On behalf of the absurd

This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 11 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it is a continuation of the theme begun last week, on worship – where it is directed, how it is conducted, what it means to participate, and the kind of life it shapes in those who undertake it as a regular part of their routine.

Collect: O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

I always think it’s remarkable, that all the gospel writers and especially Mark seem to make such a big deal of Peter at the Transfiguration, and how he comes off like a blathering idiot. Maybe it’s just self-deprecation — tradition holds that Mark is a student of Peter’s, and wrote his Gospel from Peter’s remembrances — but whatever the source they all seem to dwell on it. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

And for that matter it’s not really so idiotic as all that: on one level it’s just good hospitality: if a couple of prophets show up, especially ones taken up to heaven before their death and now shining with the glory of God, it’s just good manners to try and make them comfortable. I always thought Peter got short shrift: he’s not being an idiot, he’s being practical. And anyway, what else are you supposed to say when the voice of God speaks from heaven like thunder?

In our first lesson Elisha is in the same boat: Elijah gets taken up to heaven in chariots of fire, and all he can stammer out is an amazed exclamation, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Like someone cheering on a sports team, or, like in old stories of besieged cities, where at the last moment reinforcements finally arrive, unexpected and unhoped-for. It’s a crazy exclamation — “The chariots of Israel, and its horsemen!” But then it’s a crazy sight — fiery chariots descending from heaven, and taking up his friend and mentor. What else is he supposed to say?

The church has interpreted both of these stories, and particularly the Transfiguration as a moment of great theological clarity. On the mount of Transfiguration, God reveals something particularly significant about Jesus: not only does it reveal him as the Son of God, but also the dazzling brightness suggests the final, twin end of darkness brought about by his ministry: Jesus brings about the end of the darkness of death as well as the end of the darkness of ignorance. This is why we always read the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday before Lent, because it encapsulates the themes of the Epiphany, while also pointing us clearly towards Holy Week and the Resurrection.

But too often we stop there. Too often we consider religion something that we think about, have opinions about, even beliefs about, something that we have to explain or systematize. And all that stuff is important. The imaginative system that results is rich and beautiful, full of insight and loveliness. But thinking is only the beginning, if it’s even that.

I remember a story about a recently deceased bishop, who loved to rail against what he described as “voting for God.” Just as there’s more to civic engagement than appearing at a ballot box every four years, so there is more to religion than just deciding God is all right, saying so at convenient opportunities, and otherwise going about your business. This bishop was once on an airplane, traveling to some conference and wearing his clericals. The person sitting next to him noticed what he was wearing, and said something to the effect, “Oh you’re a priest! I believe in God, too.” To which the bishop replied, in a mood probably more saucy than charitable, “Great. How’s that working out for you?”

The wonderful thing about Peter and Elisha in today’s readings is that they point out to us: even at the very brink of profound and clear revelation, even before the face of Christ himself shining brighter than the sun, even when we hear the very voice of God in heaven thundering into our waking ears; even there and maybe especially there words fail, reason can go no further, and Peter and Elisha are both reduced to wild exclamations, remembered more for their absurdity than for their eloquence or profundity.

In that absurdity there is the suggestion that there is something closer to the heart of religion than words, or ideas, or clarity of expression; and that something is love.

I pointed out this week in my greeting in the leaflet: that there is something wonderful about the Transfiguration occurring with just Peter and James and John and not all twelve of the disciples. It’s an intimate moment: Jesus revealing the truth of himself to his three closest friends, not even to the rest of the twelve. And it suggests that at least as far as Jesus was concerned, the knowledge worth having, the knowledge worth sharing, begins with love, and not the other way around.

Same thing with Elisha: he and Elijah have been talking and walking long upon the road. Elijah is his mentor, his boss, and his friend; and whether or not Elisha’s request is granted is contingent not on any of his behavior or performance, but merely on whether or not he sees Elijah in the moment of his departure. Despite the absurdity of his cry when the chariots of fire come to collect, there’s no denying that it’s an episode full of tenderness, Elisha not wanting to leave this person who has meant so much to him.

I’m sure Elijah taught him many things; but it’s not the teaching that Elisha will miss, rather the teacher. It’s not the end of the ideas that gives him grief, but the sundering of their bond of affection across whatever gulf was coming to separate them. Yes as far as religion is concerned, the knowledge worth having begins with love, and not love with knowledge.

So back to the bishop on the airplane. He was irritated that this fellow merely wanted to share his “vote for God.” The bishop’s somewhat caustic reply was aimed at asking the deeper question: how does your belief matter, how does it make a difference in your life, where does it begin, and where does it end? Most importantly, what about your heart? You believe in God; do you love God? Do you love God’s people, God’s world? Because without that, I’m afraid your vote for God doesn’t count for much.

So knowledge worth having starts with love, and not the other way around; and love always brings us to the brink of what can and cannot be said, of what can and cannot be put into words. By that accounting, Peter and Elisha both are pardoned for their absurdity, and much beloved.

This year I am particularly conscious myself, being in a new place, of the limits of my own skill and capacity; which has me thinking about the limits of our religion as a whole. It makes me wonder, too: what we do on Sundays, and throughout the week: all our worship, all our prayers, all our writing and our reading; speaking at least for myself, sometimes I think we flatter ourselves that it is our part to articulate the mysteries of God just as the voice from heaven proclaimed to Peter and James and John the truth of who Jesus is, and to clear up all the darkness by our own brilliance. But I think it might be nearer the case that all our words and all our learning and all our worship, when they’re at their best, are nearer to the crazed expostulations of Peter and of Elisha: “My Father, My Father! The Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen!” “Lord it is good that we are here, let us make three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

These exclamations do not make sense on their own; no exegetical or scholarly acrobatics are sufficient to explain them satisfactorily. And yet, taken as part of a whole defined first by affectionate encounter between persons who love one another, we can both laugh at Peter and recognize in him something of our own deeply felt devotion and tenderness. So let our own worship, and prayer, and thought serve as faltering, imperfect, even absurd steps of love towards Peter’s God and ours.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany and Lent is right around the corner. Today let’s resolve afresh to resist the temptation to explain or even understand before exercising our faculties of tenderness and of love. So may we find truth revealed for us: not as so many facts or laws or doctrines or even as so many convictions or beliefs; but rather as an encounter of love, with Christ who first loved us.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.