Going Backward is Not the Answer

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9.

Back when I was in the fourth grade, I had a great year. My teacher at school, Mrs. Gustafson, was amazing. I made friends with a new kid who had just emigrated from Poland. I really felt like I was on top of my schoolwork and I was actually enjoying my life, for once. But then, disaster struck.

The name of my particular disaster was “The Fifth Grade.” I didn’t like my new teacher. My friend from Poland got placed in another class. The schoolwork was way harder than it had been the year before. I was miserable.

But then, I had an absolutely genius idea. “If I’m not happy where I am,” I thought, “then I should go back to the last place where I was happy.” So, I went to see my school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold, to share my genius idea.

“I don’t think I’m ready for fifth grade,” I said, “so I think I need to go back to fourth grade and do it all over again.”

Mr. Arnold, if you can believe it, did not find my idea as brilliant as I did. In fact, he laughed so hard he almost fell out of his chair. I was puzzled.

“You’re not going back to fourth grade,” he said, “you’ve already done that. You did well. You graduated. And I hear you when you say that this year has been rough, but believe me when I tell you: you are ready for this challenge. Going backward is not the answer.”

Growing up is hard, but going backward is not the answer.

I want to invite you to think of a time in your life when you faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. What parts of you wished you could go back to the way things used to be? In what ways did you want to just give up on this new challenge and stick with the old problems that felt comfortable and familiar? How did you react when you realized that going backward was not an option, so the only thing to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

That’s how I imagine the early Christians felt in the time when Matthew wrote his gospel. The people to whom Matthew was writing were scared because they had just been excommunicated as heretics by the leaders of their religious tradition. Some of them probably wondered whether this whole “Jesus the Messiah” thing had been a big mistake and they should go back to practicing the faith of their ancestors, as it had been taught to them.

Matthew’s point, as you heard me say in my last few sermons, is to demonstrate how the movement that Jesus started stands in continuity with traditional Judaism. But he also points out the ways in which this Jesus movement is a step forward into a new way of understanding the faith of their ancestors.

The early Christians were branded as heretics because they had the audacity to proclaim they had experienced something, through this person Jesus, that had never been seen before. The God of their ancestors, they said, had somehow become embodied in a human being. In Christ, the immediate presence of God could be seen, heard, and felt. The early Jews and Christians had no theological category for this kind of experience. Some rejected it as heresy while others accepted it as mysterious truth.

The story of the Transfiguration, which we heard in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, tells us about a time when Jesus’ first followers get a brief glimpse of the divinity that flows through him. For just a moment, the veil of this world is pulled back and the disciples witness things as they really are. Through his conversation with Moses and Elijah, Jesus stands in dialogue with the Torah and prophets of Jewish tradition. By the light that radiates from within him, Jesus represents a new revelation of divine glory that leads the tradition into places it has never been before.

The early followers of Jesus realized that this new experience of God in Christ would certainly make people uncomfortable, but they also realized that going backward was not the answer. In this way, they were a bit like the famous scientist Galileo, who used his telescope to prove that the Earth is not the center of the universe. The ecclesiastical authorities in 1633 forced Galileo to sign an official denial of his findings, although the mounting evidence eventually led the Vatican to apologize and admit that Galileo had been right… in the year 1992.

New experiences can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, when they go against our previously conceived notions of reality, but experience itself shows that, if we can open our minds, we will find ourselves in awe of an expanding universe whose creativity exceeds our wildest expectations. The scientific word for this is, “emergence.”

Physicists tells us that, in the first few seconds after the Big Bang, only the most basic elementary particles existed. Almost 400,000 years later, the first stable atoms began to form. Sometime after that, those atoms collided to form molecular bonds, making chemistry possible for the first time. 9 billion years after that, on this planet anyway, complex chemical reactions stabilized in a way that allowed single-celled life to form. This was the beginning of biology. And then, about a billion years ago, those single-celled organisms figured out how to work together so well that they formed complex beings with specialized nervous systems and brains. And then, in the last 2 million years, those brains became advanced enough to develop psychological self-awareness in the form of human beings.

With each new level of emergence, from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology, the universe gave birth to new ways of relating that were previously impossible and even inconceivable. No one could have predicted, at the beginning of time, how the elementary particles of the universe would one day take the shape of human beings with names like “Barrett” and “Karen.”

This is how the creativity of God works: Constantly leading us out of our narrow-but-familiar comfort zones and into new levels of experience. Faith, in this expanding and complexifying universe, is about trusting in the creative process, even when (especially when) our experience of that creative process challenges our preconceived notions about reality.

The first followers of Jesus understood this. They realized that their experience of divinity in the person of Christ would change their idea of God forever. They knew that this experience would get them excommunicated from their religious tradition. Yet, they continued to trust in their experience of Jesus because they knew, as Mr. Arnold once told me, that going backward is not the answer.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Arnold was right. Going back to fourth grade was not the answer for me. The rest of fifth grade continued to be pretty rough, but I got through it and kept moving forward. The years to come presented me with new challenges. Sometimes, I admit, I felt like giving up again but I kept putting one foot in front of the other and got through those challenges too. Along the way, I met new teachers I loved, made new friends, and got to learn things that set my mind and heart on fire in ways I would have missed, had I spent the rest of my life in the fourth grade.

When you look at your life, in what ways do you sometimes feel like going back to the way things used to be? What seemingly insurmountable challenges are in front of you today that make you want to give up and stick with the old and familiar ways of being? I won’t deny that it feels scary, because I sometimes feel scared about it too.

I want to invite you, as you face these challenges, to remember the words that my guidance counselor once told me: Going backward is not the answer. I want to encourage you with the image of Peter, James, and John with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. God revealed something new through Jesus that had never been seen before. It changed the world in ways that we still don’t fully understand. Keep trusting in this creative process and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who leads you down this mountain and into a bigger world that shines a little brighter than it did before.

Bigger on the Inside

Thank you for everything, North Church!

My final sermon at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the service bulletin. Biblical readings included.

As many of you have got to know me over the past few years, one of the first things you must have realized is that I am a sci-fi geek. Among the many movies and TV shows I enjoy is the BBC series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as “the Doctor” as he travels through time and space. The Doctor’s vessel for these travels is a ship called “the TARDIS”, which looks like a simple phone booth on the outside, but on the inside…

On the inside is a vast structure of control panels, rooms, hallways, and even a swimming pool. The running gag for all fifty years of the show’s history is the astonishment experienced by the Doctor’s human companions as they enter the TARDIS for the first time.

Invariably, the first, gasping words out of their mouths are, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

I love that line, as well as the wonderment that inspires it. For my fellow Christians, who also happen to be fans of the show, I like to say that this is a perfect description of the Church Catholic: It’s bigger on the inside.

From the outside, Christianity is just another of the world’s religions. Like all the others, we have rituals, sacred texts, spiritual practices, and a moral code. We have produced brilliant works of art, philosophy, philanthropy, and inspired workers for social change. It’s also true that we have blood on our hands: moments, sometimes even centuries, when we have sold our souls for power and money. We have hurt and killed in the name of our religion, much to the chagrin of our founder, I imagine.

In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth, when seen from the outside, looks a lot like another founder of the world’s religions. He is admired by many as one of the “great souls” of history. He was a teacher, moral philosopher, and revolutionary movement leader.

But Jesus, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, is much bigger on the inside.

Viewing Jesus from the inside, as Christians do, he is Divine. His whole being radiates with the essence and energies of God. When Christians look at Jesus, we see what it means to be fully human. Furthermore, we also find out who God is. And the main thing we learn about God by looking at Jesus is that “God is love.”

The Church also, like her Lord and Savior, is bigger on the inside. More than just a collection of individuals inspired by the two thousand year old teachings of an itinerant rabbi, we understand ourselves to be the very Body of Christ on earth: the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. We are baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit and knit together with bonds that are unbreakable, even by death. When we read the Bible, we don’t just study a historical record of events; we hear the Word of the Lord speaking to us today. When we share bread and wine in the Eucharist, we are spiritually fed at a table whose boundaries transcend all of time and space, and we are joined into one Body with all the saints of ages past and ages to come.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples get their first glimpse into the mysterious reality that Jesus is bigger on the inside. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up Mount Tabor to pray. This event appears in Matthew’s gospel immediately after St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Peter didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, but he is about to find out.

While they are praying, Jesus’ skin and clothes begin to shine with an otherworldly light. Suddenly, there appears next to him two major figures of Jewish history: Moses and Elijah. What’s happening in this moment is that the veil of this world is being pulled back, ever so slightly, and the disciples are seeing Jesus as he truly is, in his divinity. I imagine their astonishment in that moment being like that of the Doctor’s companions, who enter the TARDIS for the first time and exclaim, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Moments of insight like this are rare, compared to the everyday experience of faith. They are precious, for that very reason. And they are a grace, coming suddenly or gradually over time, sometimes to those who have spent a lifetime exploring the faith and sometimes to those who are opening up to it for the first time. Authentic Christian faith does not depend on such experiences (in fact, many faithful Christians never have them), but they serve to bolster the faith of those who do.

For me, the enlightening epiphany of Christ’s divinity has emerged through the liturgy of the Church. As I recite the ancient prayers and creeds of our faith, as I open my mind to study the Scriptures and my hands to receive Communion, I often feel myself being “carried along” by the river of the Spirit. When I recite the Collect for Purity, the short prayer we often use at the beginning of worship (i.e. “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”), I imagine my fellow priests and pastors, who have said that prayer for over a thousand years, standing behind me and adding their prayers to my own. It is a moment of transfiguration for me.

There was a time in my life when I struggled to find that experience of faith. Having been raised with a more strict form of biblical literalism in the church of my youth, I assumed that a true Christian must accept every word of the Bible as literally, historically, scientifically, and exclusively accurate. As I grew older and became more educated, I began to question many of the tenets of my faith. “If one part could be inaccurate,” I thought, “then why should I believe any of it?” It was a time of deep spiritual darkness and doubt for me. I wondered whether I could even call myself a Christian anymore, or if I really believed in God at all. I was looking at my faith “from the outside.”

Eventually, I decided to press on as a Christian, embracing doubt alongside faith. I saw myself as an enlightened revisionist. I believed, but I didn’t believe. I accepted it as mythology, rather than fact; poetic, rather than scientific. And I continued to engage with the faith through the liturgy.

But then something unexpected, and very interesting, happened: I had changed the way I was engaging with my faith through the liturgy, but quickly discovered that the liturgy was changing me. Reciting those ancient prayers and creeds, reading the Scriptures and receiving Communion each week, I felt like something (or someone) was waking up inside of me. I would catch myself talking to Jesus, just because I felt like it. I never went back to fundamentalism, but I had a very personal relationship with Jesus again. Not just a philosopher from two thousand years ago, but the risen Christ who lives in my heart by faith. For me, the liturgy of the Church is not just deadpan repetition, but a raft made by saints that carries me to Jesus on the river of the Spirit. It is an experience of transfiguration where I look around and go, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

The other place where I met Jesus again, for the first time, was in serving this congregation as pastor. From the outside, North looks like a small church with big problems. Money is often tight; attendance is lower than it used to be. But this congregation is also “bigger on the inside.”

Most congregations, when faced with financial difficulty, tend to take resources away from church programs and mission; anything to pay the pastor and keep the building. But that’s not what this church did: We cut back on everything but the ministry. We gave away our building to another branch of Christ’s Church that is serving the neighborhood in ways we could never dream of. This church knows what it really means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is not a building or a pastor. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is a community on a mission, and everything we do is in the service of that mission:

  • To love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength;
  • To love our neighbors as ourselves;
  • To go make disciples of all nations.

What makes North Church so special is that it should not be special at all. You are simply doing the things that all Christians should be doing: loving God, loving your neighbors, and being a witness to your community, especially those who are despised and rejected by the world. You are simply doing the things that Jesus did, and that’s what makes it so easy to see Jesus alive and at work in you.’

For three and a half years, I have been among you as one who is called “minister”, but it is you who have ministered to me. You showed me Jesus again, alive and at work in you. And for that, for the privilege of bearing witness to the presence of Christ in your midst, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And I leave you with these now-familiar words. If you remember only one thing from my time with you, let it be this:

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

God Believes In Us

This week, we begin our 8 week journey through Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.

Archbishop Tutu talks to us this week about what he calls “the principle of transfiguration”.  He says that, while we live in a “moral universe” where God is in charge and good is ultimately destined to prevail over evil, this truth is not always readily apparent.  Sometimes, darkness, evil, and the powers that be seem to be winning.

He talks to us about one such time when:

Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days.  We met at a theological college that had closed down because of the government’s racist policies.  During our discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet.  There was a huge Calvary—a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns.  It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith.  It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again.  It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world.  The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again.  Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches.  Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water.  When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.

A transfiguration is a kind of miracle.  The word literally means “transformation” or “metamorphosis”.  It refers initially to that story in the New Testament where Jesus, normally a rather plain-looking carpenter from Nazareth, is momentarily seen by his disciples to be glowing with the light of eternity.  They saw him for who he truly was: the one they came to call “the Son of God”.

There are other kinds of transfiguration miracles in the Bible.  There is the Apostle Paul, who went from being a vicious hunter and killer of Christians to becoming the first great theologian of the faith he once persecuted.  Then there is Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus, but later became an outspoken leader in the early church.  Finally, there is the example of the Cross itself, which hangs at the front of our church.  It was a symbol of shame and death, but has become for us a symbol of eternal life.  Paul, Peter, and the Cross: all of these are examples of the principle of transfiguration at work in the Bible.

Desmond Tutu has also seen the principle of transfiguration working miracles in his own life and that of his country.  He tells the story of the 1994 presidential elections in South Africa.  Tension was in the air as the day of the election drew near.  There were massacres, conspiracies, and boycotts all around.  This first free and fair election in decades seemed to be doomed to failure.  However, they decided to go ahead with it anyway.  On the day of the election, despite long lines and technical difficulties, there was no violence.  Tutu says, “It would have taken just two or three people with AK-47s to sow the most awful mayhem.  It did not happen.”  He describes the act of casting his first vote at age 62 as “a deeply spiritual event.”  After voting, he toured the other polling sites, where he saw a transfiguration miracle in progress.  He writes:

People entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a totally different person.  The black person went in burdened with all the anguish of having had his or her dignity trampled underfoot and being treated as a nonperson—and then voted.  And said, “Hey, I’m free—my dignity has been restored, my humanity has been acknowledged.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a changed person, a transformed, a transfigured person.

The white person entered the booth one person, burdened by the weight of guilt for having enjoyed many privileges unjustly, voted, and emerged on the other side a new person.  “Hey, I’m free.  The burden has been lifted.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a new, a different, a transformed, a transfigured person.  Many white people confessed that they too were voting for the first time—for the first time as really free people.  Now they realized what we had been trying to tell them for so long, that freedom was indivisible, that they would never be free until we were free.

The president they elected that day, Nelson Mandela, is himself a story of transfiguration.  He was jailed for 27 years as a violent saboteur against the Apartheid regime.  After his release, Mandela went on to become a living symbol of freedom and “one of the moral leaders of the world.”

Archbishop Tutu fervently believes that “nothing, no one, and no situation is ‘untransfigurable’”.  No one is so bad that he or she is beyond hope or the love of God.  This was one of the central features of Jesus’ life.  He willingly associated with the most despicable members of society.  He welcomed outcasts and pariahs.  Jesus was not afraid to be labeled as “a friend of sinners” by the religious establishment of his day.  Tutu declares, in the spirit of Jesus, that, “Societal outcasts remain God’s children, despite their desperate deeds”.  He continues:

However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon.  When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.

There is no such thing as an irredeemable person.  No matter how far we’ve fallen, God’s love never gives up on us.  Do you remember that story in the Bible about the “thief” who was crucified next to Jesus?  That word, “thief”, is not very accurate.  This person was not a heroic Jean Valjean or Robin Hood type of character.  In fact, centuries of church tradition have called him a “thief” in order to hide what he really was: a terrorist.  Crucifixion was a punishment so brutal and so shameful that it was reserved only for those who tried to overthrow the Roman government by force.  The so-called “thief” next to Jesus on the cross, if he was alive today, would probably be a member of Al-Qaida.

I tell you this so that you will realize the extreme lengths to which Jesus was willing to go in order to show God’s love for all people.  The terrorist called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And how did Jesus respond to this dying Al-Qaida terrorist?  “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus says this, not because terrorism is justified, but because this person is just that precious to God.  No one is irredeemable.  God’s love never gives up (even at the bitter end for the most despicable people).

“This is all well and good,” you might say, “and it makes for wonderful Bible stories and spiritual principles, but what about real life?  In the real world, people can be downright intolerant and intolerable!”

Archbishop Tutu realizes this.  In fact, it’s fair to say that he knows this fact more intimately than you or I ever could.  As chairperson of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was charged with the task of rebuilding his country after Apartheid.  It was up to the members of this group to decide how they were going to deal with the horrible atrocities and hate-crimes committed in the name of racism.  Should they hold something like the Nuremberg Trials, which were used to prosecute and execute Nazi officials after World War II?  There were certainly those in South Africa who deserved it.

There was one white officer in the South African security forces who “shot and killed a fellow human being, burned his body on a pyre, and while this cremation was going on actually enjoyed a barbecue on the side.”  Outside of South Africa, Tutu was one of the few who visited Rwanda after the brutal genocide that was committed there in the 1990s.  He saw piles of skulls with machetes and knives still stuck in them.  He said of the experience, “I couldn’t pray.  I could only weep.”

How can there be any hope for us, as the human race, when we are capable of so much evil?

Desmond Tutu believes we can begin to devise an answer to that question by first looking at the horrified shock we experience when we witness or even hear about acts of human brutality.  He says that the reason why we experience this shock is because we normally expect people to be good and decent.  Goodness, rather than evil, is what we tend to think of as “normal” for human beings.  People tend to instinctively believe that our lives were meant for something better than selfishness and cruelty.  And, even though each of us is a mixed bag, neither perfectly good nor totally evil all the time, we tend to be good and do right more often than not.  If this were not the case, says Tutu, we would not be so shocked when people behave badly.  It would just feel normal to us.  The horror we feel is a sign that goodness still lives and reigns in our hearts and in the world at large.

The next logical question that a rational person might ask then is this: If goodness reigns and God is still in charge of this world, why then is it necessary for any evil to exist at all?

In order to answer this question, Archbishop Tutu points us in the direction of freedom.  Freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world.  We were made for it.  Yes, God wants us to be good and do what is right, but God wants most of all for us to freely choose to do what is good and right.  God wants to have a real relationship with us but, as we all know, a relationship can’t happen unless both parties are willing to participate.  So great is God’s respect for freedom that God was willing to take the risk that we would not choose good.

As the gift of God, freedom is “an inalienable right.”  Archbishop Tutu says that, “an unfree human being is… a contradiction in terms.”  This, he argues is the primary reason why all injustice, inequality, tyranny, and oppression is destined to ultimately fail: “they seek to deny something that cannot be denied.”  “The tyrant is on a road to nowhere,” Tutu says, “Freedom will break out.  People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward water.”

God has reverence for freedom.  God could have made human beings like robots that always do what we’re told, but instead chose to make us as free partners and co-creators with God.  The ancient saint and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.”

Have you ever read the story of Exodus in the Bible?  When the Hebrew people were suffering under the oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, subject to slavery and genocide, God decided that it was time for them to get back the freedom that had been taken from them.  And what did God do?  Instantly whisk the Hebrews away to the Promised Land with a snap of the fingers?  No.  God invited Moses to work as a partner.  God worked through Moses to liberate the people from tyranny.  But that’s not all…

Not only does God work through us, God also works with us.  We are not given a task and left alone to complete it.  Archbishop Tutu, tells a story from the Holocaust where a Nazi guard taunted a Jewish prisoner who was cleaning the toilets in a concentration camp.  The guard asked, “Where is your God now?”  The Jewish man replied, “Right here with me in the muck.”

There is a story in the Old Testament book of Daniel where three young Jewish men were forced into labor in the Babylonian Empire.  The king of Babylon tried to force them to bow down in worship to the gods of Babylon.  When the three young men refused, the king had them thrown into the fire, but they didn’t burn up.  And when the king looked into the fire, he saw them walking around, unharmed.  He also saw a fourth person in the fire with them, who had “the appearance of a god.”

When it comes to dealing with the evil in this world, God does not prevent us from facing it, but promises to walk through the fire with us and gives us strength to bear the pain.

God took an incredible risk in giving us freedom and calling us to work together as partners with God and each other in the task of creating a better world.  But God has decided that the risk was worth it.  Regardless of whether or not we decide to believe in God, God believes in us.  God never gives up on us.  God loves us with a love that will not let us go.

Mountaintop Experiences

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Mark 9:2-10.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

Steve Urkel's unrequited first crush on Laura Winslow made him famous.

Who remembers their first real crush?  C’mon, who doesn’t?  It’s one of the most unforgettable rites of passage in life.  It happened to me in the seventh grade.  Her name was Brooke.  She was funny, pretty, and everything else that a thirteen year old guy could want.  Above all else, what I liked best about Brooke was that she was so very kind.  Those of us who have ever worked with middle schoolers know how rare that is.

It was about that time when the rest of our friends at school were beginning to pair off with one another.  We were goofing off as usual and I joked that we should get together too.  I believe her exact words were, “Yuck, no!”  And we all had a good laugh.  But then… something happened.  It occurred to me that it might not be the worst idea in the world.  In fact, I kind of liked the sound of it.

And that’s when I was initiated into a whole world of “strange new feelings.”  I’m sure you all remember the symptoms: your heart is pounding, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t think, and you can’t even breathe.  It seems like they should have some kind of medication for that.  The mental topography of your world gets turned upside down.  Before, all you thought about was: “Where is my locker?  Where will I sit at lunch?  What route should I take to my next class?”  After, all you can think about is: “Where is her locker?  Where is she sitting at lunch?  What route is she taking to her next class?”  It’s a good thing the police can’t read your mind when you have a crush, because I’m sure we’d all be arrested for stalking.

My first crush hit me like a ton of bricks.  Even though we had been friends since we were little, I looked at this person and it was like I was seeing her for the very first time.  I saw my friend in a whole new light.

This morning, we’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration.  We’re remembering a significant moment when some of Jesus’ friends looked up and saw him in a whole new light for the first time.

The story began about a week earlier, when Jesus was traveling through a village called Bethsaida.  On his way through town, Jesus met a blind person.  Everybody knows what happens next: Jesus instantly heals the person, everybody cheers, and a party ensues.  Right?  Wrong.   What happens next is the only time in the four gospels that Jesus doesn’t instantly heal someone.  He has to do it twice.  After the first time, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?”  The person says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  There was some improvement, but things still looked blurry.  So Jesus had to go back and try again.  After the second attempt, the person was able to see.

Immediately after this two-part healing, Jesus and his disciples were traveling along the road between Bethsaida and the next town.  Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples tossed around some of the more popular theories, most of them involving reincarnations of prophets from Jewish history.  Then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  And Peter, in a moment of insight, declared, “You are the Messiah (the divinely appointed ruler who would liberate Israel from foreign oppression).”  And then, I suppose, the Sunday school teacher must have given Peter a gold star for his theologically perfect answer.

But alas, the glorious thrill of success was short-lived.  In the very next breath, Jesus started explaining that, while Peter was right about the Messiah part, he was wrong about the definition of the word Messiah.  The anointed leader would be a suffering servant, not a conquering king.  I guess the Sunday school teacher had to take that gold star back.

Peter went from spot-on to dead wrong in a matter of minutes.  Like the blind person in Bethsaida, Peter’s eyes were very slowly being opened.  He wasn’t the person he used to be, but he wasn’t yet the person he would become.  He was still somewhere in the middle.  After chewing Peter out for his right-yet-wrong answer, Jesus promised, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  Did you get that?  Jesus said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see.”  Peter is learning how to see things in a new way.

Fast forward one week.  The very next scene in Mark’s gospel is the passage we read from this morning: the story of the Transfiguration.  Peter, along with James and John, follow Jesus up a mountain on a spiritual retreat.  While they are praying and meditating, they started seeing Jesus in a new way.  The text says that Jesus was “transfigured before them.”  Now, the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word for “transfigure” is “metemorphothe,” which is where we get the scientific term metamorphosis.  Metamorphosis, you may remember, is what we call the process whereby a tadpole becomes a frog or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  For Peter, seeing Jesus in this new light was like watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon and spread its beautiful, colorful wings.  It was a like a thirteen year old boy seeing his childhood playmate become his first crush.  Everything is the same, yet everything is different.  The text says that Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

And then, things get really weird.  They notice that there are two other figures standing near Jesus and talking to him: Moses and Elijah.  They were the two of the most prominent prophets in the Jewish religion.  Their appearance meant that Jesus must be important enough to be in the same club as them.  Even though something new and unique was about to happen through Jesus, it would stand in continuity with the heroes who had come before him.  This would have been very important to a Jew in the first century.

In Peter’s mind, an event this big deserved some kind of commemoration.  He said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  That’s understandable, isn’t it?  When we have those big moments in life, there’s always a part of us that wishes we could just stay there forever.  I can’t blame Peter for feeling that way, but once again, he is only just beginning to see.

While Peter is getting ready to build a memorial on the site of this event, a thick fog rolls in and obscures everything from view.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This passage is all about learning how to see in a new light, yet right in the middle of it, all this glorious seeing suddenly stops.  And somewhere in the fog, a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  The mysterious voice in the dark fog said, “Listen!”  Don’t build a memorial.  Don’t stay here with your mountaintop experience.  Just listen.

When the experience was over, Peter and the others walked back down the mountain in a kind of stunned silence.  This whole mountaintop experience had left them with a lot more questions than answers.  Like the blind person in Bethsaida, Peter was still learning how to see.  Unlike the blind person in Bethsaida, things were becoming less clear, not more clear.  Peter just wasn’t quite sure about what to make of it all.

A lot of people have had “mountaintop experiences” of one kind or another.  For some folks, they are sudden, dramatic, and profoundly religious in nature: they feel like they’ve been “born again” or “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  For others, the spiritual awakening happens gradually over time.  These folks come to recognize a growing sense of peace or serenity in their lives that wasn’t there before.  Others find it in their vocation: maybe a job that you were just “meant to do,” or a cause that you deeply believe in.  Some experience it the accomplishment of particular tasks: that perfect moment as you sand the last rough edge off a table you’ve just built, the sight of compiled and sorted data on a computer screen, or the last note of a difficult piece of music that you’ve been rehearsing for weeks.  Maybe for you it comes with the feel and smell of a hot cup of coffee on your back porch in the morning or the sight of the sun slipping slowly over the horizon as your fishing line rests in the water.  All of these mountaintop experiences are sacred, whether we realize it or not.  They are beautiful moments of deep clarity and awareness.  They are a gift.  They open us up to a whole new world that we never thought possible.

But they never last long enough.  Sometimes it seems like a split-second or less and then they’re gone.  Like Peter, we wish we could just build a dwelling and stay in that moment forever.  But that’s just not how it works.  The fog of real life rolls in and we have to walk back down the mountain to where we came from.  But even though the moment can’t last forever, maybe there is some part of it that we can take with us into the rest of our lives.  Maybe we’ll be able to sense that mysterious voice of love calling to us from within the fog and saying, “Listen!”  “Pay attention!”  “This is important!”

If we can heed that advice, if we are truly listening, we’ll find that all of our moments are just as profound as those mountaintop experiences.  Just like the poet William Blake said, you’ll be able “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

We are not alone.  All of life is sacred.  Life itself is meaningful.  Our various kinds of mountaintop experiences can help us to see that truth more clearly, if only we would stop trying to memorialize them and build our dwellings in them, if we would instead listen with the ears of our hearts to what they will teach us, and trust that the light is always shining, even if we can’t quite see it all the time.


Sidewalk Chalk Flood 2009, another Rob Bliss Urban Experiment in downtown Grand Rapids

I walked by the Agape Center on Genesee Street today, where the kids have decorated every square inch of sidewalk on the block with chalk.  The way the colors are jumbled together makes the sidewalk look like a chaotic rainbow.

As one might expect, there are various images depicting a combination of real-life scenes and abstract symbols.  One can see crosses, houses, flowers, even a shark!  Some have messages written on them (“Room 8 Rocks!”) while others let the images speak for themselves.  The collective effect is that one stretch of concrete along Genesee Street outside the old St. Francis de Sales School is now radiant with the glory of creative outburst.

The scene reminds me of the story of the Transfiguration, where Christ ascends Mt. Tabor with his disciples and temporarily radiates the brilliance that resides within him.  For just a moment, ordinary flesh and clothing were, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God”.

But this brilliant dust is sure to be washed away by some combination of footsteps and rain and we, like the disciples who had to walk back down the mountain to the harsh reality of their ministry, must find a way to draw strength from the gift of this moment.

As I was admiring our freshly transfigured sidewalk, I was approached by a woman who had been one of my clients at the Addiction Crisis Center.  Since finishing that program, she has continued in her recovery and now works for another service organization, helping others who now sit where she sat only a few years ago.  Brighter than the dust beneath our feet, which is soon to disappear, her sober life shines on as an ongoing transfiguration, reflecting the eternal glory that surrounds us always, even if we can only see it for a moment.


Here is my collection of themes from tonight’s Bible study at St. James Mission:

Our text was the story of the Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-43a.

Mountaintop experiences can be intimidating.  I spent several years attending churches where dramatic stories of religious conversion were highly valued.  One had to be careful about attending services where time was given for individual testimonies of faith.  These services had a tendency to degenerate into amateur preach-offs worthy of American Idol.

These churches seemed to believe in a connection between one’s spiritual credibility and the intensity of one’s mystical experiences.  Is this connection justified?

I think most of us are unable to relate to a spiritual experience as profound as the Transfiguration.  The average person’s meeting with God tends to take a less dramatic form.  Some of us may have “A-ha!” moments where a spiritual truth will hit home in a new way.  Others of us might be able to relate to John Wesley, who felt his heart being “strangely warmed” by God’s presence.  Then again, many of us have not had any mystical experience at all.  Does that make us less worthy than those who see visions or hear voices?

When I look at Jesus’ disciples in this story, I feel compelled to answer in the negative.  This dramatic encounter, which involves shining lights, visions of ancient heroes, and voices from the sky, is not restricted  to the ultra-worthy.  Nor does the disciples’ witnessing the Transfiguration seem to have turned them  into saints overnight.  In this passage, they fall asleep, speak without thinking, and utterly fail in their attempt to heal a sick child.

Jesus says to them, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”  As harsh as this statement sounds, it highlights the truth that dramatic mystical experiences are not necessarily related to real faith.

Real faith is found in our response to God’s presence in our lives (regardless of how that presence manifests itself).  In the story of the Transfiguration, that response takes two forms.  First, the disciples are told to listen to Jesus.  In order to listen, one must pay attention.  Things like prayer, meditation, the Bible, church, and the sacraments are all effective tools for helping us pay attention, but they are not the only tools God uses.  What helps you pay attention to God in your life?

Second, Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and back into the real world, where a father waits with his sick child.  It seems that Peter would rather stay on the mountaintop and build a monument, but Jesus is more interested in the work that needs to be done.  In our community, there are scores of people who are homeless, hungry, and hurting.  If we want our experiences on the mountaintop to mean anything, we must take them with us into the valley of the shadow of death.  Any spirituality that doesn’t matter out on the street is a spirituality that doesn’t matter at all.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.  As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.”  -Psalm 84:6-7