Transfiguration

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Transfiguration Sunday: Matthew 17:1-9

St_Peter_Icon_Sinai_7th_centuryHow awesome is Peter? I have this huge poster of an early icon of Peter in my office (pictured to the right). I love Peter because within about eleven verses (Matthew 16:18 to 17:2) he is called the rock on which Jesus will build his church, he is called “Satan” by Jesus (“Get behind me, Satan!” 16:23), and he witnesses the Transfiguration of Jesus on top of a mountain.

Are you freaking kidding me? He’s the rock on which Jesus will build his church and he’s such a stumbling block that Jesus calls him “Satan?” He must be a Libra.

And then to witness this moment when Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus, and they are surrounded in light as a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” Peter must have just been completely blown away.

On the other hand, Peter has also begun a process of mourning—before ascending the mountain, Jesus tells his disciples all about how he will be going to Jerusalem and will undergo tremendous suffering. Jesus has become pretty important to them; they’re quite attached.

According to Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz’ beautiful section in Feasting On the Word’s entry for Transfiguration Sunday, it is in this intimate and magnificent moment on top of the mountain that Peter, James, and John witness both and affirmation of Jesus’ divinity as well as “eyes to see God’s light in the chaos to come: death, loss, fear and resurrection, the work of the early church. The challenge to the disciples is to live in a world without Jesus’ bodily presence. The transfiguration anticipates this challenge, inviting us to live in ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6). As that light shines in our hearts, the incarnate God is made real in the every day.”

Anschutz writes such a beautiful reflection on this reading, that I would like to tender the rest of this post to an excerpt from that reflection.

“C.S. Lewis writes a final word from Aslan in The Silver Chair: ‘Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearance. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.’[1]

God prepares people in the transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world below, the world of the cross, the world that has the ability to break us and yet is never beyond God’s redemption. These encounters happen on mountaintops with a blinding light for some. For most, they happen in the ordinary moments of our classrooms, boardrooms, and soup kitchens—any place where we make a space for the Holy to be present.”[2]

As we approach Lent (Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday!), consider making part of your spiritual practice a sort of internal awareness of God’s light shining through the chaos to come, and think about what that means for us and our world.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 1981), 25-26.

[2] Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 1, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 455-456.

Checklist for Salvation

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Epiphany 6A: Matthew 5:38-48

10519774073_296682697aThere are at least three times in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) when there appears a law about the limit of retributive punishment: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, fracture for fracture…etc. (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21). We have a similar way of dolling out punishment for crime inasmuch as certain crimes tends to carry certain kinds of sentences—there are precedents to those sentences and there are some limits to those sentences.

Stealing a loaf of bread doesn’t warrant the electric chair.

As far as I can tell, those “tooth for tooth” statements in the Hebrew Scriptures limit the victim of some crime (tooth-related?) from up and killing their assaulter. Maybe by the time Jesus rolled around the laws had become somewhat rigid, complicated, and time-consuming. If someone knocked out one of your teeth, you can knock out one of theirs, but what do you do if they have no teeth? Do they get off scot-free?

Exactly equalized punishment gets complicated quickly, so Jesus comes along in his Sermon on the Mount and says, “You have heard about this tooth for tooth nonsense? Well I’m gonna go ahead and say that if someone hits you—with their left hand—you go ahead and turn the other cheek. Give to anyone who begs. Lend to anyone who wants to borrow. Love your friends and your enemies. Go the extra mile because you want to be better than the tax collectors and Gentiles and scribes and Pharisees.

Let’s be very honest here…as soon as you read these passages you start thinking that Jesus is making up new laws—just another rigid structure that points us to an ideal that we can never achieve. Right? “Give to everyone who begs from you?” What about my friend who begs and begs just to get what he wants when what he really needs is to get help and find a job?

Turn the other cheek? What if I am in an abusive relationship?

If you find yourself getting lost in the idea that Jesus came to give us a new set of rules to live by—a checklist for salvation—then stop. Stop it. Stop. Just stop.

First off, his “new set of rules” are not specific and are up for an enormous amount of interpretation:

  • “Give to everyone who begs from you…”

How much? Do I give what they ask for? Do I give them money? Is the time of day enough? Can I shoot them a smile?

  • “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Again, do I have to let them borrow what they want to borrow?

  • “…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

Are we just talking face cheeks here, or should there be even more butt-spanking in football? What if someone strikes my left cheek? What if they hit my nose or my forehead?

I offer these examples to illustrate exactly what Jesus does not intend for us to do. He isn’t clarifying these laws in order to give us a slightly more specific and difficult legal system; he is pointing us beyond our compulsive need to make a checklist for salvation. Jesus may even be mocking our compulsion because he had to have let out a smirk when he said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But Jesus isn’t just getting rid of the law by making it absurd—he’s beckoning us to go deeper.

Deeper than checklists.

Deeper than moralizing.

Jesus beckons us to go deeper within ourselves to find the source of our behavior—are generosity and gratitude at the heart of our daily lives, or are ambition and a desire for control? What else motivates us?

What motivates you to give to a charitable cause? If I am perfectly honest, there is a great mixture of motivations when I give to a charitable cause—a mixture of wanting to be generous, to give back that with which I have been blessed, but also to boost my reputation as a generous person and feel as if I’ve done enough good to consider myself a “good person.”

We don’t have to lie to ourselves or others about these motivations—in fact in those truthful revelations we can often find out more about ourselves and each other than we otherwise would have known. This kind of conversation deepens our relationships as we find ourselves able to live more transparently with one another.

The same is true about our relationship with God. We find out more about the nature and depth of that relationship only as we examine our conscience, our behavior, and our motivations. That relationship is to what Jesus beckons us—not to an individually and privately fulfilled salvation checklist, but to an ever-deepening relationship with the Living God.

So throw away that checklist mentality, but keep the checklist close by…it might provide some guidance as we discern all of the other stuff.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Divorcing Legalism

By The Rev’d Curtis Farr

Epiphany 6A: Matthew 5:21-37

2213897687_a71556beccDespite the popular opinion that Jesus makes life easier and negates the need to be familiar with the laws or God of the “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Scriptures,” Jesus actually makes life and following the laws harder in this passage from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

He told us that he didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them; “not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is bad news for anyone who likes shellfish and poly-cotton blends.

And now Jesus offers his “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” dissertation on murder, anger, adultery, swearing, and divorce. Basically he makes the law harder in an attempt to re-re-re-reveal the intention of these laws (God has been trying to get this through our thick heads since the beginning of time). Not only can’t you murder, but you can’t be angry because the point of not murdering is not destroying life and relationship, and if you hurl insults and are all disgruntled, you’re going to harm relationships and make life a major downer for everyone around you.

But what about this divorce one? I immediately asked myself some questions:

  • What can I say about divorce? I’ve never been divorced…my parents are still married. I don’t have much credibility in this arena.
  • What can be said about divorce, given that some who read this are divorced or have divorced parents and friends?
  • What is the true intention of the law that Jesus is getting at here?

According to Matthew, Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What I see happening here is a moment when Jesus seems to be challenging legalists by pushing legalism to its extremes…in the case of divorce as well as the other topics mentioned above. He’s making the legal concept of divorce stricter and more complicated in order to reveal that marriage in intended to enhance life, not restrict it or make it loathsome.

Marriage, like Jesus, makes life harder in some ways—but more joyful in others (I’m told…I’m not getting married until this summer). But when a marriage is not cared for by one or both people, its health tends to suffer.

Frank Wade, an Episcopal Priest and author of The Art of Being Together, a book that I highly recommend to anyone in or thinking about marriage, compares marriages to children. A child should be raised by parents, cared for by parents and professionals (when broken bones and burst appendices ensue), and given lots of love and attention. “But when a child, or a marriage, dies it needs to be buried…Divorce is not a problem-solving technique nor the antidote to boredom nor an excuse to avoid the issues of life…Divorce is what needs to be done when what was supposed to live is found to be dead. Divorcing too soon is like burying a sick child. Divorcing too late is like living with an open casket in the house. Divorce, when it is right, is the most loving thing that a couple can do for one another.”

Put this way, divorce can actually be the healthiest option in salvaging the relationship. Two divorced people may no longer be married, but if they have children and if they have divorced for the sake of each other’s well being, they may have—in divorce—actually cared for the relationship the best way that they possibly could.

While there may be plenty of examples of people who didn’t try hard enough to “make it work,” maybe we should be careful to not become so legalistic about marriage that we forget about the importance of relationship.

Maybe your marriage is in good shape, or maybe you’re not looking to get married. This works on so many different levels! Think of any of your professional or personal relationships…what boundaries need to be set in order to make those relationships the best they can possibly be? What about your relationship to intangible things like work, your schedule, or your money?

Jesus came for many reasons, and one was in order that we might learn to better relate to God through our common life, our way of living, and through our relationships. It may seem more uncertain to imagine that God isn’t as legalistic as we want God to be—we want clearly-defined rules about this and that, but God is more about intention, and Jesus shows us that God’s intention is to enhance our lives through relationship.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

If you desire to be a bridge…

Image

If you desire to be a bridge...

This is not to say one shouldn’t desire to be a bridge,
only that if one feels called to be a bridge one should be prepared.
After all, Jesus was (and is) The Bridge
and all sides walked on Him then.
So if we feel He is calling us to be little bridges,
we should not be surprised when both sides walk on us now.

Oysters and Ballerina Knees

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Epiphany 5A: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)

Do me a favor; read the biblical text (linked above). Think about it as you read, pause when you’re finished, and then continue below.

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Finished already? Great.

Are you as confused as I was around verses 11, 12, and 13? Spiritual what? Understand whom? Maybe Paul should have stopped to think about the structure of his argument before committing an act of written diarrhea.

What is the basic gist of Paul’s message here? He seems to be making a logical argument against using logical arguments to better understand the mystery of God, which seems counterintuitive. He says that he came to them knowing nothing but Jesus Christ crucified. He did not come to make himself look wise—only to demonstrate his faith and pass it on to them as a contagion.

Then Paul criticizes those who speak wisdom, which I guess means one speaking with the implication that one’s words are wise, which ironically is foolishness compared to the wisdom of God, Paul emphasizes.

There is an enormous barrier between those who believe in God and modern scientific discovery and those who first believe in modern scientific discover and think God is merely a possibility but probably the result of socialization (not divine revelation).  This barrier is difficult to cross and even harder to illustrate through logical methods.

One author whom I have found to have the ability to shift the discussion to a different playing field where everyone can play is Robert Farrar Capon. I most recently read his book Hunting the Divine Fox while on vacation (I don’t know what it is to “read for pleasure”). But actually, Capon’s books are pleasurable. He has a way of using ordinary objects to illustrate what might really be going on in this world.

I would like to now urge you to pick up Hunting the Divine Fox and especially read the portion at the beginning of the book when he discusses the mystery of God, divine revelation, and the complexity of belief in something beyond our five senses using the example of an oyster’s conception of a ballerina.

To get you started, here is a portion of the book. Click on the links above to purchase a copy for yourself.

A Fable

Once upon a time, in the mud at the bottom of a tidal pool, there lived an oyster. By oyster’s standards, he had a good life: the sea water was clean, and full of plankton, and the green warmth of the light at low tide made him grow and prosper.

Next to him lived a stone with whom he sometimes talked. It was very much the same size, shape and color as he, and was good, if undemanding, company. As a matter of fact, their conversations gave the oyster a definite feeling of superiority. He loved to dwell at length on the differences that underlay their apparent similarity. Rocks, he would say, are merely mineral. Oysters may be mineral on the outside; but inside, they are bona fide members of the animal kingdom.

One day, however the stone surprised him by coming up with a rejoinder. It pointed out that there were nonetheless some advantages to being further down the evolutionary scale. Rocks have fewer enemies than oysters. Starfish and oyster drills, it observed, were no threat to stones; to the oyster they were a matter of life and death. Furthermore, the stone told him, it was getting just a little tired of being put down by an oyster with airs. He might get a lesson in humility if he would listen to some of the things the starfish say about oysters- things which the oyster never heard because he was too busy being mortally afraid, but which the stone heard regularly, and with amusement.

Starfish, it seems, have a very low opinion of oysters. They eat them, but they always refer to them as ‘nothing more than a rock with a stomach.’ In fact, what passes as starfish humor…invariably has to do with how stupid it is to be an animal and not be able to move about. The worst thing one starfish can call another is ‘sessile creature.’

The oyster terminated the discussion huffily and went into a state of profound depression. To have everything he had been so proud of become the butt of underwater ethnic wisecracks made life not worth living. Existence, he concluded, was nothing but a cruel joke. All the faith he once had in a grand design of the evolutionary scheme forsook him. Better to believe in nothing than dignify this farce of a world with its pretensions of order. He became an anti-evolutionist, and stopped saying his prayers.

For a while, righteous indignation made the loosing of his religion rather fun, as it always does; but as summer wore on into fall and the water began its slow progress to winter’s cold, he became merely sour- angry at the universe, but even more angry at himself for having let it turn him into a grouch. Finally, in desperation, he decided he would pray once again; but this time with a difference. No more mumbling of set pieties. He saw himself as a Job among oysters; he would open his shell and curse his day.

And the oyster spoke and said, “Let the day perish wherein I was spawned, and the night in which it was said, A seed oyster has appeared. Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul? Why do I live my days in doubt and darkness? O, that one would hear me, and tell me openly of the glories above. Behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me.”

And, to his utter astonishment, a voice said, “All right, all right. But I have to make it short. It’s Friday afternoon.

“It’s all true. There are things you never even dreamed of. All kinds of stuff. And with moves you couldn’t imagine if you tried. As a matter of fact, that’s your problem. There you sit with a rock on one side and a starfish on the other. My apologies. It’s a limited field of vision, I admit, but in the evolutionary scale business, you’ve got to put a lot of things near the bottom. Spoils the effect if you don’t.

“Anyways, the moves. I’ll tell you a few. Basketball. College basketball, especially. The best ones are so flashy, they make you laugh for not being able to believe the guy actually made the shot. And squirrels gong through trees. One of my best effects. You know the last time a squirrel missed his footing? I keep track of such things. It was May 3rd 1438. Definitely, a record.

“And it’s not all slapdash, either. I’ve got creatures so graceful, they almost break your heart. When it comes to exquisite moves, my favorite maybe is girls’ knees. Lovely. Some people think that’s a funny thing to get excited about, but in my line of work, there’s no substitute for enthusiasm.

“Seriously. If you take the knee thing and really go all the way with it, you get my absolute favorite for loveliness, a prima ballerina. Talk about moves. It’s like Ernie DiGregorio, Marcel Marceau and Squirrel Nutkin all rolled together- but as a girl, which makes it that much better. Terrific.

“Listen, though. Its almost sundown, and I have to set a good example. As I said, your basic problem is your point of view. There really are all these great moves, but you unfortunately don’t know from motion. If your going into business as the world’s first philosophical oyster, its o.k. by me. But just so you shouldn’t get it all wrong, I’ll give you one piece of advice: Think very carefully. Remember that all this stuff really is, but it can’t possibly be the way you think. Or, to turn it around: The way you think about things will never be exactly the same as the way they are. But enough. I really have to run. Mazel tov.”

I cannot publish any more of Capon’s book without delving into copyright infringement. His line of thought so far, so well articulated through the Oyster and God, should get you thinking about mystery, revelation, and faith—and in a much more interesting manner than Paul, I should think.

The Rev’d Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Sometimes using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.