Sunday, February 22, 2009

Transfiguration Sunday

I have a confession to make. If my preaching professor heard or read my sermons he’d take me into his office and give me a good theological spanking. I seem to have this nasty habit of breaking one of his cardinal rules of preaching: “Never tell stories about yourself,” he said over and over again.

He called personal stories the “atom bomb” of preaching. Meaning that everything else in the sermon evaporates into a cloud of dust while the story stays standing. We end up pointing to ourselves instead of Jesus, he would say.

He didn’t just pull this rule out of his nose. He had biblical justification for it. He would open the bible to today’s second lesson and read, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

True enough. But hey, it warms this preacher’s heart that people remember SOMETHING after they leave.

But, of course, Paul is right. My job is to point to Jesus, not myself. But there are times when even Paul broke the good professor’s rule.

Take this passage from today. I think Paul’s being autobiographical, taking us on his faith journey. He’s trying to show us the route he took in order to land at Jesus’ feet, the dark path that finally shone with light.

At least that’s how I see it.

But it’s not a pretty path. Blood and bones are strewn all over the road. The ruins of a once deeply held belief system litter the once pristine byways. Paul’s story is, in many ways, an angry story. It’s like he’s trying too hard to win over his readers, drawing lines so sharply to keep his own new identity secure.

In fact, our Jewish friends have some real difficulty with 2 Corinthians, especially with what Paul says about Moses. And I’m guessing that if I used some of Paul’s language to talk about Moses, I might not keep my job past noon.

Earlier in the letter, Paul says that Moses’ mind was veiled, that he couldn’t see God clearly. That Moses lived in the realm of darkness, that Moses had a “ministry of death chiseled on stone tablets,” of course referring to the Ten Commandments, and that every time we read the Ten Commandments, a veil lies over our minds. To obey the Ten Commandments leads to darkness and death. “Just ask Moses,” Paul appears to be saying.

Could you imagine if I said that? If I said those words out loud, in a sermon, from this pulpit? Could you imagine what would happen?

Paul liked to draw distinctions. Believer and unbeliever. Old and new. The saved and the perishing. The world that is passing away and the world that is being born. Paul liked to know who he was and what side he was on.

And that makes sense. He was trying to piece Jesus’ story together using fragments of stories he found in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. He was struggling to understand how Jesus fit in to the stories he learned in school.

When Paul came to faith in Jesus, the story goes that he went blind. Then scales fell from his eyes and he began to see the world differently. Worn out certainties fell to new truths. The old, old, story became frighteningly fresh.

All of a sudden, Paul came face-to-face with the possibility that God was putting him and the world on an unknown, untried path. The path of Jesus. People seemed to be making it up as they went along.

Paul was excited and scared. Its no wonder he wrote the way he did.

One thing I love about 2 Corinthians, is that its a very human letter. Paul lets it all hang out. You can practically see the tear stains on the page. A crumpled up letter that got shoved in the pocket, taken out, read, re-read, and lived. Sometimes Paul’s furious with people. Other times he’s cracking a joke. But he never suggests that he gets it right every time. Because one thing Paul is NOT is consistent.

As much as he likes to cut the world in half, paint one side black and the other side white, he loses track of which side is which and throws some green and purple and yellow into the mix out of frustration.

He may divide the world into Jew and gentile, but then he says that there’s no distinction between the two. He may call the law of Moses by the most hideous names, but then he’ll turn around and say the law landed on his desk with a bow on top. He may say that women should keep silent in church, then he gives them preaching advice. He may say that he preaches not himself, but then he can’t stop telling his own, personal story.

Paul was like all of us trying to find words to describe the indescribable. Paul knew how dark the world could be and sometimes he felt as if his flashlight’s batteries had gone dead.

Paul knew how tragedy and suffering can come out of no where and pull your breath right out of your body. Paul knew that life could be a struggle between knowing what’s right thing to do and being sucked into doing what’s wrong. Paul knew that following Jesus can look a whole lot like NOT following Jesus, that God can sometimes feel a million miles away, that fellow Christians fight and attack each other, that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness can be too easily forgotten, dismissed, or ignored, especially among those who bear his name. He knew that Christians still got sick, their marriages dissolved, lost their jobs. He knew that Christians still died.

Paul knew that to be a Christian was not to escape our humanity. Paul knew that because we are weak, because we are sinful, because we hurt each other, that Jesus made us his own. And because we belong to Jesus, we will not finally be crushed. That our darkness will give way to God’s own brilliant light. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

That’s the light we look for today. God’s glory can only be found in darkness. Because that’s where it lives.

I think that’s why Jesus asked the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw on top of the mountain of Transfiguration. Jesus knew they would miss the point. Jesus knew that Peter, James, and John would tell everyone about the bright lights, the visions of Moses and Elijah. They would tell people about Jesus’ shining clothes.

But Jesus knew that those things were only part of the story. Jesus knew that God’s glory lives in our darkness, waiting to shine, wanting to shine, until the whole world sees the glory of Jesus’ healing and forgiveness.

“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”

May this be so among us. Amen.


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