My Joy and Crown

Luke 9:28-43a

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The Gospel from Luke for this second Sunday of Lent might strike you as a little odd, perhaps even disjointed. What does transfiguration have to do with an exorcism? Both the congregation and, I will admit, the preacher might have preferred that this excerpt from the 9th chapter of Luke stop with verse 36, before we get to the part with that lovely quote from Jesus that more often finds itself redacted and deployed as a slogan in hate speech or internet trolling than engaged with in any meaningful way. But, so it goes; the verses march on after verse 36. And, in a way, it is helpful from time to time to read a slightly messier lectionary reading, because it reminds us that this is how the Gospels are constructed. The authors of our gospels were compiling the stories and traditions of Jesus and His Disciples, and if you sit down to read the middle chapters in the synoptic gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will find little phrases to string together various parts of the Jesus tradition to create a sequential strand of parables and miracles, teaching and preaching. The Gospel writers concerned themselves with a message to a 1st-century audience, not with satisfying a 21st century continuity check. My favorite example of this is the Gospel of Mark; Jesus crosses the lake so often it looks as though the disciples are running a ferry service.  It is well worth the hour or two it takes to sit down and read one of the Synoptics in a single sitting, to pay attention to the beautiful patchwork-quilting process that is the Gospel.

This week, our gospel reading from Luke frames two small patches of the quilt, a transfiguration and an exorcism. One day, the disciples are witness to the greatest heights of humanity’s encounter with the divine; they see the possibilities of the better angels of our nature. The very next, they bumble their way through the ministerial trenches; in fear of the messiness of sin and illness, they fall away from the grace which first overtook them. There are two stories, two days,  two lessons to our Gospel this morning. The first is familiar, stirring, enchanting: the blossoming of faith, the transcendent beauty of assurance. Faith is the Joy of the Lord and the Church.  We love when individuals are overtaken by faith. The second is strange, discomfiting, bracing: the growth of faith, the hard work of sanctification. Discipleship is the Crown of Faith and the Church. We long for individuals to become disciples, just as we long for the transformation of the church, the one body, to the body of Christ’s glory.

Faith is a deeply personal transformative experience that is often fostered in the midst of community. You hear a word over the radio that touches something deep inside the very fiber of your being. You hear a word which speaks to where you are in your life. You close your eyes and let the forte waves of a choir wash over you. You hear some music that awakens some feeling in you. You have a deeply meaningful conversation, you feel safe enough to ask someone you trust the difficult questions, and you feel a sense of peace deep within your soul.  You find your heart strangely warmed, you come to kneel at the altar rail, you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior. Different denominations, local churches, and worship styles have diverse ways of fostering the sort of atmosphere through which God’s grace can flow. But the electricity of God’s grace is able to be conducted through a number of materials, and the result is faith awakened in the soul.

It is important at the outset of Lent to hear a word about faith, about assurance, about presence, about the personal experience of the divine. You heard such a word last week from Dean Hill. It is important to begin Lent with a shoring up of faith, an experience of beauty, learning, comfort, assurance. It nourishes us, it can sustain us for the forty days of reflection and fasting to come. But after worship on Sunday, after the first few days of Lent, after the first few moments of faith, comes the question, “What comes next?”  What about Monday morning? What about the rest of Lent? What about the rest of life?

A preschool put on a production of the Ugly Duckling, the beloved Hans Christian Andersen tale. It combined the best parts of early childhood education: group singing, moving on and off stage in a straight line, a moral lesson, and of course, a crafts project. Each child would make her own set of wings, with help, of course. Cutting with safety scissors, using an Elmer’s glue bottle, carefully attaching feathers, and filling in the gaps with marker. It was the ideal craft for a small child, messy and fascinating. Almost all the children used bright yellow; Big Bird-color feathers and a sunny yellow marker. These were the ducklings. One boy and one girl, though, were selected to be the ugly ducklings in the production. They had the same work to do as the other children: cutting, gluing, attaching, coloring. Their feathers were a dull grey-brown, the name of their Crayola marker was more optimistic than it looked: “golden beige.” But they had to put in twice as much work as their classmates; they had the rare preschool homework assignment. Each had to make a whole second pair of wings, to cut, glue, attach, and color all over again. It took forever, but this time, there was glitter, whole tubes of silver and gold glitter and bright, iridescent feathers. Twice the work, to be sure, but this little boy and little girl got to do a quick costume change during the production, to exchange their wings to become swans.

Don’t we all want to be swans? Don’t we all want a chance to exchange our wings? To put down the burdensome wings of our sin, shame, our old lives? Faith means we get to put down the old wings of our lives, to start over again, to molt the old feathers. And that is beautiful, saving grace, that we get a costume change in life. But something happens after that. To put on new wings, to molt, we need to cut, glue, attach, and glitter that new set of wings. We don’t do it alone. We do it by the grace of God and with the support of a community of faith, but we still have homework to do.  We have help, but we need to make that second set of wings.

In Methodist circles and beyond we often talk about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. Wesley’s journal entries record the moment, and his words have been edited to a catchphrase of sorts for the conversion experience. I’m sure you know, that evening May 24, 1738 when John Wesley felt “his heart strangely warmed.” The phrase is a darling of the theological left and the right, it is beloved as his conversion moment. We really focus on it. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley went to a meeting, and on hearing Luther’s Preface to the Epistle on the Romans, he felt his heart strangely warmed.

What happened the next day? What did John Wesley do when he when he went home that evening? What about when he woke up the next morning? Wesley writes that he went home that evening to pray, but soon felt the nagging question in his head, “This cannot be faith; for where is the joy?” He continued to pray late into the night. The next morning, he woke up, went to church, and sang a hymn. Again, another nagging question.  He writes, “If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change? I answered, “That I know not. But, this I know, I have ‘now peace with God.’ And I sin not today, and Jesus my Master has forbidden me to take thought for the morrow.” The next journal entry comes over a week later, June 7, when John writes that he has decided to go to Germany, to spend some time with the Moravians.  He writes the following, “And I hoped the conversing with those holy men who were themselves living witnesses of the full power of faith, and yet able to bear with those that are weak, would be a means, under God, of so establishing my soul that I might go on from faith to faith, and from ‘strength to strength.’”

John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment, his coming to a deeper and truer sense of his own faith, his conversion moment did not mean that he never doubted again. It did not mean that he woke up a saint the next day, and it certainly did not mean that his work as a Christian was done because he had felt assurance. He had to wake up the next day and take the next step. Faith began the hard work, faith empowered him for the hard work, the cutting and gluing and pasting of the wings of his new life. After Aldersgate John Wesley continued to pray, he went to church, he sang hymns, and he went and found others to accompany him on the journey of “establishing his soul.” Wesley had begun the process of sanctification. Soon he would be establishing Sunday school s so poor children could learn to read, soon he would be preaching to crowds in the field, soon he would be riding all over the countryside, establishing meetings, working with the urban poor. These were the next steps in John’s lifelong process of growing in faith and faithfulness. And this is what the Lenten journey is all about. Lent is a time of fasting, remembrance, and hopefully, growth. Lent is about the long life-process of faith, it is about the next day, the next step.

Far too often in the church we act like a bunch of normal looking ducklings. We don’t own up to our status as ugly ducklings, we don’t concern ourselves with the work of cutting, gluing, pasting, and glittering our new wings. On the theological right, we demand that all ducklings must look alike to be real ducklings. Our faith cannot be genuine unless we meet certain the ideological litmus tests about certain social issues, unless we have a very particular conversion experience, unless we offer a convincing testimony of that conversion. We peck at ducklings that don’t look like we do, who don’t fall into perfect line with all the other ducklings. Our feathers get ruffled too easily. We don’t connect our concern for personal piety with a continued dedication to our social holiness. We content ourselves with one set of wings, because we don’t put in the work to make a new pair.

On the theological left, we pretend our own feathers will never molt, that we will maintain the same, idealistic adorable yellow fluff for the duration of our worship, avoiding difficult topics such as sin or evil. We think our faith is enough because we offer a moving experience through our music, our worship, our preaching, because we have the “right” experience. Or, we set out in a cute duckling line to save the world before receiving our police escort, a la Make Way For Ducklings back to our ecclesiastical island in the middle of the Public Garden. We peck at ducklings that don’t look like we do, who don’t fall into perfect line with all the other ducklings. Our feathers get ruffled too easily. We don’t connect our concern for social holiness with a continued dedication to our personal piety. We content ourselves with one set of wings, because we don’t put in the work to make a new pair.

If there was one theological doctrine that John Wesley caught the most flack for, it was Christian perfection. John Wesley believed so much in the continued process of growth, healing, and restoration in our lives of faith.  He believed that God, working in us, could truly “take away our bent to sinning,” as his brother’s hymn phrases it. In critiquing this doctrine, people focus too much on the telos, the goal, on the perfection. Wesley never claimed to get there himself, but he really emphasized the life-long journey of sainthood, of working hard to become just a little more holy every day. That is the discipline of the Christian life.

Discipline. Disciple. Both words come from the Latin discipulus which originally, before it gets caught up in Christian Latin, refers to a student. Someone who follows a teacher, learns from them, imitates them. When we are called to be and to make disciples, we are called to be and make students, life-long students of Christ.  You may come to Marsh Chapel or tune in on the radio because you like the preaching or the fellowship or the music, and those are all good and true things. But I imagine that there is something also drawing you to a community of faith grounded in a place of learning, Boston University. There is something invigorating, enlivening, transforming about working with, worshipping among, and listening to college students. Maybe it reminds you of your own student days, maybe it connects you to a child or grandchild you have in college. Beloved, whether you are a freshman or coming up on your 50th high school reunion, your student days are not behind you! You are called to be a life-long student of Christ, to continue to learn and grow in faith and wisdom, and to participate in the learning community that is the Church.

It’s a little ironic, to be sure, but the very best description I have ever encountered for our sanctification comes not from John or Charles or any one of the Wesleys, but from a Baptist preacher and teacher, a lifelong student, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. The Rev. Dr. Robin Olson used this quote as the focus of our Marsh Chapel winter reading retreat, and I just could not get it out of my head. In The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman writes,

“There must be always remaining in the individual life some place for the singing of angels-some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness-something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright light of penetrating beauty and meaning-then passes. The commonplace is shot through with new glory-old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.”

A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. We must always open ourselves for the transcendent – the singing of angels.  But those moments pass, and then we have some growing to do to reach for that crown.

This Lent, stand up a little straighter. Try for a little more discipline in your life, with your money, your choices, your consumption. Grow a little taller. Pray a bit more, imitate someone whose example you admire, find a spiritual accountability buddy, an accountabilabuddy. Reach for that crown. What is that next step in your faith life? Where is your spiritual comfort zone, and how can you get out of it? Try having a chat with someone outside your age bracket after church today. What is their vision for the Church, for Marsh Chapel, for the life of faith? Begin to trace out for yourself a new pair of wings.

I am increasingly convinced that people come to faith, they shadow the walls of our churches, they tune in and sit up, when they see sanctification being modeled. There have been plenty of Christian experiments focusing on justification, on the come to Jesus moment. I am convinced that we are not being honest with people about what it means to be a Christian unless we are telling them about what comes next, unless we are modeling what comes next through our own discipleship, our own process of sanctification. What is the next step for you as a disciple? What is the next step for Marsh Chapel’s discipleship? How are we cutting, gluing, pasting, and glittering our way to greater holiness, to help create the sort of wings that can bear people up so that they are not dashed against the stones of life?

People come to faith when they see a community that models sanctification.  This is not an excuse to be holier than thou, but it is, I believe, a truer invitation to a lasting relationship. Beloved, how are we continuing to learn together as a community of faith, as disciples? How are we, as the body of Christ, being conformed to the body of His glory? This Lent, beloved, may we take those next steps toward discipleship, toward holiness in our lives. When we do, both on the mountaintop and back in the messiness of the city we will be astounded by the greatness of God.

Amen.

~Rev. Jennifer Quigley, Chapel Associate for Vocational Discernment

 

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