The art of preaching has never been more intellectually and spiritually grounded than it is in our day, our time, our place in history.? We are struggling to know ourselves in a spiritual real world context like women and men of every other age.? What is significantly different, apart from the world specific issues of our time, is the reality that we can examine the depths of our Holy literature with an openness, a spiritual light and an intellectual curiosity like in no other time in Christian history.
Sadly though, most of what we know about our Holy Scriptures in the scholarly world is not that new.? Critical biblical criticism, alongside in-depth scrutiny and study of social and church history trends, was begun in earnest in Germany in the early 1800?s.? In the last sixty years we have literally unearthed biblical related documents that have added some breadth and depth to our understanding of the time, and the thinking that was the time, of Jesus of Nazareth?but quite seriously, by the mid-1800?s there has been a wealth of knowledge? available that ecclesiastical organizations and their male leaders have steadfastly refused to teach in seminaries, and if clergy dared learn about the material on their own then church leaders ran the truth-tellers from the pulpits, branding them as heretics.? While the church has long not taught much of what it has known to be most true, those of you in the pews did not settle for secondary treatment.? You continued learning from secular sources; your motivation to be spiritually fit and intellectually solid has not waned.
Multiple millions of folks have quit the church because our preaching, our Sunday School teaching, and how we talk about God interacting with our world has been so backward and so contrary to what folks know to be true that the multitudes have voted with their feet and abandoned the church as a real player in understanding God and the world.? Making matters even more desperate is the fact that a full 50% of clergy in the United States in 2013 do not have a graduate level seminary education.? They are attending private Bible colleges as undergraduates, where they can continue to be shielded from meaningful interactions between science and theology, evolution and creationism just to name one glaring example of the dilemma where a faith story continues to be assumed as factual truth by a majority of Hoosiers, rather than a beautiful, poetic, faith expression of truth.
This is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate not just the breaking into awareness of Jesus of Nazareth as a unique and superb presence of God in a human being.? But, today and every day what we celebrate and anticipate during the season of Epiphany, and every other day, is that God is still speaking and still breaking forth in new and exciting ways, as well as in tradition.
I know that one of the reasons that you are here today is because you can sense more often than you probably admit even to yourself that God is alive and speaking to you, and dare we say through you.? In Mark?s Gospel Jesus warned against the doctrinal dilemma of securing the spirit of the Christ, the essence of God into Jesus alone.? Jesus told his followers then and I repeat it to you today, that you and I will do even greater things than Jesus did, if we but allow the Epiphanous God to live through us.
Our Scripture lesson from Luke?s Gospel, which we call the transfiguration of Jesus, can be experienced in multiple ways.? Mainly, folks like us read it and say, ?Well, this doesn?t seem to belong at this place in the story line of Jesus? life.?? I love the literary device of foreshadowing.? I will re-read the first several paragraphs of the beginning of a novel just to indulge myself in what the author might be suggesting is going to happen later.? The story of Jesus on the mountaintop with Peter, James, John, Moses and Elijah is much too blatant to be considered good foreshadowing, but that is all it is.
On the most technical level we do not have an actual historical event in this story, what we have is what the church came to believe, written back into the story. The early disciples came to know Jesus as a luminous extension of the very best aspects of Jewish thought, exemplified through the law giver Moses and the prophetic utterances and future hope of the work of Elijah.? This morning we are being encouraged to do that significant spiritual discipline of not taking this bible story literally but doing the much more significant work of taking the story seriously.? Because if we do that work, we risk, you risk along with me, God?s call to us through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth breaking through the prisons of our lives and bursting out like a starburst of good work and common sense leadership which our world is hungrily awaiting from us.
I don?t know about your life.? I only know about mine.? But, what I have come to know about God is that God is eternally patient while being furiously and passionately desirous of my moving beyond my status quo, comfortable, and at times neurotic existence, which sustains my comfort rather than living the adventurous and more risky life of faith and challenge of which I am capable.? How about you?? You?re fortunate that I never preach about anyone except myself.
My soul is aching today for many of you as individuals and even wider still for us as a congregation.? Every season has its sadness, but this year in particular, as we enter the season of Lent, we are going to be touched by many sadnesses, and there are many more that we certainly am not aware of.
First, let?s acknowledge that the past month or so has been a rough one, just in terms of the normal coughs and colds and flu.? Many of you are tired beyond belief, from just getting through the last month of illness of both yourself and those you love.? At the winter shelter that we host through the night on Monday and Tuesday evenings, many of our guests have been sick.? When I got my upper respiratory disease, I took some couch time.? Folks who are homeless use most of each day?s energy, whether they are sick or not, getting to the next place where there is food to eat and a bed to sleep.
In this town of exceptional intellectual and spiritual prowess isn?t it amazing that we cannot capture the political capital to do better for this segment of a very vulnerable population?? We do a good job to often doing an excellent job at providing care as church communities for those experiencing homelessness.? But, come on now, of all the places in this mixed up state of ours, we should really be doing exceptional work in this area.? It is embarrassing politically and tragic personally?the human misery that we find acceptable in our community.
Just over a year ago, in late December we lost Helen Stout to death.? Her smiling face finds its way to my life several times a week.? She was an energetic, fun, talented, seriously pragmatic pillar of everything that is this town, the University, and this church.? She started a cavalcade of losses for us.
Just this week was the one year anniversary of the death of Tom McCann, the husband to one of our newest members, Sharon, the father to Kristi, and the phenomenal grandfather to Jacob and Sara.? Pancreatic cancer took him quickly.
We are on the edge of the similar one-year anniversaries of the deaths of Tally Weigand, Lou Cooper, and Harry Hollis. We have been walking personally and congregationally through the valley of the shadow of death and it just hurts, doesn?t it?? It is so sad and at times we are just so lonely and seemingly adrift.? Please continue to reach out to the immediate families of those who are trying to comprehend life without the daily bodily presence of the heart of their lives.? And do not underestimate the cost of their loss on us as a group, as well as how it calls us to have to step up to the plate and be and do?; we are the new generation of leaders upon whose shoulders the mantle of leadership, of being the light of Christ, now fully resides.
I hope that we are not overly concerned about not being able to fill the shoes and walk the walk and perhaps significantly go beyond where the saints who have come before us have gone.? Because each one of us is made from the same stuff, and we are called from within by the same God; we are empowered by the same spirit of God that illuminated Jesus to be known now these two thousand years as the Christ, the one.? Remember, who told his disciples then and today that we, empowered and so walking in faith, will do even greater things than he.
I am concerned this morning that we underestimate both how marvelously gifted and empowered we are, and what standards we are called upon to attain.
One of the best times to hear God, to see God is in the aftermath of death.? When we look back at those lives of those people who have been so significant to us, it is so easy to see where the presence of God has been alive and working.? I received a call about a week and a half ago from June Cooper.? June is in Florida and was inviting me to come down and hear one of my favorite biblical theologians, Marcus Borg.? She told me that if I came down to Naples she and I could go together.
I didn?t bite at her request.? That would be too easy.? So, I asked her, ?June, how sad is it to be nearing the anniversary date of Lou?s death???? She replied, ?Oh, Jack he was such a marvelous man.?? She talked for the next fifteen minutes about him and when she finally took a breath I asked her, ?But, do you remember, June, how utterly stubborn he was??? She said, ?Oh, yes, he was even marvelous at being stubborn and I miss him so much.?
The transfiguration of Jesus grew as he lived and it exploded into what seems an inextinguishable light in his death.? Biblically we have a story that is told in the present tense, but I am convinced, along with most others, that it is a story of what they came to believe when the light of the living Christ would not go out, no matter how hard they tried to cover it up.
You know how it is.? When Dr. King died, when Gandhi died, it would have been easier, it seems, to have had a simple funeral and gone on with our lives, but there was more to them than the flesh and blood.? They were filled with the effervescent presence of God.? God filled them with brightness like that which caught Moses? eye in the desert.? It was a brightness that caused the bush to seem as if it was on fire, yet it was not consumed.? No, it literally burst forth the essence of God?s plea to go forth and ?set my people free.?
Some six or seven years ago this congregation called me here to be one of your ministers.? Patti Pizzo thought when she first interviewed me that all I wanted to do was to come back home again to Indiana and retire.? I wish it were that simple, I really do.? The longer I am here the more I believe that we are being powerfully and wonderfully called to be a unique and brilliant expression of the reality of God in our midst.
The longer I am here the more chagrined I am to be back home again in Indiana.
The early disciples did not write about Jesus being transformed into a religious figure that reminded them of Moses and Elijah in order to start a new religious movement.? The spirit of God moved in them out of their relationship with Jesus, and they went forth to set people free from whatever it was that held them down and kept them from fully knowing their value in God?s eyes, and from doing everything with their lives that they could dream with God as their intimate companion.? In the years afterward, as the light continued to shine, it became a literary necessity to compare the enlightenment of the Jesus movement to that of other Biblical torch bearers.
That is all well and good but it comes back to us and how we live our lives today.? I?m going to go off and be a bit Baptist, howbeit a liberal Baptist, on you.? Whatever it is that brings you to this moment today, know that God is in the midst of your life, valuing you, loving you, investing in you and knowing you way more than in the Genesis connotation.
Our world, our country, our community and probably our families are living void of a vision of wholeness.? There is not a person in this room that is not called to do something about that void and to fill that emptiness with wholeness, with shalom, with a fullness and eagerness to serve and be an instrument of the Christ in the exodus of our time which is to set our people free.
We exist to serve the ways of Jesus.?? To light fire in the darkness of ignorance, to be a spark in the wave of apathy, to be a drink of cold water in the dried up dreams that have failed, a stiff drink of Scotch whiskey to awaken all from the lethargy that comes with being a powerful people with no real goals other than our own creaturely comforts and tidy retirements to pass on to our children.
God wants you and God wants me to make all the difference in the world?starting now.? Listen to the voice of God saying, ?You are my beloved, go and be me in the world, bring peace, bring joy, bring justice, bring hope, bring faith, bring forgiveness, and when necessary sacrifice and don?t worry, be happy, I will raise you from despair or death.? Remember, you are my beloved and I trust in you.?