Sermon, Last Epiphany, Year C, 2022
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I suspect that there were times when dealing with the disciples that Jesus thought he was dealing with the Seven Dwarfs: Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. Because at one time or another in scripture the disciples display characteristics of each of the seven . . . well, almost all seven. I’m having a difficult time locating Sneezy in the Gospels, but I’m working on it!
Take for example the Confession of Peter, which directly precedes today’s Transfiguration event. This is the story where Jesus asks the disciples who they believe him to be? Peter declares Jesus to be, “The Messiah of God.” This is Peter being Doc. Smart, analytical, willing to offer a diagnosis. But then when Jesus describes the suffering and death the Messiah must undergo, Peter contradicts Jesus and says, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matt. 16:22b) In this moment Peter becomes Dopey. Just when you think Peter gets it, he doesn’t. He becomes as dumb as a rock, which is something he does frequently in the Gospels. He’s definitely Dopey!
In today’s text we have the Sleepy disciples. We are told, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”
Of the three renditions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels, only Luke mentions that the disciples are, “weighed down with sleep.” Matthew and Mark do not mention it at all.
In translations other than the New Revised Standard Version we hear today, we read, the disciples are actually fast asleep. The New American Bible states, “Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.” (Luke 9:32)
Regardless of the translation, we can agree that the disciples were either drowsy and nodding off, or fully sawing logs.
In this passage sleep functions as the faithless counterpart to watching and praying. Praying, by the way, is also something that only Luke has Jesus engaged in on the mountaintop. In the text the power of prayer mediates the presence of God, which is witnessed both in the radiance of Jesus face and his dazzling garments, as well as by the voice from heaven declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”
You will recall another scripture passage about sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before Jesus is crucified. In the garden Jesus withdraws from the disciples, but before doing so asks that they keep watch and pray. When Jesus himself goes off to pray, the disciples fall asleep. Upon returning Jesus rebukes the sleeping disciples, saying to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:46)
In saying this, Jesus is crystal clear: By sleeping the disciples are not watching and praying with Him. And in so doing they are not only being faithless, they miss the presence of God. In the case of Gethsemane, they miss the appearance of an angel who gives Jesus strength. And on the mountaintop their drowsiness puts them at risk of missing God’s presence at the Transfiguration.
Sleepiness not only puts at risk of being unfaithful, but of missing all the good stuff; the epiphanies of God’s presence.
I think when it comes to our journey of faith you and I tend to be sleepy disciples.
To say this isn’t to scold or engage in guilt or shaming. That never results in any positive good, especially when it comes to our faith lives. It is rather to acknowledge our humanity and our human imperfections and frailties. None of us is perfect. None of us are without our weaknesses. If any of you believe you are perfect and devoid of weakness, that actually is an indication of your imperfection and weakness! You’re clearly not good at introspection and self-awareness.
Jesus’s disciples were full of imperfections and weaknesses: they were sleepy, grumpy, dopey. Yet Jesus never gave up on them, he always loved them, and he never faltered in trying to awaken their sleeping minds, to making them less dopey, to turn them into Doc. He does the same for us.
If we can gently acknowledge our sleepiness in our faith lives we can use that as a learning moment, becoming aware, more attuned, staying wakeful to God’s presence. Our sleepiness – as well as our dopiness - can become object lessons – there’s a purpose to them - and help transform us, if we are willing to be reflective about them.
This is a good thing, because in life we miss so much when our minds are asleep. And by asleep I don’t mean deep REM sleep, I mean when we are unaware, obtuse to the presence of God, which surrounds us all the time. And as faithful followers of Jesus we don’t want that to happen.
What keeps us asleep?
Prejudice keeps our minds asleep, or put another way, our minds shut. The reality of God’s radical and inclusive Reign that proclaims the intrinsic holiness of each person always comes knocking on the doors of our minds, but we often chose to stay asleep. We will not awaken to answer that knock. In so doing we miss the glory of the presence of God in all people.
Lethargy keeps us asleep. When we are lethargic we refuse to engage in the struggle of critical thought on life’s most urgent issues. We default to allowing social media or our political ideologies to think for us. We get so lethargic we can’t even deal with our own questions and doubts, but rather drown them out by allowing our addictions and enslavement to devise screens to distract us. To be lethargic is not only to be asleep, it is to remain intentionally dopey. Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’d say the unexamined life is also one of perpetual sleepiness. Lethargy causes us to miss the presence of God that is revealed when we engage in critical thought, in thought-provoking conversation, in the exchange of new and challenging ideas. God is present in those processes. We miss that if we are resistant, asleep to them.
Busyness can keep us asleep. When we are focused on being busy we fill our lives with endless projects, work commitments, and activities. We become convinced that our self-worth is derived from our heavy workloads, our full agendas, our lists, our post-it notes, our Type A driven ambitions for fulfillment, success, power, status, wealth. Busyness keeps us from witnessing God’s glory in the created order, in the companionship of friends, family and colleagues, preventing us from just being with ourselves, giving ourselves space, time and quiet, thereby allowing God’s presence to shine in our midst.
Where do you need to be aware of how you are asleep, missing the glory of God in your life?
Since we have a bit of a theme of seven in this sermon, let me suggest looking at where any of the sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth are keeping you asleep. They are a good place to start.
What can awaken us?
We embark on the season of Lent in a few days. On Ash Wednesday the priest invites the congregation to the observance of a holy Lent, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.” This invitation is one that invites us to become aware of and to examine all the ways we are asleep to the presence of God. It is to be watchful and faithful. It is to become fully awake, fully alive. So, this morning I’m giving you a three day head start on reflecting on where you’re asleep and how you can wake up.
Let this Lent be one where you focus on waking from your slumber and seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It’s a glorious sight! It’s worth all the effort you put into it.
I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver titled Gethsemane.
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Whenever I proclaim these words of Jesus I can almost hear an audible gasp from the congregation. “Seriously?” we think. Love my enemies? (of which there seems to be no shortage these days.) Do good to those who hate me? Bless those who curse me? Pray for my abusers? Good heavens, Jesus, how much time do you think there is in a day?
Our conditioned response to dealing with our enemies, and those who hate, abuse, or curse us, is to desire revenge. To pray for an opportunity for retribution. To conjure up ways to inflict great harm on them. We desire these things because when they happen we can engage in schadenfreude, which is the experience of pleasure, joy, and self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, pain, humiliation, or even death of a person we are at enmity with.
Be honest. How many of us feel a desire to pray for or bless anti-vaxxers who contract COVID, become hospitalized, or even die? I’d say we’re more likely to enjoy engaging in schadenfreude at their circumstances over offering love and compassion.
We are a schadenfreude people.
Jesus knows this, which is why he tells us to do all these counter-intuitive things when it comes to dealing with our enemies. He wants to heal us of our schadenfreude.
This passage in Luke’s Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Plain, which is similar to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, except Jesus comes down from the mountain to the plain to deliver it. It is an exposition on what the qualities of God’s Reign are and what we must do to live in that Reign. Jesus is here to inaugurate this new world of God, which, to say the least, is a very different world from the one we humans have devised. This world is one that levels the playing field for all people – ergo the symbolism of being delivered on the plain. It is a world that desires the health and well-being of all people. This world requires a different ethos than what now exists. To achieve this world, we are to forsake malice, hatred, retribution, vengeance, and the twisted delights of schadenfreude if we are to live as God desires us to live . . . to live as God lives.
Now do not misinterpret what is being asked of us. Jesus is not asking us to approve of evil, malicious, or cruel behavior. Jesus is not saying that those who engage in hurtful and harmful conduct are not to be held accountable. Jesus is not saying to suck it up and just deal with abuse. To do any of these things is antithetical to the whole message of leveling the playing field, where the health and well-being of all people are paramount. Health and well-being are equally desired for us as well as for others.
We are not to be passive doormats, quietly enduring the abuse, malice, and hatred of others. When you let someone walk over you, there’s no mutual respect, compassion, and love in that. It is not the way of God’s new world.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a reciprocal formula. It requires mutuality, of respecting the dignity of every human being.
What Jesus is asking us to do is to always keep the best interests of the wrongdoer in mind. To not forget that despite how disagreeable or odious or hateful another person is, that they are still made in the image of a loving God . . . even though their brokenness and the presence of evil in them may prevent them from behaving that way.
This idea of keeping the others best interest in mind is rooted in the Greek word used for love in the opening phrase “Love your enemies.” There are three words for love in Greek: eros, which is erotic love. Philos, which is love for our nearest and dearest. And agape love, which is a love that engages in active feelings and behaviors of benevolence toward another person, regardless of what they do, of who they are. Agape love never allows us to desire anything but the highest good for another person. We can’t love our enemies as we erotically love a partner, or engage in philos with them as we do toward our family and friends. To do so would be unnatural, wrong, and more than a little perverse.
But what we can do – what Jesus calls us to do – is no matter what another person does to us – the insults, ill-treatment, injuries – is to always focus on seeking nothing but their highest good. Agape love is an act of will-power to do good, so that love can prevail over evil.
This is not an easy love to offer. It is deliberate. It is counter-intuitive. It requires us to set aside our preconceived notions about what is just and unjust. It is a visceral force of will that requires all our heart, strength, and mind to live as God calls us to live. But it is exactly what we followers of Jesus are to do. There is no alternate way or easier option that has been offered us.
This morning we get a snippet of the Joseph story in our Genesis reading. Because Joseph was an obnoxious and pretentious little kid, his brothers didn’t like him, so they sold him into slavery. They feigned his death to their father Jacob by pretending Joseph was killed by a wild beast. Long story, made short, Joseph eventually is redeemed from slavery in Egypt and becomes the second most powerful man there after Pharaoh. Years later a famine in Israel compels Jacob to send ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. They end up dealing with Joseph, who they do not recognize, but who knows who they are.
If anyone had the inclination to desire vengeance, be hateful, and engage in schadenfreude, delighting in seeing his brothers suffer, it was Joseph. He held all the power over his brothers and he could do with them what he willed. Even kill them. But he didn’t.
When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, the text tells us, “his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” That may be a bit of an understatement. I’d say they were terrified realizing that after what they had done to their brother, they were in for some serious retribution, now that he had them in his grip.
But Joseph doesn’t engage in vengeance or malice. Rather he wills himself to engage in agape love. He is benevolent toward his brothers and he keeps their highest good in mind.
Joseph then engages in some philo love, after-all they are his family. We are told, “he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.”
Joseph diffuses any thoughts of hatred, malice, and vengeance. He keeps his brothers higher good in mind, and in so doing he tends to his own higher good as well.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
We live in fractious times. Enemies abound. There’s no shortage of hate, cursing, and abuse to go around. Judgment and condemnation abound. Forgiveness is in short supply. None of this reflects the new world of God.
Our response to this sad state of affairs is exactly what Jesus admonished us over in the scripture. We focus only on loving those who love us. We are good only to those who are good to us. We balkanize ourselves by drawing hard and fast boundaries in our lives, only associating with people who are like us. We do this by segregating ourselves into red and blue, Black and White, rich and less rich, educated and less educated, straight and gay, one kind of church over another. This way we can keep our enemies at bay, making sure they are not our neighbor in any way, whether by physical habitation or association. None of this reflects the new world of God, either.
Think about it: to love our enemies is to understand that everyone is our neighbor. The command to love our enemies calls us to replace the concern about the limits we have placed on who it’s acceptable to associate with and who’s not, with a concern for inclusiveness, for keeping our real and perceived enemies highest good as our main concern, with leveling our lives so we are all on the same plain. Loving our enemies is to engage in a willful act of love so that the Reign of God may be fulfilled, both for us and prayerfully, for those who have harmed us.
Ultimately it is to understand that if we want to live in a world that has the qualities of God’s Realm, we must treat everyone in Realm-like ways. It can be no other.
Love. Do good. Bless. Pray. Do not judge. Forgive. Love one another as you have been loved. Each time we do these things the plain gets more level. Brokenness becomes healed. Relationships are healed. Enmity diffused. Schadenfreude set aside. And the Reign of God draws ever closer. Amen.
Love is the Living Word
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Feast of Absalom Jones 2022
Isaiah 42: 5-9; Psalm 1; Galatians 5: 1-5; John 15: 12-15
Spoiler alert – I have to tell you that I watched the Diocese of New York’s Absalom Jones service yesterday with Presiding Bishop Curry as homilist and he was on fire as usual. Hopefully not many of you saw that service, not that I stole much from him mind you. Anytime I get to hear him preach is a blessing, but given that I am today’s homilist I feel it is also a curse. I think I was also the homilist the Sunday following the 2017 Diocese of Ohio Convention when he was also the preacher. Now as then I just want to sit down in a corner and shut up. But that is not an option, so here we go.
When I read the lessons for the day they made me reflect on all the homilies I’ve written that deal with love and probably in one way or another that’s every homily I’ve ever written. One of my favorites was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with it?” (And yes, that is a song and a movie title.) And though love is once again at the heart of my homily today so is fear and how that fear separates us from each other and from God. It’s about how we allow fear to enslave and blind us to His love. In 2010 I was the homilist for the Diocesan Absalom Jones Service on the topic “Are we there yet?” No worries as I am not reprising that homily either although some said it was a good one. The answer now as then is no we are nowhere near the end of our freedom journey. In 2010 we were two years into Obama’s first term and though I was under no illusions that the race question had been resolved I think my tone and vision for the future was hopeful that we were on the right track on that journey. But as we stand here in February 2022 it feels as if our forward journey on the freedom road has been interrupted and maybe we have taken a few steps or even leaps and bounds backwards.
It’s safe to say that we are countless miles and more than 220 years from that day in 1780’s Philadelphia when a group of free blacks refused to be relegated to the slave gallery of St. George's Methodist Church, a gallery which they helped to build. The people of St. George's clearly took a misstep in the journey of faith that day. Somehow, they missed Christ’s call to love unconditionally and to welcome the other as self. Maybe they hadn’t gotten to that point in the lectionary when John 15:12-15 was to be read or if they read it, perhaps they failed to understand its meaning. Whatever the case, it is clear that love was absent in that singular act of expelling a people from God’s house, a house that love built, because of the color of their skin. Though Christ has set us free from sin and people of African descent were freed from slavery more than 150 years ago the color of skin still enslaves us all.
The extraordinary Miss Lee was fond of reminding me and anyone else who would listen that if we don’t know our history, we will be doomed to repeat it. In last Sunday’s paper Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History, amplified her comment when he said, “You can tell a great deal about a people, about a nation by what they deem important enough to remember, what they build monuments to celebrate, ….” Dr. Bunch made this comment in reaction to a letter writer’s assertion that we didn’t need the Museum as America’s greatest strength is its ability to forget. The recent controversies about confederate monuments, sports team names, who gets to vote or what should or should not be taught about race and the history of our country’s treatment of the other is a clear indication that we are fearful of remembering, fearful of having those uncomfortable conversations because there are truths we don’t want to hear or face. If we can deny it happened or relegate it to a past that no longer matters, then we don’t have to deal with the consequences. But the reality is though we may want to forget we must learn what that dark past has to teach us, for until we heal the wounds that the blow made, it will continue to fester. Legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead (and yes, I had to go there) said she can tell a society is civilize when she sees evidence of broken and then healed bones, a telltale sign that people look out for each other.
Unfortunately, I sometimes question how civilized we are as we continue to have to navigate around that unhealed wound, to live in a present shadowed by the past that some seek to forget. To know, however unreasonable it is, that some of us if we step out of our place as defined by others make them uncomfortable or fearful. A fear that allows the people of St. George’s to deny the humanity of its black parishioners. A fear that beats and kills a 14-year-old Emmett Till. A fear that kneels on the neck of George Floyd as he takes his last breath. A fear that chases down and shots a young man for jogging while black in the wrong neighborhood. Failing to heed Paul’s admonition this fear also enslaves and oppresses those who fear as much as it enslaves the other, for that fear warps communal life and limits societal potential. It is a fear that sees the other as less than self and that ultimately belittles and weakens us all as a nation and as the people of God.
But on this day when we celebrate the life of Absalom Jones, the lesson we must learn is that we need each other because we are better together for when we all do our part we move forward as one. Today’s lessons remind us that our purpose is and must be greater than our fears. Our purpose is to love and love has the power to change what’s possible. Unlike that letter writer I believe that our greatest strength is ‘we the people’, a people willing to be honest about who we are. A people who, remember and celebrate our shared humanity. A people willing to face our shared history and heal the wounds. We have to stop standing in the shadow of fear and step out into the light and bask in the love that is Jesus Christ. We the people must take the message of justice and equality seriously and speak the prophetic word of love, for God wants all the oppressed to go free.
Today in Luke we are reminded again as people of the book, about the power of the word, but not just the written word – but the power of the word made flesh in Jesus Christ and that word is love. We know how easily words can be shaped to many purposes and interpreted in many ways as our nation’s troubled history of race, class and gender demonstrate. Over the centuries even the words of the Good Book have been used and interpreted in many ways both good and bad. But Christ, love made flesh, reminds us that we do not stand by ourselves alone. Christ stands with us as he stood with that great cloud of witnesses including the likes of Absalom Jones and the free blacks of St. George's and Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass and Mamie Till and Martin Luther King, Jr and Pauli Murray and Byrdie Lee who turned and stood in the breach to confront evil.
How you and I in this day and age engage and interpret that word made flesh is both the challenge and opportunity ‘we the people’ face as we struggle daily to live in covenant with God and make real in King’s words the beloved community. We are a people of the book of living words and our story continues to be written in its pages for it is a story of our unfinished business. We have become way too comfortable living in the gaps – the gap between the way God wants us to live and the way we are living, and the gap between the written and the living word that is love. To be human is to care about other humans simply for their humanity, but to be Christian is to go a step further and welcome the other as self. ‘We the People’ are the body of Christ and must be the embodiment of love in the world. The word made manifest in the rituals that we perform remind us of who we are, whose we are and who we are called to be in the world. We must not only keep the faith but activate the faith. The living word of love must change us so that we may change the world. When the labor of our hands feeds the hungry or clothes the homeless there is the living word. When ‘we the people’ walk for justice, proclaim liberty to all the captives and tear down the walls of division there is Christ. On this feast day let’s keep our eyes on the prize and don’t give up, but turn and engage in the work of building the beloved community and redeeming the world by loving others as God loves us. Amen.