The Face of God

Last Sunday of the Epiphany: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9: 28-36.

Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, where we rejoice in Jesus’ presence among us. And two of our readings focus on encounters with God and their aftermath. In Exodus, we hear that when Moses returned from Mt. Sinai having received the ten commandments, his face was shining because he had been talking with God. Aaron and the other Israelites were afraid to come near him. When Moses reported on his encounters with God, his shining face was the sign that he had spoken with God. After he had told the Israelites what he had heard, he covered his face with a veil.

The account of the Transfiguration in Luke is a partner to this story. Jesus goes up to the mountain to pray, accompanied by Peter, John and James. While he was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Moses and Elijah appear, talking to Jesus, and after they leave, a cloud descends on the mountain. The disciples were terrified even before a voice comes from the cloud. Luke tells us that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” (Luke 9:36)

There are many things you can say about the Transfiguration. What strikes me today is that it is terrifying to see the face of God. It is also terrifying to see those who have seen the face of God. We ask for God’s presence, assuming it is comforting, but maybe not. God is not only comforting, but also challenging. I can’t hide from God those things I would rather keep hidden. Maybe God will comfort, but God may also make us uncomfortable. The shining face of Moses and Jesus are signs of God’s power.

It is a terrifying thing to see the face of God, but still we seek it. At the same time we fear being seen as a whole, we long to be. It may even be comforting to be seen for who we truly are.

Love your enemies

Seventh Sunday of Epiphany: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

There’s an awkward moment in the story of Joseph when he reveals himself to his brothers. “But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.” In that moment, we see them dealing with their own guilt, uncertain what awaits them now. They had, after all, sold their brother as a slave. When they had first gone to purchase grain in Egypt, Jacob had kept Benjamin, being loath to lose him as well as Joseph. In Genesis 42, the writer tells us that when Joseph had asked them to bring their younger brother, they had turned to each other lamenting that they had sold Joseph into slavery. The guilt they had displayed then was nothing to the dismay of finding that the man who controlled their fate was the brother they had sold.

While few of us have been sold into slavery by our brothers, I suspect most of us have had people do things that hurt us. Every now and then we are in a position to help those people later, and the human impulse is not to do it. Joseph, however, does not seek revenge. instead he treats his brothers with generosity. After the first awkward silence, Joseph suggests that their actions were part of God’s plan, so that he could save them now. And after that, they talked.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Do what Joseph did. Anyone, Jesus reminds us, can be nice to people who are good to them. Loving those who harm you is hard. People sometimes think that because the Gospel talks of love, it’s nice. And while the outcome may be rewarding, it’s difficult. Jesus is asking us to not respond with our first response, but to find a way to respond with generosity of spirit. It’s a lifelong journey.

The psalmist is also thinking about this, and maybe this is the message we need to remember:

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
(Ps. 37:8-9)

It is a life-long journey to learn to leave rage alone. May we always feel God’s presence as we learn to love our enemies.

Love one another: The Feast of Absalom Jones

February 13, The Feast of Absalom Jones: Isaiah 42:5-9; Psalm 126; John 15:12-15

Though generally this would be the sixth Sunday of Epiphany, we have observed the Feast of Absalom Jones. For those who have not encountered him before, Rev. Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was born enslaved in Delaware. His family was separated by a sale, and at 16 he moved to Philadelphia. He first purchased his wife’s freedom, then then his own in 1784. After he was free, became a lay leader in the Methodist church in Philadelphia. When that church decided to segregate its seating, requiring Black people to sit in the balcony, so the Black members left. Jones, along with Richard Allen led the group which established first the Free African Society, a mutual aid group, and then in 1791, the African Church. The African Church became St. Thomas African Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794. Jones was ordained Deacon in 1795 and priest in 1804, becoming the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church.

Absalom-Jones Peale.jpg
Absalom Jones, by Raphaelle  Peale, Delaware Museum of Art (public domain)

There are many issues, social, political, and theological, that Jones’ life, and the readings for today raise. For instance, the Methodist church only separated Black and white members when the number of Black members had rapidly increased. Modern research that shows that a dominant group, whether white people, or men, or any other dominant group, tends to feel that they are outnumbered once a non-dominant group makes up about 30% of the group. In other words, long before a group is a minority, they are concerned about losing status. Do we do that? How do we respond to demographic change?

If the fear of the Methodists which led them to isolate Black people in the balcony reminds those of us who are white to watch our own responses to demographic change, the community around Absalom Jones which formed the African Church provides other lessons. They experienced discrimination together, and they stayed together. Today’s reading from John exhorts the disciples to “love one another as I have loved you”. And this is what Jones and his friends did. As the Free African Society, they functioned as a mutual aid group: they played an important role in helping their fellow Philadelphians through the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. But they also sought to worship together, and they sought to worship as part of a larger group. They built and sought community.

For Absalom Jones, one of the most important elements of loving his community was his advocacy for freedom. In 1797 and 1800 he petitioned Congress for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves, a petition that Congress would not even accept. He regularly preached against slavery. His Thanksgiving Sermon, preached on January 1, 1808, celebrated the end of the legal importation of enslaved people to the US. He preached on a text from Exodus, emphasizing the connection of enslaved people in the US to the experience of the Israelites in the Bible.

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by  reason of their task-masters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.

In his sermon, Jones insisted that God was on the side of the oppressed: “The history of the world shows us, that the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage, is not the only instance, in which it has pleased God to appear in behalf of oppressed and distressed nations, as the deliverer of the innocent, and of those who call upon his name.”

How do we ensure that we join God on the side of the oppressed and innocent? I generally hope that, in spite of Jesus’ commandment, we don’t have to die for each other. We do have to love one another. When we live in community, we make decisions in relation to each other and each other’s needs. As Jones and the other members of the Free African Society showed in Philadelphia in 1793, that is the whole community, not just your friends. We are called to pay attention, listen, and then act.

Are we worthy?

Epiphany 5: Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle.” (1 Corinthians 15:9)

“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

Isaiah, Paul, and Simon all express a sense of inadequacy. They are, they know, sinful, not worthy of God, and certainly not worthy to speak for God. All experience something miraculous: Isaiah’s vision of God, Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, and Simon’s with Jesus in the early days of his ministry. And in spite of their self-proclaimed inadequacy, they are all called to witness to God’s wonder and majesty, as well as God’s mercy.

We are in the midst of what pundits are calling the great resignation. As reporters explore the phenomenon, they note the ways in which our culture makes us feel that we are not doing enough. In minimum wage jobs, it can be because no matter how hard we work, we can’t get ahead; in professional jobs, there are often few boundaries to say when we’ve done enough: there’s always more to do. Two years of living in a pandemic, and people are rejecting the culture of never enough. They want better pay, or better boundaries to their work. They want to feel as if they are doing enough.

The church too, can be guilty of setting impossible standards. We’re often small groups of people, trying to live out the Gospel, and there are so many needs, but not enough of us, or of time. And beyond the needs of the world, the institution wants us at meetings and trainings. While we may rationally know that it is critical to choose your tasks, I at least am generally more aware of all I am not doing than what I am doing.

Today’s readings suggest that we let go of our feelings of inadequacy. Isaiah, it turns out, can prophesy; Paul can preach; and Simon can catch people for Jesus. They may have sinned, but it turns out they are good enough. “Do not be afraid”, Jesus tells Simon. Again and again, scripture tells us we are enough. We should not be afraid of our failures. That is indeed good news.