Posted in Sermons, Uncategorized

I’m Not Ready Yet…

Transfiguration Sunday 2016

Scripture: Mark 9

When I step back and think about the Transfiguration on the mountain, I wonder what that word refers to more: Jesus’ transformation or Peter’s? Many Christians identify with Peter–do you? At times, I do. I think it’s because, to put it simply, Peter is human. He makes mistakes and when he doesn’t know what’s going on, he responds anyway. He, like the other disciples, seems kind of dense sometimes. Peter had been hanging out with Jesus for a while. He knew the guy, ate dinner with him all the time, listened intently and was learning to trust Jesus through lots of frightening situations. You might think he had picked up a little bit of, you know, the point of Jesus being on Earth, by hanging out with him so long. In fact, in Mark chapter 8, the passage directly preceding our text on the Transfiguration today, Jesus and the disciples are at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks that famous question: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples answer, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets”–all the good answers. But Jesus then asks, “Who do YOU say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time one of the disciples confesses knowing Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah sent from God.

But even though Peter confessed Jesus’ identity, Peter wasn’t so sure what that meant. He had a lot of questions. Continuing on after Peter’s confession, the author of Mark describes how Jesus began teaching about how “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). But Peter wasn’t ready to think about the deeper meaning of what Jesus was talking about, and took him aside to “rebuke him,” the text says in verse 8:32. Peter must have felt something like that nagging feeling, that intuition that comes when you know there’s more to the story but you’re not ready to deal with it yet.

But Jesus turns around and rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Jesus then, in true Jesus fashion, teaches to the crowd and the disciples about what it means to be a disciple– “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Six days later, Jesus takes his closest friends (Peter, James, and John) up on Mount Hermon and is transfigured before their eyes.

Now, it should be known that the Gospel of Mark, written around 40 years after Jesus’ death, is the most “miraculous” gospel. It contains the most miracle healings, exorcisms, and otherwise extraordinary events. The Transfiguration in our text today is actually thought to have been written as part of the Passion narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection—this was possibly supposed to be a resurrection appearance! However, the author of Mark moved this passage earlier in Jesus life, maybe to emphasize the unique-ness and chosen-ness of Jesus as sent from God.

Malcolm Guite, a college chaplain and priest in Cambridge in the UK, writes this poem imagining what Jesus’ friends experienced on the mountain.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,

On that one mountain where all moments meet,

The daily veil that covers the sublime

In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.

There were no angels full of eyes and wings

Just living glory full of truth and grace.

The Love that dances at the heart of things

Shone out upon us from a human face

And to that light the light in us leaped up,

We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,

A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope

Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.

Nor can this, this blackened sky, this darkened scar

Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

“How things really are.” That’s exactly what Peter was having trouble with. He doesn’t know how to respond to Jesus’ teaching after being named the Messiah because he doesn’t want to think about what being the Messiah really means. He doesn’t know how to respond to Jesus’ talking with Moses and Elijah on the mountain in our text today because he hasn’t let the message of Jesus’ mission sink in yet. And much later, while Jesus is being tried in the Sanhedrin court for treason, he denies Jesus because he doesn’t even want to consider that all Jesus has been telling him and the disciples is true. Peter is constantly in denial, constantly oscillating between confessing Jesus’ true nature and saying, “I’m not ready yet” to Jesus’ call to follow him in the mission that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ death.

Think about a time in your life when you were about to learn the truth of something you really didn’t want to think about. For us, these moments can be anything from learning who Santa Claus really is when we were children to the revealing of a family secret to owning up to the fact that we are complicit in systems of oppression, whether racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism or war. Like Peter, it is our natural instinct to say “I’m not ready yet” when the transfiguration of Jesus occurs. Because if Jesus can be transfigured before the very eyes of his closest friends, taking his place among the great people in the history of Israel, Moses and Elijah, then that must mean that Jesus is a really special guy…and that must mean that he’s not just any guy, but kind of divine too…and that must mean that he’s the messiah (which is kind of a problem, when you think about it) because people who preach and teach the kind of good news that Jesus preaches and teaches get hurt.

When confronted with information that we’re not ready to hear, or that we’re not ready to take seriously, what holds us back from listening deeply and entering into the discomfort? Sometimes learning negative information is painful. It can change how you see someone or how you understand your relationship with them. It can even make it clear that YOU are the one who must change your behaviors or beliefs. You must change how you live. And change is frightening sometimes, mostly because it is unknown. Often we have resistance to finding what is really out there. For an example of how many of us resist the unknown, think about going on a road trip to a new place. Most of us like to have road maps (or a GPS) or friends or family in the front passenger seat, helping us navigate. When walking in the nighttime, most of us like to have a flashlight or a lantern or our iPhone to help us illuminate dark paths.

But Peter didn’t have those tools, and sometimes we don’t either. Peter just had a close friend whose inspiring good news to the poor, healing of the sick and defending of the needy was getting him a lot of attention–maybe a little too much attention, in Peter’s view. Maybe Peter would agree with Shane Claiborne, one of the ministers who founded the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, who writes in his book The Irresistible Revolution, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into.” Jesus kept talking about “the Son of Man” and “righteous” people vs. “sinners” and asking questions– “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4); “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mk 3:33); “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk 4:40). He kept teaching in confusing and muddled parables–the sower and the seed, the fig tree, the lamp under a bushel basket. Hanging out with Jesus must have been really frustrating and confusing! Imagine yourself in Peter’s place: not understanding the stories your friend was telling, not being able to answer any questions intelligently, not being able to comprehend what seemed to be the most important story ever told.

Maybe all Peter needs–all we need, with our own issues–is time. Time to let it all sink in. Time to be contemplative, to hold the words and stories and deeds of Jesus in our hearts and minds. Time to figure out how to respond.

Lent starts this week, and for those of you who observe this 40-day period before Easter, you know that Lent gives us just what we need sometimes–time to sit with the story of Jesus and again try to comprehend it. During Lent, we try to understand the actions of this holy human in a new way, try to understand why he was killed at the hands of the state for loving and lifting up the poor and marginalized. We try to understand, again, why he matters to us still.

Christopher Moore, author of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, writes: “Faith isn’t an act of intelligence, it’s an act of imagination.” Lent is a time when we can stretch our imagination while we sit with our many questions. We walk through Jesus’ life alongside the disciples, perhaps emulating Peter. We walk with Jesus and we hear the stories afresh. And again, as with every year around this time, we feel a tension: No, Jesus, don’t leave us! We’re not ready to hear that you’re going to die. We aren’t ready! And we don’t even want to hear the reality of the good news that comes after your death–we’re not ready, so let’s just play ignorant for a little while longer…let’s just join Peter in denial for a little longer…”

I said this at the beginning and I’ll say it again: When I step back and think about the Transfiguration on the mountain, I wonder what that word refers to more: Jesus’ transformation or Peter’s? When we encounter both the humility and the glory of the Good News, how are WE being transformed? But will we ever really be ready to hear Jesus talk about the end of his earthly life? Will we ever really be ready to see the underside of the stories he tells about being kind in this life and truly grasp the deeper meaning of the parables, the illustrations about the kingdom of God being at hand, right-here-right-now? How do we move from that strange comfort that comes with ignorance or denial to the discomfort of knowing the truth? Knowing how we truly must live and love our neighbor and welcome the stranger and visit those imprisoned and humanize our enemy? That’s uncomfortable…how do we move from “I’m not ready yet” to “Ok. I’m with you, I’m all in.” ?

That’s the beauty of being in relationship with Jesus. Though at times frustrated with the disciples, Jesus stayed with them and kept teaching them, convinced that even when he wouldn’t be physically with them, they’d know what to do because he taught them how to live. Jesus isn’t going to stop loving us because we’re not ready. But he’s also not going to stop the world and wait for us to catch up. Instead, he’s going to invite us to join him on his journey to Jerusalem.

“Take up your cross.”

“Come follow me.”


(Sermon originally preached at Central Christian Disciples of Christ)



Posted in Uncategorized

The coming of the commercialization of Christmas

This blog post was originally published for and on Scarritt Bennett Center’s blog.

Soooo, I wrote this blog post a couple weeks ago about the consumer culture of Black Friday. Naturally, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to go to The Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, IL, which basically celebrates the commercialization of Christmas. Go figure. Now, I’m a total sucker for the romantic Hollywood movies about Christmas and true love and giving gifts, all of which seem to take place in a big city in a department store (cough, New York, cough, Gimbels, cough). Whether you’re a native Clevelander going to meet Santa and asking for a Red Ryder BB Gun or Will Ferrell dressed in much-too-tight green leggings and blithely quipping: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” Christmas is pretty commercial. We are bombarded since at least October with advertisements for “the best gift of all” to give to our loved ones.

As a December baby, I was always kind of frustrated at Christmas, and thereby Jesus, for having the audacity to celebrate a birthday a mere ten days after mine. I had no place in Christmas cheer or decorating because all of the lights, tinsel, and wreaths were for Christmas. December 15th would pass and I’d be kinda upset that I didn’t get large presents for my day, but I had to wait until Jesus’ birthday to do that. I had to share. It was hard. (Go hug a Sagittarius, they will appreciate it).

Now, advent is my favorite time of year by far. Those who know me probably get frustrated and annoyed with how much I reference the birth of Christ and “the coming of the light into the world,” etc. Amid all of the holiday hustle and bustle, something beautiful and wondrous is happening. No, it’s not the fact that Barnes & Noble has a great sale on the Harry Potter book set. It’s the inbreaking of God into this human world, into this beautiful creation. Again the breath of God infuses our lives and changes our world.

On one hand, December 25th is a day where we wake up too early, open brightly wrapped packages under a practically bedazzled tree, and then spend the day reading our new books and watching our new movie sets before eating entirely too much food and pie (though the last one is hard to do!). That’s probably too cynical, but you probably have your own pictures of the commercialization of Christmas in your mind. From the beautiful Victorian postcards and advertisements with St. Nick popping open a Coca-Cola to the Polar Express and the Grinch’s warming heart and, of course, It’s A Wonderful Life, our Western United American society has become used to having a few images of “the perfect Christmas” and spending a bunch of time trying to achieve this picture postcard image in our own homes. That’s not to say we don’t have beautiful traditions with family and friends, but to consider how Christmas has become something that is marketable…do we even know the point anymore?

First, let’s acknowledge the reindeer in the room. The United States is not a Christian nation. Not all Americans celebrate Christmas. Are those of us who do celebrate this holiday showing hospitality to the folks who don’t by saying, “Well, at least you get a day off from work, so that’s enough” instead of actually learning about and respecting their holy days? Sales at Target and lots of movies with mistletoe in them don’t equal the acceptance and affirmation we should be giving other folks’ holidays.

Second, what is the true meaning of Christmas? Yeah, yeah, I know this is the central question to most movies and TV episodes that air between Thanksgiving and January 6, but really…what are we celebrating? The very name of the holiday references the “Christ,” the one whom Christians call the Messiah. This day is in honor of the birth of Jesus and the coming of God into our midst.

One of my favorite advent devotionals is by Loretta Ross-Gotta, entitled “To Be Virgin.” She writes: “Jesus observed, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing. We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own. When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love. ‘Oh, but nothing will get done,’ you say. ‘If I don’t do it, Christmas won’t happen.’ And we crowd out Christ with our fretful fears…” (Wait for the Light: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, 98-99).

Who makes Christmas happen? I think Ross-Gotta is right, sometimes we do act like we have to do everything ourselves. This is not to say that we can accomplish nothing on our own; indeed, God has given us individual talents as well as the wealth of knowledge and love and care that is in community, but we have to start living like God is real. We can neither sit back and wait for God to fix the world nor pretend like our own actions alone will change things. We must live up to our call to be co-conspirators with God, and bring about the grace and peace and mercy in how we live and move and have our being.

Ross-Gotta goes on to issue a challenge to her readers, a challenge which I bring before you now: “Imagine a Christmas service where the worshipers come in their holiday finery to find a sanctuary empty of all the glittering decorations, silent of holiday carols….What if on Christmas Eve people came and sat in the dim pews, and someone stood up and said, ‘Something happened here while we were all out at the malls, while we were baking cookies and fretting about whether we bought our brother-in-law the right gift: Christ was born. God is here’? We wouldn’t need the glorious choruses and the harp and the bell choir and the organ. We wouldn’t need the tree strung with lights. We wouldn’t have to deny that painful dissonance between the promise and hope of Christmas and a world wracked with sin and evil. There wouldn’t be that embarrassing conflict over the historical truth of the birth stories and whether or not Mary was really a virgin. And no one would have to preach sermons to work up our belief. All of that would seem gaudy and shallow in comparison to the sanctity of that still sanctuary. And we, hushed and awed by something greater and wiser and kinder than we, would kneel of one accord in the stillness…Probably few of us have the faith or the nerve to tamper with hallowed Christmas traditions on a large scale, or with our other holiday celebrations. But a small experiment might prove interesting. What if, instead of doing  something, we were to be something special?”

Christmas is special. So we should celebrate it. Advent is special. So we should celebrate it. But aren’t we always in a time of advent? Aren’t we always waiting for the goodness and grace of God to show itself in the midst of this really screwed up, harsh reality of a world? Aren’t we always waiting for the voice inside us to tell us to reach out a hand, meet people’s eyes, listen intently and love unconditionally? Isn’t that just the state of how we live? Waiting for the strange, unthinkable grace to align itself with us in our human condition, understanding the weeping, laughing, desiring, mourning and loving pieces of us?

I guess the goodness of advent is that it through all of the expectant waiting, we are sure Christmas, Christ, the light of the world is coming. Perhaps it’s already here, dwelling among us. It doesn’t need anything extravagant to be welcomed. It doesn’t need songs of grandeur and presents and honor. The light of the world is naked and shivering before us, waiting to be shown hospitality, waiting to be brought into our homes and our hearts. That’s advent. That’s Christmas. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.