When I was about 8 or 9 years of age, my grandparents gave me an illustrated bible with several glossy, color illustrations of various stories. They weren’t great art, but they were clear and very expressive. My favorite amongst them was the illustration of today’s gospel lesson.
I know it was John’s version of the cleansing of the Temple because in that picture Jesus was swinging a whip. John’s is the only version of the story with that detail. The rest of the picture was filled with movement. Jesus was whirling about like a dervish, his long hair and the hem of his rob flaring out. Men were scattering, tables and cages sailing through the air, birds fluttering away, and coins flying everywhere.
A couple of decades ago, when several of my friends were wearing “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?) bracelets, I’d think of that illustration and wonder, “Have you considered that time with the whip in the Temple courtyard?”
What is Lent all about?
Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. The Most Rev. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, Archbishop of York from 2005 to 2020, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” The metaphor of keeping Lent as being a journey during which we search for, find, and come to know more of God is so widespread and prevalent, one cannot find its origin.
It seems to be the most common way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.
Here we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.
Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
There’s a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon. He decides to use a story about forest animals as his starting point, so he gathers the kids around him and begins by asking them a question. He says, “I’m going to describe someone to you and I want you to tell me who it is. This person prepares for winter by gathering nuts and hiding them in a safe place, like inside a hollow tree. Who might that be?” The kids all have a puzzled look on their faces and no one answers. So, the preacher continues, “Well, this person is kind of short. He has whiskers and a bushy tail, and he scampers along branches jumping from tree to tree.” More puzzled looks until, finally, Johnnie raises his hand. The preacher breathes a sigh of relief, and calls on Johnnie, who says, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but that sure sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me.”
My best friend (another retired priest) and I often ask one another, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” and our answer is always “Jesus.” For a preacher, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus. We’re supposed to take Paul as our model; he wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” So we are to do the same, preach Christ and him crucified, or perhaps today preach Christ and him baptized.
We have three intriguing lessons from scripture today. First we have a denunciation of Hebrew worship, which also interestingly contains a verse most famous in American politics for having been spoken on the steps of the Lincoln monument by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people who dislike liturgy, or some aspect of liturgy, like incense, or vestments or music, ignoring that sentence about justice flowing like streams, have used this text to prove that God also dislikes, liturgy, or incense, or vestments, or whatever. However, that’s not what this lesson is about and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
The second lesson is a crazy excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. With all that talk of God playing a trumpet and people flying up to meet Jesus in the air, it reads like some sort of hallucination or LSD trip, or like the ramblings of our crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner, muttering about things people don’t understand. The thing about Paul’s letters, though, is that they’re intended to be read as a whole. Breaking them up into excerpts, as the common lectionary does, can lead to a misreading and a misunderstanding. Fortunately, the lectionary doesn’t intend the epistle lesson to necessarily be read and interpreted in conjunction with the gospel lesson, as it does with the thematically related Old Testament lesson, so today we’ll just set crazy, old uncle Paul in a chair over there and let him be today.
Finally, from Matthew’s gospel, we have a lesson in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He does this using a parable. Now, you know what a parable is, right? It’s kind of like a metaphor and it’s kind of like a simile, but it’s neither a metaphor nor a simile. In a metaphor, the speaker says or implies that A is B, when the listener knows darn good and well that A is not B at all, but metaphoric imagery challenges us to consider A in ways we might not have done before.
What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? The question arises because of today’s dialog between Jesus and some of the Pharisees about the relative importance of the Commandments. Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment and then follows his response with a question about the lordship of the Messiah, the anticipated “Son of David.”
Jesus very rarely claimed this title for himself and when he did it was generally in the sort of oblique way we see in today’s exchange. He doesn’t come right out and say “I am the Lord,” but he hints at it. Usually, however, it is applied to him by others. In daily usage among First Century Jews, addressing someone as “Lord,” was probably meant as an honorific synonymous with “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Master,” and so forth, the way we might use “Doctor,” “Professor,” or address a judge as “Your Honor.”
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Last week, Evelyn and I were in Topeka, Kansas, visiting our son and his family. On Friday afternoon we were at loose ends while the grandkids were at school and their parents were at work, so we decided to visit the Brown vs. Board of Education National Monument. This memorial is a small museum in what was the segregated, all-black Monroe Elementary School south of Topeka’s downtown. I’m glad we went to see it. It is a remarkable place, and a fascinating if sobering reminder of how bad racism has been in this country and how much further we still have to go to remove that stain from our nation.
Today, in the normal course of the Lectionary, would have been the 10th Sunday after Pentecost on which, this year, we would have read the lessons known as “Proper 13” in which the gospel lesson is Matthew’s story of the feeding of the 5,000. However, since this is August 6, we don’t follow the normal course. We step away from the Lectionary to celebrate one of the feasts which, in the language of the Prayer Book, “take precedence of a Sunday,” the Feast of the Transfiguration.
The church’s understanding of the meaning of the event described by Luke in today’s gospel lesson is summarized in today’s opening collect: “[O]n the holy mount [God] revealed to chosen witnesses [God’s] well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.” The collect expresses the church’s hope that Christians “may by faith behold the King in his beauty.” The Collect for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, on which we also read about this event, similarly summarizes the event as the revelation of the Son’s “glory upon the holy mountain,” and expresses the hope that the faithful may be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”
In other words, the Transfiguration is all about Jesus, but, while that’s true, nothing about Jesus is ever all about Jesus! It’s about Jesus to whose pattern his followers are to be conformed, so it is about us, as well. And, as any story is about not only its protagonist but also about the “bit players” who surround him, it is about James and John and Peter, who represent us.
When I was 19 years old, my parish priest, Fr. John Donaldson, died of cancer. I was privileged to be the acolyte and crucifer at his requiem and burial. It was a very formal, high-church affair. In all honesty, I remember very little of Fr. John’s funeral. I don’t remember Bishop Bloy’s homily at all, but I do remember the committal at the graveside. You see, it was my first experience of a burial using the liturgy of the Episcopal Church.
I had been to plenty of funerals by then: my father died when I was five, my grandfather when I was eight, my paternal uncle when I was twelve. But I had been an Episcopalian for only five years when Fr. John died and until then I’d never been to a Prayer Book funeral and I’d never heard the words spoken as dirt is tossed onto the coffin:
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ….
Those words, “in sure and certain hope,” really hit me and have stuck with me through the years. They have been used in Anglican burials since Archbishop Cranmer first penned them for the original Prayer Book in 1549. We still use them in the Prayer Book of 1979. They are fundamental to the Anglican expression of the Christian faith.
What are we to do with our first lesson today? The story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, “exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers.” In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that such “darkness and mystery,” and the thousands of unanswerable questions they bring, are really fundamental to our relationship with God. “[O]f God Himself can no man think,” he writes, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”
The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem known as The Dark Night of the Soul. He wrote in the first verse:
Once in the dark of night,?
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose?
(O coming of delight!)?
And went, as no one knows,
?When all my house lay long in deep repose….
“In this first stanza,” John himself said, the soul relates the way and manner which it followed “to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation.” This “purgative contemplation” has been called a darkening of the will, intellect, and senses, or more simply a “remain[ing] silent, …not thinking of anything.”