This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer serves as one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including robust theology, circuity, abundant coffee, God’s Top 10, sinful clergy, Karl Barth’s Gottingen Dogmatics, sabbath observance, Pauline swagger, parabolic utterances, and enjoying the fruit of the vine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching Like God Is Speaking
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Ace Ventura, mashups, Twitter as a complaint box, temptation and strife, namesakes, parabolic utterances, Jesus’ jokes, vacancy in the Kingdom, and Flannery O’Connor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Bucket In The Ocean
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 16.2-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including video production ministry, history as repetition, shortsightedness, nearness in the pandemic, Peter Sagal’s running habits, storied stories, idolatrous worship, ego death, and grumbling with grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Weighted Glory
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 12.1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lead in the pipes, Rugrats, Christological readings, singing our faith, metaethics, dinner parties, the irony of solitary Christians, truth telling, and the need for grace. If you would like to listen to the episode (#200!!!) or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Adventure Time!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 1.8-2.10, Psalm 124, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reading in quarantine, managing people, personifying the powers and principalities, leading questions, preaching for the eye or the ear, participating in Christ, and making the right confession. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Be Peculiar
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining on; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human being and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Why is tonight different from all other nights? That’s a worthy question for any of us taking the time to gather, strangely enough online, to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends. Particularly at a time when we cannot gather with our own friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But that question is not meant for us alone. The same question is asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?
Long ago, God made it all. The tall and the small, the near and the far, from here to there and everywhere. God brought forth life. Including us. That is, humankind.
God made a promise with Abraham to be his God, for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was given a new name: Israel. A name that means, “You have struggled with God and prevailed.”
Jacob begat Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers. But during his time as a stranger in a strange land he was prosperous and eventually brought about the gathering of Abraham’s descendants such that they were fruitful and multiplied in a foreign land.
All was well in Egypt, until it wasn’t.
The Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them and eventually ordered the deaths of every male child born to a Hebrew woman out of fear that they would one day rise up against their overlords.
Moses was born, saved by his mother by pushing him out in basket to float down the Nile. He grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God from the burning bush to deliver God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.
God commanded Moses to have the people slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors. This would be the sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborns in Egypt. God implored the people Israel to gird their loins that night because the time of their delivery was near.
Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to mark and remember the sacred and holy moment of God’s deliverance; Passover is when a people remind themselves of how God made a way where there was no way.
Jesus gathered with his friends in the upper room to celebrate Passover. They sat around a table to think about all that God had done long ago to save their ancestors. And it was around that table, pondering the past, that Jesus took an ordinary loaf of bread and said, “You all see this? This is my body. Take it, eat it, and know that I’m giving it for you.” Later he reached for a cup of wine and said, “This is my blood. It is a new covenant. I am pouring it out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Remember me and what I’ve done for you.”
A night unlike any other night built upon the movements of the days from long ago, Jesus said to his friends, “I’m making a way where there is no way.”
Why does Jesus suffer and die on a cross? Well, the cross is how Rome made an example of those who rocked the boat. But if I were to ask those of you across the great spectrum of the internet the same question, chances are better than good that you would say something like, “He died to make us right with God.” Or, “It’s his way of forgiving us.” Or, “He did it so we can go to heaven.”
Which, to be honest, aren’t necessarily wrong. It’s absolutely true that one of the final things Jesus says from the cross is, “Father, forgive them for they have no idea what they’re doing.”
But if the only thing we needed was forgiveness, couldn’t we have received it without Jesus’ having to die?
One of the things we so often miss, even those of us blessed to have communion in church every week, is that Jesus chose Passover for the time of his Last Supper.
And Passover isn’t about forgiveness.
The Lord didn’t look out on the misdeeds of the Israelites and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones, I will wash away your sins.” No. God says, “I’m getting you the hell out of Egypt. Let’s go!”
Passover is about freedom.
The blood that the Israelites marked their doors wasn’t a sign of guilt or shame or sorrow. It wasn’t a substitute for their own blood as a sacrifice for the sins they’d committed.
The blood marked the people out as the ones God was going to rescue.
When Jesus sits around the table with his friends for Passover, when he takes the bread and the cup he says this is my body and blood, he’s giving them a peak behind the curtain of salvation such that when they see him up on the cross, they would really be seeing a door streaked with blood.
Just as Israel was set free from captivity, given a new identity, sent to dwell in a new land, so too will the world is freed from oppression of another sort, given a new identity, and delivered not to a new geographical location, but into a community where people live on earth as it is in heaven.
Notice the connections:
Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.
Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his end, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast.
Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the Passover lamb’s bones were to remain intact.
Perhaps we’ve always seen it, but in case our eyes have been fixated on something else, the Bible is begging us to see that the cross is our exodus.
It is our delivery out of captivity into something new.
Look. I don’t know you. I don’t even know who’s watching this. Chances are some of you are from the church I serve. But some of you aren’t. And yet, I’ve been a pastor long enough to know something about every person viewing this. We’re all sinners.
Sin isn’t just something we do when no one else is looking. Sin is who we are. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. Sin is like shackles around our hands and feet, and no matter what we do we cannot break free on our own.
We’re all stuck in our own Egypts, we’re surrounded by the sins we’ve committed and the sins committed against us. They’re hovering around us all the time. We are held captive by them, and we are stuck in our sins, dead in our sins, and they’re ain’t nothing we can do about it.
But that’s kind of the whole point.
Jesus chooses Passover for his Last Supper, for his last moment with his friends, because he wants all of us to see that God is in the business of deliverance. As Robert Jenson so wonderfully put it, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”
Jesus Christ is our Passover lamb, slaughtered as a sign and mark of our freedom from the tyranny that surrounds us in every moment.
Jesus Christ is our Passover Lamb which means that we are not defined by our mistakes or our sins or our shames.
Jesus Christ is our Passover Lamb, breaking the chains of our past, present, and our future.
God in Christ does for us what we could not and would not do for ourselves. Jesus is our Exodus. Lift High the Doorpost! Amen.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!
I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.
Fine, I’ll do it.
Hey Moses! I need a word.
We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!
And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!
Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!
Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…
A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.
So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:
A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…
A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…
Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!
And so it goes.
We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us.
It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.
It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.
It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.
And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present.
Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.
And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.
Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.
It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.
And we break that one all the time.
We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short.
They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.
The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.
But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.
And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.
God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God.
Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.
When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.
We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.
I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down.
The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.
This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.
We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”
But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations.
The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.
And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”
The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.
But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.
Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.
At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.
But it’s not the bucket he notices.
He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.
And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”
And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.
Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [A] (Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11, John 4.5-42). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including scriptural introductions, Christian Twitter, Old Testament preaching, the wilderness of Sin, the “back in Egypt” committee, MewithoutYou, the best parts of the communion liturgy, faith vs. faithfulness, the living water on the cross, and secret snacks. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thirst Trap
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Everything is politics.
Politics are everything.
I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.
Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.
Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.
Politics are even seeping into the church!
So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.
In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.
In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”
Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.
God surely has a sense of humor.
Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.
The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.
And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.
Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.
But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.
The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God.
Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.
The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.
And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.
But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.
The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything.
For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.
Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past.
It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do.
But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.
Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.
But none of us are good enough.
Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!
Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way.
The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.
The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.
The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.
The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.
For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”
That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.
He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”
Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.
Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world.
Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.
Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.
Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May.
Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.
Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.
None is righteous, no, not one.
That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.
We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.
Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.
The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.
Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees.
Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ.
When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.
The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.
And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen.