glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On Dusty Springfield, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Miracle of Sight: A Sermon for Laetare Sunday

This past Wednesday evening, during our Bible study, I mentioned in passing the 1960s Dusty Springfield song “Wishin’ and Hopin.” I guess in doing so I surprised the Wednesday crowd, as they wondered how I would even know about this song, since Dusty, great as she was, was not exactly at the height of her popularity for my generation in the ‘80s, which was more the Madonna era. But I love Dusty even so, and listen to her lots, especially when I’m working around the house. Though, not while writing sermons—I tried that in preparation for Ash Wednesday this year and it was a total disaster. I was too busy singing.

Now, like the Wednesday night crowd you, too, might be wondering how I would even know about the great Dusty Springfield—with her big blonde beehive hair, thick mascara, and soulful voice. Well, for starters, it’s because when I was about 14 my new and (as it happens) my still favorite band was the English electronic synth dance duo—the Pet Shop Boys. And in 1987, just as I discovered them, they released a duet with Dusty titled “What have I done to deserve this?,” which ended up being her biggest ever hit, and introduced her to a whole new generation of fans, just like me. But, as much as that was my official, conscious introduction, as I think on it, it’s probably also the case that I like her because my father, a child of the 60s, absolutely loved that era’s music, especially of the “British Invasion.”

And Dusty, well, she was the undisputed female Red Coat General of the British Invasion, reaching these shores even before the Beatles and breaking new ground with her “blue-eyed soul” Motown sound, with hits like “I only want to be with you,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Just don’t know what to do with myself,” and later “the Look of Love” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” On car trips or just hanging around the house, that’s what I heard, along with the likes of the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and for a little American flavor, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

My dad literally spent hours and hours on Saturday afternoons sitting on the living floor, with his meticulously cared for 1960s records piled up all around him (I was never allowed to touch them), putting together the perfect 8-track mixed tape for long driving trips through Canada and the Black Hills, for work (he was a courier, so he spent considerable time in the car), or just for Saturdays at home. You may know that he died when I was 15, and he was just 38, so his beloved ‘60s music is one of the ways that I have of holding on to him, feeling that’s he present still. Though, I have to admit that my favorite song, perhaps of all time, is still, and maybe forever will be, the more contemporary Dusty, with the Pet Shop Boys, singing in very techno fashion: “What have, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?”

As it happens, “What have I done to deserve this?” is a question that people ask all the time. What have I done to deserve being sick? What have I done to deserve being fired from my job? What have I done to deserve having my spouse or partner leave me, or worse, die unexpectedly? No doubt the family members of those lost in the missing Malaysian airplane, those affected by Washington mudslide, survivors of the firefighters in Boston or the Marathon Bombing, of 9/11, Pearl Harbor, or even Nagasaki and Hiroshima, could all ask the very same question: what have I done to deserve this? I suppose it’s a question that my mom, my brothers, and I all could have (and might have) asked when my father died unexpectedly 26 years ago, too. It’s even one that my dad himself might have asked, since from the time he was in his late 20s he struggled with the effects of muscular dystrophy, having to wear leg braces and often struggling to walk, which is probably what led to him falling in an accident, breaking his knee, and dying after surgery.

Unfortunately, though, who ever we are, and whatever our personal afflictions or struggles, whatever our grief or loss, the “what have I done to deserve this?” question often ends up going unanswered, because, really, most times, there simply is no good or satisfactory answer. Things just happen. Painful things. Undeserved things. Things that make no reasonable or rational sense.

But, because we human beings don’t really like unanswered questions, we make up explanations. For example, whatever bad thing might have happened—whether on a small personal scale or in bigger more universal ways—it is all part of God’s mysterious plan. For centuries people have thought that way, for millennia really, probably going back to the very origins of humanity. If there’s something we don’t understand or can’t make sense of, well, then, we can blame it on God. Or if not exactly blaming it on God, then blaming it on ourselves (or on other people’s selves), followed by what we deem to be God’s appropriate judgment. That’s the whole point of the biblical Book of Job, after all--why do bad things happen? It is God's fault? Our fault?

And sometimes that can be comforting, in a way. Having the faith that God is always in charge and that whatever happens, seemingly good or bad, it is by God’s design. But at other times, that can seem really, even outrageously offensive, too. Did God have a hand in causing 9/11 or the Holocaust, or less globally, taking my dad from me, or your loved ones from you? I don't know for certain, but I just don’t think God does that. I don’t think that God wants us to go through grief or pain or loss, all to fulfill a great master plan. I suppose it’s possible. But it’s not really how the God I believe in operates.

But what God does do, I think, is help us endure these sufferings. God stands with us and dries our eyes. God helps us to see that there is a new day on the horizon, holding out the promise of new opportunities, new hope, and new life. God helps us to know that as we suffer and endure trials, losses and hardships, we are never alone. Because God, and the Great Cloud of Witnesses —the Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people, as we pray in the Rite I post-communion prayer—are always there with us, alongside us, and even within us, propping us up, prodding us along, and giving us eyes, opened eyes, to see the world and our lives in it in ever new ways.

That, at least in part, is what I think our gospel passage this morning is all about. Here we find a man who is blind from birth, who has never seen anything, at least physically. But through Jesus’ presence and intervention he finds himself healed. He is given new sight. And more importantly, he is given new understanding—of himself, of his faith, and of the power of God. (You’ll notice in the passage that he goes from saying Jesus is a man, to saying he’s a prophet, to finally saying that he’s the Son of Man, the Messiah).

If you remember, one of the questions that people around him had been asking, probably since the time he was born, was what had he done to deserve this, this blindness? Or, if it’s not his fault, what had his parents done? Because no one would be born blind otherwise. It must be a symptom of some other greater, deeper, more profound, inner evil. In fact, the blind man probably believed this himself—that his condition was a direct consequence of his own inner sinful nature.

But then, along comes Jesus. And he tells the blind man, his own disciples, those crabby, wet blanket Pharisees, and us 2000 years later, that this just is not so. By giving the blind man sight, by opening his eyes, Jesus testifies that his blindness is not some kind of punishment from God, but is instead a condition that we all share, in various ways, by virtue of being alive. We are all limited in some way or another—for some it is sight, for others hearing, for still others it’s not so much physical, but feeling alone or discouraged, unsatisfied or unfulfilled. None of this is God’s punishment for anything that we, or certainly our parents have done. Nor is it even necessarily punishment for what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time.

Instead, it is simply a manifestation of being human, of being limited, fragile, mortal. But Jesus tells us, in fact, he shows us, that through him, by being united to him, we can transcend these limitations and truly see, truly hear, and truly be filled. Whatever our griefs, whatever our losses, whatever our crucifixions and Good Fridays, we will always find Easter and we will always be led to resurrection. Which is, of course, the whole point of our Christian faith. We haven’t done anything to deserve it, this resurrection, to answer the question of my favorite song. But it’s what we get. Just because. Christ shines upon us light to see and know that even in our grief, even in our loss, and even in our limitations, we are never alone, we are never truly blind, and, most importantly, we are never really dead.

As it happens, that was exactly my experience, so many years ago, when my dad died. Not at first, of course. At first it was horrible. But over time I came to believe that God had not abandoned me or my family, but was walking alongside us and strengthening us, propping us up and giving us hope. Through that experience, our faith—or at least mine—grew deeper and stronger and more real. Not because it gave me any answers as to why. But because, through that grief, I experienced the promise of resurrection and new life in a profoundly real way. It wasn’t any longer just something I was taught to believe in at Sunday School or confirmation class. Rather, it became something that touched me at the heart of who I am. In fact, I’d even say that’s why I am here as a priest among you today. My feeling of being loved, being cared for, and being filled with Christ’s light at that painful time—through friends, through our church community, and through prayer—through Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people—was so powerful, so encompassing, so motivating, that I felt called to share it with others, even if all too often dimly and imperfectly.

That’s how God works—God takes people, people like his Son Jesus, people like Jesus’ disciples, people like us, even people like the wet blanket Pharisees, and he uses them. God uses us all, in our various gifts and in our various limitations, to make the world brighter, fuller, and more alive. So that others, too, can see. And then, so that they can believe.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Temptations, Wildernesses, and Journeying to God: A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

So, it’s the first Sunday of Lent and I have to confess that so far, anyway, I haven’t had a very Lenten Lent. On Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday, I had a couple glasses of wine. On Friday, I ate French fries, and yesterday, Saturday, I ate a piece of black forest cake. Every day I’ve drunk coffee, as well as my biggest temptation—Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper—well maybe I’ve had a little less of that, but not considerably.  If Lent is supposed to be about giving things up, about denying ourselves things we like, little pleasures like French fries, Black Forest cake or Dr Pepper—well, then, I am a miserable failure. Of course, the good news is that there’s still over a month to go, so maybe I can pick myself up, dust myself off, and start over again. Maybe.

But it’s so hard sometimes. Especially when we have gorgeous spring-like days like yesterday. Under those conditions it’s hard to focus on fasting and self-denial when outside it feels a lot more like Easter, a lot more like resurrection and new life. That’s the trouble with Lent beginning as late as it does this year. In other years, Lent starts in mid-February, when its cold and dark and we already feel a little morose. It’s just not fair for it to start when, after a long and torturous winter, we are already eagerly anticipating the new life of spring. So, I am perfectly comfortable blaming my Lenten failures on the calendar. It really won’t care.

Plus, the really good news is that Lent is actually about a whole lot more than giving up wine or chocolate or fried potato products. It’s really about journeying deeper into the heart and being of God. It’s about letting go of whatever doesn’t matter, whatever clutters up our lives, so that we can focus on the things that really do matter—who we are, who God made us to be, who God hopes for us to become.

That’s what I think I would like to focus on this Lent, in both my prayer and in my living: discovering who I am in Christ and who God wants me to be. And I would invite and encourage you to do the same: focus on who God made you to be and who God wants you to become. Those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday this past week will remember that I spoke about the stark dichotomy between the dark symbol of the ashes—a sign and reminder of our mortality—and our society that seems so intent on denying or even somehow trying to overcome that mortality, whether through exercise or diet, medicines, face creams, or more dramatically with the very pleasant and breezy sounding “lifestyle lift,” which is probably not all that pleasant or breezy in reality. All are meant, in a way, to help us defy the odds and live forever—or at least look like we are 20 years younger when the time of our mortality finally comes.

Now, as I said on Wednesday, there’s certainly nothing wrong and a lot right with being healthy. And really, there’s nothing wrong with looking young or younger than your years either. After a certain age we all desire that. But what is problematic, I think, is when the attainment of a perfect body or the perfect job or the most stunningly gorgeous spouse or partner becomes so absorbing that we lose sight of who are, and whose we are. The cross of ashes on our foreheads and the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return serves, I think, in a very powerful way, to draw us, or even jolt us, back to our center in God. Through the ashes, through the cross, we are reminded, yet again, that none of this external stuff, none of the stuff or the promises that are advertised on TV, radio, or the Internet really matters. Because it won’t last. Like our mortal bodies, one day all that stuff will also again be dust. It will return to the source from which it came: God. And so will we.

I think, really, that’s the meaning in the wilderness temptation story that we just heard in today’s gospel. Much like the voices speaking to us through our TVs, radios, and computers, telling us that if we only sign up or show up, take a pill or pay three easy installments of $29.99, we can be skinnier, prettier, younger, richer, have a better partner, a better house or a better car, much like those voices Satan tries in various ways to lure Jesus away from his true self and center in God by suggesting that if he just turned some stones into bread he wouldn’t be hungry any longer, or if he’d bow down (in other words, turn to Satan and away from God) he’d have all the power he could possibly want or need. Jesus doesn’t give in, as we know, but we shouldn’t imagine that it wasn’t hard all the same—after all, after 40 days he probably was really hungry. And who wouldn’t be drawn in by the promise of wealth or power or prestige?

And here’s the thing. Because we are good Christians and because we have been brought up to believe that Jesus lived sinlessly, we tend also, sometimes, to think that Jesus was so perfect, so beyond corruption or temptation, that nothing could or would have phased him, that these temptations just sort of rolled off his back. But I don’t think that’s right. Because Jesus was human. Fully, truly, really human. Human like you and me. And if these temptations weren’t really tempting, well then, who cares? It’s easy not to give into things you don’t like or want or need. What’s hard, what’s real, what’s miraculous even, is standing firm in the face of something that is truly alluring. That’s why, when we prepare to confront the power of temptation, we shouldn’t imagine that we will get a proper warning—like seeing a little red devil on our shoulders with horns and a pitch fork. Rather, it will be pleasant, reassuring, alluring and seductive even. It is for us, and I imagine that it was for Jesus, too.

In fact, if the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is to be believed, being tempted in this way, being tempted into thinking that we can be better or smarter, more attractive and more powerful, is something that humans have struggled with from the beginning of time. Only, also, as long ago as that, we humans have known, in a deep, inward, spiritual place, that by giving into these temptations, we end up losing part of ourselves, even as we also drift, little by little, and usually quite unintentionally, away from our center in God. We forget who we are and whose we are.

That, I think, is why the Adam and Eve story was written down in the first place—to try to help explain this weird inward pull we humans have for making choices that, for whatever reasons, seem to be good in the passion of the moment, but in retrospect are extraordinarily bad. In fact, when you stop to think about it, the whole of the Bible is full of such stories—people, good people, who are lured in by the promise of power, or prestige, or sensual pleasures, only to find that they have sold themselves or lost themselves to the highest (or even sometimes the lowest) bidder—Adam and Eve for a piece of fruit, Esau for a bowl of lentil stew, Samson, David, and Solomon for the lure of beautiful women.

But what we also learn, in reading the Bible, in encountering these stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines (now there’s a biblical approach to marriage—how did he even have time for actually ruling Israel?), and so many more, what we learn through all of these stories is that although we may wander far off into wildernesses of our own making, God is steadfast, God is faithful, and God will always welcome us home again, welcome us home into God’s heart, where we were born and where we belong, forever and always.

And that, I think, is what this Lenten season is all about, more than giving up fried potatoes or black forest cake. It is the journey through temptations and out of our wildernesses. It is the journey back to God. And for Christians, for us here this morning, that journey comes with and in and through Christ. In following him, in striving to resist temptations the way he did, in taking up our own crosses, and even dying to the lure of power and prestige and beauty, dying to all of that, we will find that we are, in fact, truly alive. We find that we are able to rise again.

You know, on Wednesday, when we were marked with ash crosses and told that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we could just as well have been reminded that earlier, on another occasion, on another day, at our baptisms, after we were sprinkled or doused with water, we were likewise marked with crosses, on our foreheads—crosses that day not of ash, not of death and mortality, but of eternal life, life with and in God. And it is those crosses, the baptismal crosses, the resurrection crosses, that we are journeying to rediscover this Lent. So that when it really is Easter, when that glorious day comes, we will be ready and able to leave our wildernesses, our tombs, and rise with Christ.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.


On Getting Up, Being Raised, and Living the Transfiguration: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

Each year on this day, the final Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, we are invited to accompany Jesus and three of his closest disciples—Peter, James, and John—to the mountain top, where Jesus is transfigured, we might even say transformed, before their—and our—very eyes. This powerful story, which is told in Matthew as we just heard today, and also in Mark and in Luke—offers something of a bookend to the Epiphany season, while also a foreshadowing of what’s to come: Jesus as he will be in the resurrection. 

Epiphany, as you know, is about light and recognition and revelation. It began with a sparkling star in the Bethlehem sky, drawing the Magi to visit the infant Jesus. A week later we accompanied Jesus, then grown up, into the Jordan where he was baptized, heard God’s voice, and saw the Spirit descend on him, the same Spirit that immediately afterwards drove him to temptation and testing in the wilderness. After passing that test Jesus called his disciples—Peter, James, and John (as well as Peter’s brother Andrew) to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people. Jesus also began his ministry of teaching and healing. In a way, all of these events lead up to the peak of the mountain and this transfiguration moment, when the disciples and we along with them are able to see Jesus filled with the power, the radiance, and the glory of God.

In fact, in the Transfiguration we get to see Jesus as God sees him. We even hear God’s voice echoing from the heavens, announcing that this radiant, glorious Jesus is none other than God’s own Son—using the exact same words as at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” If the disciples, or we, have any questions, any doubts whatsoever, about whom Jesus is, today’s mountain top transfiguration experience should put them to rest.

Now, as fantastic as all this sounds, and as much as we might like to believe the gospel story exactly as written, and exactly as it’s present with us here at Emmanuel every Sunday—since the Transfiguration is the story depicted in the three stained glass windows above the high altar, with Elijah on one side, Moses on the other, and the glorious Jesus in the middle, with the disciples at Jesus’ feet below—as much as we might want to believe that all of this really happened exactly as described, we can’t actually, truly, really know what the experience on that mountaintop was.

What we do know, though, is that within the gospel narrative, within the arc of the story of Jesus’ life, this Transfiguration event is a sort of like a fantastic half-time show, complete with special effects that would probably impress George Lucas. It’s a reminder or reinforcement to the disciples, and to us, the later disciples, of who Jesus really is, of who God thinks he is, to sustain them and us once we climb down from the mountain and make our way to Jerusalem and all that the coming journey will mean—betrayal and denial, arrest, crucifixion, and death. If we are expected to follow him to these dark and difficult places, at least we know that he’s the real thing.

Now, I imagine that like me, when you’ve heard this gospel passage before you’ve assumed that the meaning in the story was really all about Jesus and what happened to him. I must have preached on the transfiguration at least 10 times and that was always my approach. But this week, as I read it yet again and after a little study and research, something stood out that hadn’t before. What if it’s not only Jesus that was transfigured, but Peter and James and John as well?

Here’s a little context for my thinking: Following this morning’s Old Testament reading from Exodus, after Moses climbed the mountain and entered into God’s glory, he eventually had to go down again to deliver the law to the Israelites in the wilderness. And we read that after being in God’s presence Moses’ face was so bright, shining, radiating even, that he had to be covered with a veil. His skin was blinding and people couldn’t stand to look at him. Moses’ was essentially transfigured himself. Only he didn’t know it until others saw him. That was never depicted by Charleton Heston in his Ten Commandments movie, but it’s what the Bible says.

Well, remembering that story about Moses made me wonder if the same might have happened to Peter and James and John as well when they were on the mountain, in God’s presence, hearing God’s voice, even being touched by God’s Son. Only, maybe they didn’t know it or couldn’t see it—in part perhaps because they were blinded by Jesus’ glory, and the vision of Moses and Elijah, but also because, as you know, you can never really see yourself. Unless you are looking in a mirror you don’t know what you look like. And even then, you don’t see your full self, in the way that others see you, and certainly not in the way that God sees you. Maybe Peter, James, and John didn’t know what God had done for them either, how their encounter with God had changed them, transformed them even, so that they, too shone with God’s grace, God’s glory, and God’s light, if not literally, physically, then at least in an inward spiritual way.

Here’s what makes me think so, besides the fact that Moses is right there with them. Tucked into this gospel passage, kind of hidden away, are some familiar words that always mean something glorious, amazing, miraculous even, has happened. Do you remember from the reading how, after all of this stuff with Jesus lighting up and Moses and Elijah appearing, the disciples are cowering in fear on the ground, and Jesus physically touches his friends? And right after he says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” “Get up and do not be afraid.”

First, “do not be afraid.” When and where have we heard that before? It’s actually a long list, in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, as many as 70 times in the Bible we hear angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say: “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, to Joshua and Ruth, David and Solomon, to Isaiah and Jeremiah. And finally, to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds in their fields and to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.

Perhaps even more significantly Jesus says: “get up.” Now, that sounds ordinary enough, since they were cowering on the ground. Until you realize that what Jesus really says, in the Greek, is not so much the terse sounding “get up” but “be raised.” In fact, it’s the very same word used here that the angels use after they tell the women at the tomb not to be afraid. Remember? “Jesus who was crucified is not here. He has been raised.” And now here, Jesus tells his friends the same thing: to get up, to arise, to be raised. Be raised in the same way that Jesus will be raised on Easter. Be raised, be resurrected, here and now, today and always. You have seen God face to face. In fact, you have been touched by God. So, do not be afraid. Live that glowing, glorious, resurrected life. Know that nothing can harm you. Not really. Because nothing can take this grace, this glory, this life from you. Ever. No power. No fear. No death.

Well, as I said, I’ve read and preached on this story countless times and I was never aware of all that is packed into that one sentence, just waiting to be discovered, until I read a commentary on it this week. And this discovery (which I’m sure is known to biblical scholars, but not so much to us ordinary Christians), has the potential to be so “transfigurative,” if you will, in understanding not only what this story is all about, but in understanding what the whole of our Christian faith are all about, that we may very never be the same. Or at least I hope we will never be the same.

Because when you think about it, everything we read about in these ancient biblical stories is not only just about things that happened to Jesus and his friends 2000 years ago, or to Moses some 3000 years ago. If they were just that we wouldn’t probably read anymore them today. But they are also about us, and how we are called to live—unafraid, empowered, transfigured, resurrected. Not merely waiting for the promise of life after death, but embracing, living, and radiating that resurrection life even now, even today.

You know, the last few weeks in our gospel readings and on Wednesday nights, we’ve been struggling with how we are supposed to meet the rigorous demands of life and discipleship that Jesus calls us to. Last week he even said “be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect.” It sounds impossible, because it is impossible. Unless and until we understand that sin and death, division and despair are not our destiny, our calling, or our purpose. Rather, life is. Transformed life. Transfigured life. Resurrected life. Easter life. That’s what Jesus tells us, over and over again, all the time, really. We just have such difficulty believing him. We become so much like the disciples in today’s gospel, cowering and weighed down by our sense difference, by our sense of un-worth, of not feeling good enough, or sometimes, of being afraid of what we might be able to do, and how we might change, if we really grasped the power that God has given us.

But that’s not what God wants of us. That’s not who we are meant to be, or how we are meant to live. As long as go as 1846, my favorite theologian, F. D. Maurice wrote:

“Men are told that they are made in the image of God: how could it be that they knew it not. Here is God’s express image, not shown in the heavens above, nor in the earth beneath, but in a man…. In [Christ] we find how humanity has been a holy thing, though each man felt himself to be unholy…. In [Christ] it is proved how humanity is meant to have a dwelling with God.”

Because, of course, the purpose of Jesus coming to dwell among us, and in us, is not to do something for God. It’s not for God to show off his fantastic ability at special effects. God is not George Lucas making a science fiction movie (much as I love George Lucas movies, as you well know). Rather, it is so that we live in the very same way that Jesus lived. So that we will accomplish the same things that Jesus accomplished. So that we know that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, too, in whom God is also well pleased, and who have the power, the grace, and the ability to be transformed and transfigured ourselves. So that when we climb down from the mountain, with Jesus and like Jesus, we will help God transform and transfigure the world.

To his friends, both 2000 years ago, and especially today, Jesus says, as always: Do not be afraid. But be raised and be alive. Really, truly, wonderfully, alive. So, that God’s light may shine through you and transfigure the world.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.