Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday

 2 Kings 2

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”

4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”

You know about TLC and PDA, but do you know about BPR?

In case you’re not up on acronyms vaguely related to Valentine’s Day, the first two are “tender loving care” and “public displays of affection.” We all need a little of the first, and we can probably live without the second. But what’s BPR, and how did it get on our list?

BPR stands for “benign positive regard,” a phrase first coined by researchers looking at religious attitudes among teens. Conventional wisdom suggests that when young people drift away from religious practice, it’s likely a case of teenage rebellion, doing the opposite of whatever their parents are doing. What they found instead is that teenager’s attitudes toward religion actually mirrors what the parents are doing—in this case, benign positive regard.

So what is BPR? Let’s just say that if your sweetheart sends you a card professing benign positive regard, he’s just not that into you. Benign positive regard is how most people feel about—say—post-it notes: helpful, even clever, but few people write poems about post-it notes. Maybe a haiku.

Post-it in my book

Marks the page I am reading

So helpful I guess

The puzzle with benign positive regard among religious people of all ages is the extent to which it’s at odds with the faith itself. The story of God is a story of passionate love, creating us out of dust and placing us among the wonders of creation. Liberating us in times of peril, saving us from ourselves, entering the world to walk beside us, even dying to free us from the power of death.

Kendra Dean, the researcher who popularized benign positive regard, wants us to think instead about passion. She argues that our faith should act as an external authority in our lives, it should make compelling claims on our time and attention, it should challenge us to grow in ways we might not want to grow. Listen as Dr. Dean makes her case:

Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic. It is Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King. It is Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Passion is “to die for.”

If she was writing on Transfiguration Sunday, I expect she would add Elijah and Elisha. And then maybe Ruth and Naomi, because their love is the same:

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Oddly, we learn very little about Elisha before this episode. God appoints him as Elijah’s successor, Elijah retrieves the lad and “adopts” him, and then Elijah’s larger-than-life ministry continues with Elisha in the background. But today’s passage, recounting Elijah’s last moments on this earth, we learn everything we need to know about their relationship.

Like Ruth’s famous “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” Elisha pledges that he will not leave Elijah’s side. Each time he is confronted with the inevitable, we get the same reaction: “Yes, I know, so be quiet.” Can you hear the translator’s dilemma, trying to find a polite way to say “shut-up”? Poor Elisha, set to lose the one he loves.

No doubt seeing the toll that this is taking on Elisha, Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” At this moment Elisha asks the seemingly impossible—a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. You wonder if asking the seemingly impossible is a way to delay his departure, or create a rift that may make it easier to part, but Elijah says “we’ll see…if you see me depart, it will be yours.”

Elisha does see him depart, in a chariot of fire no less, and gains that double-portion that will be important for Elisha going forward. The chariot ascends, Elisha cries out, and tears his cloak in grief.

We share this passage on Transfiguration Sunday because it gives some of the background for the event itself. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up the mountain, where he is transformed, transfigured in a blaze of light, flanked to the left and to the right by Moses and Elijah. God speaks, blessing Jesus as he approaches his passion, and the scene ends.

Generally, we read the Elijah story today because he is mentioned in the passage. And that might be reason enough, except that is a parallel here to the mantle being passed, with three of the twelve witnesses to the glory that Jesus will soon experience. The light, the blessing, the company— all point to Jesus’ return to God.

There is, however, one more element to the transfiguration worth noting: the symbolism of the figures, one on the right and one on the left. Moses is the liberator, the first and most powerful prophet, who used God’s might to free his people. Elijah is also a prophet, but even more, since he represents the passionate activity of God in the world: raising the dead, calling down fire to defeat the priests of Baal, riding a chariot of fire to eternity.

Jesus, then, is both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he is our liberator, freeing us from sin and sorrow, and defeating death itself so that we might be free. And like Elijah, Jesus is God’s passionate presence in the world, raising the dead, defeating the forces of despair, and returning to God in glory. Today is dedicated to freedom and passion, and a world transformed.

You may have noticed that there are very few Transfiguration Sunday hymns, an enduring mystery, except perhaps that it’s hard to describe in verse something so unusual. Likewise, there are few hymns to describe Elijah and his chariot of fire, with one notable exception: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Written by Wallis Willis around the time of the American Civil War, it describes the hope of being carried home, with a band of angels and a sweet chariot sent for the task. And as with many African-American spirituals of this era, there is often a hidden message, encouraging those enslaved to escape, even giving coded directions.

In the case of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, some have suggested that we’ve received a “public” version of the song, when the private (coded) version may have been sung “swing low, sweet Harriet,” for Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, but then returned to the south to lead others to freedom. During at least 13 missions she led over 70 people to freedom, earning the nickname Moses. Soon, she will claim her rightful place on the US $20 bill.

Passionate love, and a desire for freedom, these are the hallmarks of Transfiguration. This is the opposite of BPR. Allowing our faith to direct us in ways larger than ourselves, giving time and attention to our passion, and growing in love—for God and each other—these are the marks of new life in Christ. May God bless us and surround us with enduring love, Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Epiphany V

 Isaiah 40

28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Often called the king of all birds, we might better say the eagle is the king of all symbols.

If we begin in the middle of the story, we arrive in Rome, where the symbol of the eagle is second only to a certain shewolf and a couple of hungry lads. Rome’s legions took the eagle on campaign, where it became symbolic of both the might of Rome and the fate of individual legions. This would be the moment to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful book The Eagle of the Ninth, exciting interest in Roman Britain since 1954.

After Rome, the eagle remains a symbol of empire, with various royal houses sporting the bird, wings outstretched, sometimes adding an extra head or two for effect. This, of course, crosses the Atlantic, where our pretentious neighbour to the south adopts the eagle as their own. To be fair, they were trying to recreate the Roman Republic in America, so the eagle makes a lot of sense.

That’s the forward view, how about looking back in time? Among Canada’s First Nations, the eagle is considered a messenger to the Creator, lifting prayers to the Spirit world, providing courage and strength. It was no accident that Elijah Harper held an eagle feather while defending the rights of his people back in 1990, a moment that is considered a turning point for Indigenous people in Canada.**

Within the Christian church, the eagle is most often associated with St. John the Evangelist. Beginning in the second century of the Common Era, thinkers such as Irenaeus made the connection between John’s homily to the Word (found in John 1) and the eagle, symbolizing “the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church.” We’ll have to leave Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion) and Luke (an ox) for another day.

In the Hebrew Bible, the eagle is a symbol of swiftness (often related to conquest), nurture (offering shelter), and renewal. It is this last attribute that takes us to the reading Marlene shared today. But before we look at Isaiah 40, there appears to be one passage where swift rescue, shelter, and renewal happen all at once. From Mt. Sinai, the LORD spoke to Moses: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex 19). The Lord then asks for faithfulness, and a willingness to keep the covenant God made.

On to Isaiah 40, where we heard what is the second most familiar part of this remarkable chapter. The first most familiar of is best shared in the language that G. F. Handel knew:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

So the context of Isaiah 40 is forgiveness, an end to exile, and a return to the land. And without jumping to the end of the story, we already know that the renewing spirit of the eagle is for those returning from exile, those charged with rebuilding the holy places. This, then, is the context for those who first heard these words:

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

This is the moment that the preacher encourages you to make your own homily, connecting our time to the anguish of exile, the desire for return, and the need for strength. I’m not saying these sermons write themselves, but we live in a time when the need for shelter and renewal has never been greater. Likewise, our need to trust in God has never been greater, but it is this trust that cries out for greater understanding, as much as connecting exile to our time. For a place to start, I might recommend Proverbs 9.10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The first dimension of trusting God is acknowledging that we can’t fully understand God. In this case, fear seems more a case of bewilderment, or confusion, which is always the starting point for gaining wisdom. To say you don’t understand something, or you need to learn something, is the first step on the journey to gaining wisdom. And this takes us back to the middle section of Isaiah 40:

25 “To whom will you compare me?

Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all these?

Those who love the Book of Job will immediately hear God speaking from the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is God and Job is not. To be fair to poor Job, he was simply talking to his mates when the Most High finally had enough of their ignorance. And the question they asked—why do people suffer?—remains a question for all time. Where is God in the midst of plague and disaster? Is God cause or cure? Or both? (Spoiler alert: I do not believe that God sent COVID or caused it to happen).

But I know I’m not the first to imagine—if only for a moment—that COVID is some form of punishment for our misdeeds. Climate change, loss of habitat, unsustainable farming practices: all these trends have a hand in zoonotic diseases, those moving from animal to human. And the spread of the disease, more active under populist and authoritarian regimes, just adds another layer to this question of human foolishness.

Back to the Book of Job, we know that there is no connection between wickedness and suffering, yet we also know that God remains unsearchable. We can never fully understand the ways of God, but we can trust that God will bring rescue, shelter, and renewal in the midst of crisis. We can trust that God will bring comfort and forgiveness in the midst of our foolishness. And we can trust that God will give us new strength, to soar on wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint.

In John’s extended description of the Last Supper, Jesus offered comfort to his disciples, he washed their feet, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Soon,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you and remind you of all that I have said to you.” This is not a promise to reveal the unknowable mysteries of the Most High. This is a promise to help us remember everything Jesus said and did. It is a promise to send the sustaining power of the Spirit upon the church, and it is a promise to send the Spirit of the eagle—so that rescue, shelter, and renewal will come to us, now and always, Amen.