Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

March 7, 2004

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps 27:1,7-9,13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1;

Luke 9:28-36)

"Listen to him." Listen to him . . .

Last week we began the season of Lent by going out into the wilderness with Jesus as he was tempted by the devil. He was embarking on a long struggle with the forces of evil; serious business indeed.

So it comes as a surprise today to hear this account of a manifestation of his post-resurrection glory. It's not penitential, it's comforting; light and ecstasy.

So much so that Peter just wants to settle down and stay there. To be with the exalted Jesus. He wants to forget Jesus' mission and the journey to Jerusalem.

To understand what's going on here we need to put it together with the account of God dealing with Abram in Genesis.

Both stories are really accounts, not of what we can do, but of God's commitment to us.

In Genesis God enters into -- God initiates -- a covenant with Abram. It is a promise to do the impossible, Abram and his wife Sarah are old and are childless. To think that they could have a child, much less many, even makes Sarah laugh. But God makes them a promise: their children will be as numerous as the sands on the seashore. And beyond that, they will have a land set aside specially for them.

In Luke's Gospel God sets a divine seal on the mission of Jesus. His mission is authentic. He will fulfill what had been begun in the great prophets Moses and Elijah who are the icons of the Israelite people. And beyond that, once again there is the promise of the impossible: resurrection, life beyond his death.

These are enormous, incredible promises.

But in both stories there is another element which is not consoling but troubling. There is darkness. There is fear. In the story of Abram we even hear a word which sadly resonates with our modern experience: terror.

The promises of God, it turns out, are not all comfort and joy.

In the account we heard from Genesis there are some verses in the middle which have been omitted in the selection given to us. "Then the Lord said to Abram: 'Know for certain that your descendants shall be aliens in a land not their own, where they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.'"

The fulfillment of the Covenant will not come immediately, nor will it be without cost and pain. Not tomorrow but only after 400 years of wandering! No stability for them, only exile and slavery inflicted on them again and again by different oppressors.

And in the Gospel what do Moses and Elijah discuss with Jesus? What are they talking about? The passage he was to fulfill in Jerusalem. The Greek word is really 'exodus.' He is going to go through an exodus, he is going to live out in his flesh the same experience of estrangement and alienation that his people have gone through. He will be put to death outside the city. On the margins, where those who don't count in religious or civil society are exiled.

You and I, in the depths of our souls, long for Easter. Oh not just this coming Easter but the fulfillment of an eternal Easter. St. Augustine reminded us that our hearts are made for God and will never be satisfied until we are at rest there. We see that reality mirrored every year when the days begin ever so slightly to become warmer and lighter. We tell each other how glad we are that winter just might be coming to an end. It's only a small testimony to that deeper longing in us.

We long to be liberated from all our limitations, from all those captivities which characterize our lives on earth. We want to be freed from our inability to break the cycle of the violence we continually visit upon one another. We ache to be free of our inability to heal the fragmentation and ruptures in our relationships, in our families and in our city, our nation and the world. We cry out under the burden of our inability to heal the pain and shame of our church.

Peter, good Peter, gets a small glimpse of the glory that awaits, and so innocently, naively wants it all to just end right there. It's so human. We have songs that speak of the hope of just laying our burden down.

As I was reading this Gospel earlier in the week I realized that it contains one of the most amazing lines in all of Scripture. When Peter voices his plan to just stay there, Luke interjects an editorial comment: "He didn't really know what he was talking about!" Peter really hasn't a clue. How characteristic of much of our life. We use big theological words, like 'love' and 'reconciliation' and 'grace' and 'sacrifice' and 'resurrection.' And how much do we really know about what they might mean?

Our glorification doesn't work the way Peter thought it did. It's not an escape but a passing through. When the brief display on the mount of the transfiguration is over, their eyes are open and what do they see? "Only Jesus." They are going back on the journey, the exodus, the passage through death.

It's all about faith, not sight. We have a spiritual to that effect, don't we? "We walk by faith and not by sight." Abram put his faith in God and it was 'credited to him as an act of righteousness.'

On this past Friday evening you might have seen on Public Broadcasting the interview Bill Moyers had with William Sloane Coffin. The older members among us may remember that Coffin, who was the pastor of Riverside Church in New York, was a key leader in the fight for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. He marched with the group called Clergy and Others Concerned about social issues.

He's an old man now. Recently he had a series of severe strokes. And then he was informed that he has less than a year to live. Bill Moyers asks him about that and comments at how calm and placid he appears in the face of his imminent death. He asks him how he does that. He says, "Do you have some idea of what will happen when you pass through that door?" Sloane Coffin says, "No, I don't. I don't know what will meet me. But in a real sense, that's unimportant. I don't really need to know what will meet me -- because I know who will be there to meet me. That's all we need to know. We come from God, we live our lives in God, and we go back to God."

Lent looks to Easter. Lent has no meaning apart from Easter. But Lent isn't Easter.

We're in it for the long haul, as individuals and as a people. This is the time of our exodus and we must be present to it. It's not yet time to settle down. But as we get back on the journey we need to take with us those memories of small glimpses of glory that our God gives us along the way. So that we may know, not what it will be like but who will be there to greet us. This is our time to get to know that "who."

"Listen to him." Listen to him.