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 It doesn’t have the moral, theological or historical content that most of the passages that come up for sermons contain.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.


…and They have Received Them

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, and we observed it at our Wednesday Eucharist.  The conversations with Jesus present with his disciples are over and he ascends to heaven. It is still another week before Pentecost, when the church celebrates the Holy Spirit breaking into the church.  From the standpoint of the church’s liturgical narrative, this is an odd time.  You might think, “Jesus is gone and the Spirit isn’t here.” That might make some anxious. Of course, people do get anxious. There are lots of times that people get anxious. And sometimes clergy get anxious about stopping anxiety. But there is one thing that stops that anxiety: It is knowing the truth.

The Gospel lesson today is from Jesus’ long prayer at the end of the supper with his disciples, just before his arrest. It is often called his “High Priestly Prayer.” The truth, from any perspective, was that this was the end of this journey together with these disciples. There was no turning back, and no return to the good old days of wandering around Galilee, teaching and healing and doing miracles. Jesus says this:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

He does not deny the pain of separation or of his death. Yet in his prayer he knows that what his disciples needed, they have gained from him: “For the words that you gave to me I have given to them and they have received them.”

At this point in the Gospel, the resurrection still lies ahead. In the time between Easter morning and the Ascension, he taught them to interpret and understand the scriptures: “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” as it says in the Gospel of Luke as it is read on the Ascension. These are things that could not be understood or appreciated without the experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And then he told them, “You are witnesses of these things.” His followers now hold within themselves the whole truth of Jesus, and as witnesses they are responsible for living that truth and sharing it.

And so, at this point, Jesus leaves his followers to it. Jesus ascended to his Father and they are responsible for being his witnesses, his church. At this moment, they are left with that. It is enough, the Gospel is within them. Without any miraculous pyrotechnics or miracles, or sure signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless they have the Truth within them and that suffices.

I spoke last week about the Holy Spirit, and next week will be Pentecost with the tongues of fire and many languages and all that. The Holy Spirit is essential in the life of God’s church. But this quiet time, these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, are not a time of being bereft or anxious, it is a time of hope, of being responsible for living in the Truth and being its witnesses. Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning ends with their return to the city, to that upper room, and it lists not only the Eleven, but also several other disciples including women and it says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Notice that unlike the time before they had seen the resurrected Jesus, they are not waiting fearfully, but praying, living in hope, integrating that truth into their lives. Next steps would come, but first they prayed and envisioned.

It has been just short of ten months that I have had the privilege of being here with you. We’ve looked a little bit at Jesus, and a bit at ourselves as a congregation, and mostly we have known the compassion of God in one another.  The good things that we have learned, we carry with us, in our hearts.  I carry with me the generosity of spirit I have seen at St. James, the experience of seniors doing ministry, and taking joy that it is not for their own benefit—blessing pets in the public square, extending themselves to serve and welcome Special Needs Kids and their families for celebration and worship on their own terms and their own times, providing a Community Garden that serves and draws together diverse aspects of the community of Lincoln, California. If you have received anything of value from me, it will dwell in your heart, whether I am here or not. Jesus is still the man from God’s point of view, and it is he that blesses us with his compassion and good humored acceptance.

Thank you for welcoming both Paula and me. She particularly asked me to extend her thanks for warmly including her. I have experienced the healing power of the nurturing acceptance of this congregation—don’t underestimate how important it is for people in need of healing to have your quiet and wise presence. That is a foundation for new things, perhaps significantly different than now or the past. Humbly living the compassion of God, and accepting people, including their hurts and anxieties, makes it possible to live hopefully in all circumstances.

Here’s how our lesson from the first letter of Peter ends:

“Resist the Slanderer or Devil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

The Church of England, and The Sex In Sexuality

Wisdom from Beth Routledge, a physician and member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. She has put it better than I can.

The Road Less Travelled

The Church of England spent this last weekend finding that they have a gay bishop in their midst, and then by turns tearing its hair out about it and pretending to be completely relaxed about it.

Late on Friday, the news broke on the Guardian website that the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Reverend Nicholas Chamberlain, had given an interview to Harriet Sherwood about his sexuality and his relationship by way of pre-empting a Sunday newspaper that had threatened to out him. He is a gay man, and he is in a long-term relationship that he describes in the most positive of terms: “It is faithful, it is loving, we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company, and we share each other’s life.” It is also sexually abstinent — a requirement of all clergy in the Church of England in same-sex relationships, although not of clergy in opposite-sex relationships.


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Why Trump?

This is a good analysis from a cognitive scientist who has been paying attention. He refuses to write something short. If you read the first 1000 words of this and stop, you will think that Trump is inevitable (or you’ll just be mad). However, he is saying some important true things, things which winning candidates know and do without his analysis. This is very important, if the Democratic party continues to complain about Trump and regard it as enough to point out his absurdities, the election will go just as it did for Jeb Bush.
Here are two helpful sentences.
“Reporters and commentators are supposed to stick to what is conscious and with literal meaning. But most real political discourse makes use of unconscious thought, which shapes conscious thought via unconscious framing and commonplace conceptual metaphors. It is crucial, for the history of the country and the world, as well as the planet, that all of this be made public.”
“.. start with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying”

George Lakoff

 By George Lakoff

         Donald Trump is winning Republican presidential primaries at such a great rate that he seems likely to become the next Republican presidential nominee and perhaps the next president. Democrats have little understanding of why he is winning — and winning handily, and even many Republicans don’t see him as a Republican and are trying to stop him, but don’t know how. There are various theories: People are angry and he speaks to their anger. People don’t think much of Congress and want a non-politician. Both may be true. But why? What are the details? And Why Trump?

Many people are mystified. He seems to have come out of nowhere. His positions on issues don’t fit a common mold.

He likes Planned Parenthood, Social Security, and Medicare, which are not standard Republican positions. Republicans hate eminent domain (the taking of private property by the government) and…

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Um … about that American Libraries article we wrote

Librarians are about the fair and unimpeded sharing of information. The publisher of American Libraries apparently thinks that the promotion of business relationships with commercial vendors trumps that.

Stewart Varner

As a professional rule, I try to keep things positive. I like to be a cheerleader for all the great people out there and avoid boosting the signal on a bunch of negativity.

However, situations compel me to devote this one post to something totally crappy.

TL;DR: Patricia Hswe and I wrote an article for American Libraries and the editors added some quotes from a vendor talking about their products without telling us. We asked them to fix it and they said no.

Because American Libraries refused to clarify what happened, we decided to clarify it ourselves. What follows is our second (and hopefully happier) attempt at collaborative writing. This little blog does not have quite the reach of that big glossy magazine so please feel free to share as widely as you want. As always, let me know if you have any questions!

svarner@email.unc.edu  ||  @stewartvarner


If you are a member of…

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My Emancipation From American Christianity

And not just the fundamentalists. Christians across the board have confused the principality of church with the gospel of the Prince of Peace.

john pavlovitz

chain-breaking-freeI used to think that it was just me, that it was my problem, my deficiency, my moral defect.

It had to be.

All those times when I felt like an outsider in this American Jesus thing; the ever-more frequent moments when my throat constricted and my heart raced and my stomach turned.

Maybe it came in the middle of a crowded worship service or during a small group conversation. Maybe while watching the news or when scanning a blog post, or while resting in a silent, solitary moment of prayer. Maybe it was all of these times and more, when something rose up from the deepest places within me and shouted, “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t be part of this!”

These moments once overwhelmed me with panic and filled me with guilt, but lately I am stepping mercifully clear of such things.

What I’ve come to realize is that it certainly is me, but not in the…

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