St John’s, Decatur—Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18
Remembering all the places I’ve lived, and the times I’ve lived there, I’m amazed at the variety I’ve seen. When I was a young child growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s and 60s, I always wore a white shirt, tasteful tie, and dark suit to church every Sunday. All the boys my age—even as young as first grade—did the same. We wore real leather shoes that you can polish, usually black. By the time I was in Junior High School, this code was liberalized a bit, and I would sometimes wear a sport coat or blazer over a shirt, with dress slacks, and no tie. We would never have dreamed of addressing an adult by their first name—it was always Mr or Mrs or Miss So-and-So.
By the time I went to college, things were different. This was a function of both time and place. It was the tail end of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s, so a certain spirit of rebellion was in the air. But I was also now in California—the land of beaches and blondes and surfboards and an endless of summer of casual attire. I began to make it a point to not dress up for church. And a lot of my peers, apparently, were making the same point. And when I officially became an adult, children didn’t start suddenly calling me “Mr Martins.” To most people, young and old, I was just “Dan,” like I’d always been. And during our “Bohemian years” in Oregon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that trend pretty much continued. I wore a tie for work, but Sundays were casual.
Perhaps it was the influence of the Reagan presidency, but things seemed to take a conservative turn in the mid to late ‘80s. But then again, I was no longer on the “left coast,” but back in the heartland—first in Wisconsin, then in Louisiana. When I was a seminarian intern in a parish near Milwaukee, I reverted to my childhood practice and put on a coat and tie each Sunday, and shined my shoes on Saturday night. And Louisiana, of course—along with the rest of the Deep South—is something else entirely. By that time, I was really dressing up for church—much like you see me now! And hardly anybody just called me “Dan.” But more to the point, when I looked out over the congregation, the great majority of men were in coats and ties, and even if I hadn’t been a priest, I would have at least been “Mr Dan” to anyone’s children but my own, and they all would have responded with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” when conversing with me. Believe it or not, that’s the way some people still live.
Then I came to central California in the mid ‘90s. I remember the first time I was around my new parish church for a wedding, and noticed that a majority of the gentlemen arrived in polo shirts and other forms of open collar, and it struck me that I was back in the land of ‘California Casual.’ And it’s not just a matter of attire, or forms of address. It’s a lifestyle, an attitude. California culture wants whole world to be an extension of our family room and den and deck. Many churches make a point of the preacher getting down from behind the pulpit and just looking people in the eye—even before that became more common even in historic formal churches. Many of the same churches feature music that sounds pretty much like what the people in the congregation listen to on the radio or their iPod during the rest of the week. It’s all part of California Causal, and nowadays, as we know, it’s not just limited to California.
Well, I’m not here to be “Bishop Manners” and lecture you on the decline of etiquette. On the Day of Judgment, it will be a matter of indifference whether men wear ties or women wear earrings or anybody has shoes that can be polished. Fashions and cultural expectations come and go. I think it’s possible, however, to take California Casual just a bit too far, and that is when we try to make God conform to the same set of expectations. It’s tempting to try to domesticate God, to scale God back to a manageable size, to turn down the volume of His voice to that of a living room conversation, to put the glory of God on a dimmer switch so we don’t have to shield our eyes. We’ve taken off the coat and tie and the uncomfortable shoes, and we’d like God to do the same, to just kick back and go with the flow and hang out. That’s a God we feel we could relate to, because e really wouldn’t demand very much of us, and we wouldn’t have to change.
When the apostles Peter and James and John had a vision of Divine Glory on the mountaintop of Christ’s transfiguration, that glory was wild and untamed and undomesticated. It was at ear-splitting volume and retina-burning brightness. Peter wanted to contain it. He wanted to put it in a box suitable for shipping and handling, a bottle to which a tap could be attached, letting a little bit of glory out on an as-needed basis. “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
The problem we run into when we domesticate God, when we impose on him the lifestyle of California Casual, is, as you might guess, essentially spiritual. It can take one of two different forms. On the one hand is spiritual arrogance. When we think we’ve got God securely contained in a box that we can carry with us wherever we go—well, that’s quite a head trip! “Psst! Over here. Wanna take a peek at the glory of God?” You’ve probably run into Christians who think God is under contract with them to perform miracles on demand. “Are you sick? Here, God will heal you through my prayer. It didn’t work? Well, there must have been something wrong with your faith. Got marital or financial difficulties? Here, let me pray for you. What, nothing’s better? O ye of little faith!” This is just spiritual arrogance. On the other hand, in contrast to that, is spiritual laziness. The spiritually lazy just keep on making messes with their lives, thinking that surely God will come along and clean up after them. They re-write the Lord’s Prayer to say, “Our Grandfather who art in Heaven.” A father might call us to account, maybe even hurt our feelings. But a grandfather will just give us a Tootsie Roll and pat us on the head and tell us to be good. In either case, though, whether we’re spiritually arrogant or spiritually lazy, a domesticated God behaves himself and does what we want him to do.
We would do well, at this point, to notice that Jesus does not take Peter up on his offer to build a booth, a tabernacle, a monument to what was happening in the Transfiguration. He’s nice about it—he doesn’t scold Peter or call him stupid or anything of the sort. He just ignores a question that betrays a profound misunderstanding of what was going on. Peter and James and John had just had an unmediated encounter with the glory of God. It was, to be sure, a temporary encounter, but it was a moment of indescribable brilliance and transcendence. This was not God-in-a-box. This was not farm-raised glory. This was wild and undomesticated Divine Splendor. The appropriate response was not to memorialize it with a monument. The appropriate response was the one these disciples made a moment later after they heard the voice from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Matthew tells us that, “when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.” When the disciples heard this, they were filled with awe. Awe—holy fear. There’s nothing casual here. There’s nothing informal or folksy about this encounter. Finite creatures are in the presence of an infinite Creator, and the appropriate response is for them to fall on their faces and be filled with holy fear.
Holy fear is indeed the appropriate response to a vision of Divine Glory. The “California casual” lifestyle and attitude wants to contain God, to keep an eye on him in the family room or deck so he doesn’t get into the sort of mischief that might mess up our lives, that might force us to look at ourselves honestly and maybe even make some changes. But when the apostles expressed their fear and fell to the ground, Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, what are you doing that for? It’s no big deal. Get on up and shake hands with Moses and Elijah. Let’s all sit down and have a drink.” No, it’s only on his invitation, his “permission,” actually, that they, and we, are allowed to rise and “have no fear.” It is not our inherent right, or an inherent part of the nature of God, that we should not fear him. And this is what distinguishes the “holy fear” I’m talking about here from an unhealthy sort of morbid fear. Holy fear is an attitude of reverent awe toward God and the things of God. Morbid fear is a sense of dread, of abject fright, a sense that God is just itching for an excuse to send us directly to Hell without passing “Go” or collecting $200. That’s not what I’m talking about. God is on our side. God loves us and longs to be in relationship with us. In fact, God loves us so much that he voluntarily laid aside the fullness of his glory in order to become incarnate as a human being. But he did not give it up entirely, and now Jesus has returned to his position of glory at the right hand of the Father.
So something is wrong if our spine doesn’t tingle just a bit at the thought of being in God’s presence. Behind the altar here at St John’s is a box called a tabernacle. Inside the tabernacle are bread and wine that have been consecrated in previous celebrations of the Eucharist. They have been prayed over and set aside. We believe that, in such action, they have become the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why there’s a lamp burning perpetually in front of it, and that is why we genuflect—literally, “bend the knee”—when we approach it. We are expressing appropriate holy fear at being in the Real Presence of the Holy One. Someone from a Christian tradition that does not believe in such sacramental Real Presence once commented, “If I believed what you believe, I would be crawling on my knees all the way up the center aisle of the church!” It makes one think, doesn’t it?
As many of you know, my wife has a twelve-year old Border Collie named Lucy. As we’ve worked over the years to turn Lucy into the kind of dog that Brenda wants and I can enjoy living with, we’ve applied the notion—and it’s all based on canine psychology—that a dog is eager to please the humans it lives with. Sometimes, if I’m not getting my point across using an ordinary tone of voice, I have found it effective to “growl” or “bark” my commands to Lucy. This gets her attention by reminding her that she has good reason to fear me, because I’m the Alpha Male, the leader of the pack. But neither Brenda nor I want a dog who is terrified of us. Our definition of a “good dog” is one who is active and spirited, but who has a “holy fear” of Brenda and me, and longs to please us in everything she does. We want her to be excited about being in our presence, to be confident that Brenda loves her, and to never forget that in our will is her peace! I’ll let you ask Brenda how well that’s worked out in practice, but you can probably see where I’m going with this analogy. God wants us as his children to be active and spirited, but to have a holy fear of him, and a surpassing desire to please him in all things. He wants us to have such an exalted understanding of what it means to be in his presence, that we are tempted to fall to the ground at the mere thought of it. He wants us to rest in his unshakable love for us, and to never forget that our experience of perfect freedom flows only from serving him. May we enter the season of Lent with these thoughts in the front of our minds. Amen.