid to face—rejection, suffering, death. To share this Gospel, they must know both sides. And notice, when Peter sticks in his suggestion about building something, it is because they are afraid here too—the reality of God’s goodness and presence can be as frightening as suffering and death. Life takes courage, especially life in Christ’s resurrection.

Then the cloud came upon them, just as it had for Moses, just as it had at Jesus baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The Resurrection of Jesus is here in the center of the Gospel of Mark—we don’t separate his active life of healing, his rejection and suffering, or his teaching of the Kingdom of God from God’s conquering death and raising him from the dead. Knowing the resurrection puts the rest into perspective. The disciples may still fear, have doubts, worry and forget, but they have seen Jesus manifesting God’s glory with Moses and Elijah, they have seen that the truth is Jesus facing death, not in avoiding it or shying away from the difficulties of rejection or disapproval.

Tuesday night, we will have a grand celebration with pancakes and then on Wednesday, we begin our journey of Lent. Lent is a penitential time, but that does not mean a time of feeling bad and guilty. It’s not a time to be run down and resentful and headachy because of a lack of candy or coffee. The penitential season of Lent is about facing the truth. We are tempted to hide from the truth, because we are fearful—but Jesus shows us the truth: his Transfiguration into the Glory of God, his Resurrection and defeat of death. But that truth is not avoiding the difficulties and hurts of this life, or the realities and limitations we must face as individuals or as a congregation. In today’s epistle, Paul observes that “the god of this age has blinded the thoughts of the faithless, so that the illumination of the good tidings of the glory of Christ—he who is God’s image—should not shine out.” The distractions and temptations of the ways of this world push people to avoid difficulty and thus be blinded to life. Jesus took his disciples up that mountain so that they could see—not avoiding their difficulties, but knowing that abundant life is here, that freedom is in joining him in faithfully accepting and living in the truth.

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.