March 3, 2019

Last Epiphany

Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

Part of today’s Gospel reading today was optional, meaning we didn’t have to hear all of it.  Can you guess which part?  Was it the story of a strange, seemingly drug induced vision atop a mountain involving clouds, loud voices, and the reappearance of Moses and Elijah?  Or was it what happened afterward – the strange encounter with a shrieking, convulsing, demon possessed boy foaming at the mouth? 

If you guessed the later, you would be right.  The first story, the one with Jesus on top of the mountain, glowing like Moses, is a story that is probably familiar to you, and it is probably what most people standing in pulpits this morning are talking about.  But I want to talk about the optional part, that second story with the shrieking child.

Shrieking children are nothing new to parents, or to anyone who has sat behind one on an airplane.  But demon possessed?  I’ve had parents of young children whom I’ve baptized joke with me asking if I can perform an exorcism on their screaming child tantrumming over not being allowed to have another piece of chocolate cake. 

I’m not sure what makes people uncomfortable with this reading more – is it the demonic innuendo, the presence of evil, the disturbing behavior of the young boy in the story, or is it that we don’t quite know what to do with an angry, confrontational Jesus?

I don’t know.  It’s probably some combination of both, but I am going to lead toward Jesus’ anger.  And, more specifically, it is anger that I want to talk about today, by way of a personal story.  As a child I learned at a young age that in my family, I played the role of the peace maker.  What that means was that whenever there was conflict in our home – arguing parents, sibling fights – my role was to try to calm everybody down.  I learned to be conflict averse, avoiding strong emotions like anger or rage, and allowed my siblings to display those feelings more outwardly, while I handled my anger and my rage by sweeping it under the carpet, by internalizing it.

So, it has been that since childhood, my relationship with anger has been a bit unhealthy.  I found it very difficult to express anger directly, preferring instead to express it a bit more passively, cloaking my anger in sarcastic and cynical statements.  In seminary I learned that my conflict avoidant tendencies were quite common in clergy such as myself.  I am, slowly, getting better at anger.  I now know that my relationship with anger has been dysfunctional for most of my life.  I am healing, slowly. 

I gather that I am not alone in my relationship with anger.  A lot of us struggle with venting our anger in healthy ways.  Our nation is struggles expressing anger in healthy ways.  So, what do we learn from Jesus’s anger today?  We learn that he is angry because the day after his literal mountain-top experience, he is once again back in the dregs of ordinary life with all its frustrations, including, but not limited to, faithless disciples unable to perform a routine exorcism on a young boy. 

It’s not rocket science.  Jesus probably explained the whole “how to exorcise a demon” thing pretty clearly.  You call out the demon in Jesus’ name, the boy is healed, and everyone goes home.  But the disciple was unable to do it and Jesus lost his patience as a result. Fair enough.  Whatever the reason for his anger, he displays it appropriately.  He makes his point, expresses his anger, and moves on. 

I wish, I so wish, one of the stained-glass windows in this church was one of Jesus, losing his you know-what-with the disciples who were unable to heal this boy.  Can you imagine how great that would be?  There’s Jesus, arm’s out in frustration, the disciples all pointing at each other “it was his fault.”  That would be priceless.  It would be priceless because it is so honest and so human, which Jesus was. 

I love that these stories go together in in Luke’s Gospel: the mountain top encounter with God followed by the disappointing debacle with inept disciples.  Because that is our story.  We experience both.  Sometimes we’re on the mountain, and everything is great, and sometimes we’re at the bottom dealing with the demonic, or our anger, or both.

The good news is that God is in both places.  God is on the mountain, and God is deeply in the anger and the evil at the bottom.  But the good news doesn’t stop there.  Because God has redeemed the mountain top and the anger and evil at the bottom.  Both experiences are united, drawn into God, redeemed, made holy.  That’s good news for the frustrated, the angry, the demon, and the holy.  AMEN.