SERMON Not All There is to the Glory of God

I did not preach this last weekend, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)

  • Exodus 34:29-35
  • Psalm 99
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
  • Luke 9:28-43

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God. (Luke 9:28-43 ESV)

And they kept silent and told no one in those days.

You’d think the disciples would have told the whole wide world who and what Jesus was, especially given that the entire light of heaven shined upon him, that God has — again — formally and very publicly adopted him. Proclaimed Jesus the Chosen One, the one at lease the disciples should listen to.

Here, after all, on this mountain, eight days after asking his followers who the crowds thought he was, who they thought he was, and then telling those same disciples about his coming fate — “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” — Jesus has again gone to pray alone. And again, he has been followed by his closest disciples.

But instead of Jesus telling them what is to come, God shows them. Instead of Jesus questioning his disciples, “who do you think I am?”, God shows them. In a brilliant, overwhelming flash of light. “This is my son, the one I have chosen, listen to him.” And where Moses and Elijah — the giver of the law of the prophet of Israel who showed all of us how to live faithfully in the face of our own faithlessness, who showed the enemies of God’s people “that there is a God in Israel” by healing them rather than striking them down — stood, there is just Jesus. Alone.

And they — the disciples — kept silent, and told no one in those days.

We remember the Jesus of the Great Commission in Matthew, who goes and tells his disciples to preach, and teach, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We remember the Holy Spirit setting a crowd on fire, we remember public testimonies and mass baptisms and crowds following. None of this was accomplished by silence.

But Jesus, at times, commanded silence. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of the God, Jesus sternly commands them to tell no one. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, and commands him — tell no one. Go make the offering to the priest, he says, but tell no one.

It didn’t help. The fame of Jesus — as a healer, as someone who could command and cast out demons, and as a man who could a feast miraculously appear from a few loaves and fishes — spread far and wide. This was the kingdom, and this drew the crowds.

Even in his own day, no one kept silent about Jesus.

But Jesus is reminding his disciples, and reminding us, there is more to glory of God then a brilliant white light, than the power to cast out of demons and make the sick and the broken whole. I’m not denying this is the glory, the grace, and the love of God at work in the world. But it isn’t all there is.

There is suffering. There is weakness. There is helplessness. There is pain. There is despair, and loss, and loneliness, and isolation. There is fear. And there is death.

These things too are the glory of God. It’s hard for us to see God in suffering. It is hard for us to understand God in fear. And it is nearly impossible, I think, for us to really grasp the presence of God in death.

We want the 5,000 fed, and we want to see it and do it every day. We want the demons cast out into the swine heard, where they drown themselves. We want the power to make the world right. We want to get even, see our enemies underneath our feet, take some pleasure in their fear, in their suffering, in their defeat. We want the power and glory of God from on high to make us strong, mighty, rich, in charge. We want to be great, whether it is for the first ever or simply great again.

But that is not all there is to the glory of God.

Jesus told his disciples, tells us, that he will suffer many things, and that he will die. This is what it means for him to be Χριστος, Christ, the Anointed One of God. Today we may see glory, and tomorrow we may tell of it, but right now, we understand — sometimes silence is better. Because sometimes we don’t understand everything.

We haven’t seen all of God at work. We haven’t held God dying, ministered to a lonely and frightened God, or just been with and cared for a God who languishes unloved and unwanted in prison or on the streets or in a foster home without any real family. Because there too is the glory of God.

Because Jesus also tells Peter, as he commands silence, that the Son of Man will be raised on the third day. But to be raised from the dead, he must die first. We must kill him. And so there he is, the beloved Son, the Chosen One, lifted high upon a cross, a God who suffers torture and death to show us — to show the whole world — that death has no power and no hold over us, and is no real end.

Resurrected life, eternal life, out of death. The promise and the glory of God.

We do not keep silent about this, about an empty tomb, about the Beloved Son claimed and loved and given to the world. But too often we are silent about the suffering God — and the very human suffering he became a part of — because we see no glory and no power and no good end in any of it. And we want no part of it.

But the glory of God is right there. In front us us. To behold.

So, do not be silent. Do not be silent about the wondrous deeds of power, of healing, feeding, and casting out demons. Tell the world what you have seen. Remember, however, the cross, and the God who suffers with us. That too is a wondrous deed. And that too is the glory of God.

 

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on indeed.com (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:

THERE IS NO GOD!

And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.