Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent 2 - Year B
Romans 4:13-25

Paul begins the 4th chapter of Romans by asking "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?"  The answer, it appears, is rather a lot - all of Romans 4, in fact, and the entire 3rd chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians.  God who addressed Abraham back in Genesis 12-17 is one who, still today, "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist."  These words, says Paul, were written for us as well and not only to illustrate something which happened long ago.  They bear on the current life of Christians in Rome, in Croix de Neyrat and Chamalières.  They tell us how to be faithful in this church of ours - in this skin of mine.  

A brutally literal translation of Romans 4:18 would say, of Abraham, that he

against hope
in hope

which, while ugly English, at least has the benefit of emphasizing the two different ropes which we hold on to.  One is our own self-sufficiency.  It is admittedly quite a frayed thing.  Our character is flawed and sinful.  Our neurons are no longer fit for purpose.  We are too old.  We are young and stupid. The opportunity has fled elsewhere.  The judgement is against us. Our pipeline is vetoed.  That rope - whatever it was - will not support our weight.  We only delude ourselves by hoping that its fragmentary fibers will do what, we know full well, they will not do.  Part of the process is to let that fact sink in - definitively.  That first rope is hopeless.  It will not hold us up. 

So why not switch ropes?  God never showed Abraham a mirror in order to encourage him that, if he eats all his veg, he might locate a bit of life left in that old frame of his - one more lap around the track, if you like. God pointed Abraham beyond himself - to the innumerable stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach.  "So shall your descendants be", says God.  I will make it so.  And "Abraham believed God".  The second rope.

Many young clergy imagine that their job is to tell people to keep their chins up and that things are probably not that bad.  "Hoping against hope" (NRSV!) is too often understood as an exercise in optimism - redeeming that one useless rope in the face of all evidence.   Instead of the power of God made accessible to those who believe we ape the motivational speakers and embark on some project about the power of positive thinking. 

And that's not it - not it at all.  It's a whole 'nuther rope.

Matthew 17:1-9  

Squint and you won't look so fat in the mirror.   Take your specs off and you could obscure your vision still further.  The world might look even better.  Or follow the old platitude and take a second gander at your familiar cloud.  Find its silver lining.  Force yourself.  Deep down, though, you know that it's a normal exercise in self-deception.  We do it all the time.  We're working hard to cover up reality.   We hide much.  We reveal nothing.

In this Sunday's Gospel reading, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to a high mountain (the story appears in all first three Gospels).  In their presence Jesus is "transfigured".   Matthew and Mark use the passive verb "was metamorphosed" while Luke chooses to describe the process thus: "...the fashion of his countenance was altered".  Jesus shines.  His clothing becomes bright.  Two characters from Israel's history - Moses and Elijah - suddenly appear at his side.  A voice speaks from heaven. The disciples are afraid and do not understand.  They babble or, at least, Peter babbles.  

 Recognizing that the disciples do not have the words to describe what they have seen, Jesus tells them to keep their mouths shut:  "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead".

Unlike the normal impulse to prettify a shabby situation, this vision strikes the disciples out of the blue.  It is one which I believe has been better painted by artists, over the years, than it has been retold by preachers.  It is what it is: a hint or a first installment of something that is to come. For the three disciples it is precisely what they will know and preach with clarity after Easter.   It is what St Paul will one day write about to his congregations.  For Peter, James and John that day, God opens the door just a crack.  They catch a glimpse of the full picture: Jesus the light to the world who unites the present (and future) world of his followers with the mighty and saving acts of God in the history of Israel.  

Willful self-deception closes a door.
Unbidden mystery forces it open.

"This is my Son", God says, "Listen to him!"