Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent
March 4, 2007
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Genesis 15:5-12, 17018; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36)
The readings in today’s liturgy present us with a veritable set of All-Stars in the long story of salvation. It’s like Academy Awards night. We have God the creator of it all. Then we meet Abram, who is not yet named Abraham, but is destined to be the founding saint of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We meet Moses, who receives and promulgates the Law. And Elijah, who has been called the greatest of the prophets. And finally Jesus the Messiah. And Paul offering commentary on it all.
What’s it all about? And what does it have to tell us about our Lenten journey? What transformation does it challenge us to consider in our lives?
Well, first, it all begins in barrenness, in impotence. Abram had responded to the Lord’s profound challenge by leaving his home in what we call Iraq. He had wandered all across the Middle East and finally reached the Land of Canaan, what today we would call the lands of Israel and Palestine. And now he wonders, what’s it all for? He’s going to die. He and his wife are beyond child-bearing years and he has no follower to take up the mission. He complains to God about it.
As I hear the story, the Lord comes across to me as a smooth salesman. It’s as if he puts his arm around Abram’s shoulder and says, “Come here; I’ve got something to show you. You’re not gonna believe what I’ve got for you.” And he takes Abram out to look up at the vast array of stars. We can only try to imagine that immense canvas of black with stars beyond our imagining. Remember, there were no lights from Walmart or Walgreen’s dimming it all. (I think some of our children have never even seen what the night sky might look like.) Abram is changed. The promise is that he and Sarai will be parents of an immense cloud of children if he puts his reliance on the Lord. He is transformed. Just as his people will go from barrenness to life time and again down across that history.
Again and again they will experience barrenness and helplessness, and again and again the promise of liberation will be fulfilled. They are slaves in Egypt and are led forth to freedom by Moses. In the desert they are dying of hunger and thirst, and the Lord commands Moses to strike a rock and there comes a flow of clear, fresh water. They are hungry and the Lord sends them manna.
Moses himself doesn’t get to enter the promised land, he is taken up to the heavens. But he gets to choose his successor Joshua and the mission continues. So too with Elijah; he is taken up to the heavens in a fiery chariot but passes his mantle to Elisha.
And at this key moment in the life and mission of Jesus we meet the two of them there with him on the mountain. The evangelists clearly intend that we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And what are they talking about? His ‘passage.’ It’s really his exodus, his entry into death and passing over to the resurrection.
And with that there is that same validation by the Father as at the time of his baptism: “This is my son, my beloved; listen to him.”
It’s all very uplifting and comforting. We can easily imagine ourselves feeling like Peter did. Hey, it’s all over! This is the greatest! Let’s just settle down here and enjoy endless life with the Lord!
But that’s not what the Transfiguration is all about. It’s not about some sort of spiritual tourism.
It’s all about a dramatic turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s about change and transformation. Up till now he has been ministering in Galilee. Among his own people, where he is known and has his roots. In little villages and small towns at best. He has been gathering and forming disciples for his movement.
And now he is going into Judea, on the way to Jerusalem. Luke tells us “he set his face.” It’s the face of one preparing for conflict and challenge. He is going into hostile territory and he begins to tell them where it is heading: toward confrontation. With the leaders in Jerusalem who control religious life and worship, those set the rules, who determine who’s in, who’s acceptable, and who must remain on the outside.
And Jesus is bringing a different vision of the creator God and his promises. It’s a vision of a God who accepts everyone, whose compassion knows no boundaries. He has been engaging in contacts with people who were not ‘acceptable’ in the Jerusalem purity circles. He’s talked with and healed Samaritans; he’s move out to the coastal regions up toward Tyre, which was viewed ambivalently; not clearly part of Israel. He has traveled into Gadarene country. The God he celebrates welcomes tax collectors and sinner.
And he’s going to tell the leaders they are wrong to restrict God’s compassion so that it includes only those who were ‘righteous,’ who were ‘pure’ – according to the definition of the Jerusalem leaders.
He goes forward with determination, all the while knowing that it will come to a head and he will be rejected and brought to the cross.
It all began in barrenness and impotence. And I believe we all can share Abram’s sense of dejection and questioning in our world today.
We look at our country, lost and ashamed at the pain and destruction we have loosed on our world out of our hubris, our pride and sense of entitlement and empire.
And sadly we look out at our church and we feel the same sense of impotence, of seeming inability to bring forth new life. We see our leaders circling the wagons, trying to recreate a lost era, unable to imagine how to engage a world that is evolving with the speed of light. We wonder where leaders will come from.
The promise remains. God is faithful to his word. But if we are to respond in faith it will change us. As it changed Abram and Moses and Elijah and Jesus.
We are the successors, we are called to announce the message of God’s boundless compassion. We will be called to speak out, with the vision of Jesus, that our God accepts all: Catholic and Protestant and Jew and Muslim; straight and gay; married, and divorced; and single with child. And kids in gangs and those struggling with addictions of any kind. Yes, and politicians who take a different position on issues of public policy than some members of the hierarchy.
We must speak out in our society and proclaim that violence and military might is not the way to confront human conflict, no matter where it occurs. We have to speak for the victims in Darfur and for the women around our world–and in our own country who are victims of sexual slavery and oppression. In the election campaign that is upon us we need to protest loudly that it is disgraceful that millions of our families, and especially of our children, have no health insurance. We need to commit ourselves to change that shameful reality.
And we must also speak out in our church. We need to join the voice of the Catholics of Chile, for example. Some years ago the church invited all the faithful in that 2000-mile long country to participate in a national synod. There were meetings all up and down the country. At the end there was a final gathering in Santiago. And what came out as the highest priority of the people? To change church policy so that those who are divorced and remarried, or in otherwise illicit unions, be invited to full participation at the table of the Eucharist. Or the 3- million Austrians who called for the end to treating women in our church as second-class citizens.
We need to pray and speak out for our Episcopalian brothers and sisters as they endure the pain of possible exclusion for their prophetic witness to the dignity of gay and lesbian Christians who enter into committed unions–and we need to speak against exclusion of gay men to ordination.
We are just the latest successors of that long body of prophetic people on the journey that began with our father Abram. Fulfilling our role in declaring the unbounded compassion of our God will require transformation and courage. And it could be costly, as it was for Jesus. But if we accept our role and responsibility in trust in the Lord’s promise, the children of our deeds of truth and justice will be as numerous as the stars in the night sky.