Sunday, February 15, 2015

Real Glory

The scripture referred to is Mark 9:2-9.

Though I don't work as a nurse anymore, I still follow medical news. And this week I heard of a really great advance we've made in treating cancer. Researchers were asking themselves why, when our immune systems fight off so many things that seek to harm us, they don't go after cancer. And they found out that cancer hides itself from our immune systems by tricking our T-cells into thinking they are part of the body. So scientists have developed checkpoint inhibitors to stop cancers from using their “invisibility cloaks,” so to speak. Once the immune system sees the cancer as the threat it is, it attacks the mutant cells. It seems to work well on lymphoma and on cancers of the head, neck, kidney and bladder and possibly breast and lung cancers.

How can you deal with something if you don't know what it is? How can you work with someone if you don't know who they are? That is what the apostles are wrestling with. Yes, they know Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one promised by God to save his people. Peter just said so in Mark chapter 8. But then Jesus started with this crazy talk about his getting arrested and killed and rising again from the dead, and that was not at all what Peter and the rest of the twelve were expecting. And when Peter tried to set Jesus straight, the Messiah called him Satan, literally “the adversary,” for opposing him.

In fact, Jesus says, if you want to follow him, you better check your personal rights at the door and pick up your cross. If you don't, Jesus says, he will be ashamed of you when he returns.

It's 6 days later. Apparently nothing of significance happened between that incident and the subject of today's gospel. I imagine the disciples have been unusually quiet and reflective. Have they backed the right man? Is Jesus the one to lead them against their enemy? Have they made a mistake?

And that's the setting for the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his core group, up a mountain. They probably thought they were going up there to pray with him. But suddenly Jesus is transformed, his clothes go all “Clorox 2 commercial” white, and he has two guest stars: Moses and Elijah. And the three disciples are flabbergasted. I was going to say speechless but Peter can't keep his mouth shut. He starts babbling about building some houses for Jesus and his famous friends. Then a cloud descends on them, and out of it they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” and just as suddenly this vision is over and all they see is regular old Jesus. On the way down the mountain Jesus tells them to keep the whole thing under their hats till later.

What's going on here? In the Torah, where does Moses meet God to receive the commandments? On a mountain. How does God manifest himself on the mountain? In a cloud. Where does Elijah have his signature encounter with God? Again on a mountain. And who are these two prophets of God now meeting and talking to? Jesus. What happened to Moses after he spoke to God? His face glowed. What is said about angels, God's messengers, when they come to this world to speak to men? That their garments shown brighter than the sun. All of these things are coming together in this vision on the mountaintop.

The disciples see Moses, who prophesied that God will send a prophet after him to his people that they must heed and obey. They see Elijah, who learned that God isn't always manifested in lightning and wind and earthquake and fire but sometimes in a quiet voice. More importantly they see Jesus as he really is, radiating God's glory. He is the divine person that these two, the greatest of the prophets, are talking to. Finally, God himself tells them that, yes, Jesus is his beloved son and so they should listen to him.

What is the purpose of all this? Elijah had his mountaintop tete a tete with God after he had just scored a great triumph over the prophets of Baal. He revealed that Yahweh was the only true God. But then Queen Jezebel threatened his life and Elijah flees into the desert, afraid that he is the only prophet of the true God left. But the still small voice assures him that he is wrong and all is not lost. Here the disciples are coming off of a tremendous declaration. They realize that Jesus is the Anointed One of God and they tell him so. But then Jesus' talk about his impending death creates doubt. So in the Transfiguration they are assured that they are wrong and that what Jesus has predicted is not a disaster. They need to keep trusting in and listening to him, even though things are going to start looking bleak.

I tell inmates that the time when they really need to trust God is when it is the hardest to do so. It's easy to trust God when everything's going your way. But it's when it's all turning to crap, when it looks like God is doing nothing, or even orchestrating the cascade of calamities that are burying you, that you need to trust that in fact he has a good reason for letting this happen and that it will turn out to be ultimately for the good. And that's tough. Actress Julianne Moore says she stopped believing in God when her mother died. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney stopped believing when her brother died of AIDS. I had a real crisis of faith when my long-time friend and parishioner Corinne Wade died of a brain tumor. Bad things happen to good people. And because that violates what we see as God's promises to us, we are wracked by doubts. “Hey, God, that wasn't part of the deal! I'm supposed to believe in you and you protect me and mine and cause us all to prosper. Go punish the wicked! Leave us believers untouched.”

But the thing is that the Bible itself says that bad things sometimes happen to good people. After 40 years journey Moses never makes it to the promised land. Jonathan, David's ally even after his father Saul turns against him, dies ignominiously at the hands of the Philistines. King Josiah, who renews God's covenant with his people, whose reforms include ending pagan worship in God's temple and destroying all the pagan worship sites in Jerusalem and Judah, who reinstitutes the celebration of Passover, dies in battle against Pharaoh Neco. Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have trouble...” Anybody who thinks that God promises his followers a smooth and stress-free life on this earth is just not paying attention.

Why? Why don't all the bad things happen to the bad people and all the good things happen to the good?

Well, for one thing, nobody is all good and nobody is all bad. If you are honest with yourself, you will have to admit that you do not always do what you know to be the right thing. You cut corners at work. You don't always listen to your spouse and you have lied to him or her about why certain things didn't get done or got done in a way they explicitly ask they not be done. You don't always drive the speed limit, occasionally text while driving, maybe even get behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks. You aren't as scrupulous on filling out your income tax forms as you should be. And you may have even darker secrets in your life, things you would not want anyone to know. Would you willingly take truth serum and let Nancy Grace quiz you about every aspect of your life? Probably not. No one is that good.

Working at the jail, I see people who have done things that society frowns on. Some are really bad; some are relatively minor breaches of city or county ordinances. Should God strike all those bad people down? Should he leave their children orphans? Should he strike down addicts who are trying to get better but still sometimes fall off the wagon? Should he only strike down murderers? Should he strike down those who didn't intend to kill? Should he strike down those who killed accidentally? Should he strike down all soldiers who kill? The result of what they do is the same, regardless of intention. What about those who fought and harmed someone but not fatally? What about those who tried to harm someone but didn't succeed? 

Should God strike down rapists? Should he strike down 18 year old boys who have sex with their 16 year old girlfriends and so committed statutory rape? Should he strike down people who have only viewed child pornography? Should he strike down those who have ruined the lives of others through identity fraud? Should he strike down those who have ruined people financially? Should he strike down all the bankers and brokers and CEOs who ruined our economy and caused such suffering worldwide? Should he strike down people who buy products whose raw materials or manufacture cause suffering to poor people in other parts of the world? That would include all who use electronics which cause pollution, who eat chocolate which is often harvested by child slaves, who buy wooden products that encourage deforestation.

There is a video on College Humor entitled “Why it's socially unacceptable to do anything.” In it a bunch of 20-somethings are unable to find an activity that doesn't harm the environment, patronize a company that exploits people, support entertainment that encourages stereotypes, or tacitly approve of a celebrity who has done bad things. Finally one person says, “Want to sit in a dark, dark basement until tomorrow comes?” And that's the only unobjectionable thing they can agree on. It's done for laughs but the point is valid. In our globally connected world, there is no completely innocent option in many areas of human endeavor. Even eating a salad could be making profitable the use of overworked underpaid migrant workers. If God were to wipe out all traces of evil...well, it reminds me of the X-Files episode where Mulder encounters a genie and asks for world peace. What he gets is a world devoid of people.

There is no way to design a world where bad things never affect relatively good people or where good intentions never have unintended negative effects. Unless you replace humans possessing free will with robots. That's why grace and forgiveness and healing are so central to our faith. It's not that there aren't people who do harmful things intentionally; it's just that sometimes all of us are one of those people. And remember that the Bible comes down just as hard on those people who don't do what they can to help people with unmet needs or who are suffering injustice. In fact Jesus' parable about the last judgment in Matthew 25 is all about sins of omission. What we do or don't do to the hungry, those without drinking water, those who don't have sufficient clothing, those who are sick, those who are imprisoned, those who are not welcome outside their homeland, Jesus will take personally. Every single person on this earth was created in God's image and Jesus sees each one of us as a brother or sister. And nobody better mess with one of Jesus' siblings.

Right now God is giving everyone the chance to realize this and ask for help in fixing our own messes. And God wants us to tell everyone else that he will forgive and help them with their messes too. But that means things are still going wrong and bad things still happen and we can suffer the effects of what we do or what others do. Some of it is minor and some of it is major and will make it hard to see past it to God's grace.

Jesus realized that his disciples needed this mountaintop experience before entering the valley of the shadow of death. In the same way, we need to see him for who he really is before we enter into the fray. He is the one who created the universe yet notes each sparrow's fate. He is the Almighty who champions the weak. He is the Holy one who forgives sinners. Jesus is the Embodiment of God who embraces the leper, the outcast and the imperfect. He is the man in a patriarchal world who teaches women as well as men and who protected the woman taken in adultery. He is the righteous one who ate with sinners and celebrated the fact that prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of religious leaders. He is the pacifist whose kingdom is still expanding without any weapons. He is the one who, before his death, said he has conquered the world.

The weird thing is that the disciples witnessed all this but just didn't see Jesus for who he really was. They saw him feed thousands but didn't realize the abundance of his power. They saw him heal many who were sick in mind and body but didn't see him as the source of all health. They saw him raise the dead but didn't recognize him as the Lord of life. So Jesus had to reach them visually, giving them a eye-popping sight they couldn't unsee.

We can't literally see this event but we do have the evidence of what he said and did, as well as the effect he had on the people who encountered him, not only in the 1st century AD but in every century since. The first Christians followed Jesus despite the threat of persecution and death. They impressed pagans by not fleeing plagues but staying in cities and taking care of the sick and dying, again despite the risk to themselves. They often freed their slaves and even selected slaves to be bishops. As the centuries went on, Christians built and staffed hospitals, schools, and universities. The first scientists were largely clergy, people who believed that because human beings were created in the image of God, they could also examine and understand the products of the mind of God. Christians worked to abolish slavery in both the US and the UK. They set up and ran the underground railroad, defying federal law that all runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. In the Second World War Christians hid Jews from the Nazis. In the 1950s and 60s Christians worked for civil rights. And, yes, a lot of establishment Christians opposed these things. And this paralleled the confrontations the Pharisees and other religious leaders had with Jesus. They were defenders of the status quo and Jesus was the defender of the marginalized and oppressed. They felt that the rules trumped the needs of people and Jesus said that healing and forgiving people came before the rules because no rule was greater that the commandments to love God and to love others.

In the Gospel of John it becomes clear that Jesus identified his glorification with his being lifted up on the cross. The glory of God is revealed in Jesus' self-sacrificial death for the world. That act is the ultimate manifestation of the depth of God's love for us. It would have been wonderful to have been on the mountain and to have seen what Peter, James and John saw. They needed that. But for the rest of the 12, and for us, the true moment where we see just who Jesus is occurs on not a mountain but a hill named Golgotha. And Jesus is not dressed in blindingly bright garments but is stripped naked and bathed in red. It is not a glorious sight as the world sees it but for those of us who see through the worship of power, what Jesus did in those hours on the cross is more glorious, more worthy of worship. True splendor is not that which dazzles the eye but that which pierces the heart: an act of love so pure, so freely given, so bereft of selfishness that the only reason we have trouble looking at it is because of our tears of joy. And that explains why when Jesus appeared to the disciples in his resurrection body, he still bore the marks of his crucifixion. His greatest glory was not to be seen in his new body but in the old scars, the lasting signs of his love for us, his fallen creatures, who once were lost but now, thanks to his sacrifice, are forever found.

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