Being Transfiguration in a time of violence: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Today, August 6, in the church’s calendar is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the major feasts of the life of Christ and because of that, when it falls on a Sunday, it supersedes the regular lectionary readings for the day. That explains why we are reading lessons from Exodus, 1 Peter, and the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of Matthew and the readings from Genesis and Romans we’ve been having.

It creates something of a problem for the preacher because there’s another Sunday each year when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). So it was only a few months ago that we heard Matthew’s version of this story. That we read this story each year on the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent is appropriate because the themes of this story are a fitting transition between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent and reflect the story’s position in each of the synoptic gospels. It comes immediately after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, after Jesus’ first prediction that he will be crucified and his invitation to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Luke deepens the connection between transfiguration by stating, just a few verses later, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, after this mountaintop experience, Jesus begins his final journey that will end on another mountaintop—Calvary—with his crucifixion.

There’s another detail in the story that points ahead to the crucifixion. There’s only one other time that Luke says the disciples fell asleep. On that later occasion, as he faced crucifixion, Jesus asked his disciples to stay and watch with him while he prayed. Luke tells us that after praying, Jesus came back to them and found them sleeping, “because of grief.” This time, the disciples were “weighed down with sleep but they stayed awake and saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”

Whatever positive spin we might put on the disciples’ behavior here is likely negated by Peter’s response to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make booths…” No doubt, you’ve heard sermons criticizing Peter’s response, his lack of understanding, his desire to prolong the experience. But there other ways to think about it. “Booths” is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Sukkot or Tabernacles, which was in part a commemoration of the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

And there are all sorts of echoes of Exodus here. Not just in the presence of Moses, the location on a mountaintop. There is also the presence of the cloud and the bright light, which were associated with experiences of divine revelation, including at Mt. Sinai. The word “Exodus” also appears, in Luke’s description of what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah—his “departure”—the same Greek word, eksodon is used. In the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition, “exodus is one of the primary examples of God’s mighty acts on behalf of God’s chosen people, and it’s likely that Luke wants his readers to understand Jesus’ departure or exodus in similar terms, as God saving God’s people.

It may be, then, that Peter’s desire to erect booths is not an example of his misunderstanding, but that he wants to worship in this place, to be present with Jesus here, to learn from all three of these men. While the primary point of this story is about Jesus, a confirmation of his ministry, his calling, his identity as the Son of God, the Chosen One, this story may also be about discipleship, about following Jesus.

Jesus took his three favorite disciples, in Luke, the first three disciples he called, Peter, James, and John, up this mountain to pray. They had been with him all along his journey. They had seen his miracles, listened to his teaching, his first prediction of his suffering and death, and his call to them to take up their crosses and follow him. Now on top of this mountain, they saw his glory and wanted to prolong it. Whatever it meant, whatever they experienced, there was more to do; they could not tarry, but the four of them went back down the mountain and soon began that last, fateful trip to Jerusalem. And they kept silent about all that they had seen that day.

We, all of us, are called to follow Jesus. We are called to be his disciples. In our complicated world, with our complicated lives, it’s never quite clear what discipleship means. Is it enough to come to church from time to time and worship, to experience the beauty of God, to catch sight of God’s glory, if only momentarily and partially? I was speaking this week with an elderly couple who are unable, because of health issues to attend Grace. They expressed their deep sadness about missing services, for it was not just the community they lacked, it is the experience of awe and transcendence that they miss, and can find in no other place in their lives.

Worship, the experience of God’s glory is an important part of following Jesus but there is more to discipleship than that. When Jesus came down the mountain, he returned immediately to his ministry of teaching and healing, of proclaiming and bringing into being, the reign of God. And that is precisely what we are called to do as well. Our experience of God’s glory transforms us as well as we do those same things proclaiming the coming of God’s reign, and in our actions and lives, being agents and examples of God’s glory in the world.

The mount of Calvary looms over the mountain of Transfiguration; the cross casts its shadow on Christ’s transfigured face. Our observance of the Feast of Transfiguration occurs in a divided city that has experienced unprecedented violence in recent months. We have seen, as I’m sure you know, 10 homicides already this year, tying the record for the most murders in a year in Madison. Our city is more divided than ever. Our elected leadership is quarreling over what to do in response to this crisis and community leaders are frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, residents of the neighborhoods most affected by the violence are living in fear everyday and mourning the deaths of friends and family.

We, most of us, watch the news reports, read about them in the papers or on social media, but few of us have experienced the ripples of that violence ourselves. Oh, we may know where the events occurred, we may have stopped at the gas stations or convenience stores where incidents took place, we may even live within earshot. But most of us live in a completely different world. There’s a map on Madison.com that plots all of the significant incidents of gun violence in the city since May. Only one of the some 50 total occurred in the downtown, near westside or near eastside. It’s another piece of evidence showing how divided our city is.

As followers of Jesus, called to share the good news of the coming of God’s reign, called to break down the barriers that divide us, we are called to be agents of Christ’s reconciling love in this world. A group of us, the Creating More Just Community task force, has been engaging on issues of racism and inequality for the last several years. We are working on a new initiative to build relationships with our neighbors across the street at the Capitol, and shared information about that effort with you last week.

Now, I am calling us to engage in that reconciling work in our city. The violence we are witnessing is a symptom of something much deeper, of hopelessness and despair, of broken families, broken lives. In the coming weeks, I will be taking part in conversations with clergy and community leaders to see how we at Grace can work with others to heal our divisions, to bring an end to violence, and to spread the glory of Christ’s love in our city.

 

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Murder City Madison–Follow up

I wrote on Wednesday about the rash of shootings and 10 homicides in Madison so far this year. For those interested in the story, I am providing here some updates and additional information.

First, there was another attempted homicide last night.The victim had “non-life threatening injuries.”

There’s a background piece in this week’s Isthmus about the violence and about the conflict among city elected officials and community leaders about how best and most effectively to respond.

Amid all the violence and rancor, there are also signs of hope and success. Selfless Ambition reports on the dramatic changes in one Madison neighborhood over the last few years. One of the city’s poorest communities, the Leopold neighborhood has begun a remarkable transformation. The number of police calls dropped by 25% between 2011 and 2015, thanks to the assignment of a community resource police officer, expanded community programming at the elementary school, and the creation of urban community gardens.

If you want to follow developments in this ongoing story and in the effort to overcome racial disparity in our community, I recommend visiting Madison365 and Selfless Ambition regularly. Both are doing great work!

Murder City Madison

We woke today to learn that overnight another man was shot to death in Madison, the tenth homicide in 2017, the third in the last week. That ties the record with 2007 for the most homicides in a year, on August 2. I took me a while to compile a list of all of the victims’ names (police haven’t released the name of the most recent victim). Here they are:

1 David Edwards March 1
2 Andrew Nesbitt March 27
3 Michael Mederds, May 30
4 Jameel Easter June 10
5 Gerald Moore  June 24
6 Christ Kneubuehl June 26
7 Kub Herr July 2
8 Riccardo C. Simms. July 26
9 Ciara Philumalee July 29

There were domestic incidents (Andrew Nesbitt was killed by his roommate) and Christ Kneubuehl died of a heart attack during and armed robbery at a Culver’s but the most recent killings have seemed frighteningly similar: people gunned down in public. As Police Chief Mike Koval said of the most recent homicide: “This was a brutal assassination.”

The increase in violence has increased tension between elected officials and leaders in the African-American community as they struggle to develop solutions to the immediate problems and the underlying issues. There’s also a knee jerk response that puts the blame on people coming from Chicago or Milwaukee.

Madison.com provides a map that shows all of the serious gun-related incidents in Madison since May. It’s quite revealing. There’s only been one incident in the downtown area, the near east side, or near west side. The remainder of the almost 40 charted on the map occurred in or near largely African-American neighborhoods, along the belt line or near the interstate.

Of course, many of them occurred in places, like a 7-11, where people of all races and classes might come together but Chief Koval has been careful to insist that the most recent killings have been targeted–victims and shooters are known to each other.

Koval has also warned that police will become more proactive, that they will be “rattling the cages” those “creating havoc.” Undoubtedly, this means closer surveillance of African-Americans, arresting people on parole or probation violations. Such tactics will only worsen the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community.

I’ve got no proposals to make, no great ideas, no possible solutions. I am surprised not only by the spiral of violence but also by the relative silence in the larger community. Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by all of the news coming out of Washington–the healthcare debate, the chaos in the White House, the international crises. The old tagline “if it bleeds, it leads” still seems to be valid. Headlines of the shootings on the home pages of local media, but there is a lot else grabbing our attention, not least the Foxconn deal that has brought the legislature back into special session.

I’ve got nothing to offer, except prayer and an invitation to conversation. We’ll be using a litany this Sunday that I’m adapting from one written by Bishop Stephen Lane of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. We’ll name all ten victims of homicide in Madison this year in those prayers; we’ll remember their friends and family. We’ll pray for healing and hope and that our city will come together across the divisions of neighborhood, class, and race.

And today I’m praying that there are no more killings, tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or for the rest of the year.

 

 

Prayers in this time of violence, grief, and fear

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 260)

A Prayer for the Whole Human Family.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 815)

A Prayer for Social Justice.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

Prayer for Victims of Terrorism

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer for First Responders

Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy, who through your Son gave us a marvelous example of charity and the great commandment of love for one another. Send down your blessings on these your servants, who so generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are afraid, wisdom when they must make quick decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work. When the alarm sounds and they are called to aid both friend and stranger, let them faithfully serve you in their neighbor. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.– adapted from the Book of Blessings, #587, by Diana Macalintal

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of Massachusetts, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

For Peace

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

“This week has become a grotesque object lesson in gun culture”

This week has become a grotesque object lesson in gun culture, one that points to a conclusion that we could have and should have drawn long ago—that the surfeit of weapons at our disposal and the corresponding fears that they induce create new hazards. There is no telling how any of these specific horrors will be resolved. But here is what we do know: we live in an age of open-source terrorism. Our inability to respond to mass shootings has meant that, eventually, even law enforcement would fall victim to one. The context of the conversation about police accountability has been irrevocably changed. Black lives matter, but reports that those words were uttered by a gunman in Dallas mean that any movement under that banner may well have met its end. And realism, in the face of tragedy, tells us that there is more ugliness in the offing.

Jelani Cobb, Three Terrible Days of Violence.

Bishop Miller (Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee) urges clergy and laity to support Senate action on gun control

Here”s his letter to the Diocese:

June 17, 2016

Dear Friends in Christ,

Yesterday the members of Bishops United had our monthly phone conference. Our discussion had a renewed sense of urgency because of the Orlando Shootings and renewed efforts to pass common sense gun legislation by member of the Senate.

If you haven’t had a chance to keep up with recent developments, including Senator Christopher Murphy’s 15-hour filibuster that stretched until about 2 am and produced an agreement to get gun violence prevention legislation onto the floor of the Senate, here’s an New York Times story with details: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/us/politics/senate-filibuster-gun-control.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

This is perhaps the best opportunity we have had since the defeat of Mancin-Toomey to move gun violence prevention legislation forward a peg or two on the federal level. The horrific massacre in Orlando has changed the climate in which this legislation will be considered.

Today, I write you to ask to contact Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin before Monday at noon asking them to support legislation that will

  • Make it illegal for people convicted of violent hate crimes to buy or possess guns
  • Make it illegal for suspected terrorists to legally buy guns
  • Require a background check for every gun sale, no matter where you buy a gun or who you buy it from

In particular what we are asking is for Congress to pass what is being referred to as Brady Bill 2.0, (S 2934) which would require a background check for any gun purchase and S 551, which would prohibit individuals on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying weapons. (The shorthand here is No Fly, No Buy.)

There are a number of ways to find your senators’ contact information. Here, for instance, is a directory of phone numbers and links to email forms: http://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/ However, probably the best way to be in touch with senators is through the website of one of the large gun violence prevention groups such as the Brady Campaign: http://www.bradycampaign.org/close-the-terror-gap-tell-senate-to-vote-yes-on-brady-bill-20-terror-gap-bill or Everytown: http://act.everytown.org/sign/orlando-congress-petition/?source=etno_ETHomepage&utm_source=et_n_&utm_medium=_o&utm_campaign=ETHomepage.

Both of these pages provide a little coaching instructions for those who would find that helpful. One of the advantages of placing the call with the assistance of the Brady Campaign or Everytown websites is that they are able to estimate the volume of calls they have generated, and those numbers, if they are large enough, can help to change wavering senators’  minds. Additionally, you can sign up for text alerts so you know when it might be helpful to make another call.

If you find that a senator’s voice mail or inbox is full, you can fax them at:  https://faxzero.com/fax_senate.php.  You can call one of the senator’s offices in your state during office hours.

One important point: it doesn’t matter whether you already know how your senator is going to vote on these bills. Volume is important. So please be in touch with those who are co-sponsoring the bills (to thank them) and those who will never vote for it (just so they will know you are out there).

Thank you for joining me in this important work.

Yours in Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Steven A. Miller

Bishop of Milwaukee

 

Christians and Gun violence

Today is the Inter-Faith Call-In Day to Prevent Gun Violence. The Episcopal Church is participating in this effort in a number of ways. The Presiding Bishop has released a letter in support. The Episcopalians Against Gun Violence group is on facebook. There’s information in all those places on how to participate.

There’s ongoing debate about “God, Guns, and Christianity.” Andrew Sullivan is worth paying attention to on this. He points out, for example, that if one is pro-life, one ought to be opposed to easy access to handguns. Just as an example: Among the over-20s, 60 percent of gun deaths are from suicides, compared with 37 percent for homicides. The presence of guns in a house makes attempted suicide more likely; and increases the odds that an attempt will be successful. The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the likelihood of a killing.

Sullivan also responded to the outrageous and remarkably ahistorical assertion that “Jesus would have backed the Second Amendment. But many Christians disagree and the Arkansas house of representatives has just passed legislation allowing “concealed carry” in churches.

I think we are sometimes inured to how pervasive violence has become in our culture. Apparently, since 2009, there has been at least one mass shooting every month. Every month! This graphic from Slate reminds us of the approximate toll of gun violence in the US since Newtown.

In Madison, I will be participating in a candlelight vigil at First Congregational Church on February 7 at 7:00pm. More about that here.

Today, President Obama spoke about his efforts to reduce gun violence.