Madeleine L’Engle, the Christian novelist and poet who’s best known for her Wrinkle in Time series, was once asked in an interview, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” It’s tempting to end the sermon there, but I’ll give you a little more…
Because this brilliant line from L’Engle could really transform the way we think about “Doubting Thomas.” Do you know that in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Thomas is not remembered as Doubting Thomas, but as Saint Thomas the Believer?
In Luke and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus famously says, “Seek and ye shall find!” Well, wasn’t Thomas a seeker in his moment of resurrection skepticism? Maybe Thomas found a little bit later than his friends, but he sought deeper and longer, and he had the integrity not to cave into peer pressure but to discover the truth for himself.
I wonder, is Thomas’ doubt a closed door or an open door? Is Thomas’ doubt his excuse for calling it quits and breaking up with God? Or is Thomas’ doubt an invitation for God to enter in more deeply? Is Thomas’ doubt maybe an echo of that wonderful line from Mark’s gospel, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
I’ll tell ya, I think Thomas gets a pretty bum rap, poor guy. Thomas is remembered by us as the bad disciple, the one who didn’t quite measure up, the one with the special needs, the one we shouldn’t be like. I don’t think that this has anything to do with what Thomas said or with what he did. I think it has to do with our own feelings, as people of faith, of guilt and shame about the doubts that we carry—that ALL OF US carry, because no one is without doubts. So, I wonder if Thomas has something to teach us about living with doubt and really LIVING with it.
The health of our doubt has to do with our perspective towards it—how we feel about its presence in our life and how we then express it. When Thomas got the news about the appearances that Jesus had made, something just didn’t click for him. It’s a whale of a tale after all. Jesus, Thomas has been told, has risen bodily from the grave. But when Mary first saw Jesus, she didn’t even recognize him—she thought Jesus was the gardener. And she didn’t touch him in John’s account. Jesus told her not to. Later, Jesus seems to materialize into a room with locked doors—something Spirits are well known for, but usually not bodies. The disciples saw the wounds of the cross and had the Holy Spirit breathed onto them, but they still didn’t touch Jesus.
Thomas’ doubt is a bold statement of need. He has no self-consciousness about being public and clear. What I need, said Thomas, who had just lost a friend he loved deeply, is to touch him. If that wasn’t a ghost you saw, if it wasn’t just his Holy Spirit, then I want to touch his body.
Thomas isn’t giving up here, is he? He’s certainly not being disrespectful. He’s not going to be poking at Jesus with a stick to make sure he’s solid. Thomas is seeking way more than “proof.” Thomas seeks and he doesn’t stop seeking until he finds his own intimate connection with the risen body of Jesus.
How we deal with doubt affects the health of our entire lives. Doubt is not just something that assails us in church. Oh no. If only it could be that easy. If only all we had to doubt were the mysteries of faith, but we have our whole lives to find doubt in, don’t we? Love, relationships, vocation, self-worth, talent, happiness—we know how to doubt it all, don’t we?
I was in a relationship once as a younger man in which we didn’t handle doubt well at all. We wanted to be together, and we loved one another deeply, but, wow, the doubting that we did was destructive. It’s not that doubt is inherently destructive. Doubt is normal and healthy. But we beat each other up with doubt. We weaponized it. Rather than using doubt as an opportunity to express our needs, we used it as an opportunity to accuse one another of the shortcomings we surely felt the other person had. Instead of using doubt to invite intimacy, we used it to create distance. Instead of using doubt to pay closer attention to one another and to seek together, we used it as an excuse to turn away from one another. Eventually, burdened under our ever-growing heap of doubt, our relationship predictably collapsed and buried us.
We can heap this kind of doubt onto our loved ones, ourselves, or God. I call this kind of doubt “closed doubt.” We use closed doubt as an excuse to care less, to hope less, to try less, and to run away. But that’s not all there is to doubt. I call doubt spinning in the opposite direction “open doubt.” Open doubt is a very different animal. Closed doubt is sure of itself—absolutely not. Open doubt’s not so sure—maybe not. Closed doubt rejects. Open doubt wonders. Closed doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, but I doubt there’s anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I doubt you could even get there if you tried.” Open doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, and I wonder if there is anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I wonder if it’s even possible to get there. I wonder if the old stories might have a part in my life. It’s hard to believe, but I wonder…”
I once heard a colleague of mine, Rev. Sekou, preach a sermon about faith. And he told this story about two women caring for a young child who was sick with fever. They didn’t have an icebox, so they had no way to cool the child off. So, one of the women took a bucket out from under the sink, put it out on the front steps, and came back inside, and then the two women together prayed for hail. Now when she put the bucket out, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky, if I remember the story right. But God heard the prayers, God saw their faith, and God sent the hail for the sick child.
I probably heard this story ten years ago now and it’s stuck with me. Putting out the bucket and praying for hail is a metaphor for faith. But I also think about the second woman in the story. There were two women caring for the child, remember. What was she doing in that story? She didn’t put the bucket out. And maybe she thinks this idea is as crazy as I thought it was when I first heard it. But when it came time to pray, she prayed too. That I think is a metaphor for open doubt—she left the bucket out on the steps and prayed even though she maybe didn’t believe. Sometimes imperfect faith and open doubt don’t look all that different.
To be sure, Thomas is carrying a lot of emotion with him, in our reading this morning, right? He’s mourning, he’s afraid, he’s angry. Now everyone is telling him these incredible stories, and if they’re true, he’s missed the most important moment of his life because he was out doing the shopping or something. He’s exhausted. But he leaves the bucket out on the front steps, right? He sticks around for a week. God hears this as an invitation. And Jesus responds by offering up his body, his most tender places, his still open wounds, to Thomas’ touch—an honor the other disciples didn’t seek, didn’t ask for, and didn’t receive.
Wonder is a key ingredient of an open doubt, but wonder can also be the outcome of open doubt—that wonderful moment when the hail hits the bucket. The numinous, awesome, terrific intimacy of putting your fingers inside the body of the resurrected Jesus—WOW! Wow…
So, Beloved, my prayer for all of you this Easter is that you be a little kinder to your doubts and to yourselves and to all of us doubters. Doubt is a normal, healthy, and even a necessary part of faith. Doubts can be burdensome to carry, but I think that’s because we carry our doubts as our private shame—a social stigma, the reason we don’t belong, the reason we’re different than everybody else at church! But faith actually requires doubt because we don’t always have “proof.” The hail doesn’t always fall right when we need it to. But if we just leave the bucket out, open to the sky, we may be surprised by the ways that God can come to fill it.
In 1917, Rudolf Otto, who was a German Lutheran theologian and comparative religionist, published a book called “The Idea of the Holy.” In this book he invented a new word: numinous. He defined the numinous as the beginning of all religious experience. It’s an experience of that which is wholly other, totally outside of yourself, a capital-M Mystery (like God, or maybe like the empty tomb) that leaves you feeling both fascinated and terrified.
We think we like to be terrified—a little bit, some of us. Some of us like roller coasters. People pay money and wait in line to scream upside down. Some people love scary movies. Ghosts, monsters, zombies, serial killers all get our adrenaline pumping. We think we like to be terrified, but really we just like to be exhilarated and frightened a little. We like the jump scream in the dark theater, the loop-de-loop at the amusement park. We like fear packaged as entertainment. Nobody really wants to be truly terrified. Most of us don’t really want to have to run for our lives from a guy with a chainsaw. Most of us don’t really want to meet an evil spirit on a dark and stormy night. And to be honest, for similar reasons, many of us don’t really want to encounter God either.
In fact, I would say that we fear the experience of encountering God most of all. That’s why Rudolf Otto had to create a new word, numinous, even just to describe it. Because we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of acknowledging that there may be something so much bigger and so much more wonderful than us that we disrespect the very words we have to communicate about these things! --Did you remember to pick up milk? --Yes. --Awesome. Really? Awesome? --Are you free Tuesday? --Yes. --Terrific. Terrific?! What do you mean by that, exactly?
We waste the word “awesome” on mundane things and we rob it of its power to describe truly awesome, awe-inspiring, holy things. We use the word “terrific” to just mean “very good” and we forget that a terrific thing is not just a great thing, it’s a great and terrifying thing—terror-ific. We don’t want to think about that. --Can I borrow a pen? --Here you go. --Terrific. --Were you able to find parking? --Yeah. --Awesome. We don’t even want those words in our vocabulary because they might point us towards the experience we’re most afraid of—truly encountering God.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark understands this, I think. The original version of the Gospel of Mark ended right where we ended our reading this morning, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Empty Tomb. Terror and Amazement. The End. The oldest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel, the book ends right there.
And it just drove people nuts. It was a little too ambiguous even for the true believers. They were afraid that this deficient gospel might confuse people or turn them off. So, they added endings. They added at least three endings to Mark’s gospel in different places, including the one or two that you’ll always read in your Bible—all of them adding in bits of the resurrection stories from the other three gospels—so that if you only read Mark’s gospel, you won’t be left thinking terror and amazement is all there is to the story.
But we have four gospels in our Bible, so we don’t have to miss out. And I think we should take seriously what Mark thought the most important part of the Easter story was without covering it up with the best parts of other versions of the story. If we’re going to hear the good news according to Mark, then our Easter morning can’t just be about the amazement and joy of resurrection, we also need to make a little room for terror, to be afraid—because that’s how Mark ends the whole story—with amazement and with terror. True, profound fear.
In some ways this is the perfect resurrection story for where we are right now in our history, right? Mark gives us the upheaval of the empty tomb—all the hope, all the possibility of the promise fulfilled, but also all the uncertainty, all the doubt, all the fear. Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s true! Oh my gosh… I can’t believe it’s true… I mean, we’re living in similar moment of upheaval.
There was a headline in the Washington Post yesterday, “As Coronavirus Vaccinations and Infections Surge, Hope Collides with Fear.” In the article they interviewed Dr. Laura Forman who runs the emergency room in the hospital in my hometown of Warwick, RI. She told them that a few weeks back, the first time she pulled into work and saw that the refrigerated truck they’d been using as a makeshift morgue was gone, all she could do was stare at the empty space where it had been and cry. “It was the most powerful symbol of hope,” she said.
But close on the heels of hope, there’s dread: There are variants, it looks like we’re in for another surge, mask mandates were dropped too soon in some places, there are still lots of adults who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, and what about kids—they’re not vaccinated yet. This could be a great summer of hope! Or it could be another pandemic summer. Which will it be? I don’t know! Hope collides with fear! An Easter Upheaval!
We’ve had a monumental change in our political fortunes recently in this country. Democrats control the presidency, the senate, and the house. Georgia went Blue! Can you believe it? If you lean left, you’re thrilled about it, you’re expecting big things. But a recent survey found that 2/3 of Republicans believe that the last election was stolen and invalid. There’s the looming shadow of the Capitol riot with its threat of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. Georgia has now just passed harsh new voting restrictions.
The moment of victory so quickly turns to pessimism. Are we riding high into a new Camelot or are we going to just be run over by politics as usual? Are we entering a new era of bipartisan cooperation or is the pendulum just swinging left through an increasingly polarized time? I don’t know! Sometimes it’s even hard to tell the good news from the bad news. If the democrats get rid of the filibuster so that they can push through as much of their legislative agenda as possible, is that good news or bad news? I honestly don’t know. The pathway to hope seems so narrow and so fraught.
Mark’s Easter morning story acknowledges something about good news—that all news, even good news, is complicated news. There is no good news—not even God’s good news—that will guarantee you a painless, conflict-free life. Mark acknowledges the way God works in our lives and in our world—through our faithful struggles to do right, to do good, and to do better. The good news of Easter morning is not that our struggles are over. In some way Mark’s message seems to be that Easter morning is both victory and struggle, but even in the struggles Mark promises us that the crucified and raised Christ goes ahead of us and will meet us again as promised.
We could complain that Mark doesn’t actually provide any “proof” of the resurrection! That seems to be a flaw. But maybe Mark was looking forward a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years, and he realized that whatever he might write down, nothing could ever “prove” resurrection to you or to me. Even as the other gospels record it, Jesus’ resurrection was a mostly private event—for Jesus’ disciples and closest followers only. It wasn’t televised. And so Mark chooses to end his gospel where the faith of every Christian must pick up—with the amazing possibility and the terrifying burden of believing.
Resurrection can’t be proven. You believe in it, or you don’t. If you don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, you maybe don’t believe it. But when people say that they don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, they mean proven in origin or proven in fact. We can’t see backwards 2,000 years, so we can’t prove exactly what happened in that empty tomb. And there’s no scientific evidence to support such a thing as resurrection ever happening. And that could be the end of the argument.
But there’s another way to believe, which is really more about faith (as in the way you live) than it is about belief (what you think). And it’s more about the end than about the origin. So, belief says, “You can’t prove that Jesus was resurrected 2,000 years ago.” But faith says, “I believe that the power of the resurrected Christ fulfills my life and can heal the world.” It’s more about art than it is about science. Science is about perceiving facts. Art is about expressing the truth, making it whole, making it beautiful.
If we believe that dead is dead and Jesus is dead, the world is a little less amazing. And that suits some of us just fine. We want a manageable world, a physical world, a universe free of capital-M Mysteries and capital-M Meaning, a universe that we can eventually entirely conquer and understand. A universe that will eventually run out of surprises. Where a human life doesn’t count for much, but on the upside, you don’t have to worry about how you fit into the bigger picture, if there is no bigger picture. A little less amazing, a little less terrifying. A universe where the word awesome can best describe a really good cupcake you ate and has no further application.
But if we believe in a living, resurrected Christ—that changes everything. Every particle in the universe is touched by that light. We can’t prove resurrection in origin, but if we make it a part of our faith and if we live it out as the truth and meaning of our lives, it transforms us. We prove it in faith. We prove it in action. We prove it with the world we build together. We prove it with love.
Resurrection adds WOW to our lives, but sometimes WOW is terrifying. A living Christ in everything? Suddenly we’re so much more than we thought! Everybody else is too. And simultaneously, we’re suddenly not sufficient unto ourselves anymore. We need God, we need one another. The universe has been cracked open and at it’s true center there’s not just atoms, and particles, and fields—No, there’s meaning, truth, purpose, calling. WOW! Wow…
Beloved, Easter morning is not just for us true believers. It doesn’t matter maybe if you believe in resurrection or not, or even if you believe in God or not. Mark is inviting all of us to feel the awesome, terrific possibility that we don’t know where the limits of the universe or of ourselves are set. Mark is inviting us to rush out into a transformed, numinous universe and to live as if there is Mystery and Meaning everywhere.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding. Not a glass of water into a glass of wine, mind you. Jesus transformed six stone jars each holding 20 or 30 gallons of water into fine wine. That’s somewhere in the range of 600 to 900 bottles of wine. Because before Jesus ever preached a word of the Kingdom of God, before he ever came face to face with a world of sickness and poverty and sorrow, Jesus attended and served our joy. And this isn’t some heavenly “joy” so stripped to the bone that no one would ever want it. This is a party! This is carousing! This is 180 gallons worth of laughter, dancing, and celebration! Real, human, incarnated, communal joy.
And it wasn’t a one off either. Jesus described himself as the Son of Humanity who has come eating and drinking. And his critics would complain about him, “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus was no John the Baptist eating locusts out in the dessert. No one would ever have accused John the Baptist of having too much fun. But Jesus’ ministry often happened at tables with food and wine and undesirables. For Jesus, repentance and joy were not incompatible. Repentance was a return to God, and a return to God is joy.
And so from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we now arrive at the beginning of the end. Jesus is days away from being betrayed, being arrested, being crucified. He’s days away from his own death. But his joy hasn’t left him. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has come to be known as the Triumphal Entry, but we could just as easily call it the Joyful Entry. It’s a parade. It’s street theater. It’s a demonstration. It’s fun! Joy radiates out of the parade’s center—radiates out of Jesus. It infects the whole crowd. And precisely because it’s fun and precisely because it’s full of joy, it’s the ideal event to draw people in, to make them want to participate, and to help them understand that Jesus’ values are their values.
This is a sermon about joy, but here we have a question we need to take seriously as Christians and as the Church: Where is our joy? How often does our worship of God spill out into the streets? How often do we make ourselves a public spectacle? How often do we risk looking foolish (the way that Jesus almost certainly looked foolish riding on the colt of a donkey)? How often do passersby take a look at what we’re up to and say, “Hey, I don’t wanna miss this!”
All this Lent one of our themes has been Lent of Liberation. We’re reading a Lenten devotional by that name that hopes to empower us or challenge us to confront and reverse the detrimental legacy of slavery for Black people in America. In order for us to have this conversation (or any conversation we might have about race, racism, and privilege) requires us to cultivate certain values or virtues—virtues that makes us good communicators both in speaking our truth and in hearing the truths of others.
So, this Lent I’ve been preaching about virtues. I started with humility, courage, and compassion. But I worried a little bit about recommending virtues that are really so well inside our comfort zones. Because I think so often we Christians think of ourselves as the stable, respectable, virtuous types. And we can get stuck there. And we can take ourselves a little too seriously and we can be a little dour. The “frozen chosen” as we’re sometimes called. And we impose this stereotype back on our whole tradition, back on Jesus, and back on God. When we do that, I think we really idolize our own respectability rather than allowing God’s loving, and Jesus’ outrage, and the Holy Spirit’s ecstasy to transform us into the people God desires us to be.
We have to remember that Jesus was not respectable. He was an outsider, a rabble rouser, a baby donkey rider, and this morning he is days away from being just another executed criminal, just another Jewish dissident dead on a Roman cross. Which is why for these last three weeks of Lent I’ve tried to round out our respectable virtues with some virtues that are much more suspect—anger, longing, and today, most important of all, joy.
Joy gets a lot of lip service in the Church, certainly, but real joy, true joy—180 gallons worth of the finest, street-parading, crowd-rousing, slain-in-the-Spirit joy, does not often come out of the closet in most of our churches. We keep real joy in the closet because we’re respectable people with reputations to think about. And if joy comes out of the closet, we’re afraid of what might come along with it. Because once joy is really and truly out the closet, soon the joy of children comes of the closet as well. And the children are dancing and singing in the aisles during the hymns instead of being hushed and sent off. And then the joy of sex slips out of the closet. And people refuse to be ashamed anymore of who God made them to be or who God calls them to love. And the LGBTQ community, who have refused to die in the closet unacknowledged and unfulfilled, might begin to show up in numbers, in marriages, in families loud and proud and fabulous. And then there will truly be nothing left of our dignity to prevent us all (to borrow a phrase from Dan Savage) from skipping off to Gomorrah.
We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, not to love respectability. And in the in the commandment that follows it and is like it, “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” the operative word is “love.” It cannot be reformulated, “repress your neighbor as you repress yourself.” Joy is at the very heart of the expression of love. If we don’t get joy right, we can’t get love right.
In fact, I’ll go even further than that. What use is any virtue if it makes you miserable? Remember what Jesus tells us every Ash Wednesday: If you’re going to fast this Lent, don’t be miserable about it. Don’t go around crying about it. Wash your face! Anoint yourself with oil! If you’re miserable about it, you’re just wasting your time.
Now, I’m not saying abandon all virtues or activities that are hard or challenging or uncomfortable to you and pursue the vices instead for cheap thrills. I’m saying that God is at the heart of all virtues. Therefore, joy is at the heart of all virtues. And if we practice a humility or a courage or an anger or a longing that isn’t joyful—deeply, soulfully joyful— we’ve missed the mark somehow. Virtues without joy are dead.
Jesus on Palm Sunday is the embodiment of joy in virtue. He is going to the cross to die. He’s riding on a baby donkey like a clown. But Jesus is answering his calling with a joy that we still feel today. We still wave our palms; we still shout Hosanna. Why? What is it that moves us about this story? We see Jesus fulfilling his highest calling. We see him putting together a bit of a show for us. We see the twinkle in his eye. The mischievous little twist of a smile on his face. We feel what I think the crowd must have felt when they saw him, “Well, I’ll be gosh darned! He’s doing what? Crazy son of a gun! Look at him go! I don’t want to miss this!”
And finally here is my best answer to how can we hope to have productive and empowering conversations with people who have truths to speak that are different than our truths, challenging of our privilege, and uncomfortable to our consciences. The answer is we must make a joyful entry enter into the conversation and into the relationship. It won’t always be easy to discuss what is dividing us and what is killing some of us or what the remedies are. I’ve found myself a little depressed and sometimes in tears and sometimes feeling a whole range of difficult and unpleasant emotions as I work through the daily devotionals of Lent of Liberation. But I return to my reading each day with joy because I know that the truth contained in these pages is a truth that brings me closer to my neighbors and closer to God. And a return to God is always a joy.
Beloved, Paul tells the Corinthians in our reading this morning that they should let the same mind that was in Christ Jesus be within them. Now the word translated “be of the same mind” here in the Greek wasn’t just a word about thinking, it was also a word about feeling. You could also translate it, “be of the same heart as Jesus.” Jesus, who gave himself to his calling and to the cultivation of his best spiritual gifts and who through humility, and emptying and longing, and courage, compassion, righteous anger, a bit of foolishness and theater, and a whole lotta wine achieved a joy that could not be contained, that spilled out of him. “If the people were silent, the stones would shout!” he says in Luke’s gospel.
If the stones can shout, then there’s hope for me, Beloved. There’s hope for all of us that we too can enter into God’s joy.
Let me begin this morning by reading you a rather steamy little love poem… Take a deep breath because this is more of a 10 o’clock at night poem than a ten in the morning poem, if you know what I mean:
How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon...
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
Your lips distill nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices--
a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Phew! My Goodness! What a love poem! What eroticism! That deep desire and longing. My, my, my. If you’d like to find a copy of this poem for yourself, all you need to do is open your Bibles. I was reading you the fourth chapter of the Song of Songs.
How’d something like that make is past the decency police? My goodness! Well, it’s all about interpretation. Traditionally, the Song is spiritualized—whatever its origins, we read the Song as being about God’s relationship with Israel, or Jesus’ relationship to the Church, or God’s relationship to the individual soul. It’s not about two lovers, it’s about God and us. It’s about God and you.
And I want you to hear that desire this morning—God’s desire for this world and for all of us. I want you to hear that longing this morning. It is not a minor longing. Is it? It is not a sterile longing. Is it? It’s not merely an intellectual or even a spiritual longing. Is it? It’s better to compare God’s longing for us to the most sacred longings of our bodies and souls—falling in love, the quickening of your pulse and your breath when you see your lover, being ravished by a look, by a brush of the hand. This is something like how God feels about us.
Keep that kind of longing—that depth of longing—in mind as we come to Jesus’ words this morning: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God longs for us so much that God became one of us. God poured herself out for us. I’m not talking about crucifixion, I’m just talking about incarnation. God incarnated herself, enfleshed herself to become a creature like us: a creature with a body, with desire, with longing, with hands for touching and healing, a mouth for speaking to us and eating with us, eyes to look at us with, a heart that would beat faster at the sight of us. A creature with limitations and all the risks of pain, and vulnerability, and discomfort, and hurt that come with life. God risked it all, even death. God poured herself out into Jesus not just because God loved the world, but because God so loved the world. Because God longs for us, God isn’t satisfied with just loving us at a distance. God longs to be with us, to be near us, to touch us, to be as close to each of us and to all of us as it is possible to be.
But God isn’t a bully. Or an abuser. Or a tyrant of souls. Our God is not like Zeus coming down like a bull to carry us off willing or not. In order to be united with God we have to return that longing. It has to be mutual. As the great preacher and mystic Howard Thurman would say, we must turn over the nerve center of our consent to God. We, as Christians, come to God through Jesus, just as God comes to us through Jesus. Jesus is the body where divine longing for the human and human longing for the divine meet.
Beloved, what do you long for? What do you desire most?
Our relationship to our longings and desires is complicated. Do you know five of the seven deadly sins are about longings? Envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth. That’s a lot of pressure on our desire—a lot of negative attention. We’ve been taught that too much desire is dangerous and that not enough desire is unhealthy. And threading the eye of that needle never seems graceful, it always feels like we’re missing the mark. Desire is supposed to be joyful. But how often do our longings bring us closer to true joy?
We live in this materialistic, capitalistic, consumer society that depends on our longings (and even sometimes our addictions) to keep the economy going. We all need to do our part! Marketers and advertisers manipulate us and highjack our desires. Not happy with yourself? Frustrated with the state of the world? Modern life totally unmanageable and dissatisfying? Buy this! Binge that! Ask your doctor if new Meanaride is right for you!
We’re all born with longing. Longing is there to keep us alive, to direct us to the best things in life (like love, beauty, joy), and ultimately our longing is what connects us to one another—lovers, parents and children, friends, family, community. God made longing for us, God gave desire to us. But we’ve grown suspicious of desire, we’ve made it illicit, we’ve filled it with alcohol and sugar and plastic. We’ve disconnected and disrupted our lifeline to God and to one another. God is singing to us, like a lover calling the beloved to the window just to catch a glimpse of us. But where have we placed our desire? What do we long for?
We can’t ignore that once again this Lent we’re being faced with questions about salvation. Two weeks ago, we spoke about Jesus’ bottom line in Matthew’s gospel. There Jesus says if you care for the needs of the least of these, you care for me. If you ignore their needs, you reject me. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoners will inherit eternal life. Those who do not will be sent into eternal punishment.
Clearly, salvation has something to do with judgement and with eternal life. Matthew’s Jesus says the bottom line is how we treat the most vulnerable and marginalized people. Jesus tells us that our connection to God is inseparable from our connection to other people. The greatest commandment is love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And a second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
But in our reading this morning, John’s Jesus seems to say the bottom line all comes down to how you believe in him. And it’s from here that we’re taught that we need to believe in Jesus who came into the world not just to be with us but to die for our sins, and when we believe in Jesus we accept that sacrifice so that we can go to heaven.
But thinking about this longing, is forgiveness and a trip to heaven all God desires for us? This God who desires us so completely. This God who came to us on earth to show us how to live with one another and how to treat one another in life. It seems to me that God wants to get inside the innermost longings of human existence. God wants her longing and our longing to become one mutual longing. God doesn’t just want to forgive us and then snatch us off to heaven after we die. God wants her love to transform us in this life. She longs to become the nerve center of our consent. She longs to be in relationship with us, with all of us, not just as individual saved souls, but as a whole loving, caring, mutual, transformed world—for God so loved the world.
Beloved, the beginning of faith, the beginning of meaning, the beginning of any kind of relationship is longing. It began with God’s longing for us. God created us out of a longing to be with us. God entered the world through Jesus because God longed to be closer to us. But we must respond to God’s longing for us with our own longing for God and for one another.
I believe that we’re born with this longing. It’s a longing for what is most true, most important, most beautiful, most good. It’s a longing for love, and touch, and food, and water, and sunlight, and joy, purpose, fulfillment, relationships, community. If we follow this longing, and if we don’t let anyone squash it or let anyone make us feel guilty for feeling such passion for life and love, if we let it guide us and grow us, our longing leads us to good things, it leads us to God who is at the heart of our deepest longings—God who is the missing answer to the questions we can hardly put into words.
But there are so many things competing with our attention, competing with our desire for the things that are good for us. Things that do not have our best interests in mind. And, so, we must long for the light. We must long to be seen so that we can see others. We must long to be known as we truly are, and long to know others as they truly are. Fear will never bring us out of the dark. Fear will never open us up to God or to one another. Fear and sealed off opportunities and unfulfilled needs will never open up the doors of heaven.
It is only love that can do that—longing. How can we believe in Jesus if we don’t long for him? How can we care for the least of these if we don’t long to be with them?
Beloved, belief is not merely an intellectual assent. It’s a longing that draws us ever closer to God. A longing that empties us and fulfills us. Care is not flinging a coin to a beggar. It’s a longing that draws us ever closer to our neighbors. A longing that empties us and transforms us. What do you long for? What do you desire most?
In early September last year my mom, Roberta Mansfield, was in the hospital. She’d gone to the hospital for her chemotherapy (my father practically had to carry her in), and once the staff saw how sick she was—the cancer was bad, the therapy had been brutal, and her body was just shutting down—and once the hospital staff saw how bad she was, they skipped the treatment and just admitted her.
My mom’s cancer doctors and nurses were always very positive. I guess they feel like they have to be because you never know for sure what someone’s outcome is going to be. And who wants to give someone bad news? They told my mom she would be in for just a few days until they got this and that sorted out and then she’d have her treatment and go home. Nothing to worry about, they told her and my dad.
If I was a doctor or a nurse, I think I’d have a hard time telling people that there was nothing to worry about—just a few days. Because I’d always want to tell people the truth. This is a problem I have.
When my time is up, I want to know. I want a doctor who’ll look me right in the eyes and say, “Mr. Mansfield, of course I don’t know for sure, but I think this is probably the end of line. There’s nothing left that we can do. I’d guess you’ve got a couple weeks left at most before you die. I’m so sorry.” I can think of no greater kindness to give someone at the end of their life than that. I would be eternally grateful for that honest message and for the courage it took to deliver it.
By the time I got up to Rhode Island to visit my mom she had already been in the hospital for a week with no release in sight. I’ll never forget that night I spent talking to Mom in the hospital—how tired she was, the discomfort she was felling, how she would just look me right in the eye without saying a word for a minute or more. I had never seen her do that before—just look at me like that. At some point I realized: this is what fear looks like when the person feeling it is too tired to move.
I’ll never forget how Mom eventually told me that she thought she’d be better off at home, released from the hospital, and in hospice. I’ll never forget the courage it must have taken to tell her little boy that she couldn’t go on and that she “wanted” to die.
Of course, part of me wanted to yell, “But you can’t die! You’re my Mom! I need you.” I don’t know. Maybe it was because of Peter that I knew I couldn’t say that. Instead, I said, “Mom, when your doctor comes in tomorrow, you look him right in the eye and you tell him, ‘Doctor, I think this is probably the end of line for me. I don’t want any more treatments. I’d like to go home and be put on hospice. Is there any reason that you can see that we shouldn’t do that today?’” The next morning that’s what Mom did, and she was back home that night.
I have a lot of reasons to be proud of my mom, but right there at the end she made me so proud again. She took control of her death. She wasn’t happy about it. She wasn’t unafraid. But she knew it was inevitable, that there was nothing anyone could do. She knew she was going die and she told us so. She told me and the rest of the family. She told her doctor. She told hospice. And we all supported her in her courageous final days. She died at home 12 days after being released from the hospital.
In 1921, Karle Wilson Baker published a poem called Courage that would be the stuff of motivational posters’ dreams for generations to come. The brilliant closing lines of the poem are these: “Courage is Fear / That has said its prayers.” I always thought that was a great line. But then I saw my mom actually make that line come to life. And I realized because of my mom how true it is that you can’t really be brave without being afraid. Courage is the transfiguration of fear, not the absence of it, not the banishment of it.
One thing I have in common with doctors and nurses is that I think a lot of people want to be comforted by healthcare professionals—we call it a good bedside manner. And, of course, people want their pastor to be a source of comfort to them as well. And I think when we think of comfort, we think of saying things like, “You know my cousin’s wife had cancer and she took the chemotherapy, and she was fine.” We think of the doctor smiling and the nurse patting our hand and saying, “Just a few days—nothing to worry about.”
Maybe that’s all that Peter was trying to do—to say to Jesus, “Don’t say that! You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen! My auntie got detained in Jerusalem once for giving a legionary a sour look, but nobody crucified her, did they?” Maybe he was just trying to be positive—I’m sure it will all work out!
But I’ve realized that there’s another kind of comfort as well. The comfort that looks you right in the eye and tells you the truth with kindness and love. My mom’s most experienced hospice nurses demonstrated this to us. They came into the house like it was a house where someone was dying. They looked at you like they were looking at someone who was about to see his mom die. They spoke to Mom like you speak to someone who’s dying. Not with pity. Not with false hope. But with respect and honesty—and with an awareness that they’re in a sacred space. It’s like they know that they’ll have forgotten your face within a few weeks of the death, but they also know that you’ll remember them forever.
When we seemed like we were thinking a little too optimistically, they helped gently steer us back to making decisions more aligned with Mom’s reality. When we worried about giving Mom more morphine than she needed, they told us the truth, “You have nothing to worry about.” It was comforting to be told the truth.
Just like my mom told the truth, just like the hospice nurses told the truth, maybe that’s all Jesus was trying to do. Maybe he was trying to prepare the disciples for what was coming. He didn’t want them taken by surprise. He owed them that respect. He knew he couldn’t enact the Kingdom of God on earth forever without the powers of the Kingdoms and Empires of this world killing him for it. He just wanted to tell them the truth. It must have been hard to do.
One of our themes this Lent is Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery. I’m reading a Lenten devotional by that name and you all are invited to join with me in reading and discussing the text this Lent. Our first discussion is this evening at 7:30, there’s an announcement in your bulletin with the details. Last week I told you that if we’re going to hear another person’s truth, especially if their perspective is different than ours, it requires us to cultivate humility—to bow low before God and to admit that we don’t know everything; to bow low before our neighbors, low enough to consider their truth, their perspective.
It does take humility to have a difficult conversation. It takes humility to see things from a different perspective. And it takes courage to tell the truth to someone you know would probably really rather not hear such uncomfortable truths. And it takes courage to accept a truth that maybe makes you angry, or makes you feel guilty, or annoyed, or maybe breaks your heart.
In these types of situations, we see the limitations of comfort. Comfort can’t fix a broken thing. Sometimes the truth can’t either, of course. But at least the truth looks you in the eye. At least the truth knows it’s standing on sacred ground. At least the truth is willing to pick up its cross and carry it as far as it can. And there is comfort in that. I doubt a comforting lie ever empowered anyone to take up their cross. I think only the comforting truth can do that. “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
Why did Jesus have to die? I don’t really know. Why did my mom have to die? I don’t know. But when she told me the truth, I believed her.
The story goes that someone once asked a rabbi why it was that in the old days God used to show right up and speak to people and be seen by them, but nowadays nobody ever sees God anymore. The rabbi replied: “Nowadays there is no longer anybody who can bow low enough” (related by Carl Jung in Man and His Symbols).
This morning, the first Sunday of Lent, I want to talk to you about humility—about the possibility of bowing low enough. If not bowing low enough to see God like in the old days, then at least bowing low enough to see and to hear a little more of the truth. And what is the truth? At least bowing low enough to see one another. Because seeing one another and hearing the truth that comes from another person’s mouth, another person’s experience that is different than ours, is not easy.
To encounter the truth that is bigger than ourselves requires a spiritual shift in perspective. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that shift in perspective is—about how to describe it. And I know that at least part of the answer, part of the low bow to God and to our neighbors, is the cultivation of the virtue of humility.
The first thing we need to discuss in a little more detail is humility’s public relations problem. Just like any virtue, if practiced without intention, and without awareness of context, and without concern as to its effects on the practitioner or upon others, then humility can be transformed from a virtue into a tragic character flaw—a deadly sin. It is possible to believe that we’re being humble when really we are being dangerously self-deprecatory or docile in the face God’s will. Our prayer of confession this morning put it nicely (Marlene Kropf, Congregational and Ministerial Leadership, Mennonite Church USA):
I pour out my sins of pride,
unbending, unyielding arrogance,
self-righteous zeal for perfection,
vicious grasp of my own destiny.
AND… I pour out my sins of refusal to take my place,
failure to speak,
unwillingness to be counted.
We also have to remember that in this country for hundreds of years, much of what was preached as the supposed Gospel of Jesus Christ was, in fact, nothing but slaveholder religion—a moral abomination and a Christian heresy that told Black people held in the bonds of slavery that they should be meek and humble and compliant and accept the yoke and the rod of slavery as God’s good intention for them. And that sentiment is still in the system, it’s still out there, it’s still preached. The context and the language have been updated, but we haven’t completely exorcised slaveholder religion from American culture or from American Christianity. And so we must be careful about who recommends humility to whom and to what ends.
Similarly, women in our churches have always been expected to display the virtues of humility more than men. For thousands of years, we have asked women to step back, to quiet down, and to cover up. When they have complained about their oppression or their abuse, the Church has often told them that this is their cross to bear—with the grace and humility appropriate for their sex. And so we must be careful about who recommends humility to whom and to what ends.
Humility can be thought of as a kind of submission, but it must always be a submission to love, a submission to righteousness, a submission to justice, to fairness, and to equity, and never to their opposites. When we are truly humble, others may laugh at us, others may jeer at us, others may disrespect or even attack us, but true humility leaves us empowered and in control—we are humble, we are never humiliated.
The Black and White protesters who sat in at lunch counters throughout the South to protest segregation were howled at and beaten. They had food dumped over their heads, they had cigarettes put out on their arms. They were called vile names. They didn’t fight back physically. They let that hatred break on them like a storm on the rocks.
And then the police came and hauled them off to jail. When in court they were given a choice of paying a fine or spending a month or more in jail, most of the protesters took jail—not because they couldn’t afford to pay, but because they wanted to show the powers that be that they could withstand the worst that the system could throw at them. The segregationists told Black people to stay humble and to accept their place. Instead, the Civil Rights Movement used true humility to throw the mighty down from their thrones—because sometimes heaven shall not wait. Just as a false sense of superiority is not humility, neither is a false sense of inferiority. True humility is about finding the real sense of who you are, who God created you to be—not too big, not too small.
One of our Lenten themes this year is “Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery.” I’m reading a Lenten devotional by that name and you all are invited to join with me in reading and discussing the text this Lent. As I’ve been reading and preparing myself for Lent and reading about the struggle for racial justice and even just the conversation around racial justice—how we talk about race and racial justice, I feel like our greatest challenge to seeing, believing, and acting on the truth is our limited perspective—a truly human problem, built right into our essential nature: None of us knows it all. That right there is reason for humility.
Instead, what we see is that if the truth is convenient to us, we accept it. Because you don’t ever have to bow to a convenient truth. You don’t ever have to bow to a convenient religion, to an expedient morality, a cheap grace, an easy God.
But when the truth is complicated and difficult to understand or when the truth convicts us or feels uncomfortable to our opinions of ourselves or our lifestyle, we don’t wanna bow. And much of the time, we may not even be aware of the mental and moral gymnastics we’re performing in order to keep our backs straight and our knees unbent.
If only we could see as God sees! But Psalm 139 tells us that “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” And we can never attain it by going high. The only way available to us for getting closer to God’s perspective is to go low—to take the Lenten path, to bow a little deeper, to make a practice of humility.
The Psalm concludes, “Search me, know my heart, test me, know my thoughts. I won’t try to hide from you anymore because you know me completely and I’m going to stop pretending that you don’t—even my sin, even my wickedness, I’m going to give it to you, so that you can lead me in the way.” You can only sing those lines from a downcast position. To sing them and to mean them requires the lowest kind of bowing down there is—the surrender of the soul to grace and to love. It is not the position of the know-it-all, not the position of the authority, not the position of someone who has locked onto the perspective of their own ego to the exclusion of all competing perspectives.
Someone once asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And a second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And a second is like it. These are not two arbitrary and unrelated commandments. They are deeply connected. So, if you are going to bow low to God’s perspective, you also have to bow low enough to hear your neighbor’s perspective.
Wait. What about the flat earthers? What about Qanon? What about neo-Nazis? Am I really supposed to bow down to their conspiracy theories and lies? No! Absolutely not. In the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, Lewis tells us that when civil rights protesters went out to perform non-violent civil disobedience, it was his intention to “look my attacker in the eyes.” We’re not bowing down to anyone’s opinions or to their hatred, we’re bowing low to the Image of God within them.
Our neighbors are not always right. In fact, a little time on your neighborhood Facebook group will prove to you that your neighbors all disagree. We do not bow low enough to hear our neighbors’ perspectives because they are right, we bow low enough to listen to our neighbors because that is a part of loving our neighbors. I do not bow low enough to hear my neighbors’ perspectives because they are always right, I bow low enough to hear the perspective of others because I am not always right.
In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man we see the consequences of being too high and lofty to bend our ear to the experience of another person. I can imagine that the rich man had all sorts of excuses for remaining comfortable with Lazarus lying at his gate and suffering. We continue to hear these excuses today—sometimes they come out of our own mouths: “Well, Lazarus he must have taken a wrong turn in his life to have ended up like that. He must have done something to deserve it. He must have gotten himself addicted. He must not have worked hard enough. I bet he makes a lot of money sitting there and begging all day. Not to mention how much we give in taxes to clean up after problems like him. And you don’t get sores like that all over your body unless you’re not careful—I can’t be blamed for his “lifestyle choice.” And haven’t I worked hard for everything I’ve got? Don’t I deserve to enjoy it? Shouldn’t I be able to take a break and not have to worry about people like Lazarus?”
We’ve all had judgmental and haughty thoughts like this that accounted ourselves too high and other people too low. And Jesus tells us in the parable that when we aren’t serious enough about the absolutely necessary spiritual practice of bowing low enough to hear the perspective of another, we fix a great chasm between ourselves and others that is impossible to cross. Those of us who have privilege—and many of us do, whether it be male privilege, or straight privilege, or white privilege, or the privilege of economic status or educational degree or citizenship—those of us who have privilege ought to pay close attention to the fate of the rich man. Lazarus was already humble. It was the rich man who needed to learn to bow. But he didn’t.
So, this Lent I recommend to you a practice of an empowering humility. We have tried recently to solve our problems in this country with arrogance, with bitter fighting, and without consideration of any kind for our neighbors. Many of our fellow citizens are committed to that path. But it is a path to hell and destruction for ourselves and our neighbors. We cannot force anyone off that path they’ve chosen. Abraham says it clearly, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
My responsibility lies with me. I can choose to step off the path of destruction. I can choose to listen with empathy and compassion to my neighbors even when their truth makes me feel uncomfortable. I can choose to emulate the humility and strength of John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. I can choose to bow lower than I have ever bowed before.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in God’s image,
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
—Genesis 1:26–27 (NRSV, alt.)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Child of Humanity had risen from the dead.
—Mark 9:2–9 (NRSV, alt.)
In my sermon this morning I’m going to be talking about racism and transfiguration. And I’m indebted in my thinking here to a former Minister of Racial Justice for the United Church of Christ, Rev. Elizabeth Leung. I couldn’t have gotten to this place without her work. So, thank you, Rev. Leung for your ministry.
OK, I’m gonna start you off with a quick Sunday School lesson this morning, just to lay the foundation down for you. Then we’re going to climb a mountain to see what we can see and to see who we might be. Then I’m going to tell you why I’m over here on this side of the chancel at the lectern instead of standing over there at the pulpit like I usually do—I know you’re all dying to know why: stay tuned to find out!
OK, Sunday school first! Gather ‘round little ones: Genesis tells us that we human beings have all been created in the Image of God. What does that mean exactly—created in the Image of God? Does that mean that God has thumbs, just like me? A bellybutton too? A spleen, perhaps?
Aside from the unfortunate fact that the patriarchy has still got many of us pretty convinced that God is a man, we’ve mostly understood for a good long time that God isn’t like us like that—in physical form. It’s other things—language, morality, consciousness, love, creativity—these are the ways we’re created in the Image of God.
God doesn’t look like us! But, still, somehow, we still look like God. There is still something sacred about the physical human image in all of its created diversity—because God created humanity to be physical and to be diverse. And I believe that our physical diversity of sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, body shapes, sizes, and abilities is a part of our creation, a part of our humanity, and therefore a part of our reflection of the Image of God.
So, it’s not just morality and creativity and language that make us reflections of God’s Image. It’s also our diversity. And diversity joined together through the bonds of loving relationships is called community. Human beings were created to be in beloved community together. That’s part of what it means to be human. That’s part of what it means to be God. After all, doesn’t God say, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”? When your species reflects God, you don’t look like just one thing because God contains multitudes. God talks to herself. God is everything.
So here’s the Sunday School lesson for Racial Justice Sunday: Because we are created in God’s image and because it is in our very diversity that humanity most fully reflects God’s Image, racism is not only a sinful human system of devaluing, oppressing, and exploiting people based on the color of their skin, racism is also a disfigurement or a disfiguration of the Image of God inherent in Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.
Someone once asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And a second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And a second is like it. These are not two arbitrary and unrelated commandments. They are deeply connected because if you hate your neighbor, if you oppress your neighbor, if you devalue your neighbor, you are desecrating and disfiguring the very Image of God that you claim to love.
This is all stuff we should have learned in Sunday School: God doesn’t have thumbs (and isn’t an old white man with a beard), but we still look like God (all of us) because we human beings are thinking, loving, and beautifully diverse. Racism is an evil that infects the way we think, infects the way we love, and infects the way we live together. It’s a sin against God and a sin against our neighbors. It is a systemic social disease in effect, but it is a systemic spiritual disease in origin: It is a disfigurement of that which is most human—God’s Image. Racism is a disfigurement of that which is most human—God’s Image. That make sense?
OK, Sunday School lesson is over. Now, we’re going to go out for a little Sunday hike. We’re going to hike up a mountain with Jesus, and Peter, James, and John. We climb and we climb and we climb, and when we get to the top, we look out over the world and Jesus is transfigured: He’s shining with light, his clothes are brighter than any white fabric we’ve ever seen, he’s talking with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, and we hear the voice of God.
Jesus’ human form which had always reflected God’s Image is now radiating God’s Image. Jesus’ body has become like the burning bush—God is literally shining and speaking through him. Instead of a disfiguration of God’s image, Jesus’ shows us what transfiguration looks like—that transfiguration is possible.
We learned in Sunday School, of course, that Jesus is fully human and fully God at the same time. The mistake we make when we climb the mountain is that we assume that Jesus’ transfiguration is a part of him being fully God. But I think the transfiguration is about being fully human—as God intended us to be. When the burning bush appeared to Moses, was that particular bush chosen because it was fully God? No, it was simply fully bush—transfigured by the energy of God, burning but not consumed.
We live in a racist society. All of us in this society are witnessing a disfiguration of the Image of God all around us that dehumanizes all of us and that limits our ability to participate in God’s fire, God’s light, God’s energy. The Apostle Peter warns his readers that participation in sinful ways can block us from “becom[ing] participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3–4).To correct this disfiguration of God's image within us we need a culture-wide Transfiguration towards what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community—a diverse, antiracist society ruled by justice and love.
We, the Church, are the Body of Christ. And if Christ’s body was transfigured on the mountaintop, then this Body of Christ can be transfigured too. Like Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image. ”God gave us God’s own image. We have disfigured that image. And through Jesus, we can transfigure it too. The more we become fully, justly, lovingly, diversely human, the closer we come to the one who made us so.
OK, very good, would you please tell us now why you’re standing over there. It’s driving me crazy. All right! I’m at the lectern this morning because I want us to imagine what the first steps of transfiguration could look like in our church. And, so, I wanted to preach with this piece of artwork behind me. I’ll let you take a closer look—buckle up!
Just take a look. What do you see? Who do you see? Who do you not see?
I see Jesus sitting on a little hill of sorts. And he almost looks like the transfigured Jesus. His clothes are perfectly white. And he’s surrounded by light. This isn’t the transfiguration though, it’s a representation of Jesus allowing the little children to come to him after the disciples tried to chase them off. What you can’t see on screen is that there’s a plaque underneath this painting that says, “In loving memory of David George Minasian, August 29, 1959–October 16, 1959.”
The Minasian family was a very prominent family in our congregation and community. For 110 years we’ve been giving out the annual Minasian Bible Award to an outstanding Christian educator in our congregation. And the stained-glass window “Righteousness, Truth, & Beauty” was donated by the Minasian family. And one of the Minasians was a mayor of Glen Ridge in the 1940s.
Little David Minasian was less than two months old when he died in 1959. I can’t imagine the pain of his mother and father, his brothers and sisters, his grandparents as they sat in these pews in their grief. I hope I never know pain like that. And I am so glad that they had a church that let them paint their grief and their hope and their love on the wall of the sanctuary. Amen to that.
All that being said, we must also observe the painfully obvious: that everyone in this picture is white. It is a reflection no doubt of its time and culture, and we must remember it was the time and culture of segregation and Jim Crow in this country.
We see that Jesus is depicted as a white person of European descent. Of course, we all know that Jesus was not white. Jesus had no European ancestry. He was a brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern Jew. Now cultures all across the world have tended to depict Jesus in their own image. But in our culture, which has so often preferred and uplifted the image and form of white people while denigrating and disrespecting the images and forms of people of color, is it justifiable to continue to entertain the comfortable fantasy of white people that Jesus was white?
There are 16 children in the painting, they are all white—every last one. And I mean really white. These kids have not been to the beach lately. And I have no doubt that in 1959 that was an accurate reflection of the demographics of this congregation. But God be praised that is no longer the case. We are Black, we are South Asian and East Asian, we are Middle Eastern and Cuban and Brazilian and mixed race and bi-racial and more.
If you were a child of color looking at this image at the front of your church, what would it say to you? I think it would say to me: You have no place in God’s Image. That is a racist message that cannot be ignored or allowed to stand unchallenged in this congregation. It must be transfigured.
How do we do that? I don’t know! We’re going to need to think about that together, and I hope we do because there is an opportunity here for us—an opportunity to see God more clearly.
Now, you all know that we’re in the midst of a culture war over one kind of “art” in particular—confederate statues. There are a lot of people who want them taken down because of the pain of having to see an individual who fought for the cause of slavery glorified in public art. And in some places, the powers that be are taking them down. And in others, the powers that be are leaving them up. And in some places the people are organizing to tear them down without sanction or permission as a form of protest.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Confederates, personally. I never routed for that team. And I agree that there is no place for confederate statuary in our public commons. I don’t mourn them being taken down or torn down at all.
But then in Richmond, VA there is a 12-ton, 60-foot-tall statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The crowd who tore down the other confederate statues in town couldn’t budge this one. And its ultimate fate is tied up in appeal in the courts. And then something incredible happened. After the murder of George Floyd last year, this statue of Lee was transfigured by an artist named Dustin Klein. So much so that now a statue of the quintessential confederate general has become an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement and the area around the statue has become a gathering space for the movement and the wider community. Let me show you a few pictures of this transfiguration:
With our picture of white Jesus welcoming the white children we could decide to take it down from the wall. We could decide to cover it up somehow. And we could decide to transfigure it in some good way. But what we can’t do is we can’t ignore it or dismiss it—that would be a missed opportunity and a disfiguration of God’s Image.
And obviously we’re not just talking about this because we only just need to transfigure one painting. We’re talking about this as a concrete example of how we can begin to transfigure ourselves, our church, and our wider community. We want to see God more clearly. We want to be truly diverse. We want to participate in God’s divine energy. We want to be an antiracist congregation; we want to be a part of the great work of our time—of ending racism and solving these deep structural problems with love and justice.
So, let’s end with Jesus’ own prayer for us. At the close of the last supper Jesus prayed to God, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
--Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
When I heard that someone named Amanda Gorman was going to read a poem at the inauguration, I didn’t have any real expectations. I don’t think many of us did—one way or the other. I’d heard briefly on NPR that a 22-year-old named Amanda Gorman was going to be the youngest ever inaugural poet, and that’s all I knew about her. On stage with big names like Biden, Harris, Brooks, Gaga; Gorman faded into the background a bit.
But then the day came, right? And Amanda Gorman (a self-described “skinny black girl, descended from slaves, raised by a single mother”) stepped up to the podium to perform her poem, The Hill We Climb, and she basically stole the show. She stepped up to the mic and claimed her authority with everything she was—with her bright yellow jacket and her bright red hair band, with her voice, with her performance, with her perfectly chosen words which were finely crafted to uplift and to challenge a complicated nation at a troubled time.
When Jesus entered the synagogue, no one had ever heard of him before either. And then he stood up to teach and the people were astounded by his words because he taught like he had authority (and not like one of the scribes). We have a lot of questions about this authority: Where’d it come from? What was it like? What explains it? Maybe the experience of sitting in that synagogue watching Jesus stand up to teach felt something like watching Amanda Gorman become the breakout star of the inauguration. Where did her authority come from?
I watched an interview that Gorman gave to Anderson Cooper after the inauguration. She talked about overcoming a speech impediment as a child. And she told Cooper that to prepare for writing her poem she first read every other inaugural poem, in order to steep herself in the tradition and the power of the words that came before her. And before she stepped up to that mic, she closed her eyes and she said to herself this invocation, “I am the daughter of black writers who are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” Later when Gorman was on The Late Late Show with James Corden and she told him that she felt like the experience of the inauguration was “beyond her” and that her poem was really a moment for everybody.
So, where does Amanda Gorman’s authority come from? It comes from the words of all the inaugural poets who came before her living within her intersecting with the black writers and freedom fighters who gave rise to her still living within her intersecting with her rising to the challenge of adversity and overcoming impediment intersecting with her answering a call to a moment that she recognizes was greater than herself. Her authority comes from the fact that she has integrated these traditions and this history and this spiritual orientation within herself. And we were able to hear with own ears how they fused within her person and came out of her mouth with power.
I think about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose day we celebrated right after the inauguration. Who in all of American history had more authority than King? Who in all of Christian history had more authority than King? Few, if any. King who was discriminated against, threatened, beaten, and jailed countless times. His authority was not handed down to him from the powers that be. According to them he had none. He had to claim his authority from within and from on high. It was an authority of spiritual integration, moral principle, and life-or-death struggle.
Inside the person of Rev. Dr. King, great, old traditions came together: the traditions of the Hebrew prophets who had visions, who dreamed dreams, and who provoked the powers of this world; the tradition of the Black experience in the United States and the traditions of the Black church; the traditions of Thoreau’s civil disobedience and Gandhi’s non-violence resistance; the traditions of freedom and liberty—the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and, most importantly, the promise of the American Dream.
King didn’t teach church history like a historian. He didn’t lecture on the Constitution like a professor in a law school. He didn’t preach about the prophets like someone who believed that God long ago had stopped speaking. Those are more like the traditions of the scribes. And it’s very important to remember that we need the scribes—we need the scribes to keep the great traditions alive. But we don’t need the scribes to try to protect us from the next great tradition that is rising up from them. The next great tradition that will rise up will rise up when someone like King, when someone like Gorman integrates the great traditions and teachings within themself and then goes beyond them all to give the world a new teaching.
Jesus, like King, like Gorman, was not merely an imitator or a preserver of the old ways. He was a devoted student of all the great traditions of his people—the law, the prophets, the culture, the debates, the schools and the schisms, God’s covenant and the people’s great hopes—all those traditions lived within him. He integrated them into himself. They were his strong and honored foundation. And Jesus honored them so much and so passionately that he couldn’t contain them from going where they wanted to go. And he himself couldn’t be contained by them. Instead, he was liberated by them—they were pushing him to go. So, Jesus became an innovator, a catalyst, a preacher of possibility and authority.
Amanda Gorman says she believes in the power of words so it seems like we should take a closer look at the word “authority.” It’s a fine translation from the Greek, but it’s interesting to look at the etymology of the Greek word—how it would have sounded to the Greek listener. This word “authority” came from another Greek word we often translate as “lawful.” “Is it lawful to do this? Is it lawful to do that?” is usually how it’s used. The problem is that the word we translate as “lawful” has no connection to the Greek word for “law.” Instead, “lawful” comes from an even more basic Greek word meaning just “to be.” So, another more literal way to translate the word we translate as “lawful” would be to say, “Are we able to do this? Is it possible to do that?” And then that means another way to translate “authority” would be to say, “For he taught them as one having potency, as one having possibleness, as one unconstrained.
And then we realize, that’s what this authority of Jesus that Mark is talking about really is. It’s the authority to get unstuck. It’s the authority to exorcise the demons—to chase the old specters out of the room, and stir up a fresh spirit. The authority to teach something truly new.
It’s funny that Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus was teaching. We’ll get to some of Jesus’ core teachings later in Mark’s Gospel. But for right now, all Mark wants us to see is that Jesus is an innovator and not an imitator, a leader and not a follower. One way to say it is that Jesus has authority. Another way to say it is that Jesus is challenging authority. And we see that truth with King and also with Gorman as well. Jesus will challenge the authority of the synagogue and religious institutions, he will challenge the assumptions of the people, and he will even challenge the power of the spirits and the demons. And in his willingness to challenge the authorities and the complacencies of the world, Jesus claims his own authority and offers us the truest and greatest comfort of all—the possibility of new way.
What we’re talking about here—what Jesus is modeling for us—and that’s so important, I think, that we don’t think of Jesus’ authority being like the authority of a superbeing or a God-man and totally unattainable to us. Jesus is showing us the way here. What he’s showing us, and what we also see in people like King and Gorman is simply spiritual growth. Or what Carl Jung (the great psychologist and psychoanalyst) called “individuation”: the process of coming to understand, of giving voice to, and integrating or harmonizing the various components that make us up so that we can become our true self. Beloved, what greater authority is there than that—to be your true self?
We’re going to be talking a lot about “growth” together as a church over the course of 2021. And I think it’s important to take some of these lessons forward with us into those conversations. First, a strict imitator cannot grow. Because true growth must be oriented to the realization of your true self. And you cannot imitate your way into your true self.
Now, I’m not knocking imitation or preservation or tradition. Imitation can build us a strong foundation. But if we get stuck on strict imitation, we can get ourselves stuck to a relatively small piece of ground while the greatness of all the sky is calling us to grow up. The process of spiritual growth is a process of getting unstuck—not totally dislodged, not falling off the wagon—but growing into the liberty of possibility. This authority of Jesus is just what happens when you grow from a strong foundation toward the unique purpose that God created you for.
Second, growth is not a numbers game, right? When we talk about growing as a church, we’re not talking about butts in pews, views on videos, or dollars in the offering plate. Do we want our fame to spread throughout the surrounding region like Jesus’ did? Sure, we do! But growth is not a numbers game, it’s a spiritual orientation. If we want our fame to spread throughout all the region, we need to discover within our congregation how to put all the layers of our identity and tradition and history together in a way that is true to us and which will draw other people to us through the revitalization of our authority.
And third, growth cannot happen without facing adversity and conflict. It might not be as imposing as racism to a black leader, or a speech impediment to a spoken-word poet, or a demon in the synagogue, but adversity and conflict are a part of every life, and in every church, and within every person or community that is trying to grow and define themselves.
If we don’t face the adversity or the challenge, that means that right then, right there, we’re stuck. We’re no longer moving. We’re no longer growing. And our authority dissolves into avoidance, our voice retreats into silence.
What sometimes happens in churches undertaking a process of spiritual growth and rediscovery of authority is that some people are made a bit uncomfortable. And we’re understandably afraid of the possible conflict. We’re afraid of hurting feelings, of causing someone to feel unwelcome, of causing someone else to lose their temper, of losing members, of pledges going unpaid. And these are things to be concerned about, right? We don’t want to be mean or reckless. But working through this kind of conflict is the price we must pay to be ourselves! To have a voice! To be a community that has a point of view and values we’re willing to stand up for! To discover our authority—and to grow.
Beloved, I know that we have a voice. I know that we are relevant to our community and our neighbors. I know we’re not afraid of adversity and that we don’t get paralyzed by conflict. I know that we have a faith, and traditions, and art and music, and a welcome that provide us with a strong foundation. And I know that we are ready to grow.
As Amanda Gorman says in The Hill We Climb:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
In 2021 most of our Gospel readings will be coming the Gospel of Mark, which is just fine by me because it’s my number one favorite gospel. I love Mark’s gospel because it is spare, straightforward, and urgent.
Want to hear about Jesus as a baby? Mark’s not interested! You better read Luke. Want to read the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t read Mark! You better read Matthew instead. Want to read page after page of Jesus lecturing that I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the true vine? Mark has no time for chatty messiahs! Try John’s Gospel instead.
I love Mark’s gospel because (and this is lost in almost all English translations, unfortunately) I love Mark’s gospel because Mark’s Greek is terrible—unpolished, repetitive, simplistic, ungrammatical. Greek probably wasn’t his native language, but Mark just pushes through with his basic vocabulary and his dicey syntax to give us what is probably the first Gospel.
I love Mark because Mark can be read in one sitting—one bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred account of Jesus fighting demons, healing the sick, and knocking his disciples’ thick skulls together. It is a hard-hitting and unprecedented account of a ministry full of terror and amazement. It is the urgent and compelling story of what God is doing is in the world in the event of Jesus Christ.
I love Mark’s Gospel. Just listen to how it begins. Without any introduction to speak of we’re suddenly transported out into the middle of nowhere with a locust-eating, camel-fur-covered madman dunking people in the Jordan River. Get ready for the one who’s coming, he says! And then BOOM! A nobody named Jesus just shows up from Galilee for baptism. There’s a dove! There’s a voice! And then a smash cut to the next scene as immediately the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the wilderness.
This gospel moves! And it’s not just that Mark doesn’t know how to write well or how to take his time with a story. No, Mark’s writing with urgency about urgent matters. He’s writing his story with a compelling energy that he wants to jump off the page and into our lives. Get going! Get moving! Don’t you see what’s happening? As Jesus will say in just a few more lines: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (change your mind), and believe in the good news.”
Even though he wasn’t exactly a poet and he was using this basic vocabulary, in our reading this morning Mark does use a very surprising word. It’s not a very common word—it’s only used about ten times in the whole New Testament: schizo. It means “torn apart.” “And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.” Torn apart? Torn? Apart? Heaven?
We don’t know if we like the phrase “torn apart” very much, right? On Wednesday we saw the Capitol Building torn apart. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t good. It was terrifying. “Torn apart” sounds like how you describe a gazelle after a pack of jackals have had their way with it. I have a friend who at one time was going through a painful divorce. “It’s like my whole life has just been torn apart.” Whenever has something being torn apart been a good thing? But that’s the word Mark chose.
Older English translations of the Bible have tried to tame Mark. Torn apart? Woah! Settle down there, Mark! They’ve translated this word instead as “opened.” He saw the heavens opened. But there’s a difference in meaning there. As a parent to a toddler now I can tell you there’s a big difference between opening a bag of snacks and tearing apart a bag of snacks. Two totally different experiences and outcomes.
And Mark knew the word for opened. And he didn’t use that word. Mark wanted us to see what he believed that Jesus saw—that the heavens didn’t just open like a little window that could be closed again, or like a door gently blowing in the breeze. This was remodeling. This was demolition. When something is torn apart, you can’t put it back together again. We saw it on Wednesday at the Capitol building—it’s violent.
In fact, Mark uses this word (schizo) exactly twice in his gospel. Once here at the very beginning. And once at the vey end. When Mark is describing Jesus’ death on the cross he says, “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was [schizo] torn apart into two pieces, from top to bottom.”
The curtain wasn’t opened like it is at the theater with a big SWOOSH. No, it was RIIIIPPED! The barrier was destroyed. The Holy of Holies, in the Temple, behind the curtain, was the place where the presence of the Living God dwelled. When the curtain was torn apart, that barrier that separated off the Holy of Holies and the living Presence of God from the rest of the world was removed. And the Heavens (which were similarly torn apart) were (cosmologically speaking) the barrier that separated God’s heavenly realm from this world and from all of us.
Mark’s tearing apart is different because he’s not describing the tearing apart of the good, or the destruction of the sacred, or the desecration of the beautiful. Mark’s tearing apart is the destruction of the barrier between us and what is good, between us and what is sacred, between us and what is beautiful. In Jesus Christ, in his beginning and in his end, Mark tells us that God is being set loose upon the world. The fabric of the universe has been permanently altered and holiness is about to run wild on the earth.
Now, when you think about your spiritual journey, or when you think about our church and the ways in which we worship and serve God together, do these words—barriers torn apart, God set loose, holiness running wild—do they describe how we think and how we act and how we represent ourselves to the world? What would other people say about us? Are we living out loud like the heavens have been torn apart? Are we declaring with our lives that the cold barriers between God and all of God’s people have been done away with?
If your answer is “No,” or “Hmmm, you know, I’m not so sure,” then I’m asking you as your pastor, that 2021 be the year that we figure out how to tear apart the boundaries that separate us from God and from our neighbors. Let 2021 be the year that we tear the heavens apart and set God loose inside of us and in the world. So that when people from our community interact with us, they see that urgency, that energy, wild and loose among us and they feel it like a blessing to them. In 2021 we’re going to be talking about what that looks like and how we can organize ourselves and our ministries so that we all feel God at work among us, and so that our neighbors see it too.
What does that mean? Well, it includes stuff like how do we care for one another in the congregation? How do we take care of our elders? How do we show support to young families? It also means asking how do we reach out into our community to let our neighbors know that there is a congregation here that is ready for them? How do we draw people in? How do we connect new folks to community? And it means really thinking about how do we live more fully into our covenant? How do we express our welcome to all people to join us here—all races, all classes, all different kinds of families, all sexual orientations, all gender identities? Is a sign on the lawn that says, “All Are Welcome” enough? Is that enough of an expression of the heavens being torn apart and God rushing into the world through this church? Or is there more that we can do, that we must do, to communicate to our neighbors about who we are, what we value, and what God is capable of?
Optimistically speaking, 2021 is the year in which we will meet together again in this sanctuary for worship. 2021 is the year the world is going to poke its head back out the door and say, hmmmm, looks like I can finally go out again. Maybe I should check out that church I heard about. And when we come back together, and when our neighbors start reconnecting to their local community in person, and when people start shopping around for churches again, we need to be ready for them. When the boundaries that are keeping us from being together are finally torn apart, we want to be a community that can say, “We know how to do this! We’re ready for what God is about to do!”
We saw this past week, on Wednesday, as a mob attacked the Capitol building, just what it looks like when good and sacred things are torn apart. Here’s what I need to say as a Christian minister of conscience and as your pastor:
I think Trumpism has become a new religion. Trump, of course, is this religion’s infallible high priest—a prophet of doom and chaos. This isn’t about politics anymore and, frankly, it hasn’t been for a long time. This is about Trumpism—an overarching, radical, fundamentalist worldview that like all bad religions leads its followers to deny science, to dedicate themselves to unfounded conspiracy theories, and to see shadowy forces at work behind everything that happens in the world. It’s an us-versus-them ideology which is willing to attack—physically attack—our national life, our political system, our cultural and governmental institutions, our democratic values, our liberal values, our conservative values, science, reason, decency, and everything else that we hold dear as a nation. This isn’t about Democrat versus Republican, it’s not about right versus left; it’s about good religion versus bad religion, right versus wrong.
We have seen what it looks like when bad religion tears apart a sacred institution. We have seen what it looks like when bad religion attempts to tear a country apart. Beloved, let’s not be quiet, let’s not shy away. Let’s be a part of an overwhelming and undeniable moral response: NO MORE. In 2021 let’s show our community what it looks like when good religion tears down the boundaries between neighbors and sets the God of love loose upon the world.
1 John 4:18
This week, in my sermon, I’m answering a question about God from our very own Craig Wood. Craig asks:
“We read in the Bible ‘trust God’ and ‘love God’ while also reading ‘fear God.’ I understand how trusting God and loving God work in our faith, but how does fear work in our faith? How does one trust God and love God while at the same time fearing God?” Craig, that’s a great question.
We’ve all experienced fear. When I think of my own life, I remember the experience of being separated from my mom in a department store when I was very young and not being able to find her and running through the aisles terrified.
And I remember (a little older, but still way too young to be watching an R-rated movie) seeing just a few minutes of the movie Aliens and having bad dreams for months that one of those alien sucker things was going to clamp onto my face and lay an alien egg in my stomach.
When I was 15-years-old I was lying on an operating table about to have major back surgery after a terrible injury and I was so, so scared that I wouldn’t wake up again or that if I did that I wouldn’t walk again.
I remember hiking through the woods one night without a flashlight and a bat hit me in the face and got stuck there fluttering it’s leathery bat wings all over my head and (I am not ashamed to say) I screamed louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life.
I remember my wife, Bonnie Mohan, being rushed to the emergency room after giving birth because her bleeding wouldn’t stop. And for one hour I was never more mortally afraid.
And I remember learning about my mom’s stage-four cancer diagnosis a little more than a year ago. And I remember the sort of low-grade fear that stuck with me in the background for these last thirteen months before she died.
We’ve all experienced fear. And we all have things that we’re afraid of. But is this the way we’re supposed to feel about God? Aren’t we supposed to love and trust God?
Our final reading this morning from 1 John makes it pretty clear that fear and love just don’t mix. John says that if you’re leading a good life out of fear that God is going to punish you in this life or send you off to hell in the next life, then you haven’t yet found perfection in love. Lead your best, most beautiful life because you love God and because God loves you. Leave the fear behind. Don’t be afraid!
And when we read our second piece of scripture this morning from Exodus, we see there that often repeated exhortation from scripture, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s a little strange because Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has only come to put the fear of God upon you.” That seems a little contradictory. How can you simultaneously tell someone not to be afraid and to feel the fear of God?
So, we’re starting to get a picture here that maybe the fear that we’re most used to—bats, trips to the ER, ghost stories, pandemics—that fear is not the same kind of fear we’re supposed to feel about God. But what kind of fear isn’t fear? That doesn’t really make sense, does it?
Well, language is a complicated thing and translation from one language to another is extremely complicated and translation from an ancient language (like Hebrew) to a modern language (like English) is very extremely complicated. Just imagine a few thousand years from now someone who speaks a language that is a descendant of Mandarin Chinese tries to translate this phrase from English that we’re all probably writing down in our diaries lately: “I was hoping that 2020 was going to be an awesome year. Instead, it turned out to be really awful.” Now, if you’re translating that, what do you do with the fact that the words “awe-some” and “aw-ful” look like they should mean pretty much the same thing. They’re both adjectives derived from the word “awe,” but one means something that’s really great and one means something that’s really bad. And maybe that’s because an experience of awe can sometimes be magical and wonderful and revelatory and empowering. And it can sometimes be overwhelming, overpowering, earth-shattering, and even a little scary.
Ancient Hebrew didn’t really have a separate word for awe like we do in English. Instead, the words in Hebrew that we translate into English as fear and afraid had a broader definition and did more work than the word “fear” does in English. So, maybe instead of looking for a fear that isn’t fear we need to be looking for a fear that is more than just plain old fear. Remember, the ancient Hebrews didn’t leave behind dictionaries, right? So, we have to figure out the meanings of words from their context. So, what is this broader definition of fear like?
Well, let’s look at our other scripture selections from this morning. Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And the poetry of the two lines together tells us that the fear of God is related to knowledge and to understanding.
Our reading from Isaiah makes a prophecy about a leader who will arise whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” So, this fear can feel delightful, which means we’re really going to have to stretch our imaginations on this one. What kind of fear could feel good?
And finally from our Psalm we hear that God is with those who fear God, God is with those who hope in God’s steadfast love. The way ancient Hebrew poetry worked, it didn’t have line breaks, or rhymes, or meter like we have. Instead, a typical feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is one line following another. The first line makes a statement and then the second line repeats that statement in different words or expands upon or comments upon it some way. So, the poetry from this Psalm is telling us that the fear of God and hope in God are not two different things. The part of God that makes us feel the fear of God and God’s unfailing love are not two separate things.
So, the fear of God is a “fear” that expands your mind, deepens your soul in wisdom, and raises your understanding. If you’re doing it right, the fear of God can be a positive—even a delightful—experience. And the fear of God and the love of God are not contradictory things the way that regular fear and God’s perfect love are contradictory.
So, I wonder: Have you ever had an experience similar to that—an experience that could have been mistaken for fear, that was maybe living across the street from fear as it arrived in your life, but was ultimately something much greater?
On March 31, 2004 I was hiking the Appalachian Trail near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina when a late-season snowstorm hit. I was hiking by myself up and over a mountain called Max Patch which is known as a “bald mountain” because for reasons no one is really sure about there are no trees on the top of this mountain. For about a mile you hike through an open meadow at the summit of Max Patch. The snow was really heavy and wet, even under the cover of the trees, but when I reached the tree line near the top at over 4,500 feet of elevation the snowstorm became a blizzard.
But something was compelling me to keep going. But with knee-deep snow and fifteen feet of visibility at best and no trees to mark the trail, I got lost in the blizzard on the top of this mountain by myself miles and miles from civilization. As I looked around me and saw nothing but blowing snow and fading light, I felt a little afraid up there all by myself. But then I got a hold of myself and I reminded myself, I had plenty of warm, dry clothes with me, I had water, I had food, I had a flashlight, I had a gas stove, I had a tent, I had a dry sleeping bag, I wasn’t going to die or even be particularly chilly or uncomfortable no matter how momentarily lost I was.
So, what was I feeling standing out there lost in the snow? I was feeling my own smallness and vulnerability. I was feeling my place in the world. I was feeling gratitude that despite my vulnerability, I was going to be safe. I was feeling a sort of awe at the ability of nature to transform the world and overpower me. And I was feeling exhilarated that I had made my way to this place to witness it all.
Maybe all that I was feeling up on the mountain was something like the kind of “fear” we’re supposed to feel about God. When I have allowed myself to feel the presence of God like I felt that snowstorm on top of Max Patch, when I have blocked out the distractions and focused my attention on God’s presence as fully as I was focused on that isolating snowstorm, I have felt the “fear” of God. It hasn’t been a cringing, or a crying, or a shaking-with-horror kind of fear. It hasn’t been a fear that is afraid of danger or punishment. On the contrary, it is a fear that knows I am completely safe.
The fear of God is the feeling of coming into God’s Presence, into the Presence of Mystery, into the Presence of something so much greater than ourselves, into the Presence of the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of our own selves, into the Presence of pure and perfect love given to us freely no matter what failings or sins we carry with us.
Fearing God is about acknowledging and feeling God’s Presence with awe and reverence that might lead you to fall down on your knees, meeting in your own heart the perfection of love that fills you and surrounds you.
So, Beloved, don’t be afraid to fear God.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations