Sunday, March 2, 2014

Last Epiphany, Quinquagesima

Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9

Last Sunday before Lent.   Quinquagesima, and 50 days until Easter!   I hope you’re planning to join us for pancakes at the Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras dinner and party, day after tomorrow over at St. James in the Penn Hills.  And then Ash Wednesday.  A smudge made of the residue of blessed palms from the Palm Sunday procession.  The administration from Genesis 3:19, as God with I think the deepest of divine sighs shares with Adam and Eve the fatal consequences of their disobedience.   “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Of course most of our day to day lives are fueled by a kind of denial of this.  Perhaps necessarily so, in a sense.  The overwhelming grief and loss of our character and essence as mortal beings.  The woundedness of our lives.  Our persistent sinfulness.  The loss of those whom we love, letting go of so much that is so important and meaningful for us.  What we break that can never be repaired.  What we have lost that will never be found.

But in Lent we are asked as Christian people to look that first and last enemy death straight on, taking a deep breath and imposing over his shadow our confidence in the saving work of Jesus and his Cross.   Not in our own strength of course, which will falter, but by opening our eyes and ears and minds and hearts, to make space in our lives for him to draw near to us, as the Prayer Book sentence for Ash Wednesday would call us, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

The three readings selected this morning specifically as testimonies about God’s presence in his Word, his self-expression.   

In Exodus.  Moses is called to the mountaintop to receive inscribed by the finger of God himself the Tablets of Commandment, these great sacramental stones, visible signs, outward records.  God’s self-revelation that is the fullness of the Torah, the glory like a devouring fire roaring in majesty over the people he is calling to be his own.  Wonderful Hebrew word, shekinah.   The brilliant radiance of God’s presence.

Then from Matthew.  The story of the Transfiguration, the vision of Moses and Elijah, the two great volumes, the parallel streams of Holy Scripture, Law and Prophets, standing beside the one who is he Word made flesh in a dynamic unity.  And the thundering word from Heaven.  This is my Son.  Listen to him. 

And then in Peter’s reflection so many years later, the shimmering vision still as bright and real as it was on that day so many years before.  The vitality and intensity of the closeness of God.  “Not cleverly devised myths . . . but the prophetic message more fully confirmed.” 

So here we go, on into Lent.  St. Benedict says that for the monk all the year should be like Lent, in this way, and perhaps by some extension really for every Christian on this journey.  Turning from the preoccupation with ourselves, so that God and God alone is front and center, opening to hear the Word spoken into our lives.  Reminded of the famous story of the philosopher and scholar Augustine, who passed by a volume of scripture one day in his library, and heard a supernatural voice.  “Tolle; Lege.”  The Latin words, “pick it up and read it.”  And in that moment to realize that his very life depended on his response.

Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.  Wonderful , from Psalm 119.  O LORD, your word is everlasting: it stands firm in the heavens.  Oh, how I love your law!  All the day long it is in my mind.  How sweet are your words to my taste!  They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.

Susy and I have a joke about how sometimes it seems we like to read about prayer and talk about silence.  In contrast I guess to “praying, and resting in quiet contemplation of God's presence and love.”  To say, “I have attended many conferences on spirituality.”  Sometimes I think there may also be a contemporary tendency to spend more time reading about the Bible, talking about the Bible, than reading the Bible, and praying with the Bible.  – Wise guides like N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg and the whole constellation of interesting theologians and commentators.  Always fascinating stuff.  Or to read Luther on Romans or Ray Brown on John.  The stuff of great students and theologians.  But I think if the young and ambitious demon-in-training of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters really wanted to get to us, that would be a great strategy.  Libraries full of commentaries and interpretation.  But in the end, like giving someone dying in the desert a photograph of a glass of water. 

There are tools.  The Lectionary of the Daily Office, which this year will have us in the Old Testament reading through the story of Joseph, in the New Testament through St. Paul, First and Second Corinthians, and along with the fast-paced story of the ministry of Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel.  Or perhaps we might think about reading through the Psalms.  150 of them, some very short, some longer.  Or maybe to read through the Gospel of John, a chapter a day.   If none of that quite works for you, feel free to give me a call or pop me an e-mail.  There are lots of ways to shape a plan to read in scripture for this season.   

No grades at the end of Lent, no test.  But as St. Peter has said to each one of us this morning: You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The collect Archbishop Cranmer back at the dawn of our Anglican reformation composed for the Second Sunday of Advent, to reflect the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, his real presence in our world and in our lives.  O God, who hast caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning.  Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in thy Son Jesus Christ.

Quinquagesima.  Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  With the blazing fire of the holy mountain over us, with the amazing brightness of Christ’s transfiguration filling our vision.  Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday-- leaning forward.  To the observance of a holy Lent, and from here all the way to Easter.

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